Book of a lifetime: A Life in Letters by Anton Chekhov

From The Independent archive: Scarlett Thomas explains why the Russian playwright’s correspondence chimes with her life

Friday 02 September 2022 21:30 BST
The Russian great has much to say on the struggle and art of professional writing
The Russian great has much to say on the struggle and art of professional writing (Getty)

I first encountered Chekhov’s letters when I took my lecturing job at the University of Kent in 2004. Chekhov’s stories were required reading on one of the modules, and the Norton edition I taught from had excerpts from Chekhov’s letters in the back. At the time I felt uneasy about teaching creative writing, because I didn’t think much of workshops and approaches to the subject that seemed too similar to therapy sessions and focus groups. But in these brief excerpts I found writing advice that I thought was actually useful for the students. In a letter to his brother Alexander, dated 10 May 1886 (sadly missing from A Life in Letters), Chekhov lays out something like a manifesto for writing that I think is almost perfect. Writing, Chekhov argues, should be objective, honest, spare, daring and compassionate.

A Life in Letters is all of these things. From a selection of the letters written by Chekhov between 1876 (when he is a young man in provincial Russia) and 1904 (when he is dying of TB in a German clinic) we learn much about the business, struggle and art of professional writing, but also about being a doctor (Chekhov’s day job, which sometimes involves post-mortems on cows if there are no vets around), fishing, travelling, holidaying, gardening, personal hygiene, sex, love and illness. With a bankrupt father, two alcoholic older brothers and an aptitude for the precise detail of everyday life, much of the organisation of family life falls to Anton: he can plot it as meticulously as he plots his stories.

As well as the wonderful letters he writes to his mother and sister about his daily life and his travels, we also read of the complications of renting dachas, buying fishing equipment, boots and suitcases, and the care of the mongooses he brings from India. In 1890 he writes from Siberia to tell Alexander to put on his trousers and go and get some money for their sister. In 1899 he writes to his sister (Maria Pavlovna): “If the only houses for sale are wooden ones, and it is healthier to live in a wooden house, then by all means go ahead and buy a wooden house, only on condition that it doesn’t look like an inn, is as respectable looking as possible and isn’t painted green.”

In other letters Chekhov expands on his manifesto for writing. When defending his story “Mire”, he points out that “the writer is surely not a confectioner or a beautician or an entertainer”.

Towards the end of his life, he tells his wife Olga Knipper-Chekhova (an actress with Stanislavsky’s company, whom Chekhov often addresses as “my darling doggie”): “Either write to me every day or divorce me; there’s nothing in between.” It’s not just that I admire Chekhov; something about his life, and his approach to it, resonates with me on a deep level. I now rarely give a lecture that does not quote Chekhov. I spend my whole time aspiring for those five things that I agree with him are the most important in writing: objectivity, honesty, brevity, daring and compassion.

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