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London: Granta, 2003.
£13.99, 210 pages, ISBN 0781862075863.
Liverpool John Moores University
The story Chekhov was least interested in telling was his own. He
described himself as autobiographobic and in 1892, at
insistence, prepared this brief account, at once both compliant and
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
In 1888 I received the Pushkin Prize. In 1890 I made a trip to Sakhalin across
Siberiaand 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 Shcheglovs
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
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
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,
However, this is all rubbish. Write what you want. If there are no facts,
substitute something lyrical. (15-16)
have written more expansively and less effectively but, while Chekhovs
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 Malcolms greatly enjoyable book is her comparison of Chekhovs
widows first hand account of his death from, her later memories and,
based upon them, the increasingly amplified descriptions of his demise in
One of the most recent (Philip Callows) is shown to include entirely fictional
details from Raymond Carvers late short story, Errands. Instead
of embarrassing Callow, Malcolm points out that Callows 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 subjects 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 spouses 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
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
Russiathe thin slice available to her as a touristher 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
engaging study of Chekhovs 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 books 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
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
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 Shakespeares
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 Angiers exemplary
life of Jean Rhys and, more ploddingly, Judith Thurmans 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 Tomalins The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and
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
book. The Silent Woman is a remarkable and tough-minded enquiry
into who owns a life. Malcolms stern and yet passionate dealing
with the issues surrounding Plaths 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 impressionif not its final argumentis how the dead Plath
haunts the living, angry and unappeasable. Chekhov is very much a contrary figure.
Plaths 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 Chekhovs 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 restrainta 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.
paradox is how often in Chekhovs 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 Tolstoys The Death of Ivan Ilych and then
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
and then almost seems to erase them. In noticing this and then in observing
how the recent discovery of unknown details of Chekhovs 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 Chekhovs 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
the same time
an adulterous lover and exemplary paterfamilias. Is this hypocrisy or,
he reflects, the result of the fact:
had two lives: one, open, seen and known by all who cared to
know, full of relative truths and of relative
falsehood, exactly like
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
that was open. And he judged others by himself, not believing in
what he saw, and
that every man had his real, most interesting life under the cover
of secrecy, and possibly it was partly on that account that civilized
was so nervously
anxious that personal privacy should be respected. (36-37)
Lady with the Dog is
quintessential Chekhov. It also contrasts vividly and tellingly
in length, treatment, style, characterization
and intent with
Karenina to which it is said to be a riposte but, Malcolm
as Gurov hugs his secret to himself, we know all about it. If privacy
is lifes most precious possession,
it is fictions least considered
] 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
over himself [
] he can stop
short of fully exercising his fiction writers privilege
of omniscience. (38-39)
secret of Chekhov, then, lies in his very cherishing of secrecy.
From it, Malcolm would argue,
springs his unique contribution,
the acceptance that character can only be suggested, never
defined. In Chekhov no character is ever seen in their entirety.
moments when, yes,
their lives looks as if about to change and sometimes lives
do change and,
they dont at all and it is difficult to say quite what
makes the difference. Chekhov honours that difficulty. Malcolm
sees Chekhovs 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
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
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, Im 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
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
in Chekhovs The Kiss, the shy and unprepossessing
officer who receives, by accident, a kiss in the dark that
He feels impelled to tell his comrades
began describing very minutely the incident of the kiss, and a
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)
worth telling. Chekhov told
Suvorin that he kept his dearest images
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
withdraws from her account in a similar manner. We learn little
about her and that
egotistic a genre as travel
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
account of their
work and the way
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
text over the
secondary. She reminds
you read fiction and her book encourages you
to go on reading. She weaves in
details only to deepen your appreciation of the
She suggests how wise, challenging and attractive
Chekhov might have been to know when she quotes
from two startlingly
are extraordinary documents in which he chides
them both into being kinder, more culturally
needs of others.
In them we
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
writes it being right is also just another way
of being wrong. In bringing his wisdom to our
very wise book.
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