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New York Times
December 4, 2001
Visiting Russia, Escorted by Characters From Chekhov
Allan Miller/Random House

A Critical Journey
By Janet Malcolm
Illustrated. 210 pages. Random House. $23.95.

After controversial books like "The Journalist and the Murderer," "In the Freud Archives" and "The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes" — books that raised questions about the veracity of journalists and biographers and in some cases questions about the author's own credibility as a reporter — Janet Malcolm has turned to a seemingly less fractious subject: the works of Anton Chekhov.

Though Ms. Malcolm often attempts in these pages to take a counterintuitive tack -- she tries rather unpersuasively to argue that Chekhov's works are surreal rather than real, archaic rather than modern, "wild and strange" rather than "modest, delicate, gray" -- the bulk of this volume simply recapitulates familiar arguments and observations about this writer and his life. The entire book has an improvised feel to it, as though it had been tossed off quickly to meet a deadline: Ms. Malcolm's stream-of-consciousness narrative meanders from desultory travel notes to biographical asides to critical assessments of Chekhov's stories.

She loosely structures the book around a trip to Russia, but while her vaunted descriptive powers enliven her account of visits to places like the Chekhov House Museum and the writer's country house, the narrative all too often devolves into tiresome touristic recitations: complaints about lost luggage and recalcitrant guides, banal notations about life in today's Russia.

Matters are not helped by Ms. Malcolm's labored efforts to draw parallels between people she meets and characters in Chekhov's fiction. She describes one guide named Nina as one of Chekhov's "guileless innocents," an Anna Sergeyevna (from the story "The Lady With the Dog") in late middle age. Another guide, named Sonia, whom the author comes to detest, is described as "a dead ringer for Natasha, the crass sister-in-law in `Three Sisters,' who pushes her way into control of the Prozorov household and pushes out the three delicate, refined sisters."

A trip to the theater (to see "an exceptionally trite and listless `Carmen' ") leads to a discussion of Chekhov's plays, while the reluctance of Ms. Malcolm's chauffeur to fasten his seat belt leads to a discussion of the theme of avoidance -- the "resistance to advances in knowledge" -- in Chekhov's stories and letters.

When it comes actually to grappling with Chekhov's work, Ms. Malcolm offers not a sustained analysis of his fiction but a hop-skip-and-jump approach.

She writes that "the conventional literary association of gardens with love and youth and renewal is a touchstone of Chekhov's art," and she remarks upon his fondness for contrasting "the harsh weather of God's world with the kindlier climate of man's shelters from it." She also notes Chekhov's fascination with the Jamesian theme of the wasted life as manifested in characters' "aversion for the actual": their denial of everyday life by living in the past, cocooning themselves in fantasy or renouncing the possibility of real love.

Her analysis of the types of characters Chekhov created is familiar as well. She writes about "good/bad guys," "the Laevskys and Gurovs and Ananyevs and Vanyas and Vershinins and Ivanovs, for whom Chekhov sometimes, but not always, arranges a redemptive transformation," and she writes about the would-be artists who fail to find "salvation through prosaic work." These discussions have the feel of a freshman introductory course in Russian literature, a feeling galvanized further by Ms. Malcolm's habit of citing the opinions of other critics and biographers and then providing cursory summaries of their views.

Her own opinions run the gamut from the trite to the quirky to the downright dubious. Completely ignoring the seeds of his later work that can be found in the early comic sketches of his apprenticeship and the bittersweet comedy that infuses the work of his maturity, she writes that "Chekhov began to show signs of becoming Chekhov only when he turned his hand to writing short fiction that wasn't funny."

In another chapter she tries to argue that models for his stories can be found in "the powerful, elliptical stories of the Bible": "Chekhov is said to be the father of the modern short story. It might be more accurate (and helpful to contemporary writers wishing to learn from him) to think of him as the genius who was able to cut to the quick of biblical narrative."

Near the beginning of the book Ms. Malcolm asserts that Chekhov is "the most misunderstood -- as well as the most beloved -- of the 19th- century Russian geniuses."

"In Russia," she goes on, "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." This snide generalization about Chekhov's reputation and people's affection for his work reveals a grating condescension on Ms. Malcolm's part, and it also belies her own penchant in these pages for dispensing platitudes that do nothing to illuminate Chekhov's work.

"His stories and plays -- even the darkest among them -- are hymns of praise," she writes. "Flowers and lightning and wind and sun and all the objects of the visible world appear in them as they appear in the work of no other writer."

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