cover image The Vaudevilles: And Other Short Works

The Vaudevilles: And Other Short Works

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov. Smith & Kraus, $19.95 (224pp) ISBN 978-1-57525-127-1

Callow, a novelist and author of biographies on D.H. Lawrence, Cezanne, Walt Whitman and Van Gogh, has not been as thorough as Donald Rayfield in his recent biography of the great Russian playwright and short story writer. And this is rather a blessing. Callow draws equally on Chekhov's (1860-1904) own writing and smartly culls from secondary sources--taking valuable critical insights from V.S. Pritchett's Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free, or using Rayfield's important discovery of previously censored passages in Chekhov's letters, while casting doubt on the same author's characterization of Chekhov's relationship with early editor Nikolai Leykin. Chekhov's life was filled with romantic, professional, familial, political and philosophical complications, and most biographies leave Chekhov either elusively unfinished or unsatisfactorily psychologized. Callow allows his subject these complexities, presenting Chekhov as neither saint nor misogynist (two proffered views) and never tries to apprehend the unknowable. ""When we attempt to clarify his feelings about love we are soon faced with ambiguity,"" he writes. But what is knowable he clearly connects to Chekhov's writing, making for a cohesive whole. While Callow does a good job of contextualizing Chekhov as a private figure, he is not so successful in giving him a social context: more, for example, on the Russian stage, on its penal system and on the roiling political atmosphere that spawned Chekhov, Tolstoy and Gorky would have shed great light without imputing more to Chekhov's life than the facts will bear. (May) FYI: Everyone knows Chekhov's four great plays, but few are familiar with the humorous one-act plays he wrote in his 20s. To correct this, Smith and Kraus will release Chekhov: The Vaudevilles and Other Short Works, trans. by Carol Rocamora. ($19.95 224p ISBN 1-57525-127-2; May)