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My history hero: William Boyd chooses Anton Chekhov (1860–1904)

Novelist William Boyd chooses Russian writer Anton Chekhov as his history hero

A colourised portrait of Anton Chekhov, from 1901
Published: July 9, 2021 at 5:07 pm
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Anton Chekhov: in profile

Anton Chekhov was a Russian short story writer and playwright. Widely considered among the greatest ever short story writers, he is best known in the west for his four classic plays – The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard – which are still regularly performed on stage. A qualified physician, he died of tuberculosis at the age of just 44.

When did you first hear about Chekhov?

My first Chekhov “Road to Damascus” moment was when I saw a TV adaptation of The Cherry Orchard on the BBC with Judi Dench in my late twenties. The scales fell from my eyes, and I’ve been swimming in a Chekhovian sea ever since.

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What kind of man was he?

He trained to be a doctor and in effect supported his family – two of his brothers were alcoholics – as a doctor and writer, penning pieces for newspapers. Sadly, at the age of 24 he had his first major haemorrhage from tuberculosis. Being a doctor, he knew he wasn’t going to live a long life and indeed died at just 44 – I think that’s what helped to make his writing so clear-eyed and unsentimental. He also had a pretty extraordinary sex life and often had more than one lover at a time.

What made Chekhov a hero?

The short stories are the key thing for me. His great stories were all written in the late 19th century, but they’re so modern in spirit they could have been written yesterday. He has a contemporary view of the human condition and that’s what made him so unusual for the time: he’s a man without faith, and sees life as an absurd tragicomedy.

What was Chekhov‘s finest hour?

The publication of his collected works in Russia while he was still alive. He sold the rights for as much money as possible so as to be able to support his family – and that was the apotheosis of his artistic life. But he was still a doctor, and he built schools, nursed people through cholera epidemics and took an extraordinary trip to the prison island of Sakhalin in the Russian far east, exposing the suffering and turmoil of the prisoners.

Is there anything you don‘t particularly admire about him?

I’ve never quite understood how he could be friends with the violently anti-Semitic publisher Aleksey Suvorin – a monster of a man who was to the right of Genghis Khan – particularly as Chekhov himself was a liberal. There is no doubt that he [Chekhov] also behaved badly to the many women who loved him. He was a commitment-phobe: as soon as a woman wanted to marry him, he moved on to the next one. [However, he did wed actress Olga Knipper three years before his death.]

Can you see any parallels between Chekhov‘s life and your own?

I think we shared a similar world view, and I’ve written a play based on two of his short stories. But he’s nothing like me in my personal life – I’ve been happily married for decades! I think the ticking clock of his approaching mortality explains a lot of his behaviour as it grew louder and louder.

William Boyd is one of Britain‘s best-known contemporary novelists. His latest book, Trio (Viking), is out now. He was talking to York Membery

LISTEN In Radio 4’s Great Lives, guests choose inspirational figures

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This article was first published in the July 2021 edition of BBC History Magazine

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