Anton Chekhov's life was not an easy one. His grandfather was a former serf, his father was a failed shopkeeper; and, from the time he was a teenager, Chekhov supported his entire family. But, for all his hardships, he was not a saint.
Beneath the surface, there was much more to Chekhov, even though a romantic mystique sometimes seems to surround the memory of his life. Philip Callow quotes Izmaylov, an early biographer who wrote in 1716, "Chekhov is no saint... His biographer should realize that literary history is not written for the edification of the young... "
Of course, Chekhov was a great writer, but he is often viewed as "Chekhov the brilliant, Chekhov the witty, Chekhov whose every word glitters eternally memorable like a diamond, Chekhov the handsome... " And, Izmaylov explains, "that stuff may be all right in a mood-piece or prose piece... it has nothing to do with biographical research."
Callow explains that some of the Chekhov legend is correct: "Certainly many women were attracted to him. What men and women found irresistible in Chekhov at his best was the sweetness of his character." But, there are other incidents in his life that do not reflect well on his character.
From what Callow says, it seems evident that Chekhov's sister, Mariya, gave up any thought of marriage so that she could care for him in his ailing health. He then married Olga Knipper in 1901-much to the surprise of his entire family.
I suppose it could be argued that Mariya could have married her suitor, despite her brother's objections. And he married Olga out of loneliness, and out of real love. After their marriage, he had only a few years left to live. His health was already deteriorating. And, she was a famous actress! How could he not marry her?
Of course, then, there's evidence (according to Callow) to suggest that she had an affair, which produced a pregnancy. Tragically, the child was lost in an ectopic pregnancy; and the attending physician tried to tell Chekhov that the incident was a miscarriage. But, Chekhov was a doctor. He could tell what had really happened. He left her-still very ill from the ectopic pregnancy-and went traveling.
The couple reconciled, and Olga stayed with him through his final days, which were not many.
Chekhov's life seemed plagued with the loss of time. He wanted to do so much... accomplish something important for humanity, be a good doctor, be a good writer. It's amazing he was able to accomplish as much as he did.
For much of his early development as a writer, he did not have the luxury of taking a great deal of time on each story-to increase the literary value of he piece. Callow explains Chekhov's early predicament by saying, "He would gladly starve, if necessary, and had gone hungry enough times in the past, 'but I'm not the only one involved'." There was his family to think about, after all. They had to eat, go to school, and be placed in acceptable positions.
So, Chekhov wrote hundreds of stories, in which he found no lasting value. When his brother, Alexander, asked him to look at some of his short stories, Chekhov advised, "Don't write more than two tales a week, cut and polish them carefully so that your work will bear the aspect of work. Don't invent suffering you've never experienced, and don't paint pictures you never saw..."
But, then, Chekhov never seemed to have enough time to write. He knew what it would take to become a great writer, and he once said, "I may still manage to accomplish something yet, though time is flying." But, he never had just one profession. He was a doctor, then he was a writer, and then back again.
He certainly found a great deal of material in his adventures, visiting patients all over Moscow. He saw a great deal of suffering. He was able to fill his memory with more than just the beatings he had experienced as a child. He had something of the heart of Russia, of her people.
He once said that "no literature can outdo actual life in its cynicism: you can't make someone drunk on a glassful when he has already drunk a barrelful." Much of his life, he seemed beset with a restlessness. When he was in Moscow, he wanted to be away. But then, when he was traveling, he wanted nothing more than to be back.
As an artist, he saw himself as an "impartial witness." He could only write from memory. He once wrote, "I must let the subject filter through my memory so that only what is important or typical is left... " He then said: "An artist is someone who witnesses, and shapes what he has witnessed, while standing at the edge, holding back from full participation in the life of his family, his country, his time. A refusal to take sides is close to being an inability to decide, a fear of committing oneself."
On July 2, 1904, Chekhov breathed his last. Olga later wrote about the silence: "There were no human voices, no everyday sounds... There was only beauty, peace, and the grandeur of death." It seems almost appropriate that a man who gave the world so many words should end his days with a glass of champagne and silence.