Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey
- Coulehan, Jack
- Date of entry: Jan-07-2003
In this short volume, Janet Malcolm frames a series of reflections on Chekhov's life and work with her pilgrimage to Chekhov-related sites in Russia and the Ukraine. The book begins with Malcolm's visit to Oreanda, a village on the Crimean coast near Yalta, which is the site where the fictional lovers in Chekhov's story The Lady with the Dog (1899, see annotation) sit quietly and look out at the sea on the morning after their first sexual encounter. While these lovers are fictional, their creator actually spent the last several years of his life as a respiratory cripple living amid the seascapes around Yalta.
The visit to Oreanda occurred near the end of Janet Malcolm's literary journey, but it provides a fulcrum or center of gravity for the book. From there, she constructs a narrative with three interweaving plots. One consists of her reminiscences of the last 10 days or so in St. Petersburg and Moscow, and her visit to Chekhov's estate (now a state museum) in the village of Melikhovo, south of Moscow. A second presents biographical material about Chekhov. Malcolm triangulates and interweaves these two with critical observations about the writer's stories and plays.
In addition to The Lady with the Dog, which receives coverage throughout the book, Reading Chekhov contains interesting commentary on a number of other stories annotated in this database: The Kiss (pp. 41-44), The Duel (pp. 51-56), Neighbors (pp. 157-159), The Grasshopper (pp.174-175), Ward 6 (pp. 183-187), The Man in a Case, Gooseberries and About Love (the last three of these on pp. 178-181).
For me Janet Malcolm's most fascinating insights concern Chekhov's views on religion and spirituality (e.g. pp. 83-89). She quotes the Russian critic Sherbinin, who wrote, "Chekhov was the Russian writer most conversant with the rites and texts of Orthodoxy, as jarring as such a claim might seem, given the centrality of Christian thought to the giants of nineteenth century letters." (p. 87) Malcolm presents examples of oblique references to biblical stories and Orthodox sacraments and liturgy in many of Chekhov's stories.
Likewise, a surprising number of Chekhov's protagonists undergo epiphanies or spiritual conversions--for example, the student in The Student (1894) and Laevsky in The Duel (1891)--although these conversions generally happen well outside the physical or metaphorical walls of the church. Such observations are especially interesting because Chekhov has ordinarily been considered to be a thoroughly secular writer.