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Reading Chekhov
Janet Malcolm
London: Granta, 2003.
£13.99, 210 pages, ISBN 0781862075863.

James Friel
Liverpool John Moores University

The story Chekhov was least interested in telling was his own. He described himself as ‘autobiographobic’ and in 1892, at a publisher’s insistence, prepared this brief account, at once both compliant and dismissive.

In 1860 I was born in Taganrog. In 1879 I finished my studies in the Taganrog school. In 1884 I finished my studies in the medical school of Moscow University. In 1888 I received the Pushkin Prize. In 1890 I made a trip to Sakhalin across Siberia—and back by sea. In 1891 I toured Europe, where I drank splendid wine and ate oysters. In 1892 I strolled with V.A. Tikhonov at Shcheglov’s name day party. I began to write in 1879 in Strekosa. My collections of stories are Motley Stories, Twilight Stories, Gloomy People and the novella The Duel. I have also sinned in the realm of drama, although moderately. I have been translated into all languages with the exception of the foreign ones. However, I was translated into German quite a while ago. The Czechs and the Serbs also approve of me. And the French also relate to me. I grasped the secrets of love at the age of thirteen. I remain on excellent terms with friends, both physicians and writers. I am a bachelor. I would like a pension. I busy myself with medicine to such an extent that this summer I am going to perform some autopsies, something I have not done for two or three years. Among writers I prefer Tolstoy, among physicians, Zakharin. However, this is all rubbish. Write what you want. If there are no facts, substitute something lyrical. (15-16)

Others have written more expansively and less effectively but, while Chekhov’s biographers have refrained from writing rubbish and do not (quite) write what they want, their facts always have something lyrical about them. One of the best passages in Malcolm’s greatly enjoyable book is her comparison of Chekhov’s widow’s first hand account of his death from, her later memories and, based upon them, the increasingly amplified descriptions of his demise in successive biographies.

One of the most recent (Philip Callow’s) is shown to include entirely fictional details from Raymond Carver’s late short story, Errands. Instead of embarrassing Callow, Malcolm points out that Callow’s now compromised account is only ‘a degree more imaginative’ than those of other biographers. With Chekhov, you see, the facts cannot help but become lyrical. This is curious. Biographers attempt, at least in part, to deconstruct their subject’s given image. They look for the dirt beneath the fingernails, the knickers in the laundry basket, the porn beneath the mattress, the bruises on the spouse’s flesh. What their subjects hide biographers will offer up as the deepest truth about them. Biographers are detectives and their subjects are nearly always guilty.

There is evidence enough to condemn Chekhov as a manipulative figure, coldly detaching himself from family, wife and friends and yet continuing to exploit them but, unusually, Chekhov inspires not only a rush to understand but also to forgive him any identifiable flaw. The only damming portrait I know of Chekhov is the one drawn by Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago of a feckless and cowardly observer of prison camp life.

In his biography, Henri Troyat writes of Chekhov as ‘though a dear friend is softly speaking to me.’ This ‘dear friend’ appears in biographies by David Magarshak and V. S. Pritchett, in more scholarly works such as those by Simon Karlinsky and in poetry and fiction by writers as disparate in style and strategy as Seamus Heaney and Raymond Carver. Janet Malcolm is only the latest to pay homage to ‘this dear friend.’ She has even taken him on holiday. In Reading Chekhov she gives an account of visiting various sites associated with his life and works and, while she finds much to satirize in contemporary Russia—the thin slice available to her as a tourist—her appraisal of Chekhov is entirely warm and approving.

She is not about to dissent form the general view of Chekhov but this does not mean she lacks insight. In fact, her book is an elegant, perspicacious and deeply engaging study of Chekhov’s particular gifts as a writer. It is a sheer pleasure to read. She writes with a pithy grace and exactness and is capable of both sharp wit and a moving sensitivity.

She writes as one who has read Chekhov all her life and one who has, despite the book’s appealing brevity, thought at length about what makes him so uniquely wise and approachable a writer. As V.S. Pritchett does, she sends one back to the stories with renewed awe and increased delight.

