ANTON CHEKHOV by Donald Rayfield, HarperCollins pounds 25
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It may not always be possible to judge a writer's personality from the work (followers of Jean-Paul Sartre used to mooch around St-Germain- des-Pres in black sweaters, with faces that showed they had grasped what it meant to be alone in a godless universe, but the philosopher himself was to tell interviewers that he had never known a day's unhappiness). With Chekhov, however, one cannot be mistaken. The stance is so original - the blend of melancholy and irony, devoid of posturing, heroism or self- pity - that it must derive from the man and his experience of the world. Here, the biographies don't disappoint, though the publication last year of Chekhov's letters to his wife, Olga Knipper, and now this new biography, reveal a more "human" - in the sense of more earthy - character than one might have suspected, especially from the plays.

The 44 years of Chekhov's life began with a textbook example of an unhappy childhood. He grew up in Taganrog, a port on the sea of Azov due south of Moscow. His father, Pavel, was an unsuccessful merchant and master of the cathedral choir, a bore and a bully who thrashed his five sons and forced them to spend cold mornings attending the lengthy services of the Orthodox Church; beating one's children, Rayfield points out, was exceptional, "even for the unenlightened merchant class". He suggests that perhaps Pavel was frustrated by an inability to make use of his innate talents. Anton Pavlovich's four brothers, too, showed evidence of serious artistic gifts, which Rayfield attributes to their genes. But they had a tendency to dissipate this inheritance, through addiction to drink and other forms of indulgence. Anton, left behind in Taganrog at the age of 16 to look after his younger siblings and his father's debts, quickly learnt tactics of survival, and a sense of responsibility.

He eventually joined his brothers and father in Moscow, where he studied medicine. The simple brass plate reading "Dr A P Chekhov" that can still be seen at the front door of what is now his "house-museum" in Moscow, is touching. It suggests the working doctor who might just have slipped out on his rounds. But this is misleading. Though he allowed medicine, temporarily, to take precedence over writing while he obtained his qualification, Chekhov was to devote less and less time to it afterwards. His medical expertise became a burden as friends and members of the family succumbed to illness (his sister-in-law and his elder brother both died young), and he himself came to provide further material for study: there were bouts of impotence and painful haemorrhoids, as well as the long consumption that eventually proved fatal, after years of surreptitious blood-spitting. One can well see how an acquaintance with medicine might serve to intensify a Chekhovian, tragic-comic view of human existence.

"To literature I owe the happiest days of my life": there is nothing here of the ivory tower, still less of self-pity, but a statement of fact and a sense of the messiness of most days taken up with other pursuits. The biography cannot have been easy to write: Chekhov's life, as Rayfield remarks, "was short, but neither sweet nor simple", because of the size of his family, the number of his sexual liaisons and the different social circles in which he moved. And, one could add, the sheer elusiveness of the man; he managed to survive, and to achieve what he did, partly because of a ruthless determination not to become unnecessarily involved. He refused to visit his brother Aleksandr's wife Anna when she was dying, or to take in their children, accusing his brother of blackmail for begging him to do so; nor did he easily succumb to the entreaties of women. He was unsentimental about love and (something Soviet scholars tended to disguise) candid on the subject of sex, corresponding regularly with Aleksandr about their affairs; Aleksandr would sometimes write in Latin when specifying acts or parts.

Rayfield pays tribute to some predecessors in the field, notably the short-story writer V S Pritchett, justifying his own addition to the list by the amount of documentation that has remained unpublished in the archives. There is no doubt that a biography is needed (even Pritchett's is now out of print), or that Rayfield has done an extremely conscientious job of hunting down the materials. His 603 pages of text, generating an almost precisely equal number of end-notes, are divided into 84 chapters, each dated according to the period of Chekhov's life that they cover ("January-April 1898"; "August-

September 1896"). The serious student will find the book invaluable. But this rigidly chronological method has its drawbacks, compounded by the usual problem, for English readers, with Russian names. The minutiae are retailed in short sentences that require close attention: "On 15 October 1892, when cholera was declared vanquished, Anton came to Moscow for two days. He dined with his editors and erstwhile enemies, Vukol Lavrov and Viktor Goltsev, but spurned Gruzinsky and Ezhov. He must have contacted Lika, for at the weekend, classes over, Lika and Masha left for Melikhovo, followed by Anton with Pavel ..." After a while, this becomes wearing.

