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Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey

Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey

by Janet Malcolm

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To illuminate the mysterious greatness of Anton Chekhov’s writings, Janet Malcolm takes on three roles: literary critic, biographer, and journalist. Her close readings of the stories and plays are interwoven with episodes from Chekhov’s life and framed by an account of Malcolm’s journey to St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Yalta. She writes of


To illuminate the mysterious greatness of Anton Chekhov’s writings, Janet Malcolm takes on three roles: literary critic, biographer, and journalist. Her close readings of the stories and plays are interwoven with episodes from Chekhov’s life and framed by an account of Malcolm’s journey to St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Yalta. She writes of Chekhov’s childhood, his relationships, his travels, his early success, and his self-imposed “exile”—always with an eye to connecting them to themes and characters in his work. Lovers of Chekhov as well as those new to his work will be transfixed by Reading Chekhov.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

Keith Taylor
Reading Chekhov is the intensely personal and lucid encounter of a reader with a writer whose generosity toward his characters is unparalleled. Malcolm tells us that Chekhov "didn't preach, or even teach. He is our poet of the provisional and fragmentary." We can thank her for reminding us how beautiful that poetry can be.
Los Angeles Times
Publishers Weekly
Longtime New Yorker magazine writer Malcolm (The Crime of Sheila McGough; The Silent Woman; etc.) is known for her fearlessly opinionated takes on controversial subjects, from psychoanalysis to murder cases. This short meditation in 13 untitled chapters is a reflection on her reading of a favorite author, famed 19th-century playwright and short story writer Anton Chekhov, in the context of a recent tourist trip she took through contemporary Russia. Malcolm's considerable investigative reporting skills reveal the expected squalor and fallout from the Soviet years, though she admits that she knows no Russian and relied on tour guides as translators (whom she describes mercilessly down to their bodily flaws). However, although Malcolm admits that she necessarily reads Chekhov in English, she does not inquire how much her own perception of the author results from depending (according to the slim bibliography at the end of the book ) on the Edwardian fallibility of translator Constance Garnett. She agrees with all biographers that Chekhov was an admirably humane man, writing prolifically to earn a living because he charged his peasant patients nothing for medical care. The anecdotes may be the more compelling stuff here, however, as when Malcolm squabbles with a curator of a Moscow Chekhov Museum, who does not wish to inform the inquiring American journalist how she manages to earn a living. Readers eager for a taste of the dismal tourist experience Russia offers these days trains, to no surprise, are decorated with "cheap and ugly relics of the Soviet period" and the food served on them is "gray and inedible" will snap up these concise, somewhat bitter musings. Fans of Russian lit maysquabble with some of the heavier moralizing, but will appreciate this real example of a fan's notes. And Malcolm's many regular readers are a lock. (Nov.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
A noteworthy journalist who never makes it easy for herself, Malcolm here uses her travels in Russia as an opportunity to reflect on the works of Chekhov. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A typically sharp-eyed, tart tour by longtime New Yorker writer Malcolm (The Crime of Sheila McGough, 1999, etc.) to the places-and the creative landscape-associated with the Russian master. Playwright and short-story writer Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) has become as misunderstood as he is beloved, Malcolm feels, not just by critics but by his homeland. As she travels to Moscow, St. Petersburg, and especially Gurzuv and Yalta (where Chekhov spent his last five years), Malcolm fumes at post-Communist Russia-not just at inconveniences such as lost luggage and seedy hotels, but at guides who sometimes seem more interested in palaces or old-time film star Deanna Durbin than they do in Chekhov. She grumps about this "absurdist farce of the literary pilgrim who leaves the magical pages of a work of genius and travels to an ‘original scene' that can only fall short of his expectations." Occasionally, Malcolm resorts to one of her trademark cranky generalities about factual writing (a novice journalist, she insists, who wishes to render subjects "in all their unruly complexity and contradictoriness is soon disabused"). But once she considers Chekhov's life and work in earnest, her numerous insights run against the critical grain without falling into contrarianism for its own sake. For instance, she notes that far from being nonjudgmental, Chekhov underscores the nature of evil in stories such as "Ward No. 6"; that despite his overriding concern with ordinary lives, he was irresistibly attracted to useless beauty; and that, as someone who battled tuberculosis for almost a third of his life, his masterpieces obliquely tell what it is like to live under the constant shadow of death. She seamlesslystitches together both standard biographical information (such as his attitude toward his brutal and improvident father) and close analysis and interpretation (e.g., of memoirists' varying accounts of Chekhov's death, including the bizarre transport of his corpse back to Moscow in a refrigerated railway car filled with oysters). While occasionally crotchety about personal travails, Malcolm offers a stirring, roving chronicle of "our poet of the provisional and fragmentary."
From the Publisher
“One of the most gratifying things about Reading Chekhov is its quiet, vigorous defense of the prerogatives of criticism against the imperial banality of biography.” —The New York Times Book Review

“[A] thoughtful and sensitive study . . . A great part of the charm and the skill of Janet Malcolm’s book lies in the very Chekhovian way she mingles personal with critical comment, taking us not only through Chekhov’s stories but through the removals and journeys of his life and her own travels in quest of his Russian haunts.” —The New York Review of Books

“With the gentle inevitability of a balloon lofting skyward, the discourse effortlessly ascends from chatter to contemplation to genuinely brilliant critique. . . . With its balance of distilled perception and companionable spirit, Reading Chekhov embodies the same qualities it celebrates.” —San Francisco Chronicle

