#SakhalinIsland: The Humanity of Chekhov

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know and appreciate Chekhov. We had an actress family friend who performed in The Seagull, so I saw that at a very tender age. I then went through a spell of imagining myself performing in each one of his plays. Of course, I also appreciated his short stories and I knew some biographical details about his life as a doctor and how he supported his family.

I didn’t, however, realise the full extent of his compassion and humanitarian commitment, until I read his non-fiction book Sakhalin Island as part of a #ChekhovTogether readalong with Yelena Furman, Alok Ranjan, Todd, Elisabeth van der Meer and Herb Randall. This also fits in with my Russians in December reading plan. The next one I’ll be tackling will be The Brothers Karamazov, the only Dostoevsky that I’ve not been able to read so far.

Nobody is quite sure why Chekhov at the age of thirty decided to go on a lengthy trip to the penal colony of Sakhalin in 1890. He was not really a militant journalist and he did not go there in any official capacity as a health expert either, yet the book is both a triumph of social (and medical) anthropology and a remarkable piece of investigative journalism. It almost certainly accelerated the progression of his tuberculosis and robbed him of a few months of life, but it was perhaps partly motivated by the recent death of his brother and the fact that he had recently been diagnosed himself with the same dreaded disease.

What Chekhov has given us here is a clear-eyed, empathetic but by no means sentimental account of daily life in the colony, based on his own statistical and qualitative research. As an anthropologist, you can imagine how much I enjoyed this combination of the general and the very specific examples and personal stories. According to Sakhalin officials, Chekhov possessed a remarkable gift for gaining the prisoners’ confidence. It’s equally undeniable that he was moved (and shocked) by what he saw there, so he continued to study documents about Sakhalin’s history, particularly under the Russian administration, and made recommendations for improving living and working conditions for both convicts and settlers (most often composed of freed exiles). The Tsarist bureaucratic machine obviously feared too much negative publicity and therefore assigned ‘helpers’ to him as he went about his interviewing (under the pretext of census-taking). Chekhov himself was aware of the danger of seeing only what he was allowed to see and described it as ‘seeing everything but missing the elephant’. He sought to be balanced and thoughtful in his approach, but he was quite critical both about the system (and its policies):

It seemed to me that I was seeing the extreme and utmost degree of human degradation, lower than which it is simply impossible to go…

Penalties which humiliate and embitter a criminal, long since acknowledged as injurious to the free population, have been retained for convicts, as if a population of exiles is in less danger of becoming hardened and embittered.

And about the people who implement the policies on the ground: the prison wardens, governors and officials in Sakhalin:

In the labour camps served people who were unscrupulous, unsqueamish, difficult to get on with, to whom it was all the same where they served, as long as they could eat, drink, sleep and play cards.

He really would have made a terrific, empathetic anthropologist. He describes the native populations of the islands as well – or what remained of them – the Gilyaks and the Ainu, and is not complimentary about the way they have been treated by either the Japanese or the Russians in this disputed territory:

General K told me that he wished to Russify the Gilyaks. Why this should be necessary I do not know… proximity to a prison will not Russify, but only totally corrupt…

After claiming that the Russians freed the Ainu from the quasi-serfdom they suffered under the Japanese, he then describes at some length the brutalisation of the Ainu by Cossack Lt. Chorny, who boasts: ‘That’s how we do things in Russia!’

Unsurprisingly, Chekhov is not only able to see the monstrous behaviour in people placed in positions of power, but he is always able to view with compassion the weaknesses of marginalised people, or those labelled by society as ‘monsters’.

I was told that at one time there had been benches standing on the path to the lighthouse, but they had been forced to take them away because, while out strolling, the convicts and settled exiles had written on them and had carved with their knives filthy lampoons and all sorts of obscenities. There are a lot of free lovers of this so-called “wall literature” too, but, in penal servitude, the cynicism surpasses all limits and absolutely no comparison may be made with it. Here, not only benches and the walls of backyards, but even the love letters, are revolting. It is remarkable that a man will write and carve various abominations on a bench while at the same time he is feeling lost, abandoned and profoundly unhappy.

Given the rather grim subject matter, I wasn’t expecting much humour in this book, but there are plenty of wry asides, especially about the inclement weather and unforgiving landscape:

What they say about Sakhalin is that there is no climate here, just bad weather… most inclement spot in Russia… When Nature created Sakhalin the last thing she had in mind was mankind and his benefit.

