Long or short, most autobiographies are deadly exercises in self-aggrandizement and creative remembering. We cherish the good ones – by Berlioz, Ulysses S. Grant, Henry Adams, Nabokov, Whittaker Chambers – for their rarity. Not coincidentally, all five merge History with personal histories, suggesting that more is at stake than the writer’s precious vanity. There is at least one more good one, and it’s a mere 200 words long. Dense with facts and autobiography-spoofing irony, Chekhov’s capsule bio comes in a letter to V. A. Tikhonov (1857-1914), a playwright, Chekhov admirer and editor of a magazine, North, who had asked for information to accompany a photograph. On this date, Feb. 23, in 1892, Chekhov begins with a straightforward recitation of facts: “I was born in Taganrog in 1860. . .” With the sixth sentence, the tone changes:
“In 1891 I made a tour in Europe, where I drank excellent wine and ate oysters. In 1892 I took part in an orgy in the company of V. A. Tihonov [sic: Constance Garnett’s transliteration] at a name-day party.”
Then another tonal switch, back to vital stats: “I began writing in 1879.” That year, at age nineteen, he became the principal economic support for his family. There’s self-deprecation – “I have sinned in the dramatic line too, though with moderation” – and silliness: “I have been translated into all the languages with the exception of the foreign ones.” He writes: “I practice medicine, and so much so that sometimes in the summer I perform post-mortems, though I have not done so for two or three years. Of authors my favorite is Tolstoy, of doctors Zaharin." [Who can identify Zaharin? He’s not mentioned in Rayfield’s biography.]
In my job, I’m more accustomed to reading self-penned biographies that amount to lengthy lists of grants and awards. In his twelve remaining years, Chekhov turned himself into a genius.