`The easiest way is on a bed ... '

John Campbell learns more about the good doctor's lust than his genius; Anton Chekhov: a life by Donald Rayfield, HarperCollins, pounds 25

Donald Rayfield prefaces his biography of Chekhov with an epigraph from the notebooks of the Russian critic Sergei Dovlatov. "One may be awestruck by Tolstoy's mind. Delighted by Pushkin's elegance. Appreciate Dostoevsky's moral quest, Gogol's humour. And so on. Chekhov, however, is the only man one would like to resemble." It is a striking tribute, which seems to confirm what most of us think we know of Chekhov: we have a picture of a gentle, shrewd, wise, humane doctor, tolerantly amused by the tragic absurdity of life. His four great plays breathe such maturity that it is hard to remember that their author died aged only 44.

The substance of Professor Rayfield's book, however, gives us a very different Chekhov. We are used to revisionist biographies that change the lighting on familiar subjects to reveal, or suggest, their feet of clay. Here, however, Professor Rayfield has obtained a mass of genuinely new material - thousands of Chekhov's letters hitherto suppressed or bowdlerised by Soviet prudishness.

The last English biographer, Ronald Hingley, lamented the unavailability of this material in 1976. Now that we have it, one cannot wonder that it was suppressed: as well as the expected curiosity and power of observation the censored letters reveal a restless sex drive expressed with candour, not to say crudity. "I would devour a whorelet like Nadia," he wrote to a friend in 1887. "In Babkino there's nobody to screw. So much work that there's not even time for a quiet fart." A letter to his publisher gives a detailed account of the technique of Japanese prostitutes. A third is robustly sceptical of Zola's sexual inventiveness: "I have never seen a single decent apartment where circumstances would allow you to topple a woman dressed in a corset, skirts and a proper dress on to a divan or the floor and have sex with her without the servants noticing. All these terms for doing it `standing up', `sitting down' and so on are nonsense. The easiest way is on a bed, and the other 33 are difficult or feasible only in a hotel room or shed."

If, as Chekhov once claimed, medicine was his wife and literature his mistress, perhaps one can see why he wrote short stories, not the full- scale novels of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. For Rayfield tells us that his promiscuity stemmed from "rapid loss of interest in any one woman". He became impotent with women he liked: "You screw her once, but the next time you can't get it in. I have all the equipment, but I don't function." He did not marry until the end of his life, when he was already very ill; and then he and Olga lived largely apart.

The trouble is that those revelations do not bring us much closer to Chekhov the writer. Rayfield traces Chekhov's life in 83 chapters, mostly covering just two or three months, the narrative strung on this enormous hoard of correspondence. His life was crowded and harassed: family worries, money worries, health worries - he was already coughing blood at 24 and suffered from piles "like bunches of grapes from my behind". The reader is bombarded by proper names - friends, relatives, colleagues, rivals, critics, lovers, servants and pets; without the help of a dramatis personae or a decent index it is hard to keep track. The detail is exhaustive, but also exhausting. What is lacking is any connection between the life and work.

"Biography is not criticism," Rayfield writes. In half a lifetime devoted to Chekhov, he has already published several books of criticism. This is in a sense a companion volume. But biography without an element of criticism is just a record of events without the thread of interpretation to bind them into a coherent pattern - not so much a biography as a database.

There are moments, of course, that connect the life to the art. There is the satisfaction of discovering the originals of characters and incidents that figure, more or less transmuted, in the plays. The former tenant who bought the bankrupt Chekhovs' home is the model for Lopakhin in The Cherry Orchard; the friend's son who shot himself became Konstantin in The Seagull; in the course of his life Chekhov knew at least five sets of three sisters. Cherry trees, summer cottages and breaking strings: the source of all sorts of episodes and incidents becomes clear. With the mystery of how Chekhov transmuted those things, however, Professor Rayfield is not here concerned.

What this book does is to bring home to the English reader, who thinks of Chekhov primarily as a playwright, is how limited and misguided that view is. He was a prolific writer of short stories - hundreds of them: he himself calculated 4,000 pages' worth - who happened also to write a handful of plays which changed the nature of modern theatre. The four great plays are constantly in the repertoire, as inexhaustible and protean as Shakespeare, but there are only four of them. A fifth, the early failure Ivanov, has recently been rehabilitated by the Almeida, and some years ago Michael Frayn successfully recast the even earlier, unstageable Platonov as Wild Honey. But there are no more, except a few one-act vaudevilles. British Chekhov-lovers need to rediscover the stories. Perhaps it will take Anthony Minghella to film one, to spark a rediscovery.

Arts and Entertainment
'I do think a woman's place is eventually in the home, but I see no harm in her having some fun before she gets there.'

Is this the end of the Dowager Countess?tv
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Martin of Coldplay performs live for fans at Enmore Theatre on June 19, 2014 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Albert Hammond Junior of The Strokes performs at the Natural History Museum on July 6, 2006 in London, England.

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn