Chekhov: The Hidden Ground - Philip Callow I don’t often actively pursue biographical information about the authors I read. It’s enough that I enjoy their stories, and enrich my life with their words. But there are exceptions.

Anton Chekhov is one of them. I came to his writing relatively late in my life (post grad school) but he immediately captivated me, and it’s fascinating to discover how alike we are (though it certainly explains why I like him). I don’t want to sound too arrogant – I’m not saying that my life mirror’s Chekhov’s (God forbid) or that I possess the talent and insight he did (definitely not). What I mean is that how we see the world and its people is remarkably similar. The same thing occurred when I began reading Maugham bios – another case of dissimilar lives and talents but a beautifully congruent Weltanshauung (humble apologies, it’s not often I can use this word).

Philip Callow’s biography of Chekhov is a very readable and balanced view of a very complex man. Like many of his stories, Chekhov was a portrait of ambiguity and contradiction. Unlike many of his contemporaries and earlier authors (Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Gorky, etc.), Chekhov was never a “political” writer. His guiding principle as an author was impartial observation. Many of his characters do awful things but they’re never judged. And, unlike Tolstoy (another contemporary), he never celebrated the supposed “nobility” of the peasant or the severe, simplistic Christianity that author espoused.

A gregarious man who enjoyed the company of friends, Chekhov was an intensely private one who avoided intimacy with all but (perhaps) his sister, his close friend Suvorin, and his wife. And even these three always recognized an inaccessible core that they could never penetrate. A man who easily became restless and bored stuck in one place, he could be intensely provincial when traveling. A man who loved his family intensely, he often fled from their “neediness.”

One of the things I disliked about this book is that Callow (not a professional historian – he’s an author, though he had written several biographies) does not cite his sources. He has a terribly inadequate page discussing them but it’s difficult to distinguish within the text where he relies on primary sources and where he’s indulging in speculation (albeit eminently reasonable speculation).

The other thing that I disliked was the dearth of photographs. This is a complaint common to many contemporary biographies I’ve read – not enough and/or not relevant photos. I find it so much more interesting to be able to put faces to names and to see the environments of the subject. (Apropos of nothing but in regards to one of the photos that is in the volume: There’s a photograph where Chekhov is posing with a couple of actress friends and, I swear, he looks just like Ed Norton.)

To sum up, this is a well written and interesting biography of a fascinating man, and I would recommend it with good conscience.