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.
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
on 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. If you're a student and you need to know the plot of The Seagull, like, yesterday, forget it; if, however, you want some sense of how Chekhov's writing is all of a piece, and indeed the nature of fiction itself, and a book like Donald Rayfield's Understanding Chekhov is too much like hard work, then this has a great deal to recommend it.
If you're looking for more I'd recommend David Magarshack's Chekhov the Dramatist as a good basic guide to the plays; Rayfield's Understanding Chekhov is also worth reading although more sophisticated. Ronald Hingley's A New Life of Chekhov and Chekhov: a Literary Companion, ed. Toby Clyman, are both recommended by Stephen Mulrine in his Oberon Books translations of various Chekhov plays (and Mulrine's own brief introductory notes to those translations are concise and clear). The Clyman book, a collection of substantial essays about Chekhov-related matters by experts in their respective fields, is pricey so badger your library.
on 22 August 2013
Janet Malcolm is an outstanding journalist, particularly with her work for The New Yorker. Here she goes on an extended tour to retrace the steps of Anton Chekhov, one of the greatest of all Russian writers, and in doing so she manages to capture much of the character of the man and his writings. Best of all, she lures you back into re-reading his short stories. This is a short book, finely written, and eminently rewarding.
on 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.