“subtle and haunting.... The most piercing story belongs to the diary’s author, Zinaida Lintvaryova, or Zina, trapped by blindness and a deepening illness at her family home of Luka, on the river Pysol, in the year 1888, who finds reprieve in her notable guest, also a doctor, on the cusp on literary stardom. Mournful and meditative, the diary’s bittersweet passages on Zina’s illness and darkened life are punctuated by lively exchanges with the charming and ambitious Chekhov. The novel is deeply literary in its attention to the work of writing and translation, but also political in its awareness of how Russian-Ukrainian relations have impact on the lives of Anderson’s heroines (both the historical and present ones). Ardent Chekhov fans will appreciate a brief immersion in the world he must have known for two summers, while readers of any stamp can enjoy the melancholy beauty of a vanished world and the surprise twist that, at the end, offers what all three characters have been searching for—“something completely unexpected and equally precious: another way of seeing the world.”
Publishers’ Weekly, March 28, 2016
Anderson, herself a translator (of Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog, 2008, among other things) and author of two novels (Darwin's Wink, 2004, etc.), has written a gorgeous elegy to a great Russian writer. Her Chekhov is a witty and mercurial but gentle and kind man who spends long afternoons with Zina, discussing everything from his writing (which he insists he only engages in to put "bread on the table") to Zina's fear of dying. But Chekhov forms only one facet of this remarkable novel, which is also a moving account of three women separated by time, nationality, and geography and how each comes to terms with her own life…An exceptional novel about the transcendent possibilities of literature, friendship, and contemplation.
Kirkus, March 15, 2016 (Starred review)
Read an essay about an old photograph I found online shortly before my novel was published: is one of these two women my actual heroine?
the summer guest - 2016
The Summer Guest: Behind the Book
I first read a few of Anton Chekhov’s short stories years ago when I was learning Russian. I’d also studied the plays, but although I have always had an enduring affection for Uncle Vanya, I had not really explored his innumerable longer stories. But in the early years of the new century I began reading these stories on my way to work, along with Janet Malcolm’s wonderful guide, Reading Chekhov. In a matter of weeks I was sharing my enthusiasm with a friend at lunch, who suggested I should write a novel about Chekhov.
This was, and still is, a daunting idea, for any number of reasons. I would be poking into the private life of a real person (something I swore I would never do again), and not just any person—a person who is not only universally revered, but also whose stature borders on the mythical. There would be massive research involved, and I would have to take Russian lessons to revive my dormant knowledge of the language. And above all, how would I approach my subject? Particularly in the context of a novel? It would have to be a tribute; it would have to be light-hearted and respectful at the same time.
Chekhov had a very interesting love life, and so I looked there first for inspiration. There might be room for invention, particularly in the case of one Lika Mizinova, whose rather tragic life was reflected in some of his work. But in the end, I was not sure I wanted to write a traditional love story; I was interested in Chekhov the writer, not Chekhov the elusive lover. (Although he is certainly an elusive writer, as well.)
Ultimately, Chekhov himself gave me the idea for this novel, in a letter he wrote to publisher and journalist Alexey Suvorin on May 30, 1888. He describes a Ukrainian family, the Lintvaryovs, with whom he is spending the summer; a few lines, but enough to go on. After a careful reading of all the letters from 1888 and 1889, and other biographical material, I felt confident that I could tell a story from the point of view of Zinaida, one of the Lintvaryov daughters. Chekhov tells us, in that letter to Suvorin, that Zinaida “has a brain tumor which has left her totally blind, and suffering from epilepsy and headaches. She knows perfectly well what lies in store for her and speaks with extraordinary dispassionate stoicism of her imminent death.” Her vision of Chekhov would necessarily be subjective, and limited by her illness and the constraints of society—but her own feelings, as consigned to a private journal, could perhaps reflect some of the admiration and gratitude I have felt toward him myself, as well as his complexities.
I won’t say that writing the diary of a blind, 19th century Ukrainian woman was easy, but it was certainly easier than coming up with an ending for the story of the beleaguered translator whose job it is to render the diary into English. I went through literally dozens of different versions, none of which were satisfactory. In the end, like Ana, I traveled to Ukraine for an answer—to a very different question.