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After they have slept together for the first time, Dmitri Dmitrich Gurov and Anna Sergeyevna von Diderits, the hero and heroine of Anton Chekhov's story "The Lady with the Dog" (1899), drive out at dawn to a village near Yalta called Oreanda, where they sit on a bench near a church and look down on the sea. "Yalta was hardly visible through the morning mist; white clouds stood motionless on the mountain-tops," Chekhov writes at the start of the famous passage that continues:

The leaves did not stir on the trees, grasshoppers chirruped, and the monotonous hollow sound of the sea rising up from below, spoke of the peace, of the eternal sleep awaiting us. So it must have sounded when there was no Yalta, no Oreanda here; so it sounds now, and it will sound as indifferently and monotonously when we are all no more. And in this constancy, in this complete indifference to the life and death of each of us, there lies hid, perhaps, a pledge of our eternal salvation, of the unceasing movement of life upon earth, of unceasing progress towards perfection. Sitting beside a young woman who in the dawn seemed so lovely, soothed and spellbound in these magical surroundings-the sea, mountains, clouds, the open sky-Gurov thought how in reality everything is beautiful in this world when one reflects: everything except what we think or do ourselves when we forget our human dignity and the higher aims of our existence.

Today, I am sitting on that same bench near the church looking at the same view. Beside me is my English-speaking guide Nina (I know no Russian), and a quarter of a mile away a driver named Yevgeny waits in his car at the entrance of the footpath leading to the lookout point where Gurov and Anna sat, not yet aware of the great love that lay before them. I am a character in a new drama: the absurdist farce of the literary pilgrim who leaves the magical pages of a work of genius and travels to an "original scene" that can only fall short of his expectations. However, because Nina and Yevgeny have gone to some trouble to find the spot, I pretend to be thrilled by it. Nina-a large woman in her late sixties, with short, straight blond hair, forget-me-not blue eyes, and an open passionate nature-is gratified. She breaks into song. "It's a big, wide wonderful world that we live in," she sings, and then asks, "Do you know this song?" When I say I do, she tells me that Deanna Durbin sang it in the 1948 film For the Love of Mary.

"Do you like Deanna Durbin?" she asks. I say yes.

"I adore Deanna Durbin," Nina says. "I have adored her since I was a girl."

She tells me of a chance encounter in a church in Yalta, two years earlier, with an Englishwoman named Muriel, who turned out to be another adorer of Deanna Durbin, and who subsequently invited her to the annual conference of an organization called the Deanna Durbin Society, which was held that year in Scarborough, England. Nina owns videos of all of Deanna Durbin's movies and knows all the songs Deanna Durbin sang. She offers to give me the address of the Deanna Durbin Society.

Nina was born and educated in St. Petersburg and, after studying the languages at the university there, became an Intourist guide, presently moving to Yalta. She has retired, and, like most retirees in the former Soviet Unioin, she cannot live on her pension. She now hires out as an independent guide and waits for assignments from the Hotel Yalta, currently the only habitable hotel in the town, My trip to Yalta is a stroke of good fortune for her; she had not worked for a long time when the call from the hotel came.

It is the second day of my acquaintance with Nina, the third day of my stay at the Hotel Yalta, and the ninth day of my trip to the former Soviet Union. I have worked my way south from St. Petersburg and Moscow. My arrival in Yalta was marked by an incident that rather dramatically brought into view something that had lain just below my consciousness as I pursued my itinerary of visits to houses where Chekhov lived and places he had written about. I had flow from Moscow to Simferopol, the nearest twon to Yalta with an airport, a two-hour drive away. Checkov lived in Yalta during much of the last five years of his life. (He died in July, 1904.) At that time, exile to places with mild climates, like the Crimea and the Riviera, was the favored therapy for tuberculosis, into whose last stages Chekov was entering inthe late eighteen-nineties. He built a handsome villa a few miles outside the city center, in a suburb called Autka, and also bought a small cottage on the water in a seadisde Tatar village called Gurzuf. He wrote "Three Sisters" and "The Cherry Orchard," as well as "The Lady with the Dog" and "The Bishop," in these houses.

At the Simferopol airport, as I stood in line at the immigration counter waiting to have my passport and visa stamped, I saw, as if in a dream's slow motion, a man in the baggage area on the other side of a glass panel walk out of the building with my suitcase in his hand. The hallucination proved to be real. In a daze, I filled out a lost luggage form and followed an English-speaking woman who worked for the Hotel Yalta to a car in the parking lot. She said she would trace my lauggage and disappeared. The driver--the same Yevegeny who now twists in the car in Oreanda--drove me to the hotel in silence, his English and my Russian in exact equilibrium.

As we neared the Black Sea coast, the Ukranian farm country gave way to terrain ressembling--and, in the variety and beauty of its vegetation, surpassing--that of the Riviera corniches. The winding road offered views of mountains and glimpses of the sea below. But when the Hotel Yalta came into view I caught my breath at its spectacular ugliness. It is a monstrous building--erected in 1975, with a capacity of twenty-five hundred people--that is like a brute's blow in the face of the countryside. Its scale would be problematic anywhere, and on the hillside above Yalta it is catastrophic.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Janet Malcolm's previous books are Diana and Nikon: Essays on Photography; Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession; In the Freud Archives; The Journalist and the Murderer; The Purloined Clinic: Selected Writings; The Silent Woman: Slyvia Plath and Ted Hughes; and The Crime of Sheila McGough. She lives in New York with her husband, Gardner Botsford.

From the Hardcover edition.

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