Book Review - Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey by Janet Malcolm

In Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey, Janet Malcolm attempts to take on the potentially incongruous roles of literary critic, biographer and journalist.

She offers a close personal reading of Chekhov’s stories and plays, intermingled with a kind of potted (although patchy) biography, and reminiscences from her own recent trip to Russia.

It is an attempt to closely connect Chekhov’s life and experience to that of the characters in his plays and stories.

To demonstrate, for example, how his years of illness and the spectre of death cast a distinct shadow over his work.

In the West, Chekhov is perhaps the best-known Russian writer, with his plays Uncle Vanya, The Seagull, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard being regular fixtures in theatres large and small. 

However, most theatregoers probably know little about the writer and his times, and few will be familiar with his vast output of short stories.

Chekhov himself was unhappy with his famous plays, writing to his friend Suvorin in 1896:

“Ah, why have I written plays and not stories! Subjects have been wasted, wasted to no purpose, scandalously and unproductively.”

By this time Chekhov had sworn off the theatre completely and, had he stuck to his decision, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard might never have been written.

By contrast, Russians never seem to revere Chekhov in the same way as they do, say, Pushkin or Tolstoy.

Although Chekhov himself believed he was a follower of the Tolstoyan ethic and abhorred the rationalism of Dostoevsky, Malcolm shows how the influence of both can be seen in his work.

And that he also follows in the great literary tradition of Pushkin, Lermontov and Gogol.

Yet somehow there often seems to be a lack of true ‘Russian-ness’ to Chekhov’s work.

Perhaps it is because of his refusal to involve himself in the political at one of the most political times in Russia’s pre-revolutionary history.

Whatever the reason, Ludmilla, the guide in Melikhovo, Chekhov’s country estate 40 miles from Mosocw, tellingly informs Malcolm that “she had never been able to read Chekhov; his writing left her cold.”

Anton Chekhov was born in 1860 in Taganrog, a town on the sea of Azov, in southern Russia.

His grandfather had been a serf, but had managed to buy his freedom, and Anton’s father, Pavel, had risen up the social and economical hierarchy sufficiently to be able to buy his own grocery shop. 

However, he was an unhappy and tyrannical man who beat his wife and children, something which Chekhov would rarely discuss.

In the late 1870s the family moved to Moscow, fleeing from debts which had arisen from the failure of the shop.

Living in poverty, it was left to Anton (then at medical school) and his two older brothers, who all had some success in writing humorous sketches for magazines, to provide for the family.

Gradually Anton’s work grew more serious and increased in success, so much so that in 1892 he was able to buy the country estate of Melikhovo.

He lived there with his parents, sister and younger brothers and:

“… came remarkably close to living out the pastoral ideal, and even passed the test that city people who moved to the country in nineteenth-century Russia invariably, ingloriously flunked – that of being helpful to the peasants.”

Indeed, ‘going to the country’ was a specific part of the revolutionary movement of the 1880s and ’90s, but Chekhov was by no means political, and underwent no ‘test’, if such an idea even existed.

Rather his own humanity and desire to alleviate the suffering of others was what led to his supplying free medical assistance, building schools, and providing famine and cholera relief.

Chekhov is usually regarded as a depressing, melancholic writer and Janet Malcolm unfortunately does little to alter this view.

Of course, one cannot deny that an air of mortality and melancholy suffuses his work, but there is also humour (often black, or in the form of caricature) and irony, which lighten the tone.

Moreover, the key message, repeated again and again throughout the canon, is ‘life is given to us only once’.

This is not intended as a depressing comment, but as an optimistic, energising one – seize life with both hands, do what you can to help yourself, your fellow man and the world today.

Chekhov was essentially an optimist and a William Morris-style humanitarian socialist who believed that a better humanity would develop in time.

He believed that therefore, by doing one’s own best work, and by living in harmony with the natural world, we can move towards a better future.