In 2010 I joined a tour of Crimea that focused on Chekhov’s years in Yalta, which was led by a congenial British Chekhov scholar. It attracted an equally congenial mix of people, of all ages and backgrounds, who had one thing in common: a love of Chekhov’s work and a curiosity about the world he lived in, aspects of which, we discovered, is still very much alive in its way. After the tour was over, I journeyed alone by rail overnight across nearly all of Ukraine, from Simferopol in the south due north, to the town of Sumy, where Chekhov spent those two summers with the Lintvaryovs as a young man—the period described in the novel.
Chekhov describes, in his own words, his time there better than anyone else could. As I explored the museum and the estate, my interest was in the Lintvaryov family, and their interaction with their soon-to-be-famous summer guest. From 1919 until 1960, the centennial of Chekhov’s birth, the building that had been the summer dacha on their estate had served as a school library. To honor the 1960 anniversary, a small museum was created in the house. The dacha-museum is well-kept and visited regularly, despite the loss of Soviet funding. I was a bit of an oddity there, as a foreigner; nearly all the visitors, I was told, were Ukrainian and Russian. The day I visited I joined the tour of a small group of medical students from Sumy, which seemed appropriate.
Five rooms of the house are open to the public. In the entrance is a display of photographs and historical information, and a few precious artifacts: one of Anton Pavlovich’s pince-nez, donated by his sister, and his future wife Olga Knipper’s evening bag. The first room to the left is devoted to Chekhov’s brother Nikolay, the gifted artist. Behind that room, overlooking the garden at the rear, is the space where Anton Pavlovich stayed. It is now a simple reconstruction of the way that room must have been when he used it, with a writing desk by the window, a day bed in the corner, and a small table covered with medical instruments (which were of great interest to my fellows on the tour). The other room to the right of the entrance was where Chekhov’s mother stayed, and directly opposite the entrance was a dining room with a piano where the family entertained.
The place is very much alive, full of the spirit both of the era—thanks to the tasteful arrangement of antiques that either had belonged to the Lintvaryovs or Chekhov’s sister, Masha, or that had been donated by well-wishers—and of the writer himself. The women who look after the museum—Lyudmila Nikolayevna, the curator; Anna, the guide; Alla, the caretaker—share an ongoing love of Chekhov’s work and a curiosity about those who come to visit. They refer to the dacha’s famous ghost, in fact, as Anton Pavlovich, as though he had merely gone down to the river and they were expecting him back after sunset with a basketful of crayfish. They are also very proud of their literary club, which meets at the museum for recitals, lectures, and performances. This is how we keep the intellectual life of the city alive, said Lyudmila; our local intelligentsia is continuing the tradition begun here so long ago.
They adopted me when they found out how far I had come, and why I was there. I was taken to the back room (which had been Masha’s) and plied with tea and cookies and questions, and in return I received more information than my poor head could retain; thankfully there were small guidebooks available and my old film camera cooperated. But for every painstakingly preserved teacup or garden hat or desk lamp in the Chekhov museum, there is an indescribable quality of elegiac emptiness and absence about the old house across the street, which had once been the Lintvaryov residence. It is a crumbling old brick building where the regulation, waist-high green paint on the walls, visible through the gutted windows, reminds us of its last incarnation as a school. The school was closed in the early 1990s;the building that had survived a Revolution, Nazi occupation, the Red Army, and hordes of schoolchildren has not survived twenty-five years of tight-fisted capitalism. Efforts to raise funds privately or interest the government have failed; Lyudmila told me that even an article in the New York Times was unable to rouse any wealthy emigrants or other philanthropists from their apathy.
There is still something there, however, evocative of the summers of 1888-1889. The river for fishing, picnics, swimming, and swinging out on “tarzanka” ropes; the bucolic village of Luka, with its country church and jovial priest. The local people of Sumy do not mind that they are so far from the cultural centers of the world; they know what they have to be proud of. Anton Pavlovich wrote, in one of his letters, “Abbazia and the Adriatic are marvelous, but Luka and the Psyol are better.” His descriptions are filled with the nostalgia of knowing a privileged moment of youth that is all too evanescent; something of this world lingers not only in his stories and plays, but also in present-day Sumy.
When I visited Ukraine in 2010, no one would ever have dreamed of the Russian annexation of Crimea or of the tragic conflict in the east of the country that has taken place over recent years. As I was putting the final touches to The Summer Guest, I realized I must incorporate contemporary events there, at least insofar as they impacted Ana’s journey to Ukraine. Coincidentally (or perhaps not), as I rewrote the final version of the novel I found myself in a small Croatian town a few miles from Abbazia (now Opatija). It seemed fitting to be journeying once more to Luka from that place of longing that Chekhov himself had known.