Janet Malcolm and the essence of Chekhov
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, December 11, 2001)

Janet Malcolm has devoted her brilliant career to identifying the tensions and ambivalence built into the work of therapists, journalists, photographers, biographers and other interpreters of the human condition. She believes the articulate professions suffer from chronic self-delusions. She takes great pains to clarify the ways that a déformation professionnelle (or, in dull English, "work-related mental distortion") may afflict, unnoticed, those who should be most capable of recognizing it.

Her New Yorker articles and books are rich in revelations, interrogations and impudent generalizations such as: "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible." After that now-famous opening of The Journalist and the Murderer, she explained that journalists prey on the vanity of their subjects and then betray them. This was a Freudian's way of exploring the contradictions in her own profession, but many journalists were offended. She made enemies, which may be one reason for several peevish reviews of her excellent new book, Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey.

In attracting the strictures of Janet Malcolm, journalists are far from alone. Biographers fare just as badly in The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes. To Malcolm, an inquisitive biographer resembles a "burglar, breaking into the house ... and triumphantly bearing his loot away." Equally, photographers don't absolutely enjoy Diana & Nikon: Essays on Photography; lawyers are made uncomfortable by The Crime of Sheila McGough; and few analysts find reassurance in the pages of Psychoanalysis, the Impossible Profession.

Malcolm's attitudes emerged at least partly from her background as the daughter of a Czech Jewish psychiatrist. Having grown up in the shadow of a profession that emphasizes discretion above everything else, she entered journalism, a profession that insists on the value of disclosure as a public good. Maybe that's why she's so alive to the moral complexities of her work and to the theme of betrayal. Her European-inflected sensibility also explains why she casually applies a literary intellectual's attitudes to banal subjects, like magazine writing or a murder trial.

In studying psychoanalysis, she grew fascinated with "its purposeful renunciation of the niceties and decencies of ordinary human intercourse." She transferred that approach to journalism when she wrote about Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, the unfortunate scholar depicted in the sensational New Yorker articles that became her book, In the Freud Archives.

Malcolm enacted with Masson the drama of betrayal that she later described as typical of journalism. He thought she liked him, but then discovered her articles showed him as a vain fool. He sued for libel. Eventually he lost, but a prolonged legal process exposed her methods of work and relentlessly questioned her ethics. She was as naked as the subject of one of her articles. She has since suggested that "privacy is life's most precious possession," yet still her articles off-handedly invade the privacy of the people she writes about. This is a writer who knows (and lives) contradictions.

Anton Chekhov, one of literature's abiding mysteries, provides a perfect subject for Malcolm's investigations. He was a genius who came from nowhere. His father was an ignorant tyrant, his siblings were spongers and whiners, his early editors were hacks, and he spent much of his working life supporting his irresponsible family.

How dark was his childhood? In one of his stories a little boy wakes each morning with the same thought: Will my father beat me today? When he was 34, Chekhov wrote to a friend that his belief in progress was acquired in childhood. "I couldn't help believing in it, because the difference between the period when they flogged me and the period when they stopped flogging me was enormous."

Yet he emerged as perhaps the wisest writer of his time, and in certain ways the most mature. He wrote four plays that are still vibrantly alive in the theatres of the world, and his stories remain, a century later, the standard for short fiction. Even in 2001, his characters are painfully recognizable: the man who spends his life struggling to hide his emotions from himself, (The Man in the Case), the wife who pursues the glamour of celebrities while underrrating her admirable and hard-working husband (The Grasshopper), the bureaucrat whose work teaches him to tolerate an infinite level of suffering in others (Ward No. 6), and the woman who proclaims her husband a genius, and then, after they part, makes precisely the same commitment to her next man (The Darling).

As a doctor, Chekhov gave his time free to the poor. He was a prolific if elusive lover of women, a devoted husband in his final years, and a dedicated, imaginative gardener. All this he accomplished in 44 years, before tuberculosis killed him in 1904. He's the subject of many biographies and memoirs, but no one has explained how he made himself into such a person.

Malcolm builds her book around visits to sites in Russia associated with him. She thinks the world emphasizes the gentleness of his work too much and misses its wild intensity. As a good Freudian should, she searches for encoded meanings, and often finds them. She restlessly circles his work, bringing love and shrewd appreciation to his stories. She refreshes a reader's feel for him (the minute I closed her book I had to re-read some Chekhov stories).

Even so, the miracle of his existence, the blossoming of this lordly flower in the parched culture of his young life, remains elusive and inexplicable. But then, as Malcolm has already cautioned us, biography inevitably fails. The piled-up details only obscure the essence of the person, which dies with him.

In the book about Plath's biographers, Malcolm describes the search for the truth of the poet's life as a high-stakes card game: "It is being played in a room so dark and gloomy that one has a hard time seeing one's hand; one is apt to make mistakes. The windows are grimy and jammed shut. The old servant's hands shake as he brings watery drinks." Her metaphors make even scholarship sound like a scene from Chekhov, yet another tribute to the force of his influence.

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