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.
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. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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November 11, 2002
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Excerpt from Reading Chekhov by Janet Malcolm
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.