Malcolm alludes to this in her discussion of Chekhov’s garden at Autka, but somehow fails to find much evidence for his good humour and optimism in his work.

Gardens and nature are a recurriung theme in Chekhov’s work and life, and he was something of an early envirronmentalist or ecologist, although as Janet Malcolm rightly points out, he was far more familiar with and interested in formalised gardens, than with untamed wilderness.

Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey is structured around various themes which the writer uses to deconstruct Chekhov’s texts.

They include ideas as diverse as gardens; the nature of privacy; women and feminism; the process of acting; death; graffiti; journalism and writing; and the nature of biography and memoir literature.

By exploring each of these themes, and taking examples of their use and discussion from different texts, an overview of Chekhov’s work and life can be obtained, as well as a deeper insight into certain of the stories.

There is an interesting deconstruction of the told and re-told memoir or ‘story’ of Chekhov’s death – a scene apparently embellished by each new wordsmith, with only the bare bones of his wife’s account (itself probably part fiction) visible.

There is also an analysis of the work, led by Robert Louis Jackson at Yale, on religious themes and emblems in the apparently atheist Chekhov’s work.

These are most apparent in the masterpiece The Steppe (1888), where a shepherd with a loincloth and a crook; a Jewish innkeeper named Moisey (Moses); and an awe-inspiring storm at the story’s climax, indicate that this is an Old Testament story, the journey at its heart a kind of modern-day Exodus.

It is in this overview of the literary criticism that Reading Chekhov’s strength lies.

If the book’s aim is to inspire a re-reading (or reading) of Chekhov’s work, then in this it succeeds. Janet Malcolm’s knowledge of and enthusiasm for Chekhov’s stories is impressive, and her use of the criticism combined with her personal reading of the texts is interesting.

However, it is in trying to combine the travelogue elements that the cracks begin to show.

Unfortunately, Malcolm appears to have little or no knowledge of modern Russia, its rules and regulations, its history or its people.

At the outset she says her journey to Russia is a literary pilgrimage, but she seems unwilling to accept a Russia which is neither that of Chekhov, nor a fledgling USA.

She writes that she finds travel writing boring, claiming that “travel itself is a low-key emotional experience, a pallid affair in comparison to ordinary life”.

She is upset by the ugliness of Soviet architecture; by the poverty and inefficiency; the lack of tourists and tourist-oriented services.

These may well be things which strike people on a first visit to Russia, but they sit incongruously with the content, and it seems intent, of this book.

Furthermore, she comes across as a rather disagreeable person, at one point lecturing her guides, Nina and Sonia, on why they should wear seatbelts in cars.

Her tone in this, as in many other instances, is that of the superior westerner who, by definition, knows best, and she sees their refusal to do so as an “illustration of resistance to advances in knowledge”.

In the long story The Steppe, already mentioned, a merchant, his nephew and a priest are travelling together on a mammoth journey across the steppe.

Kuzmitchov is intent on getting to the journey’s end, selling his wool and entering his nephew into boarding school.

By contrast, Father Christopher is enjoying the journey and the places he sees and the people he meets along the way, apparently subscribing to Robert Louis Stevenson’s comment that “to travel hopefully is better than to arrive”.

Unfortunately, it feels as though Janet Malcolm is not really enjoying her journey at all.

She wants merely to tick off the sites on her ‘literary pilgrimage’ as quickly as possible, stay in the safe closeted world of the western tourist, and leave again as soon as she can with a minimum of inconvenience to herself.

Perhaps if she had enjoyed her journey more, these incidents would not leave the reader feeling as uncomfortable as they do.

Despite these reservations, Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey is an interesting and successful attempt to amalgamate text and criticism, and it goes some way to re-evaluating the biographical nature of Chekhov’s work.

It is lively and readable, losing the heavy-going density of much literary criticism, and would be an interesting companion to a reading or re-reading of Chekhov’s work.

This review was originally published in The East-West Review, the journal of The Great Britain-Russia Society.

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