What more does one need from a biographical study? For what other purpose would one want to know anything at all about a writer? There are those who believe that art is merely self-expression and that the work is the inner self made public. All art, it is believed, is symbolic biography and we are curious to decode it. It can also be that the life, in time, proves more interesting than the work: I would proffer Bruce Chatwin as an example and Nicholas Shakespeare’s biography as proof.

There are also those writers who pronouncedly exploit and refashion experience in such a way that one is curious as to the base matter of their art; witnessing this process is the main fascination in reading Carole Angier’s exemplary life of Jean Rhys and, more ploddingly, Judith Thurman’s biography of Colette. There are also those biographies which bring to light previously unexamined aspects and entanglements, revivifying and amplifying what was previously known, such as Claire Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens.

Writers mostly sit at a desk and no amount of errant sons, alcoholism or accusations of paedophilia can make the lives of Trollope, Faulkner or E.M. Forster more than of passing interest but there are occasions when the life stands in the way of the work, obscures and, possibly, perverts its reception and immediately there comes to mind Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, the subjects of a previous Malcolm book. The Silent Woman is a remarkable and tough-minded enquiry into who ‘owns’ a life. Malcolm’s stern and yet passionate dealing with the issues surrounding Plath’s work, her life and death, her legacy and the conflict it still creates makes it the most absorbing and least compromised book we have had on the subject.

Its abiding impression—if not its final argument—is how the dead Plath haunts the living, angry and unappeasable. Chekhov is very much a contrary figure. Plath’s visceral poems have undoubted impact without a biographical context but they can also seem noisy and obscure unless the life is laid out alongside them whereas Chekhov’s stories and plays do not, in any vital sense, depend on a knowledge of his life. In his life and in his art, he is characterized by a curious and admirable restraint—a restraint, Malcolm notes, biographers admire even as they attempt to dismantle it.

Chekhov, and the tradition he inspired, transformed our understanding of the short story from their being fashioned anecdotes to moments of epiphany. The paradox is how often in Chekhov’s finest stories those epiphanous moments retreat from revelation. They withdraw from too precise an explication and the truths they promise are seldom made quite manifest.

One only need read Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych and then Chekhov’s A Dreary Story to witness the effect. To borrow and extend an image from Malcolm, whereas Tolstoy might write up such moments in ink, Chekhov writes in pencil and then almost seems to erase them. In noticing this and then in observing how the recent discovery of unknown details of Chekhov’s sex life (from previously excised passages cut out of his letters by censors) fail to disclose anything fundamental about him, she writes: ‘The letters and the journals we leave behind and the impressions we have made on our contemporaries are the mere husk of the kernel of our essential life.’ (35-36)

The image of the kernel comes from the final section of Chekhov’s The Lady with the Dog. Gurov, on his way to meet his married mistress in a Moscow hotel, walks his daughter to school, aware that he is at one and the same time an adulterous lover and exemplary paterfamilias. Is this hypocrisy or, he reflects, the result of the fact:

He had two lives: one, open, seen and known by all who cared to know, full of relative truths and of relative falsehood, exactly like the lives of all his friends and acquaintances; and another life running its course in secret. And through some strange, perhaps accidental, conjunction of circumstances, everything that was essential, of interest and of value to him, everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people; and all that as false in him, the sheath in which he hid himself to conceal the truth… all that was open. And he judged others by himself, not believing in what he saw, and always believing that every man had his real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy, and possibly it was partly on that account that civilized man was so nervously anxious that personal privacy should be respected. (36-37)

The Lady with the Dog is quintessential Chekhov. It also contrasts vividly and tellingly in length, treatment, style, characterization and intent with Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina to which it is said to be a riposte but, Malcolm continues:

