A typically sharp-eyed, tart tour by longtime New Yorker writer Malcolm (The Crime of Sheila McGough, 1999, etc.) to the places—and the creative landscape—associated with the Russian master.
Playwright and short-story writer Anton Chekhov (1860–1904) has become as misunderstood as he is beloved, Malcolm feels, not just by critics but by his homeland. As she travels to Moscow, St. Petersburg, and especially Gurzuv and Yalta (where Chekhov spent his last five years), Malcolm fumes at post-Communist Russia—not just at inconveniences such as lost luggage and seedy hotels, but at guides who sometimes seem more interested in palaces or old-time film star Deanna Durbin than they do in Chekhov. She grumps about this “absurdist farce of the literary pilgrim who leaves the magical pages of a work of genius and travels to an ‘original scene’ that can only fall short of his expectations.” Occasionally, Malcolm resorts to one of her trademark cranky generalities about factual writing (a novice journalist, she insists, who wishes to render subjects “in all their unruly complexity and contradictoriness is soon disabused”). But once she considers Chekhov’s life and work in earnest, her numerous insights run against the critical grain without falling into contrarianism for its own sake. For instance, she notes that far from being nonjudgmental, Chekhov underscores the nature of evil in stories such as “Ward No. 6”; that despite his overriding concern with ordinary lives, he was irresistibly attracted to useless beauty; and that, as someone who battled tuberculosis for almost a third of his life, his masterpieces obliquely tell what it is like to live under the constant shadow of death. She seamlessly stitches together both standard biographical information (such as his attitude toward his brutal and improvident father) and close analysis and interpretation (e.g., of memoirists’ varying accounts of Chekhov’s death, including the bizarre transport of his corpse back to Moscow in a refrigerated railway car filled with oysters).
While occasionally crotchety about personal travails, Malcolm offers a stirring, roving chronicle of “our poet of the provisional and fragmentary.”