Chekhov: scenes from a life by Rosamund Bartlett

Lady with a laptop
Click to follow

When travelling abroad, a friend once wrote, Anton Chekhov appeared to take most interest in the circuses and the cemeteries. He was a melancholic with a great appetite for life, a man both gregarious and detached, and there seems little point in trying to decide which aspect represents the "real" Chekhov. Yet Rosamund Bartlett's Prologue worries away at precisely this issue. "Chekhov loved being with his friends and family," she tells us, but "always had an aching need to be on his own", while "his contemporaries described him as actually being quite unsociable".

Such laboured efforts to convince us that Chekhov was fundamentally a man of solitary temperament - "in love with the enormous expanses of the Russian landscape" - provide the rationale for her "scenes from a life", which tell the great dramatist and fiction-writer's story not chronologically, but through the succession of places where he stayed. There are some minor advantages to this approach. Chekhov was undoubtedly haunted by the steppes which started just beyond the cemetery in his home town of Taganrog, so it is useful to address this theme in a single place rather than each time it reappears in his writings. And the only way to explore his solitary side is through his letters, so Bartlett's book is full of vivid and revealing quotations.

Despite a number of sharp incidental insights, there is something deeply flawed about her approach. Moscow and St Petersburg are cities which famously embody distinct philosophies of life. Other locales connected with Chekhov - the decaying country estates and nouveau riche dachas around Moscow, the French and Crimean Rivieras, even the penal colonies of Siberia and the German spa town where he died - all had their institutions, traditions and values before he arrived. Bartlett describes his life largely in terms of how he reacted and adapted to the spirit of these milieux. We see him in a variety of personas, as humanitarian agitator for reform, doctor to the peasantry, enthusiastic gardener, consumptive literary celebrity, and so on. Almost inevitably, however, the result feels passive and disjointed, with the elusive Chekhov forever slipping between our fingers.

More seriously, there is a constant blurring of foreground and background. "One does not automatically associate Chekhov with the Crimean War," Bartlett tells us - but she has done her research and is damn well going to tell us anyway. Chekhov happened to be in Nice at the same time as Queen Victoria, so perhaps, we read, he "got hit by a carnation during the so-called 'Battle of the Flowers'". And perhaps not - who could possibly care?

The chapter on the spa at Badenweiler sweeps back to Roman times and forward to Formula One racing at the Belgian town of Spa, even digressing to touch on the invention of botox. This detracts from the drama and pathos of Chekhov's dying days.

These are extreme examples, but they underline a terrible lack of balance. We are warned, admittedly, that this is not a full biography and that important people and events are left undiscussed. But it will still strike anyone who has seen The Three Sisters as absurd to devote as much space to Chekhov's dogs or passion for fishing as to his relations with women. He was indeed a man of many casual and varied interests, but his writings have an almost uncanny ability to get to the heart of what is important in human lives. It is a pity so little of this has rubbed off on Bartlett.

Matthew J Reisz edits the 'Jewish Quarterly'