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Correspondances, art, littérature

Michael C. FINKE, Freedom from Violence and Lies. Anton Chekhov’s Life and Writings

Lynn Ellen Patyk
p. 928-931
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Michael C. FINKE, Freedom from Violence and Lies. Anton Chekhov’s Life and Writings, Londres : Reaktion Books, 2021, 256 p.

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1Anton Chekhov diagnosed his relationship to autobiography in no uncertain terms. When Doctor Grigorii Rossolimo requested a brief autobiography for an album commemorating their graduating class, Chekhov confessed to “autobiographobia.” Nevertheless, he provided Rossolimo with a laconic resume that placed his medical work at its center and quantified his writing output (4,800 pages of short stories and novellas). Most probably, Chekhov’s phobia would extend to biography as well as autobiography, since he added that “Being forced to read, let alone write, any details about myself is the purest torture.” (Letter to Rossolimo dated 11 October 1899). He was frequently aghast at the way that Konstantin Stanislavskii, innovative director of the Moscow Art Theater, interpreted his great plays; how much more galling is it to have someone re-present and interpret your life?

2In his new biography, Freedom from Violence and Lies: Anton Chekhov’s Life and Writings, the accomplished Chekhov scholar Michael C. Finke shepherds the reader efficiently through Chekhov’s short life (Chekhov died from tuberculosis when he was 44 years old) and judiciously applies interpretation only to his literary works. Finke’s biography is in some ways classically Chekhovian: it is relatively brief (just over 200 pages), studiously objective, and in most respects exhibits a crystalline clarity. As a Russian writer’s biography, it adheres to the model of Joseph Frank’s magisterial multi-volume biography of Fyodor Dostoevsky which combines richly contextualized historical biography with literary criticism. This hybrid genre is the logical one, but it is also an extremely difficult one to execute. Literary analysis treats a text as a text (what else?), whereas a truly satisfying biography must evoke a life through the art of storytelling. These are two radically different and even opposed projects, and Finke, despite his fine if often rushed literary analysis, sometimes struggles to integrate the two. At his best, however, Finke seamlessly moves from biography into literary criticism, as he does when he segues from Chekhov’s departure for Nice in December 1900 to Stanislavsii’s struggle to grasp The Three Sisters to an illuminating discussion of one of Chekhov’s most enigmatic plays.

3Finke’s goal, one which he indisputably achieves, seems to be to offer a scholarly but accessible account of Chekhov’s life and most famous works. Life is lived in chronological order, and this is how Finke relates it, from Chekhov’s birth in the southern Russian port of Taganrog on 17 January 1860 to his death in Badenweiler on 4 June 1904. Some of Chekhov’s biographers have eschewed chronology as an organizing principle and have chosen place instead (Rosemund Bartlett and Carol Apollonio) with intriguing results. But the driving thrust of Chekhov’s short life is indisputably Chronos - the unrelenting pressure of time and mortality - which Finke’s biography fully conveys.

4Finke condenses time into chapters that are comprehensive but become progressively more sprawling. The first chapters are devoted to “Family Background and Early Years” and “From Novice to Fame.” These are serviceable rubrics but too broad and unspecific to give shape to or properly delineate the phases of Chekhov’s development. The next and last chapters cram a fantastic amount of life and analysis. Chapter Three, “Explorer and Homebody,” encompasses Chehkov’s grueling trip to the Far East, his European travels, and his life and writing once he put down roots at Melikhovo. At seventy-four pages, this chapter easily could have been divided into two since Sakhalin Island (Ostrov Sakhalina) without doubt merits its own. As Finke notes, Sakhalin Island is Chekhov’s longest work; the one in which he was most emotionally invested; and one which inspired several other works of fiction. Finke’s observation that the journey was a “katabatic” one in which Chekhov himself figured as the biographical hero (Finke, 84), who nonetheless “plays hide and seek with the reader” are wonderful (this is where Finke first mentions Chekhov’s aversion to autobiography). But perhaps because Sakhalin Island is a hybrid documentary genre which “scholars have had a hard time with” (Finke, 82) Finke also gives the text itself little space and confines himself to generalities such as “his sections on women and children are quite gripping and disturbing,” (Finke, 81) How are they “gripping and disturbing?” How does Chekhov address gender and sexuality on the island? How does he handle the colonial context and the treatment of the natives? How does Chekhov’s acute moral vision penetrate and electrify everything (except perhaps the statistics) – from his description of collective life in the prisoners’ barracks to exile living arrangements to the very topography of the island? If Finke wants to change scholars’ opinion of the book as “dry and unreadable” (Finke, 82), he needs to put some muscle into it.

