Chekhov is the most restrained of the great Russian writers, and the purest. In his tales and plays, as in life, there are no second chances. All too human, his characters eternally watch the parade passing by, preferring fancy to action: the sisters never get to Moscow, the cherry orchard is cut down, a graybeard roue like Astrov does a half-drunken jig no more dreams of the gay life for him. In Chekhov, fate is time, and missed opportunities bury everyone. Chekhov may, as he himself remarked, have lived without passion, but never without honesty. In Daniel Gilles' eloquent and interpretive biography (it is done in the manner of the old school, totally lacking the sophisticated scholarship of such recent commentators as Simmons, Valency, and Winner, but nevertheless an important portrait), we come across a telling vignette. The patriarchal Tolstoy, who rather abhorred his contemporaries. Dostoevsky and Turgenev, has been unexpectedly and rapturously praising Chekhov's ""The Darling,"" comparing its perfect craftsmanship to exquisite lace-making, after which the embarrassed Chekhov mumbles over his soup. ""It is full of printer's errors."" Chekhov's skepticism touched everyone and everything--it was more than his armor; it was, in a sense, his Muse. Wife and sister, fame in Moscow, his practice as a provincial doctor, the chronic tubercular condition and death at forty-four-all these were seen by Chekhov with an unswerving irony and pathos. His was a sweet pessimism. At his funeral, a mourner gushed: ""He was so exceedingly kind and so exceedingly intelligent."" In Chekhov, as perhaps in no other writer, is human folly keenly exposed, gently forgiven. . . .