- A Chekhov Companion
In her book, A Chekhov Companion, Professor Clyman follows upon two bibliographical traditions in Slavic Studies: (1) the many volumes of Russian Materialy (Materials) and Seminary (Seminars) by which Soviet scholars have systematized their research on Russian literature; and (2) the more recent, but equally invaluable handbooks, companions, concordances, and encyclopedias in which American scholars include Western studies on Russian writers (see, for instance, V. Terras, ed., A Handbook of Russian Literature, his A Karamazov Companion, and the current project of the American Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages to assess research on Russian Literature published in the Slavic and East European Journal from 1957-1986—soon to appear as a special anniversary issue of that journal early next year).
To her credit, Professor Clyman considers Chekhov from many vantage points. She and seventeen other scholars of history, literature, drama, and/or film examine Chekhov's Russia, his life and literary tradition; aspects of his fiction (major themes, characters, and humor); his literary craftsmanship (dramatic and narrative techniques); his impact on modern drama and the modern short story; criticism of Chekhov both in Russia and abroad; his works on stage and in film; his correspondence and social pronouncements; translations of Chekhov into English; and, finally, a selected bibliography of primary and secondary sources on the writer.
Sadly, A Chekhov Companion is long on facts about the writer but short on assessments of him. Some of the essays are excellent. Harvey Pitcher's "Chekhov's Humor" and J. L. Styan's "Chekhov's Dramatic Technique" aptly discuss the writer's comedic gifts of his drama and early prose. Pitcher, in particular, takes the unusual but clever tact in musing how Chekhov might have ended an anecdote about a disappearing chef by his relish for comedic situation, subversion, and surprise, as well as by his penchant for the absurd. H. Peter Stowell's [End Page 681] "Chekhov into Film" is an engaging study of how the writer has been seen by Soviet cinematographers, while Lauren Leighton's "Ghekhov into English" is an in-depth study of translations of the writer and, as such, a handy boon for teachers who present Chekhov in literary surveys and the like. Two essays, Martin Esslin's "Chekhov and the Modern Drama" and Charles E. May's "Chekhov and the Modern Short Story," are conceivably the best studies in the book in that (1) they establish Chekhov as a "transitional figure" who stood between the "rationalist" view of the nineteenth century and the "modern" view of the twentieth, and (2) they deem him a mentor to such "moderns" as Brecht and Pinter in drama and to Joyce, Katherine Mansfield, and Sherwood Anderson in prose. Other contributors miss this point. Victor Terras, in his otherwise meticulous study, "Chekhov at Home: Russian Criticism," mentions Chekhov's "transitional" status only parenthetically, and John Tulloch, in his equally careful essay, "Chekhov Abroad: Western Criticism," not at all. Then, too, other contributors discuss Chekhov so vaguely, superficially, or tritely that they add little that is not known or that cannot easily be surmised. Indeed, many of their remarks on Chekhov apply also to all of Russian fiction and even to world literature as a whole. For instance, D. Rayfield, in his piece "Chekhov and the Literary Tradition," does not discuss his subject per se so much as he rushes through the influence of Gogol, Turgenev, Leskov, Zola, and others on the writer. R. Lindheim, in his "Chekhov's Major Themes," writes that "perception of human weakness and of the poverty and absurdity of life becomes the crucial moment" for Chekhov's heroes, whereas K. Lantz notes in "Chekhov's Cast of Characters" that they exist "on a continuum that stretches from the lackey to the free man, from the barbarian to the person of genuine culture, from spiritual deadness to sensitivity of life."
With its strengths and weaknesses, Clyman's A Chekhov Companion makes urgent two things: (1) the need for other "companions" on Russian writers and (2) for new and ongoing research on one of Russia's most...