Sophie Laffitte

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Chekhov: 1860 - 1904

Laffitte, Sophie

Last Updated: May-09-2005
Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography


This biography, first published in French in 1971, was written by a Soviet émigré living in Paris. She begins her introduction with a quotation from Chekhov, "Happiness and the joy of life do not lie in money, nor in love, but in truth" (1). She follows this statement with an observation of her own, "Chekhov makes no prognoses, never raises his voice, does not explain, insist, and above all, does not instruct. . .

He is the least Russian of the great Russian writers." To a large extent, her short biography is devoted to presenting a particular vision of Chekhov that might be called "compassionate objectivity." Although her subject may not have insisted or instructed his readers, Ms. Laffitte does. In fact, there is a hagiographic quality about this book that leads the reader to conclude that if Chekhov had been a believer, by now he would have been canonized as Blessed Anton of Moscow.

Ms. Laffitte proceeds in multiple short chapters. While they are generally in chronological sequence, each one also takes up an issue or theme in Chekhov’s life. She makes copious and skillful use of her subject’s letters and notebooks. She also devotes considerable attention to Chekhov’s medical career, unlike V. S. Pritchett, whose short biography entitled, Chekhov. A Spirit Set Free (1988, see annotation in this database) portrays medicine as more of a hobby than a serious enterprise for Chekhov.

Ms. Laffitte also has a habit of tying up loose ends without presenting much evidence for her point of view, or acknowledging that uncertainty exists. For example, when dealing with what she calls Chekhov’s "moral depression" of the mid-1890s, she concludes, "By a logical exertion of willpower, Chekhov was gradually to emerge from this moral depression" (168). It seems here that she considers depression--assuming this is the correct term to use in the first place--a weakness or failure of will, rather than a clinical disorder.

Nonetheless, this short literary biography (not out-of-print) provides much easier reading than most of the major Chekhov biographies that have appeared since it was published.

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