Even as Gurov hugs his secret to himself, we know all about it. If privacy is life’s most precious possession, it is fiction’s least considered one […] it does not occur to us that the privacy rights we are so nervously anxious to safeguard for ourselves should be extended to fictional characters. But, interestingly, it does seem to occur to Chekhov. If he cannot draw the mantle of reticence over his characters that he draws over himself […] he can stop short of fully exercising his fiction writer’s privilege of omniscience. (38-39)

The secret of Chekhov, then, lies in his very cherishing of secrecy. From it, Malcolm would argue, springs his unique contribution, his great gift to fiction: the acceptance that character can only be suggested, never defined. In Chekhov no character is ever seen in their entirety. There are moments when, yes, their lives looks as if about to change and sometimes lives do change and, often, they don’t at all and it is difficult to say quite what makes the difference. Chekhov honours that difficulty. Malcolm sees Chekhov’s reserve as artist and as man as a means of truth-telling by omission. I think it is also a dismissal of disclosure, of gossip, a reassessment of the primacy of the private self.

Gurov is both an adulterer and a family man. The essential kernel in which he believes is only one half of the nut he must crack if he is to understand himself or see others truly. We have a hunger for disclosure. Gossip excites us unless we are its subject and then it horrifies us. This is not only because we might be shamed by it, caught out, revealed but also because such a revelation traduces and diminishes us. Even if there is truth in what is said about us, it will feel to us like lies.

List my darkest secrets, make public my hidden crimes, advertise my shame and I will, I’m sure, be mortified but I will resist your attempt to define me by them. As long as those secrets remain mine, I might use them to define myself but stolen from me, made public, I will insist that they do not reveal the whole or deeper truth about me. I will insist I am more than the sum of what is known about me.

Much as though we might yearn to be understood, we fear ever being wholly known. Whatever it is that lies at the heart of us, it refuses stubbornly to be named, it is richer, more mysterious than any story we or others make of it. Such stories yield for us the same disappointment Malcolm recalls the experiences of Ryabovitch in Chekhov’s The Kiss, the shy and unprepossessing officer who receives, by accident, a kiss in the dark that exhilarates and inwardly transfigures him. He feels impelled to tell his comrades

He began describing very minutely the incident of the kiss, and a moment later relapsed into silence […] in the course of that moment he had told everything, and it surprised him how short a time it took him to tell it. He had imagined that he could have been telling the story of the kiss till next morning. (43)

Disclosure reveals nothing worth telling. Chekhov told Suvorin that he kept his dearest images and favourite scenes to himself. He did not ‘waste’ them on any story.

[…] the images which seem best to me […] I love and jealously guard, lest I spoil them […] All that I write now displeases and bores me, but what sits in my head interests, excites and moves me. (41)

Malcolm withdraws from her account in a similar manner. We learn little about her and that is unusual in so egotistic a genre as travel writing. Her eye is on the people she meets and, more than that, it is on Chekhov and what he spent his life perfecting: his work. She makes use of the academics like Jackson, Finke and Milhailovic and gives a clear account of their work and the way it enriches our understanding but this is a book for the common reader by a common reader.

As a result of reading it, I reread Lady with the Dog and read for the first time Ionich, Gooseberries and In the Gully for which I cannot thank her enough. Malcolm, who has written throughout her life on the nature of biography and tale-telling, in this book reminds you of the immense power of the primary text over the secondary. She reminds you, too, why you read fiction and her book encourages you to go on reading. She weaves in biographical details only to deepen your appreciation of the stories.

She suggests how wise, challenging and attractive Chekhov might have been to know when she quotes from two startlingly wise letters to his brothers. They are extraordinary documents in which he chides them both into being kinder, more culturally aware, and more alive to the needs of others. In them we see ‘the dear friend’ all his biographers believe Chekhov to be and then she observes how Chekhov portrays this ‘dear friend’ in his fiction in a story like The Duel so that such a character, for all his wisdom, is also chill and priggish.

To be right in life is not the same thing as being right in fiction. In a letter one may be sincere, commonsensical, persuasive and just but in fiction as Chekhov writes it being right is also just another way of being wrong. In bringing his wisdom to our attention, Malcolm has also written a very wise book.


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