Thursday, August 16th, 2012

Scenes from a life

Rosamund Bartlett lectures in Russian and music history at the University of Durham and is a Fellow of the European Humanities Research Centre in Oxford, where she lives. Her new Chekhov translations, About Love and Other Stories, are published by Oxford World Classics, and her edition of Anton Chekhov: A Life in Letters appears with Penguin Classics. Her previous books include Wagner and Russia, Shostakovich in Context, and (co-authored with Anna Benn) Literary Russia: A Guide, a new edition of which was published in 2004.

Further praise for Chekhov: Scenes from a Life

'Rosamund Bartlett takes an impressionist approach to Chekhov's life, and it pays off, making for a hugely enjoyable book which is far more interesting than a conventional biography and much more moving. You end up wondering again at Chekhov's astonishing greatness – man and writer'

David Hare

'A woman writing on a man, excellent! .. . Rosamund Bartlett has come up with the ingenious idea of basing [her biography of Chekhov] on the places he lived in and visited. Consequently, Chekhov: Scenes from a Life brings freshness to a familiar story'

Sunday Times Books of the Year

'A fresh angle on this most enigmatic of Russian writers . . . Bartlett persuades the reader that Chekhov's life was full of drama . . . Bartlett's efforts as translator and biographer should be greeted with prizes and acclaim. She has renewed Chekhov for twenty-first-century readers, and revealed him to be a brilliant story writer as well as a playwright of genius. Thanks to Bartlett, we can now see that beyond the cherry orchard there is a rich pasture of short fiction'

Scotland on Sunday

'Something glues [Chekhov's work] all together, a something that Rosamund Bardett nails beautifully in her new book. In a word, it is landscape .. . [Bartlett] puts us on a tour bus and drives us through nineteenth-century Russia… She focuses on recreating each place in devoted Chekhovian detail, animating her scenes with human, comedy . . . Delightful.. . Bardett has succeeded in freeing the playwright from the dead hand of conventional, what-happened biography. Because it is structured by place, and not chronologically, the narrative dances about through time … As something to dip in and out of, it's a treasure'

New Statesman

'Here is a wonder: a book that delivers more than it promises .. . The place studies are sensitively done, yet what emerges is something bigger: a book that though deliberately impressionistic, is more informative about Chekhov the man than a conventional biography; and more instructive about the roots of his work than dry literary criticism . .. Much of the book is atmospheric, and the interplay between Chekhov, his surroundings and his work is cleverly done . . . Rosamund Bartlett more than pulls it off

Sunday Telegraph

'[Bartlett's] focus on Chekhov's background helps us to gain a clearer sense of the surprising scope of his life and work. .. [Chekhov is] a writer Bartlett clearly understands very well indeed'

Literary Review


In a recent volume of articles about Chekhov, a prominent Russian scholar asked the question: 'Is it easy to be Chekhov's biographer?'1 Despite hundreds of memoirs, twelve volumes of annotated letters, articles, monographs, and copious other sources, published and unpublished, not to mention a myriad clues contained in the works themselves, she had to conclude that it was not. Chekhov's letters, after all, are not always as straightforward as they appear, and memoirs can often be unreliable and even flatly contradictory: there is still a lack of agreement even on such rudimentary points, for example, as the colour of Chekhov's eyes (variously described as grey, blue, or brown). A major achievement in the late twentieth century was to remove the layers of distortion that had accreted over the decades of Soviet rule and make Chekhov human again. The Stalinist image of Chekhov as a personality without flaws proved remarkably resilient, but has now at last given way to a more balanced view. For this, we are indebted to the pioneering biographies based on detailed study of the available Russian sources by British and American Slavists such as Ronald Hingley and Ernest J. Simmons, and, in particular, to the recent exhaustive account by Donald Rayfield. Because of the lingering reverence with which writers are still held in Russia, a full-scale biography of Chekhov in Russian has yet to be written, but thanks to Donald Rayfield's meticulous research in newly opened archives, we now have a definitive account of Chekhov's day-to-day life, set in the context of his immediate environment. The fact that Chekhov was as inconsistent and as contradictory as the next person, however, suggests that we will thankfully never have a definitive interpretation of his life. The conventional image of Chekhov as someone self-contained and reserved in manner certainly tallies with the form and structure of his artistic works, yet he himself admitted

at one point to having a fiery temper and a nervous disposition. Such anomalies encourage us to continue the process of interpreting Chekhov's life, rather than acting as a deterrent.

Of the many cliches which have clung persistently to Chekhov's biography (frail, bespectacled, gloomy Russian writer etc.), the most tenacious perhaps is that of his elusive character. Here is an aspect where most memoirs seem to concur: we read that Chekhov kept his distance, that he was solitary, silent, reticent, sober, and possessed of a certain coldness.2 Even when he married, he preserved his autonomy, choosing not to live permanently with his wife. But there was one area of his life where he was unusually expansive, and that was in his relationship with the landscape. Chekhov's main subject as an artist may have been people's frailties and the complexities of human interaction, but human beings rarely inspired him to flights of lyricism in the way that the Russian landscape did. Chekhov hid his lyrical persona carefully, but it is there to find in his letters, and particularly in his short stories. It was the landscape which occasionally provoked him to utter the word 'poetic', the highest accolade in his vocabulary, and it was the landscape which was responsible for some of the happiest moments in his life. It also pervaded the unconscious world of his dreams and nightmares, as he intriguingly revealed in a letter he wrote to the writer Dmitry Grigorovich in February 1887, when he was twenty-seven years old:

When my blanket falls off at night, I begin to see in my dreams huge slithery rocks, cold autumn water and bare riverbanks – all of this is foggy and unclear, without a single patch of blue sky; in despair and melancholy, as if 1 have lost my way or have been abandoned, I look at the rocks and feel that for some reason I must cross the deep river; I see little tug boats, pulling huge barges, pieces of timber, rafts and so on floating by. Everything is unbearably desolate, raw and stark. When I run away from the river I come to fallen-down cemetery gates, a funeral, my school teachers . . . And am I filled during this time with the sort of nightmarish cold which is unconceivable when I am awake … I think if I had been born and lived permanently in St Petersburg, I would

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