Yet there are also instances when the writer in Chekhov seems to be awestruck and inspired by the endless solitude:

All around there is not a single living soul, not a bird, not a fly, and it is beyond comprehension who the waves are roaring for, who listens to them at nights here… who they would roar for when I was gone..

Sadly, I understand this remote landscape is no longer quite so pristine, but echoing constantly to the drills of oil and gas companies, both on land and offshore.

Sakhalin-2 Offshore, Gasprom/Shell.

I read this book in a beautiful edition from Alma Classics, with a new translation by Brian Reeve, invaluable annotations/endnotes by both the author and the translator, and further enhanced by the presence of related documents, such as impressions of his trip through Siberia, as well as letters to relatives and friends.

Last of the Summer Reading: Summerwater and The Summer Guest

I read two books with summer in their title to ease me into autumn. I’m not quite ready for autumn yet, when I feel I haven’t really had a summer (or at least the nice bits of summer, only the heat). Luckily, we have a few summer days to look forward to this coming week. Both of these books were both fun, but also thoughtful, lyrical, filled with characters I wanted to get to know better,and very evocative in their setting.

Sarah Moss: Summerwater

Sarah Moss is one of the authors I will read without questioning: her work is always interesting and tries to push the boundaries, even if it’s not always 100% successful. This latest book is more in the vein of what one might call the ‘exasperated humour’ of contemporary family life of Night Waking rather than her historical fiction, such as Bodies of Light or Signs for Lost Children. 

A random assortment of families or couples are spending their summer cooped up in log cabins in a Scottish holiday park. Of course it is raining. ‘It can’t keep up like that all day, there can’t be that much water up there’, people are reassuring themselves, but for most of the day it does. The author seems to be having fun finding different ways to describe the relentless, never-ending downpour. ‘Rain is God’s way of stopping Scots having sinful levels of fun’. Or ”the Scottish sky is better at obscenity than any human voice’.

Understandably, tempers are frayed, especially since there is a foreign family having parties until late at night in one of the cabins (they are variously – and carelessly – described as Romanians, Bulgarians, Polish, although in fact they are from the Ukraine, with that typical lack of curiosity about geographical precision that comes from people who would be very miffed if you confused their Yorkshire accent with a Brummie one, or Minnesota with Michigan).

We get to see fitness fanatic Justine, bored of her rather judgemental husband, using running as an excuse to escape the children for a couple of hours and despising anyone who isn’t as driven as she is. Elderly David, a retired doctor, and his wife Mary – the chapter from her point of view, being one of the most moving portrayals of gradual sinking into dementia, grasping at notions and words. Young couple Josh and Milly, who are planning to get married and are doing a test run of domestic life with sex-fuelled days, and some lacklustre cooking and conversation. Lola and Jack, young kids bored with their parents – an overly anxious mother and a father who’s taken his work with him on holiday, so they wander around looking for someone to play with – or bully. A family with utterly fed up teenagers, each embarking on potentially dangerous activities.  A family with even younger children, struggling so much to find ways to keep them entertained that they forget to look after themselves.

There are a lot of amusing and recognisable vignettes of family life, across a range of ages and political beliefs, but I believe the author intends to do more than that. This is designed to be a ‘state of the nation’ novel, albeit on a small scale, and that’s why she also brings in descriptions of nature, of the environment, the climate and how humans link to it, what will stay behind once the humans have left. I accept all that and found it worked for me on the whole, really enjoyed the book most of the way through. But then, for some reason, it seems to stop abruptly, with a sudden dramatic event. It felt too rushed: I’d have liked to hear more from each of the different voices, perhaps their reactions to the event, or some kind of conclusion.

Alison Anderson: The Summer Guest

I’ve known Alison Anderson as a translator from French into English (Muriel Barbery, Le Clézio, Amélie Nothomb), but she also speaks excellent Russian, and she uses her knowledge of the country, its literature and culture, to evoke the late 19th century in the Ukraine, as well as the present (the novel was published in 2016 and is set in 2014). In the modern day we have Katya, a London publisher of Russian origin, who is hoping that the recently unearthed diary of Zinaida Lintvaryova will resurrect her fortunes, as well as the translator Ana, who falls in love with Zinaida’s voice and of course with her famous guest.

