What would you include in a concise autobiography of your life thus far? Professional accomplishments? Sexual conquests? Noteworthy meals? Moreover, would you adhere to the truth or poke fun at your reader?
In a letter to V.A. Tihonov dated February 23, 1892, Anton Chekhov includes an autobiography of 200-odd words. The teasing missive opens with assurances that Tihonov was not at all drunk at Shtcheglov’s name-day party, but that his “jigitivka on the cabman’s box excited nothing but general delight.” Chekhov’s reader had requested an autobiography from the author, and he obliges – continuing in this mischievous tone.
The 32-year-old writer and doctor dances around facts and fancies, relating such academic honors as the Pushkin Prize in almost the same breath as he names Tihonov as a fellow orgy participant at a name-day party. He begins with facts, but swiftly transitions to the nonsensical. “I have sinned in the dramatic line too, though with moderation. I have been translated into all the languages with the exception of the foreign ones,” he writes.
While he dutifully relates his birthplace, academic path and subsequent professional activities, Chekhov sprinkles in juicy details such as oysters sampled in Europe and the claim that he had fathomed love’s mysteries by the age of 13. His signoff is a perfect summation: “All that is nonsense though. Write what you like. If you haven’t facts make up with lyricism.”
Translated by Constance Garnett, the full letter to V.A. Tihonov was recently published by the Paris Review. The author’s entire collection of letters is available online, courtesy of The Project Gutenberg. From his teenage years to his death in 1904, Chekhov wrote thousands of letters to a wide range of correspondents.