Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey |


Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey

It is typical of Janet Malcolm’s slicing reportage and criticism that she can whittle down mounds of received wisdom about a great author to a shard of wit: “You utter the name ‘Chekhov’ and people arrange their features as if a baby deer had come into the room.” Throughout Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey (Random House, $23.95), Malcolm furrows her brow and, instead of melting into gooey admiration, stalks that deer: She journeys around Russia, visiting places Anton Chekhov lived, rereading his work, and blending literary analysis and travelogue to create a short book that chugs along like a swift adventure. As in every previous topic Malcolm has examined, from Freud to Sylvia Plath, she displays a thorough knowledge deepened by original descriptions and a taste for literary paradoxes. In her interpretation, for example, Chekhov’s triumph was to create “an illusion of lifelike pointlessness, but in fact every action has a point.” So does every word Malcolm writes. A