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NONFICTION : CHEKHOV by Henri Troyat; translated from the French by Michael Henry Heim (Dutton: $22.50; 358 pp., indexed).

November 16, 1986|Jascha Kessler

"Chekhov," Henri Troyat's eighth biography of a famous Russian (translated into an easy, perspicuous English by Michael Henry Heim), is the perfect book to remind us once again that we want to know more about the open secrets of one of the really great writers of the last 100 years. For it was Anton Chekhov, a grandson of serfs, a hard-working doctor, who managed to write stories and plays that seem as fresh today as when they were published and performed almost 100 years ago.

His was a brief life of unremitting hard work, marked by skeptical, patient kindness; his agnostic's hopefulness was based on science and technical progress; and his principle in art was objectivity, simplicity and an elegant clarity in language achieved only by very hard work--but above all, truthfulness, never sentiment, politics, philosophy or religion. His is the cold, clear eye that sees what all ideologies distort: "All I wanted was to tell people honestly, 'Look at what bad, boring lives you lead.' That's the most important thing for people to understand. And when they do understand it, they will certainly create a new and better life. I won't see it, but I know everything will be different, that nothing will be like the lives we now lead."

A tremendous legacy for the Russians, and the rest of the world too, for lies great and small have ruled the 20th Century. Troyat takes us efficiently and informatively through Chekhov's exemplary career without comment on the times or burdensome "critical analysis" of the work, which will go on speaking to us by itself.

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