Janet Malcolm: "I was fortunate in not having read too many of the Chekhov stories in my callow youth."
Reading Chekhov:A Critical Journey
Random House, 2001; 210 pages; $23.95
FROM THE DUST JACKET: To illuminate the mysterious greatness of Anton Chekhov’s writings, Janet Malcolm takes on three roles: literary critic, biographer, and journalist. Her close readings of the stories and plays are interwoven with episodes from Chekhov’s life and framed by an account of a recent journey she made to St Petersburg, Moscow, and Yalta.
Writing of Chekhov’s life, Malcolm demonstrates how the shadow of death that hovered over most of his literary career— he became consumptive in his 20s and died in his 40s—is almost everywhere reflected in the work. She writes of his childhood, his relationship with his family, his marriage, his travels, his early success, his exile to Yalta — always with an eye to connecting them to the themes and characters of the stories and plays. Similarly, her adventures as a journalist in contemporary Russia in the company of three women guides — Nina, Sonia, and Nelly—become the fulcrum of literary insight: a misadventure at the Yalta airport, for example, leads to a novel analysis of “The Lady with the Dog.”
Looking at Chekhov’s recurrent themes — romantic love, violence, beauty, gardens, food, among others—Malcolm makes out patterns that have hitherto been invisible. Lovers of Chekhov and beginning readers alike will be gripped by Malcolm’s multifaceted journey, and few readers of Reading Chekhov will not feel impelled to turn to or revisit the masterpieces.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Janet Malcolm was born in Prague in 1934. Her father, Joseph Winn, a psychiatrist and poet, brought Janet, her sister Marie (who writes as Marie Winn), and their mother to the United States in 1939. They settled first in Brooklyn and later in Manhattan. Malcolm attended the prestigious High School of Music and Art, and after high school, the University of Michigan. She began writing for The New Yorker in the early 1960s and continues writing there (sections of what became Reading Chekhov initially were published in The New Yorker). Her previous books are Diana and Nikon: Essays on Photography; Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession; In the Freud Archives; The Journalist and the Murderer; The Purloined Clinic: Selected Writings; The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes; and The Crime of Sheila McGough. Malcolm lives with her husband, Gardner Botsford, in New York and Massachusetts.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR: Reading Chekhov sent me to the bookstore to buy the Modern Library editions (with an introduction by Shelby Foote) of Chekhov’s stories. For anyone old (as I am) or young (as you may be) who wishes to read or reread Chekhov, I recommend these three volumes. They feel good in the hand. The paper is acid free and the pages sewn. The type is not so tiny I have to squint, and while Foote’s introduction is the same in all three volumes, at least his introduction is short. On the morning that Ms. Malcolm and I talked, I mentioned that I bought these editions, in part for the type. Ms. Malcolm responded to my explanation, saying, “The Ecco Press editions, I should tell you, had even bigger type. Great big type. If you were an aficionado of big type, you would have loved them.”
When did Ms. Malcolm first read Chekhov, in big type or small?
She was not sure. “All my life,” she said, “I’ve been to Chekhov’s plays, but I can tell you that my awareness of the stories began when the Ecco Press published an edition of 13 volumes of his short stories in the translation by Constance Garnett. This was a reissue of an edition Macmillan put out in the 1920s. I was just dazzled by them. That was the beginning of my engagement with Chekhov.” Mrs. Garnett translated the 13 volumes of stories between 1916 and 1922, and, as Ms. Malcolm correctly recalled, these stories were published in the United States in the 1920s by Macmillan. The volumes eventually went out of print and remained out of print. The 13 volumes became collectors’ items, and collectors sorted through books on shelves of used booksellers to acquire complete sets. In 1984 Daniel Halpern, the Ecco Press editor and publisher, a man with a soft spot for Chekhov, directed the reissue, in paperback, of the 13 volumes.
