All I knew heading into The Summer Guest was that it was by Alison Anderson, who translated Muriel Barbary’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog which is such a fantastic book that I hope you have read (or will now go and read!).
Its synopsis begins:
What if Anton Chekhov, undisputed master of the short story, secretly wrote a novel—a manuscript hidden long ago that might have survived?
And that may have plenty of people going ooh. And… here is where I admit to you that I have not read Chekhov’s stories. This probably will appall some of you. You’re wondering, what business do I have reading this book?
But here’s the thing, it’s not all that important to have read Chekhov’s work to enjoy The Summer Guest. Sure, you may have a better understanding of things but it’s ok. I still really liked reading the book anyway. And it has also made me want to read Chekhov now, whom, you have to admit is quite a dashing man.
The Summer Guest unfolds from three different perspectives.
We have the diary, a newly uncovered diary from the 19th century, written in Russian by Zinaida Mikhailovna, a young woman trained as a doctor but recently blinded by an illness. She keeps the journal to fill her hours, now that she is unable to work. Anton Chekhov and his family rent the guesthouse on her family’s country estate and they become friendly.
Then we have Katya Kendall who runs a small publishing company with her husband Peter in London in 2014. Their business isn’t doing well so they hope that this diary by Zinaida Mikhailovna will help get them back on their feet. Their marriage isn’t doing very well either.
Ana Harding is a translator who lives in France, and who once worked with Katya’s company. Her Russian “was perfectly adequate, but she didn’t go looking for translations from Russian; they found her.” She takes on the project, as she had no reason to refuse, a job is a job, she needs the money. But she soon “befriended the diarist in that odd way translators sometimes have, if they are lucky, of knowing their authors through a text, of inhabiting their identity and seeing through their eyes”.
Anderson, as a translator herself as well as a novelist herself, fully understands the difficulty of being one.
“She had had enough of being invisible, of slipping inconspicuously behind the more glamorous author whose photograph beckoned from the back cover of a book they had both written. As translator, she mused, she was no more than the lining of the dust jacket. This substance she craved – beyond meaningful texts, beyond creativity – should lead to an identity.”
There are long excerpts from the diary, observations about country life, conversations between Anton and Zinaida, Zinaida’s reminisces about her life. But there is also talk about alcoholism, consumption and other problems of 19th century Russia. And of course, the sad fact that Zinaida, the young and intelligent Zinaida, is wasting away from her illness.
In the bed I inhabited a warm, safe place. The sound of my breathing lulled me into memory: childhood. Papa, before. With us still. Outings to the islands on the river. Games in the field. Snowdrifts against the house where we hid. Sleigh rides. The thaw, Easter. The kulich and paskha and brightly colored eggs: the days of feasting and dancing. The priest blessing the house. The visitors, telling us how we’d grown.
The Summer Guest is a quiet novel. It is gentle and feels like it should be read sitting on a riverbank, under the shade of a willow tree, with some cold lemonade swigged from a bottle and strawberry sandwiches wrapped in brown paper. But gentle does not mean easy or simple. It has such beautiful, elegant prose, a well-constructed plot, complex characters and an ending that made me sit up and rethink the whole story. It may not be a book that you race through, but it is a book that stays with you, that makes you consider the importance of translators. And now I am so completely intrigued by Anton Chekhov, who, as Alison Anderson writes in a blog post:
“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.”
ALISON ANDERSON, a native Californian, works as a literary translator in the Swiss Alps. Her many translations include the Europa edition of Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Ingrid Betancourt’s memoir, and the work of JMG De Clezio. She has also written two previous novels and is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literary Translation Fellowship, as well as fellowships at the prestigious MacDowell Colony and the Hawthornden Retreat for Writers.
Find out more about Alison at her website.