If you are interested in exploring the 19th century world of Chekhov’s summers in Ukraine, and other aspects related to the novel, there are two posts in the Blog section of this website, as well as some interesting visual material if you open this pdf-link:
A recent piece I wrote that appeared in LitHub will tell you more about Chekhov and his sister, and the Lintvaryov sisters.
The following piece will give you an idea of the inspiration behind the book.
One of the more interesting aspects of being a lifelong reader is to discover which authors and books in one’s personal library stay the course over time, and which ones we consign to the recycle bin with the sad realization that the author no longer speaks to us as he or she once did. Then there are those whose voice was too quiet when we were young, but who now speak with such assurance and such pitch-perfect wisdom and grace that we find them all the more enthralling for having overlooked or underestimated them earlier in life.
Anton Chekhov has been just such an author for me – I read some of the short stories when I was learning Russian, and studied the plays – and while I have always had an enduring affection for Uncle Vanya, I had not yet really explored the innumerable short stories or begun to realize how Chekhov would, for me, come to stand so much taller than all the other great Russians, not to mention any other authors whose work I have loved. In the early years of the new century I began reading the short stories on my way to work, with the help of Janet Malcolm’s wonderful guide, Reading Chekhov, and in a matter of weeks I was sharing my enthusiasm with a friend at lunch who suggested I should write a novel about Chekhov.
It was, and still is, a daunting undertaking, for any number of reasons: you are poking into the private life of a real person (something I swore I would never do again); there would be massive research involved; it would mean taking Russian lessons to revive my dormant knowledge of the language; above all, what would I write about? Particularly as a fiction? It had to be a tribute; it had to be light-hearted and respectful at the same time.
Chekhov had a very interesting love life, but one which could only be supported by speculation and conjecture, since many of the more explicit letters he wrote were destroyed either by his sister Masha in her task as guardian of his literary estate, or by Soviet academics. There might be room for invention, particularly in the case of one Lika Mizinova, who had a rather tragic life that Chekhov reflected in some of his work, but I was not sure I wanted to write a love story, in the end.
Or I could imagine something based on some Chekhov’s own characters, but that seemed trickier still; besides, Chekhov had done a good enough job with his stories, who was I to come along and try to continue them?
Finally he gave me the answer himself, in one of his letters, written in May, 1888, to Suvorin, where he describes the family he has come to spend the summer with in Ukraine. 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 one Zinaida Mikhailovna Lintvaryova, for her vision of him would necessarily be subjective, limited by time and blindness and the constraints of society – but her own feelings could in their way reflect some of the love, admiration and gratitude I have felt toward the writer.
I won’t say that writing the diary of a sightless Ukrainian woman in the 19th century was the easy part, but it was certainly easier than coming up with an ending for story of the beleaguered translator whose job it is to render the diary into English. I went through twenty or thirty different versions, none of which were satisfactory. In the end, like Ana, I went to Ukraine for an answer – to a very different question.
I joined a tour of Crimea – this was well before the 2014 annexation by Russia – that focused on the life of Anton Chekhov and the years he spent in Yalta and its surroundings, led by a congenial British Chekhov scholar and followed by an equally congenial mixture 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, some of which, we discovered, is still very much alive in its way. After the tour was over, I journeyed by rail overnight across nearly all of Ukraine from Simferopol in the south due north to the town of Sumy, where Chekhov spent two summers as a young man – the period described in the novel.
At the time he was twenty-eight years old, unmarried, with a family who were both a great support and a considerable burden: the best way to please everyone and stay cool, literally, was to get out of Moscow for the summer and rent a dacha on a country estate. The estate was Luka, a few miles outside of Sumy; in those days Ukraine was part of the Russian empire and this was a lush, verdant landscape of gentle hills and winding rivers. The family who owned the estate were the Lintvaryovs: mother, three daughters, two sons. The two families became instant friends and their own friends and acquaintances drifted in and out of the main house or the dacha as the summers progressed; there was fishing and swimming, music and recitals, not to mention conversation. There were dramas, including a birth, a marriage, a death, and not a few affairs of the heart. Chekhov describes his time there better than anyone else could; my own interest, as I explored the museum and the estate, was in the Lintvaryov family and their interaction with their soon-to-be-famous summer guest.
In 1960, the centennial of Chekhov’s birth, a small museum was created in the building that had been the summer dacha; from 1919 until then the estate had served as a school. 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…
There are five rooms open to the public: the entrance is a display room with photographs and historical information, a few precious artifacts like his future wife Olga Knipper’s evening bag, and one of Anton Pavlovich’s pince-nez, donated by his sister. The first room to the left is devoted to Chekhov’s brother Nikolay. Behind that room, overlooking the garden to the rear, is where Anton Pavlovich stayed; a simple reconstruction of the way the room must have been, with a writing desk by the window, a day bed in the corner, and a small table 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 a tasteful arrangement of antiques that had belonged either to the Lintvaryovs or to Chekhov’s sister Masha, or were donated by well-wishers—and of the writer himself. Like my companions in Crimea, the women who look after the museum in all senses of the term—Lyudmila Nikolayevna the curator; Anna the guide, Alla the caretaker—share an ongoing love of Chekhov’s work and a curiosity in those who come to visit. They refer to their famous ghost, in fact, as Anton Pavlovich, as if he had merely gone down to the river to fish for a while and would be 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 Nikolayevna; 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 will be again someday soon) and plied with tea and biscuits and questions and more information than my poor head could retain; thankfully there were small guidebooks available and my old camera cooperated.
But for every painstakingly preserved teacup or garden hat or desk lamp in the Chekhov museum, there is an indescribable quantity of elegiac emptiness and absence in the old house across the street that had once been the Lintvaryovs’. It is a crumbling old brick building where the regulation waist-high green paint of its last incarnation as a school is still visible on the walls through the gutted windows. The school was closed in the early 1990s: the building that had survived two world wars, 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 or interest the government have failed, thus far; Lyudmila Nikolayevna said 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 of the summers of 1888-1889: the river for fishing, picnics, swimming and swinging out on “tarzanka” lianas; 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 his Luka lingers not only in his stories and plays, but also in present-day Sumy.
Finally, when I visited Ukraine in 2010 no one would ever have dreamed of the tragic conflict that has since been unfolding in the east of the country, or the annexation of Crimea; as I was putting the final touches to the novel I realized I must incorporate contemporary events, at least insofar as they impacted Ana’s journey to Ukraine. Coincidentally – or perhaps not – I found myself in a small Croatian town just next to Abbazia (now Opatija) as I rewrote the final version of the novel; it seemed fitting to be journeying once more to Luka from that place of longing that Chekhov himself had known.