If We Only Knew
Time, October 19, 1962


by Ernest J. Simmons
669 pp; Atlantic-Little, Brown; $10.

HE SAW MEN SMALL and vulnerably human. In an era where others were concerned with the conflict of good v. evil, Anton Chekhov saw mainly the conflict of simplicity v. pretension, and found the consequences depressing. In his writing, he refused to pass explicit judgment, and observing life, he found no meaning but only a mystery. In flamboyant 19th century Russia, choked with morality tales, nourished on progressive theories of history, lashed with messianic messages, Chekhov, who lived from 1860 to 1904, was ahead of his literary time, a lonely, gentle, restrained man who remains an ambiguous figure even in this exhaustive, meticulous, scholarly examination.

A practicing doctor. Chekhov had tuberculosis for 20 years and did nothing about it until it was too late. One of history's most prolific story writers, Chekhov spent months trying to write a novel, never got much past Chapter 3. A lively ladies' man ("I was so drunk I took bottles for girls, and girls for bottles"), he was skittish about marriage and invited his sister Masha on his honeymoon.

Masha didn't go along, but she summed up her beloved brother in one sentence. "Antosha," she said once in a rare moment of exasperation, "you are a fidgety person."

 Damaged Soles. "In my childhood." Chekhov used to say, with typically accurate restraint, "there was no childhood." His grim father was the self-taught son of one of the rare serfs in Russia who had been able to buy his family's freedom. He kept an anemic grocery store on the Sea of Azov, enrolled his son in a tailoring school as an economic practicality, once shouted at him. "You can't run about so much because you'll wear out your shoes." When a rat drowned in a vat of mineral oil in his store, Father Chekhov removed it, had the priests purify the vat with prayer, went on selling the oil.

The grocery business collapsed, and with it his father's morale. The family moved into a small basement apartment in Moscow. Young Anton, at 19, began writing stories for cheap magazines to put himself through medical school and support the family. At one time or another, mother, father, a sister, an aunt and four brothers all lived in the apartment. The young Chekhov's output was so great that in a few years he was able to buy a small country estate at Melikhovo, where he planted a cherry orchard and began, as he put it, to "squeeze the last drop of slave out" of himself. At Melikhovo, Chekhov was a lavish host, dressed up as a hussar to amuse his guests, flirted with his sister's pretty friend "Lika" Mizinova.

But he never quite dared trust himself to happiness. "I am so happy," he wrote, "that I superstitiously remind myself of my creditors."