"If there are no facts, substitute something lyrical"

Memories of Chekhov is a biography of Anton Chekhov drawn from letters, diaries, essays and memories of Chekhov’s family, friends, and fellow writers. The recollections were edited and translated by Peter Sekirn who collected them from Chekhov archives in Yalta and Moscow and various American and Russian libraries. I was introduced to this new book by a New York Review Blog.

The accounts were made by people who knew Chekhov, visited him, met with him on a regular basis or lived with him. They are not secondary accounts by biographers who did not have such personal relationship or by historians who lived long after he did. In this sense it much like a film made at various times of his life. Here are a few of the accounts:

From Peter Gnedich A Russian writer, historian and playwright
Chekhov told me once, “You know, I recently visited Tolstoy in Gaspra. He was bedridden due to illness. Among other things, he spoke about me and my works. Finally, when I was about to say goodbye he took my hand and said, ‘Kiss me goodbye.’ While I bent over him and he was kissing me, he whispered in my ear in a still energetic, old man’s voice, ‘You know, I hate your plays. Shakespeare was a bad writer, and I consider your plays even worse than his.’”

From Ivan Bunin A well-known Russian Writer and Nobel Prize winner (1933)
“Do you write? Do you write a lot?” he asked me one day.
I told him, “Actually, I don’t write all that much.”
“That’s a pity,” he told me in a rather gloomy, sad voice which was not typical of him. “You should not have idle hands, you should always be working. All your life.”

From Nikolai Panov A Russian Painter who was painting Chekhov then
His maid called him from outside. He left for some time. Finally, he returned, and when we asked him why he was delayed, he reluctantly replied, “I had a medical patient waiting for me.”
I was surprised, “So late? Was it a friend?”
Chekhov replied, “Not at all. I saw her for the first time in my life. She needed a prescription for a medicine that can be poisonous. They can only dispense it from a pharmacy with a prescription.”
“You did not write it, did you?”
Anton Pavlovich did not answer anything. He sat at the fire-place, and threw in some more fire-wood. Then, after a long silence, he said quietly, “Maybe this is better for her. I looked into her eyes, and understood that she had made a decision. There is a big river not far from here, and the Stone Bridge. If she jumps, she would be in great pain before she died. With the poison, she would be better off.”
He was silent. We grew silent as well. Then, to change the subject, we began a conversation about literature.

In reading these accounts I was reminded of Janet Malcolm’s Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey that describes her wanderings about the places in Russia where Chekhov wrote and lived. She says Chekhov’s writings heighten her sense of what is important in life. All the while, she questions the enterprise of writing a biography of another person saying that it is impossible to ever truly know another person.

In a Paris Review interview, Malcolm commented, “…there is so such thing as a dispassionate observer, that every narrative is inflected by the narrator’s bias.”

And in her book on Chekhov, she wrote that biography “will always be “inescapably trivial” [as] “something lovely and precious has been defiled by the vulgar gaze of the outer world.”

She quotes Chekhov in a letter to his friend Ivan Sheheglov:

“A psychologist should not pretend to understand what he does not understand. Moreover, a psychologist should not convey the impression that he understands what no one understands. We shall not play the charlatan and we will declare frankly that nothing is clear in this world. Only fools and charlatans know and understand everything.”