Sunday, May 03, 2020

Reading Chekhov (2001)

I actually forgot this book existed when I started on a project of reading stories by Anton Chekhov recently. I wish I would have remembered sooner because Janet Malcolm discusses another dozen or two stories beyond the ones I cherry-picked from internet recommendations. I know I have to get to his plays as well. Malcolm's slim book is based on travels as well as reading. She visits Russia and Ukraine to see the places Chekhov lived and knew. I don't do much of that sort of traveling myself—or any—but it does provide some interesting side details. As with much of the best of Malcolm, she excels at deep dives reaching for connections with an almost clinical precision. The story she returns to repeatedly is "The Lady With the Dog," but she ranges widely across Chekhov's work and brings an assortment of interesting insights to stories that might not have done much for me at first, such as the long "Ward No. 6" and "Peasants." She talks about Chekhov's literary relationship with Dostoevsky, for whom Chekhov claimed not to care much, and traces out points where Dostoevsky's influence is apparent. I still take much of the similarities I've noticed between them—largely, the blunt voice—as artifact of Constance Garnett, the prolific translator who worked extensively on material by both. I can feel the connection with Dostoevsky most in some of Chekhov's stories I don't like as much. I prefer the ones, like "The Lady With the Dog," that are almost pedestrian, yet elliptical and strangely moving, achieving their effects in ways that send me back with the idea of picking them apart to see how they work. That, in many ways, is Malcolm's project here, and she lingers over and returns frequently to a specific handful, including some of the plays. She loves Chekhov profoundly but resents the way he has become a kind of sentimental icon, a reflexive genius attended by platitudes. She focuses a lot on Chekhov's use of suggestive compressions, implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) arguing it as his greatest strength. I think I agree—there's something deceptively casual about his best work, almost anecdotal, yet so many of these things stick with you for a long while. With his focus on the short story Chekhov can verge on the poetical. But he's also a consummate social realist, and the melancholy of his short life can subtly or not so subtly suffuse the work. Like Thoreau, like Kafka, like H.P. Lovecraft, like Elvis Presley, Chekhov died in his 40s. I'm happy for the beefed-up list.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

No comments:

Post a Comment