A newly uncovered 19th-century diary describes a brief but vivid friendship between the writer and a young Anton Chekhov.
The literary press that Katya Kendall runs with her husband is in danger of failing when they come across a project that could keep them afloat: a diary, written in Russian in the late 19th century, by a young woman named Zinaida Mikhailovna. Trained as a doctor, Zina, as her family calls her, has recently been blinded by an unnamed illness. She's dying, but she begins writing in the diary to keep herself occupied. (She uses a notched ruler to track her writing across the page, since she can’t see it.) But what makes this diary truly momentous is Zina’s friendship with a young man whose family rents the guesthouse connected to her family's rural estate. Like Zina, the young man, Anton Pavlovich, has been trained as a doctor, but he is also a writer. Katya and the translator she hires to work on the diary, Ana, immediately recognize this young man as Anton Chekhov. 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. Like Zina, both Katya and Ana are, to greater or lesser degrees, isolated from others and, because of that isolation, thrown into a period of reflection. Like Zina, they ruminate upon the past, the various whims—of fate and of their own—that have steered them to where they are now. Anderson’s characterizations of Katya, Ana, Zina, and the young Chekhov are delightfully complex, and she treats them with patience, sensitivity, and sympathy. Her prose is the height of elegance. Here’s hoping that she follows this novel with more of her own.
An exceptional novel about the transcendent possibilities of literature, friendship, and contemplation.