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Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey Paperback – November 12, 2002

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Longtime New Yorker magazine writer Malcolm (The Crime of Sheila McGough; The Silent Woman; etc.) is known for her fearlessly opinionated takes on controversial subjects, from psychoanalysis to murder cases. This short meditation in 13 untitled chapters is a reflection on her reading of a favorite author, famed 19th-century playwright and short story writer Anton Chekhov, in the context of a recent tourist trip she took through contemporary Russia. Malcolm's considerable investigative reporting skills reveal the expected squalor and fallout from the Soviet years, though she admits that she knows no Russian and relied on tour guides as translators (whom she describes mercilessly down to their bodily flaws). However, although Malcolm admits that she necessarily reads Chekhov in English, she does not inquire how much her own perception of the author results from depending (according to the slim bibliography at the end of the book ) on the Edwardian fallibility of translator Constance Garnett. She agrees with all biographers that Chekhov was an admirably humane man, writing prolifically to earn a living because he charged his peasant patients nothing for medical care. The anecdotes may be the more compelling stuff here, however, as when Malcolm squabbles with a curator of a Moscow Chekhov Museum, who does not wish to inform the inquiring American journalist how she manages to earn a living. Readers eager for a taste of the dismal tourist experience Russia offers these days trains, to no surprise, are decorated with "cheap and ugly relics of the Soviet period" and the food served on them is "gray and inedible" will snap up these concise, somewhat bitter musings. Fans of Russian lit may squabble with some of the heavier moralizing, but will appreciate this real example of a fan's notes. And Malcolm's many regular readers are a lock.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

Recent biographies of Anton Chekhov, like Donald Rayfield's Anton Chekhov: A Life (LJ 2/1/98), have enhanced our understanding of this Russian genius. Now Malcolm (The Journalist and the Murderer), who has written extensively about psychoanalysis and other subjects, brings her considerable talents to Chekhov studies in a work that is a combination of biography, travel book, and literary criticism. Malcolm traveled to Russia, visiting the places Chekhov lived and his characters inhabited. In each chapter, she deftly takes us back to Chekhov's day. But she also relates her conversations with contemporary Russians, and her accounts of her Russian tour guides give the narrative a personal and sometimes humorous tone. She molds these individual episodes into a cohesive whole, bringing the reader wholly into Chekhov's life. It is not necessary to know Chekhov's writings to enjoy this splendid book, but it will serve to prod the reader to Chekhov's works and the treasures that await. Recommended for all libraries.
- Ron Ratliff, Kansas State Univ., Manhattan
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks (November 12, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375761063
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375761065
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.5 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #915,386 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

49 of 50 people found the following review helpful By Matthew Cheney on December 19, 2001
Format: Hardcover
"Reading Chekhov" is a beautifully written book, with sparkling insights on Chekhov's work in every chapter. It is less an academic or scholarly investigation than a meditation and exploration, which might have been titled, "Travels Through Russia While Thinking About Chekhov". Chekhov is certainly a writer who has been thought about quite a bit, and I was skeptical at first about how much Janet Malcolm would be able to contribute to a field which is glutted with critical studies and appreciations, but her book is unique (though at its best it shares qualities with V.S. Pritchett's fine study from 1988).
Malcolm offers just enough biographical information for the reader who knows little about Chekhov to be able to appreciate this book, and she is also able to give an interesting enough perspective for her book to be worthwhile for someone who knows as much about Chekhov as she does. Aside from the short story "The Lady with the Dog", which serves as a touchstone for the book's narrative, Malcolm doesn't explore any of Chekhov's work in depth. The beauty of what she has created here, though, is that she is able to give a sense of Chekhov as a whole: his life, his writings, and the varied responses to his works and life. For instance, one of the most fascinating passages of the book compares how various biographers have portrayed Chekhov's last moments and death, and then what these portrayals might say about how Chekhov's entire life is portrayed, and how his works are interpreted.
Unlike many studies of writers and their work, this one is subtle and repays rereading. Malcolm wastes no words, which is, on the whole, admirable (particularly when writing about such an efficient writer as Chekhov), but at times is tantalizing -- some of her ideas could be spun into entire books of their own. Nonetheless, this is a fine book, a pleasure to read,resonant and even Chekhovian.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By David Light on November 9, 2005
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Few readers have time to wrestle with the long biographies and academic treatises that proliferate on beloved writers. Lack of time trumps the best intentions. Janet Malcolm has saved Chekhov enthusiasts the trouble by doing the reading herself, adding her own insights, and throwing in a bit of travel writing as well.

Literary criticism predominates in this 200-page book, with biography taking second place and travelogue third. Malcolm weaves the biographical details around comments about the stories and plays; so, for example, we learn that Chekhov was steeped in Russian Orthodoxy--more so, apparently, than even Tolstoy. What makes that especially interesting is the contrast between Chekhov's self-proclaimed nonbelief and the way he handles religious themes in the stories; there is some evidence, presented in this book, that these matters were not as settled in Chekhov's mind as one might think just based on his statements. (I, for one, have always been impressed with the sympathy Chekhov shows to the characters who appear in The Bishop, a story not discussed by Malcolm.)

Malcolm also takes on in brief compass Chekhov's trip to Sakhalin (arduous to get there; led to a rather dull, non-Chekhovian book); his death at 44 from tuberculosis in a hotel in Germany (which had various eyewitnesses and led to a variety of embellished accounts); and his relationships with women (he liked them pretty and well-dressed), with his publisher, with Tolstoy, and with his parents and siblings.

She spices it up with thought-provoking insights; one example: "In his stories and plays, Chekhov is afraid for all men. He was only in his twenties and thirties when he wrote most of them, but like other geniuses--especially those who die prematurely--he wrote as if he were old.
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48 of 57 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on July 3, 2004
Format: Hardcover
I am a huge fan of Chekhov, a taste that was cultivated during a two year stint working in Russia, and will read pretty much anything I can find about him. I'm also a fan of literary journalism & travel writing in general, so you can imagine my enthusiasm as I picked this gemm off the shelf and settled into the nearest comfie chair. Malcolm attempts to weave back and forth between journalism, travel narrative, and literary criticism, but this book is a lightweight in each of those genres, and at times is even embarrassing. I know Malcolm is a fairly well-respected writer, which just adds to my surprise at how weak this book really is. The first issue I have with this book is that her "experience" in Russia seems to have been limited to guided tours. What kind of a journalist would conduct all her research on a guided tour? Can you imagine Joan Didion or Paul Theroux doing such a thing? The problem with this is that all her insights, such as they are, are relegated to what she saw while being lead around by her tour guides, including one named Sonia with whom Malcolm seems to have a very strange and at times even disturbing relationship. "Sonia saw her job as a guide as an exercise in control, and over the two days I spent with her I grew to detest her ... my struggle with Sonia was almost always over small-stakes points of touristic arrangement; and her power to get to me was, of course, by my journalist's wicked awareness of the incalcuable journalistsc value of poor character." It's always nice to see a wealthy tourist squable with the locals who were probably once skilled professionals now forced to work menial jobs to support their families. All of her observations seem to be very surface-level things that any tourist with limited experience would pick up on.Read more ›
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