Slavonic & East European Review

Gregory, Serge Vladimir. Antosha and Levitasha: The Shared Lives and Art
of Anton Chekhov and Isaac Levitan. Northern Illinois University Press,
DeKalb, IL, 2015. ix + 248 pp. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index.
$39.00 (paperback).

In his Introduction Serge Gregory comments that, despite the equal billing
of the two figures of his title, his focus is principally on Levitan (p. 5). His
achievement is to have supplemented the meagre materials on Levitan
available outside Russia. He has plumbed sources in archives and libraries in
Russia, mainly letters and memoirs relating to the period. Many of the letters
were written by Chekhov and Levitan’s mutual acquaintances, mostly women,
who loved one or other of the grouping, and sometimes caused painful
disagreements or catastrophic fallings in and out of love.

Chekhov and Levitan were both born in 1860. Both overcame hardship in
their early lives, and both experienced a maturation of their artistic prowess in
the 1880s and ’90s, accompanied by a substantial and rising popularity. They
died within a few years of each other at the height of their creative powers,
latterly so undermined by illness: Chekhov of TB in 1904, and Levitan of a
weak heart in 1900, possibly brought on by syphilis, contracted much earlier (a
topic of particular attention in this study).

The counterpointing of these two creative artists draws attention to their
small circle of mutual friends, already well known from the extensive materials
available on Chekhov’s life. However, it is now clear from Gregory’s work
that the love triangles involving Levitan among these friends were especially
intense. At the same time, the letters and memoirs provide a fascinating
window on the life of artists on private country estates of the period. It was the
practice to escape the pressure and climate of the capital cities in the summer
months. The luckier ones accepted invitations from wealthy patrons (Levitan
occasionally) or, as in the case of both Antosha and Levitasha, they would rent
a room or a cottage on the estates of the more impoverished gentry to have
time and space to practise their crafts. The correspondence and memoirs not
only give information on working practices of the creative artist, but also the
leisure times and personal interactions of these summer communities. The
reader can trace the sources of Levitan’s Russian landscapes from the various
locales he visited and is shown similar reflections in Chekhov’s stories, but not
in the plays, even with their implied landscapes.

The structure of this study of two protagonists is awkward. The evident
imbalance may be caused by the fact that Gregory had fifty-five letters from
Levitan to Chekhov, but none from Chekhov to Levitan. All correspondence
to Levitan from others was burned on his orders shortly before he died. At
times these two lives appear to have been lived much more separately than in
the direct contact the author would have liked. Much of Chekhov’s biography
is known, so that the relatively small part of it relating to Levitan occupies
a disproportionate amount of space in Gregory’s study. Even so, there are
passages where the focus is entirely on Levitan, and Chekhov is remote
both from him and from the story being told. Sometimes it feels as if we are
reading biographical narratives in parallel rather than an investigation of
‘interrelationships’ as the author proposes (p. 4).

This topic fits neatly into the artistic considerations of the last two decades
of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth, when artists and
writers were working together as never before in pursuit of newly appreciated
synaesthetic ideals. However, the analysis of the interrelationships between
painter and writer focuses on the identification of mutual acquaintances or
mutually experienced events, or their reflections, in Chekhov’s stories; or
Levitan’s approving comments on Chekhov’s verbal landscapes. Thus the story
‘The Grasshopper’ (chapter 6) is extensively analysed as a reflection of Levitan’s
affair with one of their mutual friends Sophia Kuvshinnikova. The Seagull is
explored less (pp. 146–56; & passim): focus is on reference to the extra-marital
pregnancy of another friend, Lidiia Mizinova (Lika), Levitan’s involvement
with both a mother and daughter, the Turchaninovs, and his attempted suicide.

Significantly enough, Gregory finds it difficult to trace Chekhov in Levitan’s
painting, and relies on comment from Levitan’s letters. The attempt leads to
his prime differentiation between the two artists: Gregory points to Chekhov
as ‘an artist with a penetrating cold heart’ (p. 218) which enabled him to remain
at a distance, while Levitan was ever responsive, concerned, often angry or
judgemental, and frequently in despair over his own abilities. They both
eventually found nature indifferent to human affairs but reacted differently.
For Levitan, nature’s indifference emphasized his isolation, feeding into bouts
of depression but forming his more troubled landscapes; for Chekhov, it
cemented his personal detachment in his creative work.

There is rich material in this study. Gregory was right to unpick this
relationship. From the point of view of Chekhov studies, Levitan is too often
neglected. From the point of view of Levitan studies, this is an artist whose
position astride the two most significant movements in Russian painting of
the late nineteenth century, ‘The Itinerants’ and the World of Art, is ripe for
investigation and appreciation. Gregory is perhaps too modest in his ambitions.
A full biography of Levitan and catalogue of his works in English would cement
this artist’s international reputation. They would build on the key foundation
provided by the Soviet scholar, A. A. Fedorov-Davydov (Moscow, 1976; in
English, Leningrad, 1981) and complement the solid work done in English by
Averil King (Woodbridge, 2011).

Cynthia Marsh
Department of Russian and Slavonic Studies
University of Nottingham