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Through the Keyhole

By (March 1, 2010) No Comment

Anton Chekhov: A Brother’s Memoir
By Mikhail Chekhov
Palgrave Macmillan, 2010

Many people considered our Uncle Mitrofan to be peculiar, eccentric – God’s fool even. But there were others, like my brother, the writer Anton Chekhov, who treated him with affection and respect. Uncle Mitrofan dedicated his life to charity. He served as a council member and churchwarden, and helped found the Taganrog Charitable Society, created for the relief of the poor. His house was always open to those less fortunate, and on his birthday he would set up tables full of food in the courtyard and open his gates for everyone to come eat.

With these lines, Mikhail Chekhov begins a memoir of his older brother and exposes all the book’s weaknesses at once. His brother has been a cipher to him in youth and a stranger to him in middle age; compiling a full-length book on the man will take great feats of padding, including a human resource department’s interest in the curricula vitae of minor characters. After nine more sentences about Uncle Mitrofan, Mikhail finds his way back to his theme: “Our family kept a carefully bound book of the letters [Mitrofan] wrote to my parents during his travels around Russia before his marriage in 1859. I am convinced that Uncle Mitrofan’s literary gift was passed from him to us, especially to my brothers Anton and Alexander, who both became published writers.”

Mikhail Chekhov began publishing his reminiscences in 1905, a year after Anton’s death at forty-four of tuberculosis. In 1920 he arranged them as a single volume, quotations of which have appeared in the writings of Chekhov biographers and scholars ever since. Only now, however, has the entirety of Anton Chekhov: A Brother’s Memoir been published in English translation. The basic outline of Anton Chekhov’s life is well-known: born in 1860, the second of five children to parents whose own parents had been serfs. His mother was pious and demure, his father irrational and violent, his siblings all talented and creative. From odd jobs selling newspaper subscriptions and writing and drawing short pieces on spec, the boys rose to varying degrees of prominence in Moscow’s magazine culture, Anton meanwhile completing medical school and beginning a private practice. His plays were usually received barbarously – picture Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring debut crossed with Henry James’ theatrical disaster – but readership of his stories and novellas grew steadily, and medicine became Chekhov’s secondary profession. Both taxed his physical and psychological health, however, and Chekhov succumbed to TB in 1904, twenty-four years after his first publication, and six months after the opening of The Cherry Orchard, his first runaway hit.

Mikhail’s memoir, translated by Eugene Alpern, has more flaws than virtues, though the “good” flaws indicate Anton’s elusiveness as a subject, much as the thinner ice on a frozen river indicates a strong current underneath. The “bad” flaws are the patches of stilted writing and the long tracts of verbiage devoted to tracing Anton’s exact coordinates in a long-forgotten social and literary network of Russian ex-celebrities. Among the more interesting flaws are the pregnant omissions. Little is said about the more troubled circumstances that shaped Anton’s life: his abusive and alcoholic father, his series of failed romantic and sexual relationships, and his eventual estrangement from his immediate family, including Mikhail himself. A scant sentence is devoted to the latter, which was precipitated by Anton’s sudden marriage to a Moscow actress: “I lost touch with my brother Anton after that and never saw him again.”

Mikhail’s anecdotes miss the point with such regularity that one begins to wonder whether he is deliberately aiming short of the mark. He mentions their father’s religious devotion in order to explain how Anton, an atheist by conviction and a doctor by profession, acquired the liturgical knowledge displayed in his story “Easter Eve.” In Anton’s letters and in their brother Alexander’s memoir, however, references to their father’s religiosity are almost always bitter, coupled with memories of fanatically long and physically taxing sessions of family prayer, churchgoing at all hours of the day and night, and joyless participation as “convicts” sentenced to the church choir. Mikhail seems unwilling to address the bouts of poverty that punctuated their childhood except as opportunities for hardihood and filial piety to blossom. Yet he does seem to hint at the misery and narrowness of such a life, with throwaway lines like this one:

Once, [Anton] bought a live duck at the market. He kept poking at it and making it quack the whole way home – “Let everybody hear that we, too, eat ducks,” he said.

