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Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey [Paperback]

Janet Malcolm
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

15 Jan 2004
In "Reading Chekhov" 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 a recent journey she made to St Petersburg. Writing of Chekhov's life, Malcolm demonstrates how the shadow of death that hovered over most of his literary career - he became consumptive in his 20s and died in his 40s - is almost everywhere reflected in the work. She writes of his childhood, his relationship with his family, his marriage, his travels, his early success, his exile to Yalta - always with an eye to connecting them to the themes and characters of the stories and plays.

Product details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Granta Books; New edition edition (15 Jan 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1862076359
  • ISBN-13: 978-1862076358
  • Product Dimensions: 19.2 x 12.8 x 1.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 800,238 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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'One of the best things ever written on its subject…a generous spread of marvellously subtle observations about Chekhov’s fiction’ -- The Spectator

'She is like no other critic I have ever read: limpid, revelatory and startlingly attentive to every nuance' -- John Lloyd, Financial Times

'The cumulative effect is overpowering: it is impossible to put this book down and not feel that one knows Chekhov much better' -- Anne Applebaum, Sunday Telegraph

Its humdrum title and calm, meditative tone conceal a furious, restless sensibility...No one writes non-fiction quite like Janet Malcolm’ -- New York Times Book Review

‘Delightfully produced and charmingly written……the verve and energy of her writing…will send one back to the stories to test her assertion’ -- Evening Standard --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Janet Malcolm's books include In the Freud Archives, The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, The Journalist and the Murderer and Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession. Born in Prague, she grew up in New York, where she now lives.

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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
4.2 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Spirit of Chekhov 31 May 2010
By GlynLuke TOP 500 REVIEWER
Chekhov, when all is said and done, is my favourite writer. I have - as has the author of this gem of a book - visited his house and garden in Yalta, which also contains a fine museum to his memory. It was poignant and moving to tread floorboards that my hero had walked on, not to mention his friends Bunin, Gorky, Tolstoy, Rachmaninov...
At least one reviewer appears to slight this book for being less than he expected. What did he expect? Janet Malcolm never `writes the same book twice` and here she has gone on a real journey in Chekhov`s footsteps, bringing back something of the spirit of that good man, rather than a conventional biography.
Quite rightly she concentrates on the stories as her jumping-off points, which are perhaps - even now, despite so many excellent translations by Wilks, Bartlett, Miles & Pitcher, and others - not as well-known as the plays.
What Malcolm does is send one racing back to her inspiration: Chekhov himself. He wrote at least 600 stories (a few of them novellas; one or two long enough to be considered as novels) in which he proved himself the mentor of all later writers in the medium. He rarely if ever judged - his plays too bear this out - which makes his stories all the richer, and his life one of the most fascinating of any writer`s life of his era (he died at 44 in 1904) or any other.
I loved this book and can`t wait to read it again, knowing it will take me back to the stories of Anton Chekhov, which are a rich and varied place to find oneself.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Welcome to Chekhov Country... 19 May 2009
I'm halfway through this engaging book. Janet Malcolm is following in Chekhov's footsteps - eg going to Yalta where his most famous short story A Lady with a Dog is set - and in the process, as well as telling us about her surly guides, and losing her suitcase at the airport and other stuff, she has a fair amount of illumination to offer on Chekhov's work as a whole.

It's not the plays in particular, and don't expect synopses or other student-friendly things, but if you want to get a general sense of Chekhov's work and character in a painless and engaging way, this is a very good place to go. It definitely helps to have read the odd play and story beforehand - so I think I'd say that even though it's an easy read, it's something to deepen your appreciation of Chekhov (though that word sounds too worthy - something to help you understand him more fully).

It's also worthwhile partly because along the way Malcolm meditates upon a number of things - even losing her suitcase, which she saw being spirited away "as if in a dream's slow motion" has something to teach her as she slogs up a hill to buy a replacement nightdress: the
"inevitable minor hardships of travel" help her break out of "the trance of tourism" - we're rarely, she says, as engaged in holiday places as we are in the places we frequent every day.

