A comprehensive and quite readable biography of Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) by an eminent scholar of Russian literature. Five aspects of Chekhov’s life (as presented here) stand out as particularly interesting: First, the central importance to Chekhov of his self-image as a physician, even in the latter part of his career when he had given up the regular practice of medicine.

Second, the theme of philanthropy (especially in medical and educational areas) that runs through his entire life. For example, even while he was dying of tuberculosis himself, Chekhov was still actively involved in raising money to build a tuberculosis sanitarium at Yalta for poor writers. Third, the fascinating portrait of a person who was extremely compassionate and emotional, yet very reserved and reluctant to express his feelings to others, even to close friends.

Fourth, his long denial (even to himself, perhaps) that he suffered from tuberculosis, even though the diagnosis must have been medically obvious. For example, he began having episodes of coughing up blood as early as 1887 or 1888. Fifth, Chekhov’s fascinating decision to marry Olga Knipper (1901) at a time when he was already gravely ill and an invalid, after having shown no interest in matrimony (and a generally flippant attitude in his relationships with female friends) throughout his adult life.


Simmons relies heavily on archival material including Chekhov’s letters (4200 of them) and letters of others to Chekhov (7000), as well as the memoirs of his contemporaries, earlier biographies in Russian and English, and Chekhov’s collected works in Russian. Only after the publication of this biography did the 13-volume Ecco Press edition of Chekhov’s stories (translated by Constance Garrett) become available in English. This biography is extremely detailed and comprehensive. For a much shorter treatment that focuses on Chekhov’s literary development, see V. S. Pritchett’s Chekhov. A Spirit Set Free, in this database. Henri Troyat’s Chekhov [New York, E. P. Dutton, 1986, 364 pp.] is a well-written popular biography.


Little, Brown

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