5Although Chekhov had secured his authorial reputation and his living before leaving for Sakhalin, after his return he intensified his philanthropic activities, sending a formidable shipment of books (2,000 volumes) back to the Sakhalin library and undertaking a grueling position as zemstvo doctor during the famine and raging cholera epidemic. Even so, Finke chronicles Chekhov’s impressive and disciplined literary production, not only of his Sakhalin book, but of a number of Chekhov’s most engagé stories inspired by his journey to Sakhalin. These included “Ward No. Six,” (“Palata No. 6”) “Peasant Women,” (“Baby”) “In Exile,” (“V ssylke”) and “Story of an Unknown Man,” (“Rasskaz neizvestnogo cheloveka”) one of the few Chekhov stories with an explicitly revolutionary focus. Given space limitations, Finke can provide only a compact plot summary with analysis that captures the story’s major device – for example, in “Ward No. Six” the opposing protagonists’ psychopathologies are an outgrowth both of their personal histories and their worldviews. Finke is able to grant Chekhov’s longer and more complex work more in-depth consideration and devotes several pages to discussion of one of his most dialogical and longest stories, “The Duel” (“Duel”). The story pits two ideological rivals against one another in a philosophical and literal duel, and Finke’s keen analysis refutes readings which ascribe any of the competing positions to Chekhov himself. “Instead,” Finke argues, “opposing world views are balanced against one another, and each is undermined through correlation with psychological weaknesses of its holder. The positive characters in this story are those whose views of and responses to others are unideological, unprofessional, and humane.” (Finke, 89)

6In this saturated chapter, Finke also includes the story of the genesis and performance of Chekhov’s most risky literary venture while living at Melikhovo and perhaps in his entire life: his radically experimental “comedy,” Seagull (Chaika). Amidst the Chekhov family’s bucolic life at Melikhovo and his deteriorating health, Chekhov undertook to write a play for his friend and publisher Alexei Suvorin’s new theater that rebelled against “every rule of dramatic art” (quoted in Finke, 114 ). Chekhov was nevertheless “more dissatisfied than satisfied” (quoted in Finke, 114) with the play and doubted his vocation as a playwright. Apparently, the audience at Seagull’s premier did as well, and Chekhov was treated to the same incomprehension, snickers, and heckling that his young protagonist Treplev endures in Seagull. Finke is equally good at evoking the real-life drama of the fall and rise of Chekhov’s Seagull (the Moscow Art Theater revived the play to great acclaim a year later) and, in conjunction with that, the play’s central theme of artistic innovation (as represented by the Decadents and Symbolists) versus artistic formula (as represented by the Realists and Chekhov himself). Finke’s discussion of the intersection of the Oedipal plot with the theme of art is especially astute, and his reading of the heroine Nina Zarechnaia as “no less an Oedipal victim” (Finke, 124) than Treplev rings true, although Carl Jung’s Electra complex is apropos here. Aside from these psychosexual and artistic themes, however, Finke might acknowledge the political resonance. The trope of the death of the younger generation, from Turgenev’s Bazarov to Dostoevsky’s Devils to Repin’s Ivan the Terrible and his Son Ivan, 16 November 1581, is a powerful element of the literary-artistic tradition in the revolutionary epoch.