And that's a clue to what most appeals to me about this book so far: it's the sense that she is indeed actually trying to see those places and not have a kind of Chekhov-lovin' gauze over her eyes; and as she's an intelligent and articulate companion it's a pleasure to be with her, seeing how this or that detail she notices reminds her of some piece of Chekhov's writing.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Very readable literary analysis 30 Sep 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This is a very readable analysis of the plays and stories of Chekhov, examining his characters and themes and how they may relate to aspects of Chekhov's life, leavened with the author's own observations on her travels through modern day Russia visiting places significant to the great author, while also taking into account places significant to Dostoevsky and Akhmatova. The close relationship between Chekhov and Tolstoy is also interesting. This offered the right kind of literary criticism, stimulating my interest in a relatively undemanding way. 5/5
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7 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Extremely flimsy 5 April 2003
Janet Malcolm's premise, the interweaving of her own literary pilgrimage to Russia and episodes from Chekhov's life and work, gives her criticism a fresh and original as well as very personal slant and what there is of it is fascinating. The problem is that there is very little. The volume is extremely slight and insubstantial and all one is left with at the end is a miffed "Is that it?" Could Malcolm really not find more to say after her grand tour to the Crimea and Moscow to explore her hero? So three stars because so much more could, and ought to, have been done with this subtle and inventive idea.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.1 out of 5 stars  11 reviews
44 of 45 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A fine meditation on a great writer 20 Dec 2001
By Matthew Cheney - Published on
"Reading Chekhov" is a beautifully written book, with sparkling insights on Chekhov's work in every chapter. It is less an academic or scholarly investigation than a meditation and exploration, which might have been titled, "Travels Through Russia While Thinking About Chekhov". Chekhov is certainly a writer who has been thought about quite a bit, and I was skeptical at first about how much Janet Malcolm would be able to contribute to a field which is glutted with critical studies and appreciations, but her book is unique (though at its best it shares qualities with V.S. Pritchett's fine study from 1988).
Malcolm offers just enough biographical information for the reader who knows little about Chekhov to be able to appreciate this book, and she is also able to give an interesting enough perspective for her book to be worthwhile for someone who knows as much about Chekhov as she does. Aside from the short story "The Lady with the Dog", which serves as a touchstone for the book's narrative, Malcolm doesn't explore any of Chekhov's work in depth. The beauty of what she has created here, though, is that she is able to give a sense of Chekhov as a whole: his life, his writings, and the varied responses to his works and life. For instance, one of the most fascinating passages of the book compares how various biographers have portrayed Chekhov's last moments and death, and then what these portrayals might say about how Chekhov's entire life is portrayed, and how his works are interpreted.
Unlike many studies of writers and their work, this one is subtle and repays rereading. Malcolm wastes no words, which is, on the whole, admirable (particularly when writing about such an efficient writer as Chekhov), but at times is tantalizing -- some of her ideas could be spun into entire books of their own. Nonetheless, this is a fine book, a pleasure to read,resonant and even Chekhovian.
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Short and sweet, but full of good things 9 Nov 2005
By David Light - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Few readers have time to wrestle with the long biographies and academic treatises that proliferate on beloved writers. Lack of time trumps the best intentions. Janet Malcolm has saved Chekhov enthusiasts the trouble by doing the reading herself, adding her own insights, and throwing in a bit of travel writing as well.

Literary criticism predominates in this 200-page book, with biography taking second place and travelogue third. Malcolm weaves the biographical details around comments about the stories and plays; so, for example, we learn that Chekhov was steeped in Russian Orthodoxy--more so, apparently, than even Tolstoy. What makes that especially interesting is the contrast between Chekhov's self-proclaimed nonbelief and the way he handles religious themes in the stories; there is some evidence, presented in this book, that these matters were not as settled in Chekhov's mind as one might think just based on his statements. (I, for one, have always been impressed with the sympathy Chekhov shows to the characters who appear in The Bishop, a story not discussed by Malcolm.)

Malcolm also takes on in brief compass Chekhov's trip to Sakhalin (arduous to get there; led to a rather dull, non-Chekhovian book); his death at 44 from tuberculosis in a hotel in Germany (which had various eyewitnesses and led to a variety of embellished accounts); and his relationships with women (he liked them pretty and well-dressed), with his publisher, with Tolstoy, and with his parents and siblings.

She spices it up with thought-provoking insights; one example: "In his stories and plays, Chekhov is afraid for all men. He was only in his twenties and thirties when he wrote most of them, but like other geniuses--especially those who die prematurely--he wrote as if he were old. Toward the end of Ward No. 6, he veers off--as he does in other dark and terrible works, such as Peasants and In the Ravine--to rejoice for all men in the beauty of the world."

As for her travels, Malcolm visits St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Yalta, each city in the company of a different tour guide. Her observations, far from being unfairly critical, are subtle, sardonic, and on the mark--certainly anyone who has traveled to Russia will recognize her guides.

As I wrote this, I changed the rating from four to five stars--I can't really think what would improve it. An index perhaps, since despite its brevity one would like to be able to search the contents more easily. And I would disagree with the book's jacket, which claims that those unfamiliar with Chekhov could enjoy this volume. At the very least, one should have read a volume of the major stories and be familiar with the plays. Among other works, she discusses The Lady with the Lapdog, The Steppe, The Kiss, The Schoolmistress, The Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orhard, and more.

