`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.

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