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?