Cover image for Reading Chekhov : a critical journey
Reading Chekhov : a critical journey
Malcolm, Janet.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Random House, [2001]

Physical Description:
209 pages ; 22 cm
Format :


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Material Type
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PG3458.Z8 M28 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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A perfect match of author and subject. In an effort to know one of her favorite writers better. Janet Malcolm -- who has brought light to the dark and complicated corners of psychoanalysis and has exposed the treacheries inherent within journalism--traveled to Russia and the places where Chekhov lived and worked. Out of her encounters with modern-day Russians she builds bridges backward in time to Chekhov and to the characters and ideas in his unexampled short stories and plays. The chapters are like pools of thought that coalesce into a profound, unified vision of one of Western literary culture's most important figures. For example, Chekhov's self-effacement prompts a consideration of his characters' odd un-pin-down-ability and then a discussion of limitations in writing biography. One need not know Chekhov's writing to enjoy and be enlightened byReading Chekhov(though anyone who does will find it doubly edifying). It is a work in which as we watch one outstanding mind try to understand another, we learn more about ourselves--our own ways of reading, thinking, and behaving: generally, what it means to be human.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Malcolm's twin passions, psychology and literature, have led her in some intriguing directions, inspiring inquiries into the flawed art of biography and, in The Crime of Sheila McGough (1999), the ethics of protecting "sources." Here, in her most reflective book to date, she recounts two journeys, one a reader's lingering sojourn in the "strange, coded" works of Chekhov, the other a pilgrim's experiences in Russia following Chekhov's footprints. Malcolm explicates Chekhov's work with finesse, marveling at his compression and restraint and sounding the resonance of his psychological acuity. By blending interpretative, sometimes investigative biography with deep readings of his work, she casts new light on Chekhov's biblical illusions, fascination with gardens, trust in beauty, condemnation of deceit, and painful knowledge that life would be brief: tuberculosis claimed him at age 44. Malcolm then adds a fresh dimension of appreciation for Chekhov's magic in incisive portraits of the Russian women who serve as her interpreters and guides both to monuments of the fabled past and the harsh reality of the present. Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

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 may squabble 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.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Recent biographies of Anton Chekhov, like Donald Rayfield's Anton Chekhov: A Life (LJ 2/1/98), have enhanced our understanding of this Russian genius. Now Malcolm (The Journalist and the Murderer), who has written extensively about psychoanalysis and other subjects, brings her considerable talents to Chekhov studies in a work that is a combination of biography, travel book, and literary criticism. Malcolm traveled to Russia, visiting the places Chekhov lived and his characters inhabited. In each chapter, she deftly takes us back to Chekhov's day. But she also relates her conversations with contemporary Russians, and her accounts of her Russian tour guides give the narrative a personal and sometimes humorous tone. She molds these individual episodes into a cohesive whole, bringing the reader wholly into Chekhov's life. It is not necessary to know Chekhov's writings to enjoy this splendid book, but it will serve to prod the reader to Chekhov's works and the treasures that await. Recommended for all libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 7/01.] Ron Ratliff, Kansas State Univ., Manhattan (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



One 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. Excerpted from Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey by Janet Malcolm All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.