“Haven’t they gone to Moscow yet?” is the question I’m usually greeted with when I suggest another theatre outing to see a Chekhov play. It’s a fair question, and one that I began asking as a struggling student of Russian, ploughing my way through Three Sisters in the original Russian while still recovering from the rigours of my O Level Russian exam. Through the opaque veil of a language still largely unknown to me, I instinctively understood the yearning of those sisters. Somewhere, beyond the boundaries of my small, suburban adolescent existence, there must surely be a world where life could be lived to the full.
That sense of unfulfilled longing runs through so much of Chekhov’s work, and it’s a theme I found to my delight in a novel I read while enjoying a series of three early Chekhov plays in London last year. Alison Anderson’s haunting elegiac novel The Summer Guest concerns a diarist in late nineteenth-century Russia, a translator in modern-day France and a London publisher: three women connected across time and space, united by a love of words, and by their desire to throw light into the hidden corners of the human spirit. Three deftly interwoven narrative strands bring these women together, transporting us to a Russian country-house setting that will be instantly recognisable to lovers of Chekhov and Tolstoy. As a translator myself, and an erstwhile student of Russian, I felt while reading this book that it was written for me. Here is a novel from a distinguished translator, peppered with insights into the process of translation, that skilfully blurs fact and fiction and tells a beguiling story of Chekhovian loss and longing, while throwing light on the great writer himself and teasing us with the possibility that Chekhov did after all write a full-length novel before his untimely death from consumption at the age of forty-four.
The diarist of The Summer Guest is Zina, a young woman, labouring under the burden of a fatal neurological disease that has deprived her of her sight and cut short her burgeoning career as a doctor in late nineteenth-century Russia. Anderson has taken her inspiration from the real Zinaida Lintvyarova (Zina), who exists as a footnote of history: an acquaintance of Chekhov for whom he wrote an obituary in which he spoke of her gifts as a doctor and of the patience and courage with which she endured her final illness. In this well-researched piece of fiction, Alison Anderson has created an imagined record of that illness, a diary in which Zina records her thoughts and emotions over two summers at her family home in Luka. The diary has fallen into the hands of Katya, a Russian publisher living in London, owner of the benighted small press aptly named, in a nod to Tolstoy, Polyana Press. Katya has engaged Ana Harding, a translator living in a small village in France, to bring the diary into English.
It is Ana’s translation of Zina’s diary that forms the bulk of the The Summer Guest. Zina writes poignantly of her desire to resist her cruel fate, reflecting that her words on the page are no more than “sightless scratchings against mortality”. Anderson approaches the subject of Zina’s experience of blindness with great sensitivity, skilfully avoiding cliché and focussing on the blind woman’s sensory experience of the world. Zina must learn to navigate her way through a landscape that is “no longer a place of colour and shapes”, an unfamiliar world in which friends and family have become disembodied voices. One voice stands out: the warm humorous tones of the eponymous summer guest, the young doctor and writer Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, who delights in engaging Zina in long discussions. In true Chekhovian fashion, they talk of love and literature, of destiny and free will. Zina comments on Anton Pavlovich’s fictional creations, urging him to write at greater length and become a novelist. Their friendship deepens as Anton Pavlovich illuminates the world for Zina, creating pictures in her mind with his descriptions of the scenes unfolding before his eyes. Echoing many a reader’s thoughts as we sink into a Chekhov short story, Zina writes: “He restores a fractured loveliness to my blind world, recalling remembered scenes and suggesting others blurred by time and loss.”
Interwoven with the diary itself are sections given over to Ana’s musings as she works on the translation. Alone in her remote village in France, she weathers the ups and downs of the freelancer’s life, relishing her solitude and the freedom it confers on her. Once engaged in the translation of the journal, she works slowly through her first draft, deepening her understanding of the diarist, researching, revising and losing herself in the work. We read that Ana takes the Russian words and “with each moment of slow, considered re-creation in her own language, enters the prism where sunlight refracts language.” She dreams of translating Chekhov’s lost novel, a manuscript repeatedly alluded to in the diary; finding herself daunted at this prospect, she imagines herself in conversation with Constance Garnett, the renowned translator of much of the Russian canon into English.
Alternating with the diary and with Ana’s story is the third strand of the novel, which takes us to London where Katya and her English husband, Peter, struggle to keep their Polyana Press afloat. Caught between market forces and a desire to publish a work they are deeply attached to, Katya and Peter are committed to bringing Zina’s diary to the English-speaking world. But the diary’s provenance remains shrouded in mystery. How did they come across this astonishing document? Do they really have access to a long-lost Chekhov manuscript? Ana travels to London to meet Katya and finds herself drawn further into the mystery of the diary’s origins, eventually travelling to Zina’s family home in modern day Ukraine.
This is an engrossing read that keeps us guessing until the last. The characters are deftly drawn and satisfyingly multi-faceted, and as befits a work that owes so much to Chekhov, the language is lyrical and restrained. Transported to a distant but familiar setting, I savoured the pages of this beguiling novel and was reminded of the joys of reading Chekhov with its distinctively clear-eyed depiction of life in all its tragicomic absurdity and beauty.
This review first appeared in Edition Two of The Riveter: Riveting Russian Writing