Constance Garnett (1862 [or 1861]-1946), born in Brighton, England, either one or two years after Chekhov, attended Newnham College, Cambridge, where she studied Latin and Greek. Mrs. Garnett was self-taught in Russian. In 1892 on a visit to Moscow, she met Leo Tolstoy. Her translations from Russian into English began to appear in 1893. She went on to translate an extraordinary number of literary and dramatic texts, including almost all of Chekhov, plus his many letters, and fiction and nonfiction by Gogol, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Turgenev, and Russians whom few English readers have or will ever read. (Elizabeth Hardwick, with tongue somewhat in cheek, once praised Mrs. Garnett’s industry as a translator by dubbing her a Stakhanovite, Stakhanov being the name of the Soviet coal miner who was honored in the former Soviet Union for, notes the American Heritage Dictionary, “his exceptional diligence in increasing production.” “Perhaps,” wrote Hardwick about Mrs. Garnett, “there should be a statue erected to her in London — maybe in the monumental Soviet style, since she was indeed a Stakhanovite.”)
I asked Ms. Malcolm if Mrs. Garnett was Chekhov’s first translator.
“Into English, I believe she was, yes.”
Mrs. Garnett married into the illustrious Garnetts, a family that contributed to linguistics, literature, and librarianship. Constance and Edward Garnett’s son, David (1892-1981), also known by his childhood nickname, Bunny, was a member of the Bloomsbury set. Bunny Garnett’s second wife was Angelica Bell, the daughter of Virginia Woolf s sister, Vanessa Bell. “Ah,” I said, “and, in addition to all that translating, Constance Garnett was Bunny Garnett’s mother.”
“She was indeed Bunny Garnett’s mother. I have a sort of image of her sitting in their country house and somebody pedaling up on a bicycle to get the latest translation, and she’s still working on it, and she finishes it and hands it to him, and he goes off to the printer’s. They [Mrs. Garnett’s translations] have mistakes and you can even sometimes notice them, but they’re wonderful, and I’m sure they’re the best, because they’re 19th-century English and Chekhov wrote in the 19th Century.”
We talked a bit about Mrs. Garnett and how she translated practically all the Russians and how she indeed was Bunny Garnett’s mother and how she lived to be 80-something and her son Bunny lived to be 90.
“So,” Ms. Malcolm said, “you follow all that Bloomsbury stuff?”
“Yes. I love it. It’s like having another, extra family.”
“Exactly. I think we all have a kind of proprietary feeling about them, don’t we?”
Chekhov (1860-1904), of course, is one of those writers about whom readers have what Ms. Malcolm described as a “proprietary feeling.” Chekhov is one of those literary names, like that of Emily Dickinson or of Keats, whose mention can draw a religious hush down over the idlest of chatter. Malcolm wonderfully describes this effect when she writes that Chekhov is “the most misunderstood— as well as the most beloved—of the 19th-century Russian geniuses.” She continues: “In Russia, no less than in our country — possibly even more than in our country—Chekhov attracts a kind of sickening piety. You utter the name ‘Chekhov,’ and people arrange their features as if a baby deer had come into the room.” “It’s very odd,” I said to Ms. Malcolm, “how people do that.” She laughed, “You’ve noticed it too?”
I said that I had and went on to note that recently, as I read Chekhov stories about which Ms. Malcolm wrote, that I began to feel that these subtle stories, which on the last page often seem to evanesce rather than conclude, are wasted on the young. “You read them when you’re young,” I said, “and you’re not ready.” I asked Ms. Malcolm if, rereading Chekhov now that she was older, she had felt as I did.
She paused a moment, then said, “I guess that maybe I was fortunate in not having read too many of them [the Chekhov stories] in my callow youth, and so then when I really started reading them and rereading them I was middle-aged. And that’s why maybe they had such a powerful impact on me. I agree with you. I think you’re right. He’s not a young person’s writer. I don’t know why young people respond to them.”
“Why anyone responds,” I said, “to the written word seems difficult to know. You never really know what goes on in a marriage and you never really know what goes on between a reader and a writer.”
Ms. Malcolm agreed, and said, much to my pleasure, “That’s a very nice perception. Yes.”
In Reading Chekhov Ms. Malcolm writes that with the opening of the Soviet archives certain details about Chekhov’s sex life and love life had emerged. Ms. Malcolm notes that Chekhov would be “unperturbed, and probably even amused” by the disclosure of these details. For even with these disclosures, “Chekhov’s privacy is safe from the biographer’s attempts upon it — as, indeed, are all privacies, even those of the most apparently open and even exhibitionistic natures. The letters and journals we leave behind and the impressions we have made on our contemporaries are the mere husk of the kernel of our essential fife. When we die, the kernel is buried with us. This is the horror and pity of death and the reason for the inescapable triviality of biography.”
