Posted by: zhiv | January 9, 2009

Janet Malcolm: Reading Chekhov, A Critical Journey

I had read most of this short book before going on a family holiday road trip, and I didn’t want to take it with me because it’s a library book.  So I ended up reading it in two different “sessions,” finishing it when I got home, which is never an ideal approach.  At any rate, the main thing I know now is that I want my own copy, as a very helpful guide and addition to my Chekhov shelf.  And my blogguru Dorothy put Malcolm’s The Silent Woman on her best reads 08 list, making me want to go further with JM, carving out some shelf space of her own.  Malcolm is a wonderful writer:  we know that.  Her journey to post-Soviet Russia to trace the steps of Chekhov, which I mentioned in my first, preliminary Malcolm post, is muted and slightly disappointing.  I’d guess you’d have to say that it’s Chekhovian, and that’s probably the point.  The book is full of keen insights and observations about Chekhov, his work and his life, and the views of contemporary (2001–pre 9/11 and the trip itself was probably made in 2000) Russia serve both as helpful prompts and a basic line for the narrative.

I’m going to use this book as a place to start in choosing stories to read, knowing that Malcolm has good comments on them and ties them well to certain themes or elements of Chekhov.  I’m not going to jinx things and say I’m going to try to do a big Chekhov project, but I do want to read some stories and a couple of plays.   Malcolm’s book has a short bibliography but it has no index, so I want to go through and make a list of the stories that she mentions, and also try to figure out which stories I’ve actually read already.  Malcolm seems to refer to a manageable number of stories, probably less than 20, and the book isn’t full-length chapters/essays about any specific stories, just ongoing commentary.  But first off it just seems like a simple, quiet, smart place to start and get organized.

Malcolm covers a number of topics–where Chekhov came from and who he was, his attitudes towards Russia, relationships, other writers, nature, family, theater–the list goes on, I wish I remembered it better, but it’s all quite manageable, just 200 pp. worth.  She makes all sorts of clear, helpful statements, like saying that Ernest Simmons (1962) is Chekhov’s best biographer.  It doesn’t really matter if she’s right or not–I’m not an academic and I’ll take her word for it.  She knows so much and she’s so smart and writes so well, so why not just take her cues and enjoy it?

In the end this is more nice New Yorker writing, or expanded New Yorker writing–I’m not exactly sure which.  It would be interesting to see what actually appeared in the magazine:  it says that “a portion of this work was originally published in The New Yorker.”  But this is very different from something like “In the Freud Archives,” which I think I remember appearing in multiple parts, and it had a more specific story to tell.  “Reading Chekhov” moseys along both pleasantly and acutely, but it’s a journey without a destination, creating a representative excerpt would just be a matter of good editing, and it doesn’t seem like something that would justify multiple parts.  It reminds me, and becomes interesting to me, as part of my apparent ongoing series of New Yorker studies (is there a blog that’s just about The New Yorker–not a job I’d want to do and not, but I’d be curious to see what it might be like).  It’s quite a contrast to the way that one of my favorite books, Megan Marshall’s The Peabody Sisters, was featured as “The Other Sister” in the magazine.  That book is very different, and the magazine version was a distillation of a lengthy, carefully reseached study–that just happened to outline a great movie scenario too, if you like a bit of literary movie shoptalk.

I find that one thing that I look for in literary studies is not just the pleasures of reading and insight into human behavior and character dynamics, but the backgrounds of writers and their lives and the intersection of art and life and artistry.  If you read this blog, you know all about this; it’s a recurring theme of sorts.  Maybe it was because I read Malcolm’s book in two parts, and in the first phase I was settling in and gaining a sense of its value as a guidebook for further reading, but there was no deep charge of insight and excitement.  I knew enough about Chechov and his work to be able to follow along, but she was often discussing stories I wasn’t familiar with and the effects were muted.  But when I picked up the book and finished it after I got home, I found just the type of thing I like, near the end:  Chekhov’s relationship with his publisher Alexei Suvorin. 

Malcolm writes:

That it was to Alexei Suvorin that this letter was addressed is surely no accident.  If Chekhov loved Tolstoy better than any man, it was Suvorin with whom he felt most comfortable.  Suvorin was another self-made man, and also the grandson of a serf.  He was twenty-six years older than Chekhov, and the millionaire publisher of New Times, a right-wing daily with the largest circulation of any newspaper in Russia, as well as the owner of a large publishing house, five bookshops, and the majority of the bookstalls in Russian railway stations.  (pg. 195)

Chekhov, of course, did not share the reactionary and anti-Semitic views of New Times–which only made his motives seem more suspect. (In actuality, the differences between Chekhov’s and Suvorin’s politics were not as great as they appeared; in private, Suvorin could evidently permit himself less objectionable views than those of his paper.  In time, however, the paper’s shrill anti-Dreyfusism was to put a serious strain on the friendship.) (196)

…from Chekhov’s letters we may gather that he and Suvorin were more like a father and son who adored each other than like a kept woman and her wealthy protector.  Suvorin was the generous, appreciative, worldly, bookish father Chekhov should have had, rather than the narrow, cruel tyrant he got.  The relationship, as Rayfield has characterized it, was “one of the most fertile in Russian literature.” (197)

That’s the type of thing that intrigues me.  Suvorin reminds me of one of my current favorites, James T. Fields.  Who knows, maybe I’m just always subconsciously trolling for literary movie ideas (movies that will never get made, btw). 

At any rate, Janet Malcolm is a fine writer, and I’m going to try to read more of her books this year.  And I will be using this good, accessible book as one of my guides for reading and thinking about Chekhov.


  1. […] I knew I would be bringing it home, given my developing Janet Malcolm obsession and Zhiv’s intriguing post on the subject.  I also couldn’t say no to the eighteenth-century novel Nature and Art by […]

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