A peculiar biography that justifies its addition to an overcrowded shelf by focusing on the landscapes most important to the Russian writer.
It’s a good idea—for a magazine article or an academic monograph. Drawn out to book length, this geographical survey eventually palls as the text wanders from Taganrog, where Chekhov was born in 1860, through Moscow and St. Petersburg to Melikhovo, his country home outside Moscow, and Yalta, the Crimean resort to which he relocated in a vain attempt to stem the progress of his tuberculosis. British scholar Bartlett (Russian/Univ. of Durham; Wagner and Russia, not reviewed) admits to taking “an impressionistic approach,” and early chapters provide atmospheric context for his work by the evoking flat, unpopulated steppe, dotted with ancient Scythian burial mounds, of his childhood; and the arcadian meadows, forests and rivers he enjoyed when summering in a dacha outside Moscow. But her occasional schematic linking of these vistas to a particular story through lengthy quotes merely serves to underscore how little information this book provides about Chekhov’s literary life, apart from his surprising friendship with reactionary St. Petersburg magazine publisher Alexei Suvorin. The plays in particular get very short shrift here; in a typical passage, the author writes, “When [Chekhov] returned to Nice for that last visit, he spent the first week of his stay putting the final touches on Three Sisters”—which has hardly been mentioned before. Happily, we learn a good deal more about Chekhov the man than Chekhov the writer. He quietly improved every place he lived, treating the local peasants long after he had given up practicing medicine and raising funds for local schools and post offices. The chronology of his existence, largely abandoned for long stretches, reasserts itself in the final chapters about his slow decline and death at a German spa in 1904, which make the previous emphasis on the physical terrain seem even more arbitrary.
Some interesting material on hitherto unexplored aspects of Chekhov’s life, but this one’s strictly for specialists.