Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey by Janet Malcolm
I read Reading Chekhov, having not read a word of the Russian giant's prose (now, happily, I have), as an introduction to Chekhov's stories, themes and method, and as an overview of his entire oeuvre. Malcolm's clever, ranging, incisive book is probably not aimed directly at those of us who (shamefully) have never read the famous writer of such plays as Three Sisters and The Seagull before; AS Byatt suggests - and is quoted to this effect on the cover - that Reading Chekhov is "an excellent book ... it is a pleasure to read, and it sends you straight back to Chekhov, as it should": but it is one of the best introductions to any writer that I've ever read it. I really loved Reading Chekhov. It is rare to want to read in "Introduction To ..." twice: I finished it, and then immediately started it again.
Malcolm is an amiable - if ferociously clever and sometimes a little haughty - companion; and her book, part-travelogue (of Malcolm rather half-heartedly playing the part of Chekhov tourist in Moscow, Yalta, St.Petersburg; always too much the self-aware journalist to carry it off, yet always a writer canny enough to make the ironic distance compelling) and part-literary criticism is a treat. LitCrit and LitBiog are often bloated, tedious, tiresome and obsequious but Reading Chekhov is a masterclass in just how to to introduce, critique and engage with a writer whilst always remembering to take your readers along with you.
Particularly impressed by writers on Chekhov such as Robert Louis Jackson, Julie de Sherbinin and Alexander Mihailovic Malcolm, whilst making a fine job of mocking some critics and cleverly showing the liberties that - particular literary memoirs - can make of difficult to establish facts, seems to accept that there is an "oblique, sometimes almost invisible" yet powerful undercurrent of "religious subtext in Chekhov's stories". She argues, however, that "Chekhov's allusions to religion are inconclusive. They mark important moments, but they are written in pencil ... unlike Tolstoy, Chekhov leaves the question of what it all means unanswered". Which is what makes his writing so captivating: he is never the didact, always the artist: a definition which wouldn't go far wrong to describing this wonderful book.