"All biography is fiction," Rayfield remarks, though he seems reluctant to impose any narrative structure on these "documented facts": this is no page-turner. He is slightly disparaging about Henri Troyat's eminently readable biography (in French), which he describes as "flamboyant". It may be an acknowledgement of the difficulty of the subject that Troyat only arrived at Chekhov in his series of Russian literary biographies after doing Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol and Tolstoy. Soviet biographies had the clearest narrative line to impose: Chekhov, according to Vladimir Yermilov's Life of 1946, foretold the "purifying storm" that would transform his native land "into a beautiful garden" and make "the laws of its life ... those of truth and beauty". The "purifying storm" approach highlights Chekhov's one intervention in politics, over the Dreyfus case (which led him to fall out with his patron, Suvorin), and makes a lot of his friendship with the proletarian writer, Maxim Gorky: "In the history of literature, no one has felt the poetry of labour so profoundly as Gorky and Chekhov," Yermilov wrote. So, does the melancholic ennui of those idle landowners on their estates exalt work by the device of not depicting it? Hardly: Chekhov saw idleness as a necessary (though far from sufficient) precondition for happiness. As for Gorky, Rayfield, with a rare loss of detachment, says that he would become "the Judas... of the Chekhovian church" (with Ivan Bunin as its Peter).

Because Soviet critics felt obliged to stress the political, this does not mean that people in Soviet times remained unaware or unappreciative of another Chekhov, the writer who abhorred simplifications and would (as Rayfield observes) "write works which argue ideas, not until the authorial mouthpiece is victorious, but until the reader senses that all ideas are futile." The official seal of political approval on a pre-revolutionary author could serve as a cover for work that ignores politics: Iosif Heifits's film adaptation of the story "Lady with a Little Dog", released in 1959, admirably conveyed the spirit of Chekhovian melancholy, making no concessions to any stuff about the author as a "poet of labour". It revealed Chekhov to a new audience in the West, as did the Moscow Arts Theatre's visit to Sadler's Wells in the same year. They brought The Cherry Orchard, Three Sisters and Uncle Vanya. The young Vanessa Redgrave booked tickets for every Wednesday matinee and, she says in her autobiography, "thought the acting the best I had ever seen".

Michael Redgrave was to play beside Laurence Olivier in a memorable Uncle Vanya in 1962 at the Chichester Festival. Redgrave, Olivier and Gielgud all looked good in light suits, with straw hats, lounging on the terrace of a dacha. The Redgraves developed a particular affinity for Chekhov. Of course, he was known here before the Sixties and has continued to be the foreign dramatist most unshakeably established in the British theatre repertoire: we have just seen a London company taking its production of Ivanov to Moscow, another doing an adaptation of the short story, "The Duel", and currently at Birmingham Rep, a Cherry Orchard relocated in modern South Africa. But the Sixties seemed particularly alive to his work, though in a way that was less conditional on the moment than the enthusiasm, say, for Brecht.

Rayfield, though he insists that "biography is not criticism", links the events of the life to the work of Chekhov, both as dramatist and as short-story writer, admirer of Maupassant and admired, among others, by Pritchett and Somerset Maugham. Some of the most effective passages in the book are those which briefly set one of the stories in context; they make one wonder why Rayfield thinks that biography cannot also be criticism. His approach succeeds best when the piling-up of facts reflects moments of horror in the life: the deaths of Anna or Kolya, or Chekhov's own long- expected end. This is when the bald narrative, instead of seeming cold or inscrutable, hits a note of ironic detachment, the absence of feeling at the surface highlighting what is seething beneath. If the man owed his happiest moments to literature, the debt was amply repaid. "And he lived for these bastards, he worked, taught, argued for them," the singer Chaliapin said, in tears, at the funeral, according to Gorky, as they watched the crowd laughing, climbing trees, pointing out the chief mourners and fighting to get a better view of the cart "for transporting fresh oysters" in which the writer was brought to his grave - a Chekhovian scene, at the end, for a man whose life and whose view of it were all of a piece.