Alison Anderson, The Summer Guest (2016)
Alison Anderson is perhaps best known as a translator — maybe you’ve heard of a little phenomenon called The Elegance of the Hedgehog? — but she’s also a novelist in her own right. With her latest novel, The Summer Guest, she seems poised to come to greater prominence in the latter role, with a beautiful and moving story that brings together life, language and literature in a magical way.
The “summer guest” is Anton Chekhov, who at the beginning of his literary career spent two summers on an estate in the eastern Ukraine belonging to the Lintvaryova family. There he met Zinaida Lintvaryova, a young doctor tragically stricken by blindness and seizures that she knew would soon prove fatal. Their growing friendship is the main subject of Zinaida’s diary, in which she painstakingly documents the precious experiences and revelations that illumine her darkness. Most intriguingly, Chekhov tells her of a novel that he is working on, in which he’s striving to do something different from the short stories and drama that come more naturally to him. She becomes almost a working partner to him, giving him the wisdom earned through suffering, even as he gifts her with his wealth of observation and description, his bubbling sense of humor, and his attentive respect.
The diary, though, is only one layer of this multi-faceted narrative. In the present day we meet Katya, a Russian woman now living in Britain with her husband, where they run a publishing company teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. The publication of the diary, Katya hopes, may be a turning point in their fortunes…but it soon becomes clear there are further layers of secrets and intrigue to be uncovered. Is the diary only the beginning of another story?
Then there is Ana, the translator to whom Katya entrusts the manuscript. As she works through its pages, she becomes more and more engrossed in the lives of Chekhov and the Lintvaryovas, and in the idea of the novel that might be waiting to be discovered. Figures from her past come back to haunt her as she starts to investigate what she thinks may be the key to her own future.
As you can tell, there is a lot going on here, and some of the strands are more successful than others. The diary is the strongest and most substantial part, while the stories of Katya and Ana sometimes feel like a distraction, creating tangents that take away from the main narrative. Certain elements — like the present-day troubles in the Ukraine, or Ana’s former love life — feel somewhat haphazardly thrown into the mix, not given quite enough time or depth to be meaningful.
Yet in the end, I did find that the presence of the other two women added poignancy and meaning to Zinaida’s story. The life-giving nature of literature and the vital role of translation, of communion between artistic souls, is seen from different angles and given a new slant. The perspectives of publisher and translator, as well as of writer, reader, listener, and interpreter, come together to show how important stories are to us as human beings, how powerful our need for creating and receiving and living them.
The language is carefully and lovingly crafted, most impressively in the diary, which is written in an English that flows with ease and eloquence and still somehow gives an indefinable sense of being a translation, leaping across the gulf of another language and culture to speak of that which is both foreign and common to us all. I don’t want to think of Zinaida’s diary as a fictional construction, or of her friendship with Chekhov as a novelist’s fantasy, so real and convincing are their interactions, so deeply moving some of the passages in which she speaks of how she lives in the face of approaching death. Here she speaks to Chekhov, or rather to her friend Anton Pavlovich:
I have paused innumerable times since my first headache, my first dizziness. Each time, with each spell, seizure, degree of blindness, I have lost a part of life. Each time fear comes in, showing death to me. You have seen for yourself, from last summer to this, how life is draining out of me…And each time I do not die — although I could choose to let go, see the pointlessness of it all — I do not die because I shake my fist at fear. This is all there is, yet it is still so much. Even I have my moments of hope — not for eternity, not even that I might survive or recover my sight — because I already have survived, and I have learned to see.
Included in the novel is the real obituary that Chekhov wrote for Zinaida, in which he spoke of the “rare and remarkable patience with which [she] endured her suffering.” From such fragments, a few lines in a letter, the known facts of two summer visits, Alison Anderson has brought her people, both real and imagined, past and present, into shimmering life. It may be an illusion, but it’s one of those magical works of fiction that helps us to better see the truth.
This review is part of the TLC Blog Tour for The Summer Guest. Visit TLC to see more reviews and features from the tour.