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CHEKHOV by Philip Callow


The Hidden Ground

by Philip Callow

Pub Date: May 15th, 1998
ISBN: 1-56663-187-4
Publisher: Ivan Dee/Rowman & Littlefield

This new offering in the expanding and increasingly noteworthy field of Chekhov studies lacks both the original scholarship and the intellectual depth of other recent studies. Callow (From Noon to Starry Night, 1992; Lost Earth, 1995) has made a career of writing biographies of artistic greats, from CÇzanne to Walt Whitman. Turning his attention to a writer clearly dear to his heart, he opens his study with sentimental musings on seeing his first performance of a Chekhov work at the age of 22. This opening immediately sets the tone for a biography that takes us on a bumpy and highly personal journey through Chekhov’s life and work. Callow covers the usual ground: Chekhov’s youth in Taganrog, his move to Moscow, medical school, family affairs, the writing life, and his marriage to the actress Olga Knipper. He also interweaves mostly tedious commentary on and synopses of individual stories and plays into the narrative, and includes extended excerpts from Chekhov’s texts and letters. Callow’s narrative, from the very start, lacks structure (for instance, his information about serfdom in Russia is never given a proper context or carried through to form an argument) and tends to wander in too many directions. Furthermore, his staccato style (“he” can be repeated a dozen times in as many sentences) becomes irritating. As suggested by the biography’s subtitle, Callow’s loosely defined central interest in Chekhov is the “hidden,— or emotional, life of the author and the recurrent themes of romantic disillusionment and the search for intimacy that appear in Chekhov’s plays and short stories. But these are subjects that have long interested scholars and literary critics, and have generated considerable interesting work. Callow’s overly simplistic biography fails to convey the source of Chekhov’s genius. Interested readers would benefit more from their own reading of Chekhov, or from the more stimulating biographies of Donald Rayfield or V.S. Pritchett. (illustrations, not seen)