Reading Chekhov by Janet Malcolm
Are You There, Crocodile? by Michael Pennington

26/02/03, The Times

In an 1888 story entitled “The Beauties”, Chekhov writes of an adolescent boy, bewitched by the sixteen-year old Mashya’s beauty as he and his grandfather are served tea in her father’s fly-blown house in an Armenian village. Written from the point of view of the boy, the experience proves to be momentous. The feeling is one of a ‘painful though pleasant sadness. It was a sadness vague and undefined as a dream. For some reason I felt sorry for myself, for my grandfather and for the Armenian, even for the girl herself, and I had a feeling that we all four had lost something important and essential to life which we should never find again. … Whether I vaguely felt that her rare beauty was accidental, unnecessary, and, like everything on earth, of short duration; or whether, perhaps, my sadness was that peculiar feeling which is excited in man by the contemplation of real beauty, God only knows.’

It’s an almost Keatsian moment, a meditation on evanescence, of the inexplicable melancholy at the heart of things, of the essential mystery of beauty and its elusiveness. This elusive grace is the irreducible core of Chekhov’s stories and Janet Malcolm’s extraordinary book, Reading Chekhov, not only illuminates it but also embodies this Chekhovian  je ne sais quoi with the delicacy of filigree work. The book’s slimness and superficial simplicity belie its inner capaciousness: it is literary pilgrimage, hommage, travelogue, biography, literary criticism and a restrained love letter all rolled into one.

Malcolm writes, ‘Chekhov was habitually reluctant to let go of a theme, and his compulsion to rework it in many variations is a signature of his work. It is also an aid to the critic. The ceaseless amplifications are a kind of message about meaning.’ This is a key to Malcolm’s own literary critical method as, story after story, she discovers and illuminates clusters and groupings arranged around the most delicate, almost intangible, of themes and ideas. There is a serendipitous casualness in her narrative’s return to a Chekhov letter, story, or play after she has been talking about, say, a mildly disappointing visit to the Dostoyevsky Museum in Petersburg, or a sleeping man on the Petersburg-Moscow Express, but this is art that hides art, a discursive sprezzatura, if you will. So a bad production of Carmen gives rise to an incisive digression on the talentless and pretentious dilettantes in Chekhov’s works and, indeed, in his own life for his brother Alexander was a benign version of one of those.

There are lapidary meditations on the covert influence of Dostoyevsky, a writer Chekhov found turgid and soporific, on Chekhov; on Anna Akhmatova; on the contrast in his work between the harsh, relentless climate in god’s nature outside and the warm, snug comfort of man-made interiors. The last becomes an astonishing section on a group of three Chekhov stories related to each other by their common theme of the cold comfort offered by a false insulation from reality. In Malcolm’s hands, such new configurations and affiliations make the reader feel like a watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken. This is a critical journey in the truest and purest sense: it is an odyssey of discovery that reinvents and renews the reality we inhabit.

The personal story of Malcolm’s own journey in Chekhov’s Russia – her experiences in hotels, estates, sites of Chekhov’s stories, the details about her guides, Nina, Sonia and Nelly – is Chekhovian in its deceptive simplicity and its own poetry of the fragmentary and the provisional. An ineffectual pang of pity for a Russian caretaker whose weekly wage is a lot less than the fifteen dollars Malcolm pays for a telephone call to New York is immediately checked as something Chekhov would have found ‘trite and useless rhetoric’ and linked to another of his abiding themes. This constant dynamics between life and art, vital, alive and immediate, has the grace and structure of a Mozart sonata: Malcolm’s travels in Russia provide the matrix on which the themes, answers, recapitulations and returns of this infinitely nuanced music are played out and on which the gathering meanings of Chekhov’s works impinge. It is the work of an iridescent and sympathetic imagination.

Whereas Malcolm seeks to understand Chekhov’s works and his mind, the actor Michael Pennington’s task is nothing less than the resurrection of the man himself for his own play. Consequently, Pennington’s account of how and why he came to write his one-hander on the Russian (included in an appendix) is stronger on the biographical details of Chekhov’s life than Malcolm’s work – the Chekhov who emerges from Malcolm’s book is an elusive creature of shadows and fog, but Pennington’s Chekhov is a living, breathing presence; you can see the mud in his fingernails as he plants his garden in his estate in Melikhovo. But large parts of Are You There, Crocodile? are given over to summaries of Chekhov’s plays and these sections sit stodgily in a narrative otherwise leavened by wit and charm. Pennington’s prose is muscular and supple, and the narrative is at times almost unbearably moving, especially the sections on his father’s sudden death, or on the production of Tolstoy’s Strider – The Story of a Horse in which Pennington played the title role.