Though it adds nothing new to the familiar details of Chekhov's life and has no deep critical vision of the...

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CHEKHOV

Though it adds nothing new to the familiar details of Chekhov's life and has no deep critical vision of the playwright-storyteller's work, this is an affecting life of the great Russian and sustains its warmth throughout, as nicely translated from the French by Heim. Troyat clearly loves his subject and is not as in awe as he was in his rather colorless life of Tolstoy. Chekhov's brief life (1860-1904) began in bitter poverty as a shopkeeper's son in provincial Taganrog. ""My father began my education or, to put it more simply, began to beat me, before I reached the age of five,"" he wrote. ""Every morning as I awoke, my first thought was, 'Will I be beaten today?' "" His father became ever more mired in vodka and violently oppressive religiosity, while his talented brothers also were waylaid by alcohol. Young Chekhov blanketed his misery under loud laughter and compulsive humor, hoped for a way out through becoming a doctor. By 19, while still a medical student, he'd begun earning extra money writing comic stories and squibs for humor magazines. When he got his degree he was already the family breadwinner. As a doctor and small-time journalist, he longed for the vast estates described by Turgenev and Tolstoy. He'd hardly begun practicing before he was struck by tuberculosis, which plagued him for the rest of his life and finally killed him. As he became more well-known as a writer, he stuck to his family, refused to pronounce himself on anything: ""We must declare point-blank that nobody can make head or tail of anything in this world."" He laughed at Stanislavsky's obsessive realism when mounting The Cherry Orchard at the Moscow Art Theater. Chekhov's basic principles ""consisted of simplicity and sincerity, sparing but precise descriptions, and nonintervention on the part of the author. . . The reader must draw his own conclusions. . .[N] o spectacular events, no high-flown phrases, no heroic poses, just a subdued, poignant, intimate music, a few gray areas, a few questions with no answers. . ."" He died in bed, after a farewell glass of champagne. His body was shipped to Moscow in an iced oyster van (Gorky called the oyster van ""an enormous smirk of triumphant vulgarity"" on Russia's part), his funeral procession was laughably mixed into that of a dead general's led by a military brass band, an irony Chekhov would have adored. A gem that deserves wide readership.

Pub Date: Oct. 29, 1986

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: -

Publisher: Dutton

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1986