This biography of Anton Chekhov features a clear, uncluttered text and benefits, at least indirectly, from the fact that the Chekhov archives (his letters, his family's letters and diaries) are now available to the public. The author, however, does not read Russian; he uses only secondary sources.

Callow's source for the new scholarship--presumably the "hidden ground" indicated in the title--is Donald Rayfield's biography, Anton Chekhov. A Life, published in 1997 (see annotation). The book presents the story of Chekhov's life in a straightforward fashion, but places special emphasis on the writer's relationships with women, and the role of actual people and events as sources for Chekhov's characters and stories.


For the events in Chekhov's life, Callow leans most heavily on Rayfield's Anton Chekhov and Ernest Simmons's‚ earlier Chekhov. A Biography (1962, see annotation). The former is an exhaustive trek through newly available archival material, presented in so much detail that you can't see the forest for the trees. The latter remains the single best biography of Chekhov. Simmons is able to recreate the character and life story of the man, while at the same time presenting the relevant social history and a perceptive analysis of the author's literary achievement.

For the literary dimension of his subject, Callow draws frequently upon V. S. Pritchett's Chekhov. A Spirit Set Free (see annotation), a short book that is exceptionally well written, but not very profound or multi-faceted in its interpretations of Chekhov's stories and plays. Callow's readings of Chekhov's work, while not particularly detailed, are more generous and perceptive than Rayfield's.

This would be a good Chekhov biography to read for a person who wanted to avoid getting into anything too scholarly, controversial, or tedious. Its chief merit is good storytelling. Callow apes Rayfield in giving Chekhov a misogynous cast, but he doesn't spend nearly as much time trying to prove that Chekhov was involved in love affairs with the numerous women in his life.

In fact, Callow discusses the theory that Chekhov was generally impotent (pp. 212-213). He tells us that he rejects that theory, but he doesn't explain why. The evidence of Chekhov's life, when taken as a whole, suggests, at the very least, that his sexual drive was weak.


Ivan R. Dee

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