- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 2, 2001

By Janet Malcolm
Random House, $23.95, 205 pages

In the closing moments of Anton Chekhov's play "The Seagull," the ambitious young actress Nina says to the friend of her youth Konstantin, a writer, "Now I know, I understand, Kostya, that in our work in acting or writing what matters is not fame, not glory, not what I dreamed of, but knowing how to be patient. To bear one's cross and have faith. I have faith and it all doesn't hurt so much, and when I think of my vocation I am not afraid of life."
But Treplev replies mournfully, "You have found your path, you know which way you are going, but I am still floating in a chaos of dreams and images, not knowing what use it is to anyone. I have no faith and don't know what my vocation is." And before the curtain comes down, he has shot himself.
Thus the two faces of the artistic vocation and vintage Chekhov, keeping both sides of an issue in mind and not so much choosing one over the other (Kostya's drastic act notwithstanding) as leaving it for the audience or in his short stories, which may in the end be even more subtle and satisfying than the plays to the reader for adjudication. Chekhov's medical training gave him strong feelings about the limits of psychological understanding, and he wrote to a friend, "Nothing is clear in this world. Only fools and charlatans know and understand everything." His works feature flawed heroes.
More comfortable writing his stories than his plays, Chekhov, thinking of the other people who have to be involved in staging a piece of theater, said that when composing a script he felt as if someone were looking over his shoulder; and the plays tended to take him longer to write. It may be easier to glimpse the formation of the writer's mature imagination in his fiction. Chekhov had a harsh childhood and later divided his life between the time when he used to be beaten regularly, and afterwards. Think about that in relation to the sadistic beatings, including of women, in the stories "Peasant Wives" and "Because of Little Apples."
Chekhov adored women, preferring their company to men anytime, though his long-distance marriage to the actress Olga Knipper seems to have satisfied a feeling that one could not live with one's beloved day in and day out and not become bored. He believed in romantic love as the antidote to domestic dreariness. Such views may say something about a story like "The Lady with the Dog." Though Chekhov hated lies like the plague, that tale (possibly a riposte to his friend Leo Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina") "plays with the paradox that a lie a husband deceiving a wife or a wife deceiving a husband can be the fulcrum of feeling, a vehicle of authenticity."
The quotation comes from Janet Malcolm's insightful and polished new book, "Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey." The author of "The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes," "The Journalist and the Murderer" and "In the Freud Archives" is too well known to need any introduction from me. For this project, she visited Russia and the places, in Moscow and south of the city in Melikhovo, and at Autka and Gurzuv in the Crimea, where Chekhov had homes.
Her method is that of the careful reporter who, in Chekhovian manner, starts out with quotidian details, small particulars of time and place the countryside, indoor wallpaper and furnishings, what people are wearing and look like and, giving credit to other critics, where it is due, builds on her observations and recollections of the stories and plays to reach heights of feeling and judgment. It is a very enjoyable way to read about Chekhov.
On the book's opening page, Dmitrich Gurov and Anna von Diderits in "The Lady with the Dog" have just spent their first night together and at dawn drive out to Oreanda, a village near Yalta, to sit on a bench near a church and gaze down at the sea. Sitting on the same bench with her guide Nina and driver Yevgeny nearby, the present-day visitor feels herself "a character in a new drama: the absurdist farce of the literary pilgrim who leaves the magical pages of a work of genius and travels to an 'original scene' that can only fall short of expectations."
But there is nothing to worry about, for the writer will take Nina, "a large woman in her late sixties, with short, straight blond hair, forget-me-not blue eyes, and an open passionate nature" and put her together with hot, dusty Yalta (which she knew was going to be like that from reading Chekhov's story) and use them in her celebration of the great 19th-century realist master.
Driving back to Yalta from Oreanda, the American suggests to Nina that she fasten her seat belt, and the unsuspecting reader at first thinks: What is the matter with this woman from New York (though born in Prague), bothering Russians, of whose habits she can know little, about buckling up? But before the paragraph is done, "resistance to advances in knowledge" has been worked into the narrative as it was treated by Chekhov in his stories and personal correspondence.
Gradually, as if accidentally, Chekhov's portrait comes into view in the pages of the book. He worked his way up from making a living writing humorous sketches by which, as a trained but not practicing physician, he baled his family out of the poverty into which his father, a pious grocer and son of a serf, had allowed it to decline. Anton, a youngest son, was better at meeting the needs of life than his older brothers. He seemed to have a mysterious self-sufficiency and proficiency for life, though he did benefit later on from the patronage of Alexei Suvorin, the millionaire publisher.
An early religious background left Chekhov uncommitted but far from uncaring on that subject. Suffering from tuberculosis and looking forward to an early death (at 44 in the event) gave much of his writing a shadow of mortality. An 1890 journey to the prison colony of Sakhalin affected him deeply, and its effect may be seen in the treatment of evil in the story "Ward No. 6." On the gentler side, Chekhov was much preoccupied with gardens, and their maintenance and preservation, or destruction (e.g. "The Cherry Orchard"), comes up repeatedly in his work representing love and youth and renewal.
As regards talent, the playwright knew the territory. When "The Seagull" had its 1896 premier in St. Petersburg, the play was loudly mocked by the audience and the author humiliated, much as Henry James had been when his "Guy Domville" opened in London a year earlier. Chekhov left the house swearing never to get involved with theater again, but his play later took off and others that also now are classics followed. Actresses and artists, or for that matter the aristocrats with whom he rose from humble beginnings to become familiar, were not the only people whose motives Chekhov probed in his writing with clarity and unnerving effect. He is quite as telling with high-school teachers, rural clerks, even aged servants such as the elderly nurse Anfisa in "Three Sisters" and Firs, the 87-year-old valet in "The Cherry Orchard."
The organization of the book's 13 chapters, each a carefully constructed essay in itself, comes full circle at the end with Gurov and Anna Sergeyevna, two years after their first night of love now in Moscow, not sunny Yalta, and feeling it. If you care for Chekhov, there will be plenty to enjoy in Janet Malcolm's book, as also the Modern Library's new printing of "Three Plays: The 'Sea-Gull' 'Three Sisters' and 'The Cherry Orchard'" ($19.95, 187 pages) in Constance Garnett's translation with an introduction by Kenneth Rexroth.

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