No matter how noble their intentions, literary pilgrimages are often suspect endeavors. Homage can shade into voyeurism, and authors frequently placed under this critical attention, such as Jack Kerouac or Marcel Proust, emerge from these studies even more enshrouded by a penumbra of greatness. No one understands these challenges better than Janet Malcolm does. As a literary sleuth for the New Yorker, Malcolm has tackled such mercurial subjects as Sylvia Plath (The Invisible Woman), Sigmund Freud (In the Freud Archives) and the journalist Joe McGinniss (The Journalist and the Murderer). In Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey she brings her skeptical gaze to bear on the inventor of the modern short story and delivers a crotchety but stirring meditation on his life and work.
As part of her research, Malcolm traveled to Russia, visiting Chekhov's homes in Moscow and the country, always accompanied by a paid guide. These trips, which snag upon some tedious details such as misplaced luggage or the quality of hotel food, frame her portrait of the writer. In the first chapter, for instance, Malcolm visits a tiny village near Yalta where Chekhov stayed toward the end of his abbreviated life (he died at the age of 44 from tuberculosis). Quite quickly, Malcolm reveals that this field trip failed to provide any new insight, and she speculates that her famously self-effacing subject would have preferred it this way. After all, she writes, referring to the opaque psychology of Chekhov's characters, "he didn't merely withhold information about his literary practice; the practice itself was a kind of exercise in withholding."
While her title suggests this is primarily a critical journey, like a curious investigator, Malcolm cannot help herself. Even as she dutifully excavates themes from Chekhov's work--the importance of gardens and love, the press of mortality--she reaches to Chekhov's biography as a buttress for some of her readings, a tendency she highlights and interrogates. By the middle of this book, she gives herself over to this urge, and Reading Chekhov becomes an exercise in futility: how to read the life of a writer who refuses to be read biographically.
With dizzying briskness, Malcolm shifts between the established facts of Chekhov's biography to moments that are hotly contested among scholars. In one fascinating chapter, she studies the facts about his death and then compares them with several published accounts of the fatal hour. The passages vary, from his wife's initial lyrical description, to those of later scholars--one of whom borrows details from a Raymond Carver short story about the event without acknowledging their fictitious origins.
What emerges from this stew is a powerful, indeed Chekhovian, book about the shortness of life and the primacy of work in it. "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 life," Malcolm writes. "When we die, the kernel is buried with us. This is the horror and pity of death."