You don’t always realize the art that goes into a good memoir until you read one that isn’t so good. I came to Anton Chekhov: A Brother’s Memoir with high hopes, but had to admit after the first fifty pages or so that the book (through no fault of the translator) is a bit of a mess.
Translator Eugene Alper had already brought a Chekhov memoir into English, by the author’s doctor Isaak Altshuller. Alper noticed that although reminiscences of Chekhov from authors like Gorky, Kuprin, and Bunin were already in English, little was available from those who presumably knew him best — his own family. With the 150th anniversary of Chekhov’s birth approaching in 2010, Alper decided to translate this work by Chekhov’s brother Mikhail.
Mikhail Chekhov was Anton’s younger brother and one of his five surviving siblings. But A Brother’s Memoir is largely lacking in the kind of intimate detail that you might expect in a memoir by a family member. Several of the anecdotes the author does include show brother Anton as a jerk. As a boy, for instance, he makes one girl cry by calling her The Bug, “thanks to a red dress with black spots that she wore.”
Mikhail regrets that his brother’s correspondence with a friend named Suvorin, which “revealed so much of Anton’s inner landscape,” came to an end, but he doesn’t seem interested in telling us about that inner landscape himself.
Anton and Suvorin would often go fishing near the mill in a simple dugout canoe made out of a tree trunk. They would stand by the mill’s wheels for hours, fishing rods in hand, talking about literature and society.
Really? What did they say? Mikhail doesn’t tell us. Instead he goes on,
It was actually through Suvorin that I met the esteemed Anatoly Fiodorovich Koni. I had seen many of his father’s vaudevilles and respected his scholarly and literary writings, but I had never met him.
Here and elsewhere, Mikhail is careful to fill in the quirks and family histories of peripheral characters while neglecting his brother’s story. For more than nine pages of this short book, he tells us about a tiresome character named V.A. Giliarovsky, who made a strong impression on a visit to the Chekhovs. “Instantly on a first-name basis with everyone, he offered his steely biceps to feel, rolled a coin into a tube, twisted a teaspoon into a screw, let everyone smell his tobacco, did several amazing tricks with cards, told many risqué jokes, and finally departed, leaving a pretty good impression in his wake.”
In addition to its author’s shortcomings, the book suffers from some sketchy editing: typos, erratic punctuation (one parenthesis is opened but never closed), and missing articles. (The original Russian, of course, has no articles.)
Still, there are glimpses of Chekhov here that I was glad to get, and that I don’t imagine are available elsewhere. Mikhail is at his best when describing Anton’s adventurous journey to Sakhalin Island, and his return with a pet mongoose and another creature, “both wild and mean,” which “turned out to be a palm cat, a mongoose-like animal from Southeast Asia.”
The palm cat immediately hid under the bookshelf and only ever came out at night to get food. As for the mongoose, he felt right at home in Moscow and immediately established himself as the master of the house. Endlessly curious, he would stand on his hind legs and poke his pointy nose into every gap and opening. Nothing escaped his attention. He scraped out the dirt between the planks of our wood floors, ripped off wallpaper in search of bugs, jumped into laps and put his nose into people’s glasses of tea, turned over book pages, and put his paw into the inkwell.