Friday, August 5, 2011

On the trail of Chekhov

Reading Chekhov: A Critical JourneyReading Chekhov: A Critical Journey by Janet Malcolm

Janet Malcolm made a journey through Russia in the Yeltsin era in pursuit of a better understanding of Chekhov. This slim volume is a record of her travels and thoughts about the writer and his work. It strikes me as a book written to give a tangible purpose to a journey she wanted to make.

Her critical analysis, which pulls together a close reading of many of Chekhov's stories and plays as well as examining the various strands of thought from critics over the years, is artfully integrated with amusing tales of her guides and drivers, and encounters in post-Soviet Russia (the maid whose room at the end of the hotel corridor is filled with a luxuriant grape vine...)

Malcolm is a wonderfully confident and unshowy prose writer, perhaps influenced by Chekhov's own advice that a writer can't do too much abridging of a first draft, even to the point he felt he'd reached sometimes, of being left with passages that read more like a cryptic summary of his original intention.

Chekhov loved Tolstoy but was ambivalent about Dostoyevsky's darker world - although Malcolm argues convincingly that Dostoyevsky had a detectable influence on Chekhov's generally flatter, less full-blooded visions.

If you want a gentle introduction to Chekhov the writer, and to give yourself the desire to pick up his books, Reading Chekhov works well.

And if you want an example of how a writer can be both personal and restrained, vivid and yet utterly free of self-indulgence in travel writing, Malcolm is a wonderful model.

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