By Alison Anderson
Harper Perennial, 2017
“I’m very nostalgic for the nineteenth century,” says Katya, a character in this absolutely marvelous novel by Alison Anderson.
What she means is she’s nostalgic for the world of the Russian writer, Anton Chekhov. Charming, brilliant, and a physician as well as a writer, Chekhov darts in and out of the pages of The Summer Guest, candid and yet inaccessible through the barrier of time and language. Not only that. Through these pages he comes across as immensely attractive, and classically unavailable to the women who love him. This story is told in the voices of three women who are obsessed with him. They are Katya, a Russian-born partner with her husband Peter in a failing London publishing firm, Ana, whom they’ve hired to translate a Russian diary Katya and Peter say they have discovered, and the writer of the diary itself. It is by a nineteenth century Russian doctor, Zinaida Mikhailovna Lintvaryov, The Lintvaryov family – real people – rented the guesthouse of their peaceful and prosperous Ukrainian farm to the Chekhov family in the summers of 1888 and 1889. The sisters were unusual for the time. Their widowed mother, recognizing that the girls were not pretty, encouraged them to become economically self-sufficient. One daughter, Natasha, is a teacher. Elena and Zinaida (Zina) are doctors. Zinaida however, is stricken with a brain tumor. This has rendered her blind, though still able to write. Perhaps it is her blindness and vulnerability that draws Anton Pavlovich Chekhov to her. The two chat daily during the summers. Through their talk the reader understands the meaning of literature, the economic imperative that caused Chekhov to write short stories and plays rather than a novel, the loyalty to family that each of them feels.
Through the diary we get a picture of Russia at the end of the nineteenth century, where educated people exchanged ideas that were forward thinking. It’s an idyllic picture of family life and mutual responsibility. It is heartbreaking to think that Russia once had a chance at democracy. This theme is echoed through the book in the voice of Katya, who recalls meeting her husband Peter when he was a student visiting Moscow in the nineteen eighties. He did not understand, she recalls, the constant fear. And Ana, translating the Russian text in 2014, wants to visit the Ukraine and the site of Chekhov’s summer with the Lintevaryovs, but is frightened because of the unrest unfolding in the Crimea.
The contrast between Zinaida’s life as she faces death comforted and surrounded by a loving family, and Ana’s twenty-first century life, untethered by family or romantic attachments, and Katya, trapped by the false promise of capitalism as her business fails during the lingering economic crisis, is thought-provoking. In each case, love is thwarted, too. For Zina, death is on the horizon, for Ana, a divorce has left her rudderless, for Katya a troubled marriage drags her down. For all of them, Chekhov’s words provide a bridge to understanding. In Zina’s case, this is more than metaphor as the writer vividly describes scenes Zina can no longer see.
Fundamentally, this is an elegy for a moment in history, for a slower, more natural world, for the need for connection, for literature as the pathway to understanding our fellow human beings. Ana, the translator, exemplifies the difficulty of trying to get across in another language what someone from another century felt and said. Katya, the publisher, understands the importance of getting across the author’s words, but faces the practical difficulty of doing so. Zinaida, facing death, mourns her short time on earth. Chekhov, amiable, popular, funny, loyal, speaks of the problem of finding time to write. But all try, so that we, despite our moments of suffering alone, have through literacy, the possibility of empathy. As Ana says toward the end of the book, Was not that the beauty of fiction, that it aimed closer at the bitter heart of truth than any biography could, that it could search out the spirit of those who may or may not have lived, and tell their story not as it had unfolded, as a series of objective facts recorded by an indifferent world, but as they had lived it, and above all, felt it?
I really loved this book.