Vol. 75, Issue 4 (October 2016), pp. 694-695
Gregory, Serge. Antosha and Levitasha: The Shared Lives and Art of Anton Chekhov and IsaacLevitan. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2015. x + 248 pp. $39.00 (paper). ISBN 978-0-87580-731-7.
This meticulously researched and readable book is a chronological account of the contacts, friendship, common pursuits, rivalries, and professional work of Anton Chekhov and Isaac Levitan—two pivotal figures in Russian literature and art. Their work marked the end of positivism which reigned in Russia from the 1860s on—much longer than elsewhere in Europe. Their output was marked by lack of political engagement. Chekhov’s stories did not carry ideological freight. Levitan’s landscapes eschewed narrative content.
The two met, most likely, in Moscow in the early 1880s via Chekhov’s brother, Nikolai, who attended the Moscow School of Art and Architecture. They remained friends for the rest of their lives, spending summers together or nearby, entertaining or supporting one another, with Chekhov providing a steadying influence for the hypersensitive painter, who suffered from recurrent bouts of melancholia.
Both men led active romantic lives and the book records these goings-on in considerable detail. Chekhov was the more moderate of the two, often admonishing his friend not to get too involved in some liaison lest his art suffer. Each advised the other “to teach yourself to be without women” (p. 175). We can get a sense of Levitan’s romantic entanglements from Chekhov’s story, “The Grasshopper.” It was so obviously based on the lifestyle and pretentious salon of Levitan’s mistress, one Kuvshinnikova, that the publication caused a serious rift in the two men’s friendship. Though they managed to reconcile, their closeness never resumed its original intensity.
Through stressing the factual side of the Levitan-Chekhov friendship, the book does not ignore the issue of similarities in their styles. Serge Gregory credits Levitan with having opened Chekhov’s eyes to the unassuming beauties of Russian nature and to the emotional response it could evoke. Here he offers an insightful analysis of the short story, “The Steppe,” which he calls the most Levitan-like in the sense that it conveyed the overwhelming enormity of the vast flat landscape.
The correspondence sheds some light on Levitan being Jewish. Though once exiled from Moscow (after the assassination attempt on Alexander II), Levitan did not see himself as a victim. Rather, he made light of his ethnicity by signing letters “your sincerely devoted Shmul” (p. 172).
The book gives us abundant information about various aspects of the two artists’ friendship and the backgrounds to their compositions. But it does not provide a broader picture of the general cultural background in Russia at the time—such as patronage, art and literary criticism, preoccupations of the intelligentsia, the public’s interests and reactions—something that Rosamund Bartlett provides so successfully in her biography of Chekhov (2004). Thus the book presents the two artists’ friendship against a social and cultural vacuum. There is no mention, for example, of Levitan’s relations with other painters, or the Association of Travelling Art Exhibits, The Peredvizhniki.
Nevertheless, the book is an interesting and enjoyable read. This is largely due to the liberal quotations from the Levitan-Chekhov correspondence. It is resplendent with acute observations and lovingly invective appellations—on the order of, “Oh, you striped hyena, you damned crocodile, you spineless wood demon with one nostril” (p. 184).
Elizabeth Kridl Valkenier, The Harriman Institute, Columbia University