Chekhov: Scenes from a Life by Rosamund Bartlett

Jacqui gave this to me for my birthday, after I had really enjoyed Rosamund Bartlett’s biography of Tolstoy. I found this completely enthralling, readable and informative. Covering Chekhov and the social/cultural context in which he lived. The book was not merely a recitation of facts about his life and was not even organized chronologically.

I had not appreciated many details of social life in Russia until I read her books. Chekhov was not a member of the aristocracy; his grandparents were serfs. This puts him in contrast to writers such as Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, or Tolstoy. Obviously this had an impact on his literature, perhaps something to compare with Wilfred Owen or E.M. Forster? I note that he wrote short stories and plays, and I wonder about his motivation not to write full novels. His origins in short stories for newspapers had something to do with this. Perhaps his technique suited these media. I’d like to learn more about Russian social organization, e.g. I’d not thought much about the merchant/trading strata between the aristocracy and the serfs. I also hadn’t realised that the Russian for comrade, ‘tovarich’, derives from a Tartar word for business.

The descriptions of Russian theatre were interesting. The Tsarist state dominated all cultural activities. For example, independent theatres didn’t open till 1882, prior to that they were state run. Even after there was a strong censor for theatre and also for written material. All of this is completely consistent with Soviet cultural impositions.

I found Chekhov’s general attitude very sympathetic and appealing. It forms a serious contrast with Tolstoy. Tolstoy was also progressive and liberal thinking, but Tolstoy seemed iconoclastic and very self-oriented. Chekhov seemed to be less interested in telling people what to think rather than encouraging them to think for themselves. Perhaps knowledge that his life would not be long was part of this. Chekhov was also forward thinking, his work setting up schools, and particularly his trip to Sakhalin demonstrated this. On the whole he seemed to be modest, self-assured and comfortable with himself (setbacks such as the initial reception for the Seagull notwithstanding).

One think that Chekhov shows in his work is the changes (decay) in Russian aristocracy life. E.G. this is a main theme in the Cherry Orchard. Rosamund Bartlett puts this into context with the interest that Russians have in their Dachas. In a way people are harking to an aristocratic way of life (that has gone). Life on an estate was important to Chekhov and he spent a lot of his time finding estates to live. This can be contrasted with Tolstoy, where his estate seemed more the embodiment of his natural aristocratic way of life.

Chekhov had a positive forward thinking view to minorities, partly from his growing up in the south, and his life in Yalta. Also his journey to Sakhalin will have promoted this.

I have got many travel ideas from his book. I’d love to visit some the places associated with him, particularly Yalta and Melikhovo. Badenweiler is easier to get to.

I enjoyed the lyrical whimsical nature of Chekhov’s work and would like to read more.

This winter I spent some very cosy and happy times in my sitting room by my fire reading this book. Both with Kit and with Jacqui. Quietly reading can be very companionable.

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