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.


The most striking feature of Chekhov is a theme that Ms. Laffitte introduces on p.17 and develops throughout the book--Chekhov’s profound lyricism. Critics rarely emphasize this feature of Chekhov’s art, although it is plain to see.

She rightly acknowledges the considerable discrepancy between her subject’s frequent statements about literature, which invariably stress detachment and objectivity, and the texts themselves, which include fine lyric passages from the very beginning of his career. These become increasingly sustained and prominent in his more mature writings, especially those written in the last decade of his life. One doesn’t ordinarily think of Chekhov as a poet and, in fact, critics have commented on the "plainness" of his prose; yet, stories like Happiness, Misery, On Easter Eve, and The Student can easily be considered prose poems (see annotations).

Lyricism verges on mysticism in many of the later writings. Consider, for example, this passage from "In the Ravine" (1900): "However great the sorrow, it was matched by the beauty and serenity of the night; that truth, equally beautiful and serene, existed and would continue to exist, in the world." And the famous ending of Uncle Vanya: "We shall rest! We shall hear the angels, we shall see the sky covered with diamonds, we shall see all earthly ills, all our suffering drowned in the mercy that will fill the whole world. And our life will become peaceful, tender and soft as a caress. I believe. . . I believe. . . we shall rest!"


Translated from the French by Moura Budberg and Gordon Latta. The original French edition was published in 1963.


Angus & Robertson

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