The Life and Work of Anton Chekhov: A Biography

Discover the life and work of Anton Chekhov, the renowned Russian playwright, and author. Learn about his early struggles, his rise to fame, and the impact he had on the literary world. Read his inspiring story in this comprehensive biography.

The Life and Work of Anton Chekhov: A Biography
Capturing the essence of the master storyteller - Anton Chekhov's portrait reflects the wisdom and depth of a literary genius. Credit: Wikipedia

Before dying of tuberculosis at the age of forty-four, Anton Chekhov was delirious with fever. His wife, the actress Olga Knipper, placed a bag of ice on his chest. Chekhov regained lucidity and sadly asked her, "Why put ice on an empty heart?" I cannot imagine, however, a heart less empty than Anton Chekhov's; he left unforgettable plays and hundreds of stories that made him the indispensable artist he is today.

When Anton Chekhov was born, his brother Alexandr was already five years old, and his brother Nikolai was two. Ivan came after him, then Maria, and finally Mikhail. The Chekhov family was poor and could not afford anything. His brother Mikhail remembers that on one occasion they went to the market to buy a duck, an excess for the family's meager economy. Anton made the duck squeak back. Mikhail, irritated, asked him why he was doing it. With his characteristic sense of humor, he replied: "So that everyone will know that we also eat duck."

With the vague hope of earning a few kopecks, Anton began to publish his stories in various magazines, but the work was hard and the pay was meager. He became a doctor and set up his practice in the house where he lived with his family. His father was a religious fanatic; he often sang and read sacred texts aloud. "I write," he noted, "in terrible conditions, surrounded by guests, children, music, and Bible readings. In the next room, the son of a patient cries. The child does not stop howling. I have just made up my mind never to become a father. I think the French have few children because they are very literary people."

His luck changed when, in December 1885, he met Alexei Suvorin, owner of the magazine Novoye Vremya (New Time). Not only did Suvórin pay him much more than the other publications, but it also became his most consistent editor and a personal friend. Anton's magazine was where he shared the many new ideas that made him one of the most important influences on storytellers who came after him.

His brother Alexandr should have become the head of the family, but that responsibility always fell on the shoulders of his younger brother. In her excellent biography Anton Chekhov, the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg notes:

Alexandr, the eldest son, kept away from the family, just like the father, and thought only of himself; he possessed a lively intelligence, but confused ideas; he was a mythomaniac and fickle, he sent to the newspapers writings that from time to time published him, he dreamed of great events and, in the meantime, he drank.

In 1884, Anton collected his best stories in a small volume, and Alexandr, who by then had lost his job, went to Moscow to take charge of the book's distribution. According to him, due to a misunderstanding, the book ended up on the shelves of juvenile books and for that reason did not sell. At that time he wrote to Anton from Moscow: "Russia will hear about you, Anthosha. Die soon and they will mourn you on the other side of the ocean as well. Your glory will grow. In the meantime, people buy your book, very reluctantly."

In 1887, Suvorin hired Alexander to work on the editorial staff of his magazine, New Time, just to be nice to Anton. Alexander had to move to St. Petersburg because of this. In the spring, a typhus epidemic broke out in Russia, and Alexandr wrote to Anton, asking him to come to see him urgently as he had become seriously ill. Anton went to St. Petersburg to help him, but Alexandr had nothing; he was an alcoholic and depressed; it was the woman he lived with who was ill.

The next year, a little-known event happened that I think is telling and that Anton Chekhov himself tried to downplay because of how bad it was. Alexandr wrote a short story called "The Letter". It was published in the magazine Tiempo Nuevo, and he signed it like Anton Chekhov. Outraged, Suvorin wrote to Alexander, saying that he thought the story was terrible but that what was unacceptable to him was that he had usurped his brother's signature. Anton Chekhov may have changed himself into each character in his stories, but by that time, his name was already very well known, and his signature was one of the most well-known in all of Russia.

He was praised by Tolstoy, Bunin, Gorky, Kuprin, Palmin, Grigorovich, and so many other authors that the list would be too long to include them all. In Suvorin's opinion, his name should be protected, not discredited. Later, he felt remorse and went to visit Anton to apologize to him for the rudeness with which Alexandr had written to him. When Suvorin left, Anton, in turn, wrote a sympathetic letter to his brother. It was the second letter that the story "The Letter" provoked. Anton's letter was written in Moscow on September 24, 1888. In it, he addresses Alexandr affectionately and, as a sign of respect, calls him "Pater Alexandr!" He first relates his disturbing encounter with Suvorin and then states: Suvorin "read your story 'The Letter' (a not bad story), which he did not like, and at once wrote you a rude letter, something like, 'Writing bad stories one can, but usurping another's name one cannot.'"

Anton's attitude towards his brother Alexandr is condescending; he declares that his story is not bad, even though his longtime editor thought the opposite was true. Further down, in a conciliatory tone, he comments: "About the usurpation and falsification of another's name, one cannot even speak, since [...] every Russian subject is free to write what he pleases and to sign as he pleases...". In the following lines, he reaffirms his desire not to condemn him: "As long as I do not complain and am not a complainant until then, no one has the right to drag you to the Sanhedrin". In another paragraph, he tries to encourage him: "The criterion 'one writes better, the other worse' can have no place since times are changing and visions and tastes are different. Whoever writes well today may become inept tomorrow, and vice versa. The fact that I have already edited four books says nothing against you or your rights. In three or five years, you may have ten books". Towards the end of the letter, somberly reflective, Anton tries to downplay everything:

The hour of death cannot be avoided [...], and that is why I attach no serious meaning to my literature or to my name. [...] The more simply we look at delicate issues such as the one touched by Suvórin, the more regular our lives and our relationships will be.

Anton's letter overflows with kindness and gentleness. I try, however, to perceive his brother's purpose and the true purpose of his actions. Alexandr Chekhov dreamed—with emphasis on dreamed—of being a great writer, but he did nothing but drink. He was a mythomaniac who thought only of himself and had only confused ideas (such as signing a story with the name Anton). He was capable of lying without the slightest regard, which is why he made his brother believe that he was seriously ill with typhus.

He had very close evidence of Anton's talent; let's remember the letter he wrote to him when his book of short stories was a sales failure due to the confession that got it placed on the shelves of juvenile works. I wonder if it wasn't a dark maneuver of his jealousy that caused that misunderstanding. I'm not saying it was a conscious act, but perhaps deep in his soul lay a rivalry.

Alexandr always used to sign his work under pseudonyms. He published under the names Agafopod, Agafopod Edinitsin, Aloe, and later A. Sedói. Why did he decide to take advantage of this coincidence and sign as his brother if he had never done so before? To add to the ambiguity, Alexandr's story appeared precisely in New Time, the magazine in which Chekhov usually published and in which he became known.

I think that by signing this story, Alexandr wanted to touch the greatness and glory of Anton Chekhov. He wanted to feel, if only once in his life, the admiration and respect of hundreds of readers, even if they adored him because they believed he was the authentic Chekhov. Even if he had to descend into darkness afterward, he wanted to experience light for a brief moment. In any case, he would always have a glass of alcohol at his fingertips to soften it.

Full Citation: Robles, Alejandro. "El Otro Chéjov" |