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Anton Chekhov

January 29 is the birthday of writer Anton Pavlovich Chekhov.  Born in the small seaport of Taganrog, Ukraine, in 1860, he was the son of a grocer and the grandson of a serf who had bought his freedom and that of his three sons in 1841.  When Chekhov was sixteen, his father's grocery store failed, and the family, except for Anton, left for Moscow.  Young Chekhov stayed behind to finish school and try to make a living.  He lived in the corner of a house and scraped out a meager existence by tutoring family friends.  He later called his adolescence a "never-ending toothache."

After being graduated from high school, Chekhov left for Moscow to study medicine.  While he was in school, he began writing for comic magazines to earn money for his family and himself.  He produced hundreds of short, funny stories in his spare time and later admitted that it had been a relief to write in the evenings after spending the day pouring over chemistry and anatomy. 

For years, though, Chekhov couldn't decide whether to devote his life to medicine or literature, so he split his efforts between the two.  In 1884, he received his medical degree and began a career as a doctor, which he continued until 1892.  He later referred to this period as his "sporadic second career which was to bring much hard work but little income."  He treated mostly peasants whose poverty reminded him of his childhood, and he rarely asked for payment.  He set up free clinics in provincial Russia, and he fought the cholera and famine epidemics of 1891 and 1892.

Chekhov was embarrassed about his love for writing and wrote under a number of pseudonyms for years.  He once told a friend, "Medicine takes itself seriously; the game of literature requires nicknames."  After being graduated from medical school, he continued to write stories for weekly magazines and newspapers.  His friends encouraged him to try writing something more ambitious, but he didn't think he was a good enough writer. 

The magazines he wrote for gave him strict limits on the number of words per story, and he often started and finished a short piece in a single sitting.  He wrote to a friend, saying that he thought of writing "frivolously, casually [and] nonchalantly."  It wasn't until he received encouraging advice from an editor that he began to take writing seriously and to use his real name.

One of the inventors of the modern short story, Chekhov fills them with passive characters and a light plot.  His stories don't have overly emotional, grandiose climaxes, and they usually end with a moment that reveals something about the lives of his main characters.

During his career, he produced several hundred stories.  Palata No. 6 (Ward No. Six), written in 1892, is his classic story of the abuse of psychiatry.  In it, Gromov is convinced that anyone can be imprisoned.  He develops a persecution mania and is incarcerated in a horrific asylum, where Doctor Ragin becomes interested in his case. Their relationship attracts attention, and the doctor is tricked into becoming a patient in his own ward.  He dies after being beaten by a worker.  The symmetrical story offers numerous similarities to the works of Samuel Fuller's film, The Shock Corridor (1963), and Ken Kesey's novel, One Flew Over Cockoo's Nest (1975).

Chekhov's first play, The Seagull, opened in 1885.  It was so bad that the author walked out on it at intermission.  He vowed never to write another play.  But two years later, it was produced again, this time to rave reviews.  The success inspired him to go on to write other plays, including Uncle Vanya (1897), Three Sisters (1901), and The Cherry Orchard (1904), now considered classics.

Chekhov bought a country estate in the village of Melikhove in 1892.  There, he wrote several of his best stories, including Neighbours, Ward Number Six, The Black Monk, The Murder, and Ariadne.  He also served as a volunteer census taker, participated in famine relief, and worked as a medical inspector during the cholera epidemics.  In 1897, he was stricken by tuberculosis and lived the remainder of his life either abroad or in the Crimea.

In Yalta, Chekhov wrote his famed stories, The Man in the Shell, Gooseberries, About Love, Lady with the Dog, and In the Ravine.  His last story, The Betrothed, is an optimistic tale of a young woman who escapes from provincial dullness into personal freedom. 

In 1901, Chekhov married Moscow Art Theater actress Olga Knipper (1870-1959).  She had played several of Chekhov's leading roles over the years.  She enjoyed his plays because--like his short stories--they reflected a multitude of possible viewpoints.  Surprise and tension, staples in most dramas of the day, were foreign elements in Chekhovian theater, where the dramatic movement is subdued, the characters are harmonious, and the players endure their fate with stoic patience.  In the end, they usually learn something about themselves and their false hopes.

As if mirroring the philosophy behind his own work, Chekhov once said, "Any idiot can face a crisis; it is this day-to-day living that wears you out."

The words proved to be prophetic.  By 1903, the health of the author/playwright was failing.  Anton Chekhov died on July 15, 1904, in Badenweiler, Germany, and was buried in the cemetery of the Novodeviche Monastery in Moscow.

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