Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Cosmonaut of Inner Space

I’ve recently critiqued travel writing as a literary genre. The critique reminded me that I ought to also say a word against another type of literary genre, one that I call intellectual fluff. Again, you’re saying: but this blog is precisely that: intellectual fluff. To that I can only reply, do as I say and not as I do. The intellectual fluff genre (and I’m open to another name if anybody wants to suggest one) is similar to travel writing in many ways. It’s free-flowing, unstructured, self-indulgent, and pretentious. For the most part, the author chooses a single Russian author to interrogate or, as is usually the case, celebrate.

Janet Malcolm’s Reading Chekhov: a Critical Journey is a good illustration of the principle. Not surprisingly, Malcolm deliberately chose a term of trade from travel writing by incorporating the word journey into the book’s subtitle. The conflation of physical journey and mental journey reminds me of a comical term used, I believe, by the Beatnik author, William Burroughs, who wanted to be a “cosmonaut of inner space.” The marketing strategy behind the words to the right of Malcolm’s title colon—a critical journey-- is clear enough: put Chekhov into the title and you’ll appear in library database searches and Google searches and ultimately sell books. The idea that you can offer people Chekhov without actually asking them to read Chekhov is probably also a sound marketing technique.

The endorsement quote on the cover of Reading Chekhov is revealing. According to the New York Review of Books, “One of the most gratifying things about Reading Chekhov is its quiet, vigorous defense against the imperial banality of biography.” Who knew the adjective “quiet” was something to advertize? Who knew criticism was under attack? Who knew biography didn’t employ criticism?

Monument to Anton Chekhov erected in Rostov-on-Don

I have to admit that I can’t remember many specifics about the contents of the book. This is why I’m concentrating on the cover. I remember some seemingly random forays into specific Chekhov short stories and plays, compounded by the author’s intrepid attempts to visit the physical spaces associated with Chekhov’s memory, especially the Crimea. In fact, you get a strange blend of author biography, writer biography, generic literary criticism, hagiography, and travel writing. It’s not hard going. As I recall, the book was an easy read. But the downside is that nothing whatsoever remains of the book after you’re done reading it. All I remember, is the author’s not-very-vigorous attempts to scrutinize her Russian tour guides as they visited Chekhov tourist locations.

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