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Book Review

Chekhov: Scenes from a Life

An Interview with the Author: Rosamund Bartlett

In the best traditions of Moscow, with a small bribe of a suitably brick-like wedge of black bread and a bottle of Nemiroff, Passport’s Lara Howlett was able to talk to Rosamund Bartlett, a most unlikely academic (in the most flattering way possible) about a very singular obsession. She met with the author as she raced through Moscow on a classical music tour.

Ms Bartlett– when did you first come across Chekhov, and why has he, among all Russian writers, become your work?

I first came across Chekhov when I was twelve years old. The French family I used to stay with took me to see The Seagull in Paris. It was a very minimalist production, my French was lousy, and I thought Chekhov was dull, dull, dull... When I came to study Chekhov as part of my Russian degree later on, we studied The Cherry Orchard, and by then I had changed my mind. It was not until I was asked to teach an entire course on Chekhov when I was at the University of Michigan, however, that I came to fall in love with his prose as well – partly thanks to all the creative writing students who think of Chekhov as the founder of the modern short story rather than just as a Russian writer. When teaching in English I felt that Chekhov has not always been well served by his translators, which is why I began to work so closely with his work.

For those not reading in Russian, what is it about his style you find so unusual for the time?

Chekhov is a very musical writer, and I try to reproduce the particular rhythms of his extremely modern prose style… And if previous translators have brought out his slightly hard-edged satirical side, I wanted to reveal him as a deeply poetic, lyrical writer. The invitation to write a new biography really fell out of the sky, and initially I was not at all sure we needed a new account of Chekhov’s life. Then I was asked to produce a new edition of his letters, so ended up publishing three books to mark the centenary of Chekhov’s death last summer.

Chekhov Scenes from a Life is a biography with a twist, where you examine his intimate relationship with his surroundings and how the landscape informed his work…the “impressionistic approach” as you call it. Where did the idea come from? This preoccupation with the ‘Russian Soil’; is this as typical as they say among Russian writers?

My approach to Chekhov’s life was inspired directly by the experience of translating his stories. There is this cliche about Chekhov being very “closed”, and it is true that in his relationships with people he was always very guarded; so this presents a problem for a biographer wanting to penetrate his personality. But he is completely unbuttoned when he is writing about landscape in his stories, as I have discovered, and I came to see that the way into this most elusive of writers was to focus on his relationship with places rather than with people – to approach his life obliquely in other words. Chekhov’s chief source of inspiration was the southern Russian steppe, which lay just beyond the provincial town where he grew up, and where he had his first adventures as a teenager. My approach is a homage to Chekhov’s own writing style, and informed by the belief that you do not need to say everything in order to convey a sense of someone’s life. I hope something of Chekhov’s warmth, his humour, his quirks, and his extraordinary bravery, has come across, even though I have been quite selective. To sum up, Chekhov is a deeply unconventional writer, and what I absolutely did not want to do was write yet another conventional biography.

Was it enjoyable to write? Were you there, perched on a hill, surveying the house he wrote from?

I have to say that I have never enjoyed writing anything more. Chekhov is such an inspiring human being! One of the few people you end up admiring more rather than less having probed the details of his life. With his mordant sense of humour, Chekhov would have maybe appreciated the fact that I began with his death in the spa town of Badenweiler, in Germany’s Black Forest.

What in particular is missing from his other biographies?

Well, does it not say a great deal, for example, that Chekhov chose to fraternise almost exclusively with Russians when staying on the Cote D’Azur, and even lived in a modest Russian pension, despite Nice’s reputation as one of the grandest of European resorts? I went to visit it, and imagined him writing stories about Russian country life while staring out at a garden of palm trees, or feeling very ill closeted in his room while hearing musicians playing underneath his window and bravely pretending to his sister that all was well. Those sorts of things said everything to me. The six months Chekhov spent in Nice in 1897-1898 are usually skipped over in accounts of his life.

You capture it so well; while reading I really felt I must visit these places you write about! Did you manage to visit each site that played such an important role in his life? The Melikhovo country estate? Taganrog? The steppe?

It was absolutely vital for me to know all the places Chekhov lived in; yes – I could not have written the book without firsthand knowledge. I only did not make it to Sakhalin, but have travelled to Siberia in the past. I certainly share Chekhov’s love of Moscow, which is one of my favourite cities. (I also find Petersburg a bit cold and forbidding by comparison.)

His connection with Moscow, Malaya Dmitrovka, or what was once Ulitsa Chekhova...what happened on this street that is intimately linked to Chekhov?

This street had so many associations with Chekhov that it was renamed after him in 1944, on the 40th anniversary of his death. He lived on this street at various points of his life (in flats 11, 12, and 29), and as a young man he spent much time at the editorial offices of the comic journal The Spectator, which was located at number 1.

The preoccupation with his health, and his awareness based upon his medical career – this frustration that he faced as a result of his illness; is this something that colours his writing?

Chekhov knew he had contracted tuberculosis in 1884, at the age of 24, and it is interesting, I think, that the note of elegy which is such a hallmark of his mature writing begins precisely at this point. Up until then his writing was almost purely comic; afterwards it acquires that peculiar mixture of comedy and tragedy which is so endearing and also so modern. The knowledge that he would die young turned Chekhov from a talented into a great artist, particularly when a senior figure in the literary establishment told him to take his writing more seriously…. The frustration that he experienced as a sick man is, I think, reflected in the way that all his writing – his stories and his plays – ask the reader to make the most of his or her life. That is the main reason why so many of his characters are rather miserable; although there was a lot to feel rather grim about in Russia in the 1880s and 1890s. Chekhov loved to be outdoors most of all; he had a very nomadic, restless spirit, and it was hard for him to be stuck at home so much. This feeling of suffocation is particularly pronounced, I think, in Three Sisters, when he was marooned in Yalta away from all his friends.

Available from Amazon and UK major bookstores.

Music at the Garden House

By Patricia Le Roy

A Review by Cheryl-Ann Tan

Patricia Le Roy’s romance-filled spy thriller is a sequel to her novel, Lenin’s Ghost. Le Roy’s bold method in using a “he-says-she-says narrative” to create a harrowing thriller speaks of her masterful storytelling skills. While John le Carre himself admitted that he found it hard to put women on the page, Le Roy is not only at ease with female characters and romance (though it may be a tad too Harlequin-like for some), but with the intrigue and tension that one often associates with spy novels as well.

Set in the time frame of a decaying USSR after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Axel, a disillusioned KGB officer, decides to smuggle secret documents about Soviet plans to sabotage a reunified Germany. Found out and chased by his former organization, he comes to seek the help of a journalist, Stephen, he had once worked for in Moscow. Instead, he stumbles in on Stephen’s wife, Katherine, with whom he had an affair ten years before in Moscow. With the KGB hot on their trail, Axel and Katherine make a wild dash across Europe. Meanwhile, webs of lies and secrecy accumulated over a decade of silence that surrounded Katherine and Axel start to slowly unfold in uncanny ways, and Katherine starts to question herself whether she should trust and help this KGB officer , the lover who had left her without a word. Katherine also faces the question of deciding should she climb out of the emotional hibernation that she went into when she was caught in a loveless marriage to a workaholic journalist, or open herself up to Axel, who had betrayed her, but had truly loved her once.

Le Roy’s sophisticated yet highly readable style seems to be rare for the gritty espionage genre. Music at the Garden House will keep you reading to the last page the moment you have snuggled into bed with the book and turned on the lamp on your nightstand. The author’s memorable cast of characters and their voices will linger in your mind long after you have closed the book.

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