Since I will be teaching a course on Chekhov’s short stories in a few months, I recently went to my local public library searching for a biography of this great Russian writer. There was only one biography available, tersely titled Chekhov by Henri Troyat. I wanted the book to give me background on Chekhov’s family and friends, education and his careers as both a writer and a physician. My expectation was that it would be an encyclopedic read, full of facts, with some informative anecdotes sprinkled in throughout the pages.
What I found in Troyat’s biography was a beautiful literary unfolding of Chekhov’s life. Troyat (1911-2007), born Lev Aslanovich Tarassov in Moscow, fled the Bolsheviks with his family in 1920, settling in France where he truly developed into a literary Renaissance man writing novels, short stories and plays, as well as biographies. The prose in this biography flows clearly and elegantly, a tribute to the translator Michael Henry Heim. It reads more like a novel than a biography.
Troyat views Chekhov as the quintessential writer, an objective narrator who describes his characters as best he can, and let the judgements of them be determined by the reader. This biographer sees Chekhov, the doctor who is wed to science, allured to the passions embodied by his two literary mistresses, the short story and drama.
The book is a wonderful read. I look forward to reading Troyat’s biography of Tolstoy.