Old rumours & new finds - review by Donald Rayfield

Donald Rayfield

Disinterring Anton Chekhov

Old rumours & new finds

 

Thirty years ago, Russia’s archives opened their doors to any plausible enquirer. The vast treasures of the Russian State Library and the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art excited biographers, historians and editors, though older archivists, like the dogs in charge of the hay, disliked the invasion of their mangers by foreigners with laptops. The State Library was so dilapidated that staff sometimes refused to fetch books and manuscripts, but they did issue ‘passes to the stacks’, where one sat in semi-darkness, with butcher’s hooks (transporting baskets of books) zipping close to your neck. Microfilm readers were broken, so you were handed Chekhov’s original letters, along with the thousands of letters he received and those his friends wrote about him.

With the opening up of the archives, I determined to write a new biography of Chekhov, using material previously bowdlerised or unread since his sister had collected it and handed it to the state. The book was my first literary success, thanks to a review by Arthur Miller, who was perhaps struck by the similarity between Chekhov’s marriage to the actress Olga Knipper and his to Marilyn Monroe. Many of my colleagues disliked my work, on the grounds that it provided too negative a portrayal of Chekhov’s love life and his occasional cruelty in putting the words of friends and lovers into the mouths of his characters. I described his short marriage (three years, half spent apart) as a miserable liaison to an adulteress, thereby undermining the myth about the union of a great writer and a great actress.

When the biography came out in Russia, it was welcomed by general readers, theatre directors and actors, and detested only by academics. That may have saved my life: at one Chekhov conference in Russia, I was removed from the list of speakers and my book moved onto the

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