Portraits of an Artist

There are few significant historical figures who cannot claim more than one biography, and the convenient fiction of a definitive biography enables readers to feel at once informed and pleasantly unburdened.

The title of “definitive” biography appears to be still up for grabs when it comes to Chekhov and, on a whim, I chose to read two biographies, both published in the mid-1980s, Henri Troyat’s life of Chekhov, translated from the French, and V.S. Pritchett’s Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free.

The equally prolific Russian-born French citizen Troyat and British author and critic Pritchett are fascinating men in their own right, and it’s clear why Chekhov’s life might have appealed to them. Both made their entrances around the turn of the century, Pritchett in 1900 and Troyat in 1911, and both fled their homelands for Paris, staking a claim to literary careers before they turned 30. Both were renowned, in part, for their short stories. And both enjoyed a longevity and productivity that Chekhov surely would have envied, living, writing and publishing into their mid-90s.

While Troyat’s title gives away nothing about his interpretation, Pritchett’s sympathy with Chekhov’s desire to view himself a “free artist” is palpable. Troyat steers clear of such epithets and tries to stay true to each stage of Chekhov’s life, tracking his development from a writer who wrote short and quick for the money to a committed artist, though one who could never quite bring himself to abandon his “wife” (medicine) for his “mistress” (literature). Pritchett clearly finds the emerging thread of Chekhov’s destiny more compelling, and his biography sets aside more time for the literature itself.

Both books nicely capture Chekhov’s voice by quoting liberally from his prodigious letters, but the differences between the two – they disagree, for instance, as to Chekhov’s dying words – point to the flexibility and limitations of biography. A couple of other illustrative examples:

o Troyat quotes Chekhov as saying: “When I was a child I had no childhood,” whereas Pritchett suggests that “Chekhov’s dark memories of his childhood are less concerned with himself than with the bad effects their severe upbringing had upon his older brothers,” who became disconsolate alcoholics.

o While Troyat recounts young Chekhov’s attempt to learn tailoring and the trousers he made for his brother that “turned out so tight that the family dubbed them the ‘macaroni trousers,'” Pritchett notes that Chekhov succeeded in “making a pair of trousers, fashionably narrow in the leg, for his second brother.”

To read more than one biography, then, forces one to acknowledge the insufficiency of any one volume in capturing more than a two-dimensional snapshot of the subject. A biography is, ultimately, an argument skillfully disguised as a story that conjures someone who might, plausibly, have been the subject; it does not chronicle what they were really like. (‘Really like’ to whom, anyway? we might well ask.)

Is it enough, then, to read two biographies? Why would it be when, in Chekhov’s case alone, there are dozens of biographical texts? Were the temptations of a coherent story less deeply felt, we might be more skeptical of the idea that the vast tapestry of a life can be reduced to a king-sized crazy quilt. As it is, we prefer the fiction of fact to the fact of fiction.

Image: Anton Chekhov, artist and date unknown.

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