7The final chapter then compresses Chekhov’s last years, his move to Yalta, his innovative collaboration with the Moscow Art Theater, and his death and funeral. If there is an art to biography it is giving form to life’s formlessness, but Finke’s chapters provide more of a running account of the events, concerns, and activity. Chekhov made a strict distinction between details (detali) and particulars (podrobnosti) and advised fellow writers to avoid piling on the particulars when a salient detail that illuminates the moral whole is needed instead. Finke sometimes piles on particulars of Chekhov’s life, as when he describes a trip to Moscow which included a visit to the Tretyakov Gallery to view Osip Braz’s famous portrait of him (more on this below), but also a trip to the circus, “which Chekhov did enjoy.” (Finke, 152) Either less or more is necessary here; either no mention of the circus or a detail indicating what specifically Chekhov enjoyed, or how he expressed his enjoyment. Otherwise, the sentence and the episode itself go flat, the life goes out of it.

8Before the life goes out of him, Chekhov fulfills the doctor’s ritual of a sip of champagne. Finke’s biography gives us the sense of a fully lived life fully accounted for, but something is missing. Given how informed, deft, and compact Finke’s exposition is, it seems ungrateful to harp on what’s missing. But Chekhov is what’s missing. This result is not without precedent. Finke repeatedly refers to Chekhov’s verdict on his portrait by Braz as “uninteresting. There’s something in it that is not mine, and something not there that is mine.” (Finke, 139). This seems almost inevitable in any literary or visual portrait of another and recalls the philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin’s distinction between the I-for-others and I-for-myself. In that case, Chekhov’s observation is less a critique of Braz’s portrait than one of our shared ontological condition and the inherent limitations it imposes on the project of biography (or portraiture). How could Finke as biographer have made Chekhov’s “mine” more manifest (at least in the eyes of this reader)?

9One option would be to realize the promise of the book’s title “Freedom from Violence and Lies” as the biographical narrative’s guiding thread and to draw out precisely those aspects of Chekhov’s life and work. Finke repeatedly touches upon Chekhov’s formative relationships with Suvorin and Leo Tolstoy – the former, a conservative proponent of autocracy, and the latter a prophet of non-violence. They emerge as the spiritual and ideological poles which Chekhov oscillates between, and Finke could intensify his focus on these contrary influences. Another option resides in Chekhov’s incredibly rich trove of letters, which give the reader unparalleled access to his voice and subjectivity; in these letters Chekhov practically levitates from the page.

10Of course, Finke makes ample recourse to Chekhov’s letters, but the quotations are so thoroughly embedded in his own biographer-chronicler’s voice and narrative that Chekhov barely peeps out. The playful, irreverent, ironic Chekhonte doesn’t quite materialize in Chapter Two or anywhere. We are told about the adventure-loving and amorous Chekhov, but Finke is almost as reticent as Soviet biographers where Chekhov’s affairs and sex life are concerned. Chekhov’s irrepressible life force, expressed in his consistently light-hearted and humorous epistolary prose, his “spicey” commentary to Suvorin, and his no-holds-barred moral admonitions to his wayward brothers, simply doesn’t come through. Towards the end of the final chapter, Chekhov becomes lamentably object-like as Finke details his worsening symptoms and intensifying bodily misery. On the one hand, Finke obliges readers’ deathbed voyeurism; on the other hand, this external view of Chekhov’s death is the furthest point on the spectrum of “not mine.” Biography has no ethical or aesthetic imperative that the biographer should place their subject’s subjectivity or voice on par with their own, even if this were possible. In Chekhov’s case, though, the only real way to posthumously cure his (auto)biographobia is to yield more of the floor to him.

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Lynn Ellen Patyk, « Michael C. FINKE, Freedom from Violence and Lies. Anton Chekhov’s Life and Writings »Cahiers du monde russe, 63/3-4 | 2022, 928-931.

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Lynn Ellen Patyk, « Michael C. FINKE, Freedom from Violence and Lies. Anton Chekhov’s Life and Writings »Cahiers du monde russe [En ligne], 63/3-4 | 2022, mis en ligne le 02 décembre 2022, consulté le 08 décembre 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Lynn Ellen Patyk

Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, USA

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