This is the most detailed and comprehensive biography of Anton P. Chekhov written to date. Rayfield is a Chekhov scholar who published an earlier biography of the writer in 1975. There are numerous biographies of Chekhov available. In the Preface to this book, Rayfield explains why he wrote it. Chekhov's life is documented by a vast amount of archival material, much of which was unavailable to Western scholars in the past. Russian scholars have studied these sources extensively, but the studies they have published use only a small part of the material. Rayfield's own study convinced him that by drawing liberally from these archives he could write a new biography that would increase our understanding of Chekhov's life and character.

Rayfield's approach is strictly chronological. The book consists of 84 short chapters, each one named and subtitled with the period covered (e.g. July - August 1894). Rayfield sticks closely to the texts, developing a rather staccato style that is heavy on factual statements and light on his own interpretations. He also chooses not to discuss Chekhov's writings as such, except to present brief summaries of the plays and some of the more important stories, and to indicate relationships between Chekhov's life and his art.

The new material gives us a much better view of the day-to-day texture of Chekhov's life, his interactions with family and friends, and his interesting and enigmatic relationships with women. The book also includes a helpful diagram of the Chekhov family tree, two maps of Chekhov's country, and many photographs.


Although this is an enormous compilation of detail about Chekhov's life, it is not a good starting place for someone who simply wants to learn the "big picture." Too often in this book Rayfield seems to miss the forest in his detailed consideration of the trees. This approach may be useful for specialists who already know a lot about the forest, but it is not helpful for the beginner.

The same can be said for Rayfield's decision to avoid saying much about Chekhov's works. Somehow it seems strange to read so much about Chekhov's diarrhea and the condition of his hemorrhoids, but not get a better perspective on his art. For the latter I suggest you read V. S. Pritchett's Chekhov: Chekhov. A Spirit Set Free (see annotation). Other biographies in this database include Chekhov. A Biography, by Ernest Simmons and Doctor Chekhov: A Study in Literature and Medicine, by John Coope.

For the most part, Rayfield's practice is to let the facts speak for themselves. The major exception to this rule concerns Chekhov's relationships with women. While Rayfield reports but does not interpret incidents that display Chekhov's generosity, compassion, courage, social activism, etc., he takes a different approach toward Chekhov's interactions with women.

In this case, he interprets his subject's penchant to tease women, to string them along, and to avoid any deep relationships with them, frequently using words like "cruel" and "distant" and "misogynous." The imbalance is striking. Evidently Rayfield thought this was necessary to "strip the whitewash from the image of Chekhov" (to quote the dust jacket).


Henry Holt

Place Published

New York



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