I agreed with all that Ms. Malcolm writes above, about privacy and “inescapable triviality,” and yet, I am so fond of the trivial that I wondered what some of those revelations about sex and love might be. I asked if Ms. Malcolm could tell me some of the details.
“Well, I did cite two examples. One was that he used bad words, swear words. I don’t think I need to tell you those; we all know what bad words are, right? I think maybe your paper wouldn’t even want to print them, but just the normal bad words. And he talked about being impotent.”
Did she think the impotence was caused by the tuberculosis?
“Possibly, or nervousness. I say in my book, ‘episodes of impotence.’ I never read anywhere that he said he was actually chronically impotent, but he would maybe mention some episode of impotence in correspondence. He would talk about his sexual affairs. In Donald Rayfield’s biography [Anton Chekhov: A Life (1997)], there are some mentions of this, but it didn’t seem very significant to me.”
Chekhov was 44 when he died, at Badenweiler in Germany. Ms. Malcolm quotes eight nonfiction accounts of Chekhov’s final hours. Each account varies in some detail. But the eighth account, from Philip Callow’s 1998 biography, Chekhov: The Hidden Ground yaws wildly away from the other seven. In all accounts, champagne is ordered. (Chekhov was a physician as well as a writer, and Rayfield in his Chekhov biography notes that etiquette among German doctors required that “a doctor at a colleague’s deathbed, when all hope was gone, should offer champagne.”) But in Callow’s telling, Chekhov’s doctor orders champagne from a telephone set in an alcove. And then, in Callow’s version, yet another new detail materializes: a fair-haired waiter appears. “The champagne arrived, brought to the door by a young porter who looked as if he’d been sleeping. His fair hair stood up, his uniform was creased, his jacket half-buttoned.”
Malcolm writes that as she read Callow’s account of Chekhov’s death, she “marveled at the specificity of the new details... Could Callow have stumbled upon a cache of new primary material in a Moscow attic?” She looked for notes in Callow’s book that might explain the alcove, the fair hair, and other scintillant new facts. She found nothing. Malcolm remembered Raymond Carver’s famous story, “Errand,” written after Carver learned that he was dying from lung cancer and published, before Carver’s death, in The New Yorker. Carver, who died at 50, had been a great admirer of Chekhov, keeping a photograph of the Russian above his desk, and Carver’s admirers compare the American to the Russian (although few, if any, of these admirers stop to note that it was diseased lungs that killed both Chekhov and Carver). “Errand” is a fictional reconstruction of Chekhov’s dying and what Malcolm discovers, rereading “Errand,” is that Callow appropriated details that Carver invented.
Ms. Malcolm and I talked about these death scenes, which she describes as offering “an instructive glimpse into the workings of biographical method.”
“Funny, wasn’t it?” she said. “I guess it’s a natural impulse to want to follow things to what seems like their natural evolution, so one of the writers actually has a moth going out the window into the summer night, do you remember?”
But the matter of Carver’s “Errand” as fodder for Callow, said Ms. Malcolm, “was absolutely amazing. I thought, when I read that, ‘I’ve met that waiter somewhere, at that telephone alcove.’ And then I went to the bookshelf, and there it was.”
I confessed that I thought, reading Callow’s version and then Carver’s, “how long it had been since I had seen a telephone alcove.” Ms. Malcolm brushed aside my silliness and continued, “But I also raise the question of Carver himself, about his melding of the fictional and nonfictional. I have some doubts about that too.” (What Ms. Malcolm writes, about this, is that the reader of these eight versions of Chekhov’s death, who also reads Carver’s “Errand,” “may well conclude that Carver has sinned as greatly against the spirit of fiction as Callow has sinned against the spirit of fact.”)
I said that when 1 first read Carver’s story, perhaps when it appeared in The New Yorker, that I felt that the story “was, for Carver, somehow, part of his own dying.”
