Chekhov unmasked

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MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti commentator Anatoly Korolyov.) -- "Anton Chekhov: A Life" by professor Donald Rayfield of London University and an expert on Russian literature has come out in Russia.

The Nezavisimaya Gazeta publishing house hails the new biography as a "true sensation." It writes: "An entirely unfamiliar, new Chekhov emerges from family correspondence, recollections of relatives, colleagues, lovers, friends and enemies, and other materials prudishly hushed up in the Soviet era."

It is true that scholars of the Soviet period strictly watched over the moral image of their subjects, and nearly all the classics of Russian and Soviet literature projected innocence from the pages of textbooks and treatises. Gogol and Tolstoi, Dostoyevsky and Sholokhov were represented as icons. The only exception has always been Pushkin, notorious women chaser, who was forgiven this sin due to his African roots. The same could by no means be allowed to his wife Natalia, whose innocent infatuation with the dashing Dantes is still disputed by Pushkin scholars.

The latest battle on the subject took place in connection with a book by Serena Vitali, an Italian expert in Russian literature, called "Pushkin's Button". It includes the first full publication of correspondence between Dantes and his stepfather, baron Hekkern.

The letters prove beyond doubt that Natalia, although in love with Dantes, remained faithful to her husband. Dantes himself wrote about it in a tone of tearful admiration. Nevertheless, Russian experts on Pushkin subjected Vitali's book to severe criticism, and their resistance was so strong that the first edition of the book was published in Riga: Moscow and St. Petersburg literary circles banished Vitali from the intellectual scene. The scientific elite was up in arms over the notion that Pushkin's wife showed even platonic interest in another man. There was a joke in philological circles: the best wife for Pushkin would be the Pushkin scholar Shchegolev.

Professor Rayfield has dared to show the Russian public a womanizing Chekhov. The scholar spent several years working in Russian archives and has now published an account of the classic's love life. It shows that Chekhov was far from the prude he was often shown to be, and enjoyed numerous love affairs. He wrote frankly about them in letters to his brothers and friends, calling his partners "dogs", "fools" and even "the corn of my soul."

Rayfield went as far as to investigate whether the unborn child of Chekhov's wife, actress Olga Knipper-Chekhova, was conceived within the marriage or in a secret liaison.

The professor deserves credit for his diligence, as he studies innumerable details and previously unknown facts. Yet, thumbing through the thick volume I was reminded of the story about Leo Tolstoy and the mosquito.

During a walk around his Yasnaya Polyana estate with an American journalist, Tolstoi swatted a mosquito on his forehead. The journalist was shocked: "But what about your theory of not resisting evil with violence?" The ingenuous question made the writer blush and he was at a loss for an answer. That evening he did not show up for dinner. When next morning he did not come down to breakfast, the American began packing his bags. Suddenly Tolstoy entered the room and shouted the answer he had been agonizing over for hours: You cannot live on such a small scale!

The great writer's exclamation applies to professor Rayfield's work as well. Hundreds of intimate details circle around Chekhov's head like mosquitoes, leaving him completely distorted.

In my opinion, the author's investigative fervor made him lose all sense of proportion.

My sympathy goes also to the women described in the book; the professor often resorts to language more suitable for a pathologist than a philologist.

Chekhov denied such an approach to human beings. As a doctor he treated bodies, but he wrote exclusively about the soul.

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