Mikhail immediately moves on to discuss Anton’s interest in birds, specifically homing pigeons, and the duck episode is left behind without comment. Yet one can fill in the psychological shading that Mikhail leaves out, and retell the story thus: imagine a boy who often goes to bed hungry, whose family, by some brief uptick in income or prodigality, is able to afford a luxury food. The boy, either because he fails to see how the duck’s suffering is like his own suffering – or, more interestingly, because he does see it – torments the duck all the way from market to kitchen. The noise of the duck tells the passersby that the Chekhovs can afford fresh meat tonight, and tells the readers something about pain or power or longing. Mikhail has just rushed a tragedy past us in its embryonic form; it remains unclear whether or not his failure to realize his story is a deliberate choice.

The Chekhov family in 1874; Anton is standing at the second to left and Mikhail is seated at the far left

Mikhail was not the only kinsman of Anton’s to immortalize their relationship, or rather, the negative space surrounding it: Alexander and Marya Chekhov also have their own accounts, each one patchy and unreliable in its own way. All three disagree with each other on several points, and disagree on all points with the memoir of Lydia Ivanovna, a Russian writer who seems to have entirely fabricated her tale of a multi-year romance with Anton. Poor Lydia Ivanovna’s account strikes one as self-delusion rather than intentional deceit, since the data she musters is real (letters between her and Anton, encounters at theaters and parties), but the conclusions she draws seem utterly out of keeping with the evidence. (Essentially, Chekhov continually tells her to go away, which her memoir interprets as the tortured cries of fatal attraction.)

The pen name Anton Chekhov used in his early twenties, Antosha Chekhonte, is a telling one: Chekhov was a man of disguises, but primarily of thin ones. He would be gregarious with men, flirtatious with women, and worshipped by both at dinners and parties, but whichever close friend or brother had shared a cab with him on the way to the event would remember how he had begged to stay home and had complained of society’s marrow-sucking appetite for its current darlings. Sometimes the disguises he wore were lighter and more literal: one slow week at his clinic, Anton had Mikhail dress as a female nurse and attend to patients with him; another invented game was to “play the Orient,” darkening his face and brow and challenging friends with a toy sword. Alexander’s memoir dwells even more on such pranks and disguises, casting the entire family as a tribe of imps. Alexander’s account was also completed shortly before he died of alcoholism, so both Masha and Mikhail take pains to remind their readers, in the most delicate and euphemizing terms possible, that Alexander’s stories are rife with errors and embellishments due to his illness.

For all their willed or unwitting mistakes, though, all four memoirists were canny speculators in literary futures: Anton’s successes were modest for most of his short life, yet the four write as if the man and his stories were the household names that now, a century later, they are. Mikhail’s account is innocent of real literary criticism, but he notes meticulously the composite sources for Anton’s characters and settings. We learn that while visiting their schoolteacher brother Ivan in the provinces, Anton observed a local military battery that inspired The Three Sisters; in particular, one Lieutenant Egorov “retired from the army with a passion to ‘work, work, work,’ just like the character Baron Tuzenbakh.” During Anton’s medical residency, “he got the plots for stories like ‘Escapee’ and ‘Surgery,’” while the local postmaster inspired “The Government Test.” If any of this trivia flies over your head, imagine how it struck original readers of 1905, before Anton’s work had settled comfortably into literature courses of high schools and universities around the world. Mikhail’s simple faith that people would want to know where a minor character in the novella Three Years had come from – he is based on a clerk in their cousin’s warehouse, apparently – is charming.