“That's a very interesting thought. That makes a lot of sense.”
“And I felt,” I added, “that as Carver wrote this story, he was comforting himself with Chekhov’s death. 1 held Carver blameless in that way, because I thought, ‘Gosh, you’re dying. No wonder you’re writing this.’ ”
“I guess,” Ms. Malcolm concluded, “I should be less severe about him.”
We talked more, then, about the “death” stories. I said that I was fascinated with certain details in these stories. One detail, I said, that interested me was the ordering of champagne. That was a detail that simply stopped me, I said, and then asked Ms. Malcolm, “Do you ever find that when you’re reading, some detail or phrase simply stops you? You stop reading? You’re simply amazed? You stare at the page?”
“Oh, yes,” she said, “constantly. I’m now reading a book that I’m really glad I didn’t read when I was a young person. It must have been what you were talking about earlier, certain books being wasted on the young, and that’s Moby Dick. I’ve never read it at all, and now I’m reading it with the most enjoyable pleasure.”
Among the pleasures that Ms. Malcolm’s book offers is this: the reader is able to read, study, and consider Chekhov’s stories as Ms. Malcolm reads, studies, and, with wisdom and sympathy, considers them. I knew that Ms. Malcolm began her Chekhov book as an assignment to write his biography for the Penguin Lives series. Something had happened to that project and what that something was I felt reluctant to ask. I worried that there had been some unpleasantness or disappointment. So I didn’t ask. I asked instead how in the spring of 1999 she happened to make the 12-day trip to Russia, to places about which Chekhov wrote and where he visited or lived.
“It’s hard to know why one does what one does when you’re writing something. But I had a feeling, a strong feeling that I needed to go to Russia to write this book, and so I followed this feeling. I didn’t know what I was going to write on the trip, and I was prepared for not writing anything. I’d done some traveling for other pieces where I maybe wrote one line. I did a profile of Ingrid Sischy, who then was editor of Art Forum, and I went to Italy and Germany with her, this was part of a reporting trip, and in that case, I ended up with maybe one tiny little sentence or maybe two sentences about standing in line with her at an airport, and how other people were kind of rushing to get a taxi, and she kind of stood there calmly. That was the one thing I took from the whole trip.”
On the seventh day of Ms. Malcolm’s Chekhov trip, having left behind St. Petersburg and Moscow, she arrives at an airport near Yalta. This city on the Black Sea coast was a destination for those who, like Chekhov, were tubercular. “The Lady with the Dog,” one of Chekhov’s most famous stories, is set, in part, in Yalta, where Chekhov lived during much of the last five years of his life. At this airport near Yalta, Ms. Malcolm is in line to have her passport checked when she sees a stranger carry her suitcase out of the building. The suitcase is lost. But something else is found. And later, on her first evening in the seaside city, as she climbs a hill to the restaurant where she will eat dinner, she finds herself “in the inflexible grip of unhappiness over my lost clothes. And then the realization came: the recognition that when my suitcase was taken, something else had been restored to me — feeling itself. Until the mishap at the airport, I had not felt anything very much. Without knowing exactly why, I have always found travel writing a little boring, and now the reason seemed dear travel itself is a low-key emotional experience, a pallid affair in comparison to ordinary life.”
This confession about restoration of feeling itself dears a path for Ms. Malcolm’s discussion of home, “...our homes are Granada,” she writes. “They are where the action is; they are where the riches of experience are distributed. On our travels, we stand before paintings and look at scenery, and sometimes we are moved, but rarely arc we as engaged with life as we are in the course of any ordinary day in our usual surroundings.”
I said, only half-jokingly, to Ms. Malcolm that she was lucky to lose her suitcase.
She agreed. “Yes. I was lucky that I did. I guess that’s what journalism feeds on, the misadventures that become the substance of the writing.”
We talked about Ms. Malcolm’s guides — Nina, Sonia, and Nelly. I asked, “Was Nina the nice one?”
“She was the nice one,” Ms. Malcolm said. “She was a wonderful woman. We had a lovely time together.”
“You wrote so well, though, about Sonia, the one who wasn’t so nice.”
Ms. Malcolm sighed and then said, “She was like another lost suitcase.”