Janet Malcolm: "I was fortunate in not having read too many of the Chekhov stories in my callow youth."
  • Janet Malcolm: "I was fortunate in not having read too many of the Chekhov stories in my callow youth."
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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.”

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