For one who professes distaste for biography/autobiography, I’ve been reading a lot of it lately. But it was easy to make an exception in this case.
I’ve read Anton Chekhov’s letters, a form of writing which might distinguish itself from autobiography by being both more honest and of greater literary worth. Letters are, after all – or where when people used to write then, at any rate – small literary gifts. I had a friend who used to send me letters hand-written and tied with a ribbon in a bow. They insisted upon being read in a special place with some degree of devotion. The experience is the very opposite of receiving an email and scanning it while logging onto facebook.
So when I saw this book half-price at The London Review Bookshop, I had to buy it, fully expecting it to add to my reading of Anton’s letters.
The book does not pretend to be more than it is: various pieces published over a period and now cobbled together. If you are expecting the book itself as a whole to be some sort of technical triumph, a remastering of the very idea of The Book, it isn’t. It’s a cobbled together collection of bits and pieces. But what marvellous bits and pieces they are. I am mystified as to why this book has been frequently panned. It’s nicely written – I’m surprised Mihkail Chekhov doesn’t seem to be remembered for his writing – with anecdotes ranging from the hilarious to the pathetic. Some of them are directly about Anton and have, I gather, found their way into many a resource on him.
But much of the book is about the surrounds of the Chekhovs. How people like them lived in that period. The collective Russian artistic community, the intelligentsia, the bohemians, the people of the stage, the publishers of presses and magazines are the stuff of this book. We see how poverty-stricken, talented Russians like Anton and his siblings survived, not only economically, but spiritually in a period of censorship which is hard to credit. It serves to remind one that the Soviet model did not spring from nothing, nor did it spring from Marxism. It sprang from what was already in Russia, subservient masses, an aristocracy and a Tsar. It is an exceptional period in the history of the world and this book puts the reader vividly, right in the thick of it.
One vignette will serve to illustrate how extraordinary the censorship was in this period of late nineteenth century. Mikhail mentions the presence of detention cells in the universities. One of the reasons for being put in a cell was for applauding one’s professor. You may reread that last sentence, it won’t change. Every attempt was made to drum free will and independent thinking out of students. To publicly appreciate one’s teacher was punishable. You can see where Stalin comes from, not to mention Gogol.
I sense a strong connection between English and Russian. I gather it can’t be technical, but may be emotional. That doesn’t surprise me. Maybe the English and the Russians stand historically undefeated in similar ways, sharing a similar psyche, in some regards at any rate. It suits Russian to be translated into English is my gut feeling. The translator in this case, Eurene Alper, is a specialist translator of Chekhov. You can find at his site his translation of Chekhov’s doctor’s recollection of him. It will give you a taste for more. Then you can buy the book.