Thursday, December 15, 2011
Janet Malcolm's Chekhovian Ambiguity
I’m pleased to see that my favorite New York Times critic, Dwight Garner, has chosen Janet Malcolm’s Iphigenia in Forest Hills as one of his “top ten” books of the year (see “Dwight Garner’s Picks for 2011,” The New York Times Sunday Book Review, December 11, 2011). A substantial portion of the book appeared in The New Yorker (May 3, 2010). In his piece, Garner says:
Ms. Malcolm’s book, set in the insular Bukharan-Jewish community of Forest Hills, Queens, casts a prickly moral and intellectual spell. It’s about a young woman, accused of murdering her husband, who seems to be plainly guilty. Yet she wins the author’s, and our, sympathies. Ms. Malcolm puts her book’s animating enigma this way: “She couldn’t have done it, and she must have done it.” This book has the eerie elegance of a Chekhov short story.
That “eerie elegance of a Chekhov short story” is brilliant! Geoffrey O’Brien, in his illuminating review of Iphigenia in Forest Hills (“The Trial,” The New York Review of Books, April 28, 2011), also notes Malcolm’s Chekhovian approach to her subject. He quotes a statement made by Judge Robert Hanophy during Mazoltuv Borukhova’s trial (“Somebody’s life was taken, somebody’s arrested, they’re indicted, they’re tried and they’re convicted. That’s all this is”), which Malcolm uses as an epigraph to introduce the book, and says:
In opposition to this cut-and-dried dismissal of any residual impulse to probe deeper, she juxtaposes the words of a prospective, ultimately unselected juror: “Everything is ambiguous in life except in court” – an observation of a sort in which Malcolm’s books abound, posted like warning signs to the reader to beware of the astringent clarity of each separate element as it come sinto view. We want the elements to add up to a satisfying and coherent story. But as Anton Chekhov wrote – in a letter quoted by Malcolm in Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey (2001) – responding to a reader who had complained of the writer’s having evaded a proper explanation of his protagonist’s motives: “We shall not play the charlatan, and we will declare frankly that nothing is clear in this world. Only fools and charlatans know and understand everything.”
In support of O’Brien’s point, I would also refer to Malcolm’s description of the psychologist Igor Davidson, one of the few compassionate figures in the book:
Davidson introduced an element into the hearing that had been entirely absent from it: ambiguity. Alone among the participants, Davidson spoke as if he were in touch with life as it exists outside the courtroom, where everything isn’t always this or that, but can be both.
V. S. Pritchett, in his review of The Letters of Anton Chekhov (“A Doctor,” included in Pritchett’s 1979 essay collection The Myth Makers), quotes from a letter that Chekhov wrote to his friend and editor, Alexei Suvorin, attacking him for the anti-Semitic articles Suvorin published at the time of the Dreyfus affair and the trial of Zola. The quotation, which could serve as another epigraph for Iphigenia in Forest Hills, is as follows: “Zola is right, because the writer’s job is not to accuse or persecute but to stand up even for the guilty once they have been condemned and are undergoing punishment.”