Who is the famous summer guest? Well, Zinaida kept a diary of the three years in the late 1880s, during which she and her family hosted on their rural estate in north-eastern Ukraine the writer Chekhov and his family for the summer. Zinaida had qualified as a doctor, but had to stop practising, as she was blinded by a fatal illness. Chekhov forms a great bond with her, based partly on their shared profession, but above all on her great listening skills and unsentimental, uncomplaining approach to life. He ends up entrusting her with the manuscript of a novel that he has been trying to write. Ana gets overexcited at the thought that there might be a lost Chekhov novel and that she might be the one to translate it.

Not only do we have lush descriptions of country life and family squabbles, love interests and disappointments, but also what Chekhov describes as ‘living well, inspecting each moment for honesty and fullness and awareness’. I just loved the fascinating discussions about literature and human psychology between Anton Pavlovich (who was just starting to gain fame as a writer at that time) and Zinaida. For instance, this revealing passage about Anna Karenina, in which Chekhov states:

… if we all had Anna’s desperate soul, the world would descend into a chaos of tragedy. That was Tolstoy’s vision for the novel, based on a true incident – so such things do happen. But most often… banality. Which is why I prefer to err on the side of comedy. Otherwise life would be altogether too hard to bear, don’t you think? If love always led to train platforms? All this passion tearing people apart, sending decent women out into the night without so much as a bonnet on their head?

But the present-day story also has its merits, with thoughts on translation and mediating between cultures, and displacement more generally, as well as love and its loss, and even the protests on the Maidan in Kiev in 2014. There is even a bit of a mystery attached to it. Overall, an enchanting, dreamy book, one I wish I’d read much sooner.

 

Reading and Events Summary for January 2020

In addition to my Japanese reading extravaganza past and present, I had a very enjoyable month of reading, which almost made up for the fact that this month must have been at least seven weeks long, filled with school evenings, financial and other administrative matters, anxiety on our close about an attempted burglary and other dreary stuff. I read a total of 12 books, 4 for the January in Japan challenge (of which I only reviewed three), 5 which might be labelled crime fiction (or psychological thrillers, although I am starting to dislike the latter label, which has been overused recently), 5 in translation and 5 off my Netgalley list (I am sooo behind with my reviews there).

Other than books, I also had some more pleasant encounters this month than the ones with my mortgage advisor or bank manager. Here’s a quick summary:

Stranger Things Secret Cinema – It’s become a tradition that for my older son’s birthday on the 1st of January my present is an experience rather than an object. It may or may not be precisely on his birthday but it will fall in his birthday month, to make it slightly more bearable. We really liked watching Stranger Things on Netflix together, especially the first series, so this year we went to an immersive Stranger Things experience with some of his friends, dressed up as a rocker (him) and a New Romantic (me), enjoying 80s music, following a trail of clues and scenes from the series with actor look-alikes, all finishing with a sort of summary of the three series on giant screens.

The Irishman and Little Women – My older son has also become quite a film buff and is forever sharing his list of Top 50 films with me (subject to constant revision, of course, because there are so many of the classics he hasn’t seen yet). He liked both of the films above, but we agreed that Goodfellas is better than The Irishman (and shorter). Personally, although I loved the interpretation of Jo, and the beautiful, painterly backdrops and colours of Little Women, I didn’t fall quite as much in love with it as I was expecting.

Uncle Vanya at the Harold Pinter Theatre was a marvellous mix of frustration, seething resentments, luxuriously decaying scenery and excellent actors. Toby Jones was surprisingly good as Vanya (not because he is not a wonderful actor, but because I had a more louche, younger-looking Vanya in mind), while Aimee Lou Wood as Sonya broke my heart a little with her wide-eyed, coltish naivety. Above all, I liked the way the humour and bad behaviour was brought to the forefront, which is not always the case. Most adaptations of Chekhov are unbearably gloomy. Another thing which felt fresh was the prominence given to the doctor’s discourse about the loss of the forest, not just the demise of an old way of life but an actual environmental disaster.

Poetry Class – I trekked over to Chiswick to attend a Coffee House Poetry class with Anne-Marie Fyfe on the topic of homes and houses. Having lived in something like 20-30 houses throughout my life, you can imagine that I have a huge untapped reservoir there for poetic inspiration. The class (first of two, second to follow shortly) was full of talented and supportive people, and we were given challenging but interesting homework until next time. Now all I need to do is actually write… if I can find time for it…. What was the name of my blog again? Nothing’s improved in the past 8 years, then!