Confound it, however, you're never off the hook--the book whets your appetite for more, naturally! Those longer biographies and critical treatments beckon...and all the stories, perhaps in a different translation this time...been a while since I looked at the plays...well, good intentions count for something, right?
43 of 50 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars One to avoid... 4 July 2004
By A Customer - Published on
I am a huge fan of Chekhov, a taste that was cultivated during a two year stint working in Russia, and will read pretty much anything I can find about him. I'm also a fan of literary journalism & travel writing in general, so you can imagine my enthusiasm as I picked this gemm off the shelf and settled into the nearest comfie chair. Malcolm attempts to weave back and forth between journalism, travel narrative, and literary criticism, but this book is a lightweight in each of those genres, and at times is even embarrassing. I know Malcolm is a fairly well-respected writer, which just adds to my surprise at how weak this book really is. The first issue I have with this book is that her "experience" in Russia seems to have been limited to guided tours. What kind of a journalist would conduct all her research on a guided tour? Can you imagine Joan Didion or Paul Theroux doing such a thing? The problem with this is that all her insights, such as they are, are relegated to what she saw while being lead around by her tour guides, including one named Sonia with whom Malcolm seems to have a very strange and at times even disturbing relationship. "Sonia saw her job as a guide as an exercise in control, and over the two days I spent with her I grew to detest her ... my struggle with Sonia was almost always over small-stakes points of touristic arrangement; and her power to get to me was, of course, by my journalist's wicked awareness of the incalcuable journalistsc value of poor character." It's always nice to see a wealthy tourist squable with the locals who were probably once skilled professionals now forced to work menial jobs to support their families. All of her observations seem to be very surface-level things that any tourist with limited experience would pick up on. She has no unique perspective on Chekhov or Russia primarily because she is not able to get past the minor inconveniences she faces along the way. Note one scene where she is "unhappily" climbing a hill that Chekhov used in "The lady with the Dog." She's unhappy, you see, because her luggage was lost the previous day... interesting that someone who was out for adventure would get so bent out of shape over a few missing shirts (they do have clothing stores in Russia). She does, of course, try to use these "mishaps" to help her with her readings of chekhov and analysis of life in modern Russia, but it falls flat simply because she doesn't appear to be a sympathetic or even likable character in her own story. She comes off as being smug and aloof most of the time. The idea for the book, I think, is an interesting one, but it helps to get off the beaten path once in a while, to get out there and do some exploring. Meet some some people who aren't being paid to walk you around and you might get a deeper sense of what their life is like. Spend some quality time in the places Chekhov wrote about and they might take on greater significance. I picked up this book expecting an homage from one writer to another -- a labor of love, so to speak -- but the result feels more like a throw-away side project with little value to anyone with a genuine interest in Russia or Checkov... I suspect that, deep down, even Malcolm knows this is true.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Reading Malcolm reading Chekhov 6 April 2005
By lowell duluth - Published on
For any lover of Chekhov this wonderful breeze of a book is a must.
It was all the more poignant for me having, a few years ago, visited the places in the Crimea mentioned here, including Chekhov`s villa. Janet Malcolm interweaves her own journeys in Russia and Ukraine with pertinent scenes from the master`s stories and (occasionally) plays, in a way which sends one diving back to the sources once again. In the subtlest, most modest of ways, this author heightens one`s respect for Chekhov and his art, and made this reader fall in love once again with Chekhov the writer and Chekhov the man.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Seminar 29 April 2007
By Roger Lathbury - Published on
Sometimes I think that if Janet Malcolm decided to write a meditation about the way lint accumulates under beds, it would be an interesting book. Everything she puts her hand to becomes larger and more significant, increases in periphery, and connects to matters one would never have thought of oneself.

And so with her book on Chekhov, a writer whose transfigurations of the ordinary, whose appreciation of the extraordinary, and whose reticence in his art and his life constitute a beauty and decency that transforms. In _Reading Chekhov_ crucial data from half a dozen biographies are distilled and linked to selected precis of critical articles and by contrast to Malcolm's own observations of Russia, which she visited, one gathers, largely in homage to Chekhov himself. The pace of her treatment is just right; each subject--Chekhov's death, Olga's role in his life, the trip to Sakhalin, the relationship to Suvorin--is given brisk yet full-feeling treatment and placed in the arc of the book, which moves slowly toward the center of Chekhov's personality, which apparently Chekhov took care would be ultimately unknowable.

The story that begins and ends Malcolm's visit is the famous "Lady with a Lapdog"--a work alternately analyzed by "Aaron Green" in Malcolm's earlier _Psychoanalysis: the Impossible Profession._ The profundity, elegance, revelatory possibilities, and double-sidedness of the approach in that previous book and of that short story serve the presentation of Chekhov well. He emerges as the most delicate of perceivers, a man hesitant to say one jot more than he believes, as a twentieth century writer (as opposed to his hero Tolstoy), as a passionate moralist who understands how dubious it is to be a passionate moralist, as a devotee of loveliness and talent who respects honest, even dull and repetitious work.

The sense of the word "Chekhovian"--that mute combination of goodness and passivity--resonates throughout, with the singular difference that Malcolm conveys on every page: that Chekhov was a literary genius. After reading her fresh, reinforcing, and deeper-seeking illuminations, I pulled down my eight collections, wanting to reread everything all at once, "The Kiss," "The Steppe," "A Dreary Story," "A Duel," "Ionivitch," "In the Ravine," "Three Years," "Ward No. 6," "Little Apples," "Ariadne," the plays. (I don't have "Kashtanka," but that's what libraries are for.)

Another book by Janet Malcolm is coming out in September 2007--_Two Lives._ Just as _Psychoanalysis_ was like analysis itself, _Reading Chekhov_ is a seminar taught by a teacher in love with her subject. And look at how many stories and plays (the list above is not complete) and how much of Chekhov's life Malcolm presents in under 210 pages!
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