Anton and Mikhail at Anton's estate in Melikhovo on the steps of the outhouse (1895)

More interestingly, Mikhail’s account emphasizes Anton’s trip to the massive penal colony of Sakhalin, an episode that many biographers and scholars of Chekhov tend to elide, because it appears nowhere in his fiction and yielded for Anton one uncharacteristically scholarly book. The Island, first published in 1895, recounts Anton’s journey by rail, carriage, horseback, and boat to Sakhalin, a large and barren island east of Siberia and north of Japan. The purposes of his project, as a sometime-journalist and sometime-physician, are manifold, but his primary tasks are a detailed census of the entire island and as much medical care as he can reasonably provide. The area of the island is 28,000 square miles, and at the time it contained about 28,000 people. Ten thousand were full-fledged convicts. The rest were either part of the prison’s massive administration and enforcement; or were exiled but otherwise free to do as they wished; or else were spouses, children, or prostitutes connected in some way to one of the former categories.
Uncharacteristically for Mikhail, he quotes at length from Anton himself, and allows the memoir a foray into grimness. Mikhail quotes:

Sakhalin is a place of the most unbearable suffering that can befall a man, free or shackled…. I regret that I am not sentimental, or I would say that we need to pay homage to places like Sakhalin, the way the Turks do to Mecca…. From the books that I’ve been reading, it’s clear that we have let millions of people rot in prisons. We do it for no reason, without thinking, just like barbarians. Our country has forced people to walk in fetters in the cold for thousands of miles, infected them with syphilis, and dumped them all into the hands of red-nosed prison wardens. All of the educated people of Europe should know that the wardens are not the only ones perpetuating these abuses – we all are.

Mikhail provides a sobering and honest account of the rest of Chekhov’s time on the island, although, in typical fashion, he closes the chapter (entitled, understatedly, “Anton’s Travels”) with a long report about the mongoose and the palm cat that Anton brought home as pets after purchasing them in India on the way home from Sakhalin. The story of the animals’ eventual fall from grace in the Chekhov family home and subsequent emigration to the city zoo is funny, but juxtaposed so soon after the twenty-eight thousand souls of Sakhalin, the animals’ little saga of exile must strike everyone except Mikhail himself as being in incredibly poor taste.

All along such anecdotes we see Anton through the cracks in the story, winking or wincing while Mikhail portrays an anodyne near-likeness. The “Anton’s Travels” chapter is, in spite of itself, a great key to understanding what I consider to be Chekhov’s best stories, those written between 1892 and 1896. (My list would include “In Exile,” “Ward No. 6,” “The Black Monk,” “Anna on the Neck,” and the novella My Life.) Here, I think, is a more fruitful angle for future criticism: instead of remarking, as Mikhail does, that Anton knew a man who received the Order of Saint Anna, which provides the title pun for Anton’s short story “Anna on the Neck,” it would be interesting to note that the story was written shortly after his return from Sakhalin, concurrent with his writing of The Island, and to explore the ways in which the main character Anna’s hideous marriage is like an incarceration. “Ward No. 6” stands most obviously to benefit from a parallel reading with the Sakhalin account, being concerned with the involuntary confinement of mental patients; the narrator of My Life finds labor itself to be a prison, albeit a blackly comical one.

In a photograph taken of the Chekhov family in the late 1880s, Mikhail and Anton sit together in front of the other eight figures. They wear nearly the same pair of striped pants, with Anton’s print a little wider and bolder. Anton’s coat is unbuttoned; Mikhail’s is not. Anton’s hands and feet hang loose, and his face is bare. Mikhail grasps his crossed legs tightly, and his face sports an older man’s pair of spectacles. Anton looks as though he accepts whatever understanding of life he has managed to glean in his twenty-eight years; Mikhail looks as though he is in the process of declining it. Both were writers of fictions, in their way, and like good fiction writers, they had a way of doing reverence to honesty even when they fabricated. Mikhail’s memoir in all its apparent simplicity reminds us of his brother’s tremendous inscrutability. Moreover, it reminds us of the continual need to discover in ourselves the blind spots, deliberate and accidental, that make both observation and recollection such idiosyncratic and partial acts.

Laura Kolbe has written for the Harvard Book Review and the Oxonian Review. She lives in New York City.