Meeting old school friends

At some point during our time there, the English School Vienna became the Vienna International School. For most of us, it was one of the happiest times of our lives, so of course we love meeting up after so long! Three of us girls were The Three Musketeers, while the others were the ‘annoying’ younger sisters or the ‘annoying boy’ who wanted to hang around with us. All very much loved and appreciated now, of course.

Making new blogging friends – I got to go to Uncle Vanya thanks to the lovely Aliki Chapple, whom I’d been chatting with occasionally on Twitter, so it was a great pleasure to meet her in real life. We share some common Greek experiences, as well as a passion for theatre (although in her case it is far more professional than mine). I also got to meet an old Twitter acquaintance Amateur Reader Tom, who was visiting London with his wife, an academic interested in both French and German history and literature. I introduced them to my favourite Greek restaurant near work and we chatted about France, Britain and the Quais du Polar (Tom lived in Lyon for a while). In future, I should make all my friends via Twitter or blogging, because after a few years of exchanging ideas about books, films and cultural events, you have so much more in common than you do with people you encounter randomly as neighbours or parents at school.

One other thing that has taken up virtually all of my ‘spare’ time this month, which has been as urgent as my admin (but nothing like as dreary) has been translation work. But more about that in a short while! Lots of exciting news coming up in this respect!

Plans for next month? What country should I ‘attack’ next? Since I am so busy translating myself, I actually want to read things written in English (because I seem to have forgotten all the slang and natural sounding expressions in English while translating), so I think I will opt for some English, Scottish, Irish and perhaps American memoirs and essays. I’ve already started with Deborah Orr’s Motherwell, while Janice Galloway, Kathleen Jamie, Jacqueline Rose’s Mothers and Maggie Gee have been waiting far too long on my shelves.

Most Obscure on My Shelves – the Hardbacks

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

Still on the right-hand side of my home library, I have those fine hardback books or special editions, which are bigger and bolder and more expensive than my usual paperback collections.

Pierre Bourdieu: Outline of a Theory of Practice

Published ages ago in 1972, it was still a required text when I began studying anthropology but has fallen out of favour since, I believe. Yet its chapter on sources of power and ‘Modes of Domination’ still rings true and very prescient. Legitimising the established order is done not just through law, but through education, not just through ideology but also through:

the overt connection between qualifications and jobs as a smokescreen for the connection –  which it records surreptitiously, under cover of formal equality – between the qualifications people obtain and the cultural capital they have inherited.

In other words, meritocracy is fantasy, in a world where the starting positions are already so weighed against certain categories of people. Bourdieu also notes that wealth , the ultimate basis of power, can only exert power durably when it is invested heavily with symbolic capital. The myth of those wonderfully talented bankers who are creating wealth for the nation, which will have a trickle-down effect, for instance.

This probably qualifies for ‘most boring cover’, because of course it is a serious work which cannot deal with such fripperies as design.

Barbara Pym: A Very Private Eye

This is an autobiography in diaries, letters and notebooks written by Barbara Pym., edited by her sister Hilary Pym and her friend Hazel Holt. Pym is one of my favourite English writers of the 20th century, but I knew very little about her life other than that she worked for the International African Institute for many years and had a sardonic view of anthropologists. This book was a present from a dear friend during my time in Cambridge.

Here is a lovely, poignant, feisty quote:

What is wrong with being obsessed with trivia? Some have criticised The Sweet Dove for this. What are the minds of my critics filled with? What nobler and more worthwhile things?

Alison Anderson: The Summer Guest

Alison is a wonderful writer and translator from French, part of the Geneva Writers Group. She has given us the voices of Muriel Barbery, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, Jean-Philippe Blondel, Amelie Nothomb, Anna Gavalda and LeClezio in English. This novel, published in 2016, is inspired by historical events and chronicles a summer in the life of Anton Chekhov and his friendship with a young girl, Zinaida, who is fatally ill. It is also the story of the missing manuscript of a novel that Chekhov is alleged to have written, so moves backwards and forwards in time. So there is a strong literary theme and a translation theme running through it, as well as a meditation on friendship and love which transcends time and place. Perfect summer reading, and I intend to do just that this summer…