I just enjoy translating, it’s like opening one’s mouth and hearing someone else’s voice emerge.
I gamble on a lot of books by authors I’m not familiar with, often giving up on them after fifty pages or so. Life is too short to slog through books I don’t enjoy. I picked up The Summer Guest after sampling several books that didn’t capture my attention, thinking I’d probably be adding it to the pile of disappointments. The author, Alison Anderson, is an award-winning translator, perhaps best known for translating The Elegance of the Hedgehog from the French — yet another well-regarded book I failed to finish. Also, I was annoyed by the title. Justin Cronin wrote a lovely book by that name about ten years ago. I’ll never understand why authors recycle a title; it seems to marginalize the first book, as if it’s been forgotten by now.
I shouldn’t have worried, because not only did I finish The Summer Guest, I’m sure I’ll be adding it to my list of favorite books of the year. Anderson’s elegantly constructed novel, like all the books I love, engages both the mind and the heart. Readers will learn about Chekhov, Russian and Ukrainian history, and the art of translation, and they will reflect on the meaning of love and friendship.
The “summer guest” in the novel is Anton Chekhov, who rents a cottage on the estate of the Lintvaryov family in eastern Ukraine. Chekhov, a doctor who writes short stories and plays to earn extra cash, develops a close friendship with Zinaida Lintvaryova, who is also a doctor but has recently become blinded by illness. Zinaida keeps a diary chronicling her relationship with Chekhov. When the diary surfaces more than 100 years later, London publisher Katya Kendall hires Ana Harding to translate — and to help solve the mysteries it contains. Did Chekhov write a novel during the time he spent on the Lintvaryov estate? The missing novel could change literary history, and also revitalize Ana Harding’s career and make it possible for Katya Kendall’s publishing house to survive:
Ana: “What did she really expect from the lost novel? Why did the thought of it cause a knot in her stomach, a jolt of sleep-depriving adrenaline? Because it would change her life. It would respond to yearning, fill a void.”
Katya: “She imagined the money coming in, the thrill of being not only solvent but also able to turn things around. To defy the recession and geopolitics and the received opinions of the publishing world . . . Ah, Zinaida, miracles do happen.”
There will be no literal miracle for Zinaida, who suffers from an incurable illness. The miracles that Katya and Ana discover — and I’m not giving anything away — are the magic of literature and the power of the imagination. In a discussion with the director of a Ukrainian museum devoted to Chekhov, Ana explores the meaning of fiction:
Was that not 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 unfolded, as a series of objective facts recorded by an indifferent world, but as they had lived it and, above all, felt it? Was there a finer way to honor friendship, and love, and being in the world?
In an article on Lithub, Anderson describes how her reading life inspired her to write The Summer Guest:
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 . . .
Anderson says Chekhov’s letters, in which he describes the Lintvaryov family, were the starting point for the novel. Zinaida’s perspective allows her to present a subjective view of Chekhov, “limited by time and blindness and the constraints of society”, and Zinaida’s feelings reflect the “love, admiration and gratitude” that Anderson feels toward the writer.
Anderson estimates she went through twenty or thirty different versions of the novel, struggling most with the ending: “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 the story of the beleaguered translator whose job it is to render the diary into English.” The ending, which involves a twist the reader may or may not anticipate, perfectly ties together the novel’s three storylines — Zinaida’s, Ana’s, and Katya’s.
The three characters all struggle to translate both life and language. As Zinaida loses her sight, she relies on Chekhov to interpret the world for her. Katya, a native Russian speaker, sees her language as her “greatest comfort and pride” and laments the “relative poverty” of English. Clinging to the language of her childhood is damaging her relationship with her husband and business partner. Ana finds that the Russian language has taught her something “completely unexpected and equally precious: another way of seeing the world”.