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A Jubilee For Anton Chekhov

The Arts Desk, 14th January 2010

Michael Pennington

The Russians have always been good at writers houses. The Soviets especially. When I first saw Tolstoy’s house his blue smock was hanging behind the door, a manuscript was on his desk but the chair was pushed back as if he’d nipped out for a moment and would be back. It was a frankly theatrical effect and the better for it. Like Tolstoy’s, Chekhov’s two houses - one in Melikhovo near Moscow and the other in Yalta in the south - were well funded and maintained and imaginatively presented in those days. Only the last is true now.

When I went to Melikhovo in 1997 it was in the hands of dedicated individuals rather than the state, and while it was certainly pleasant to have an American and a German tour group held at the door so that I, “aktor Angliskie”, could spend half an hour in there on my own, communing, it was disturbing that the information being given out about the house wasn’t always strictly accurate; and far more of it had been restored (a euphemism for copied) than was being acknowledged.

The White Dacha in Yalta, where Chekhov spent the last five years of his life - and wrote Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard - is a different matter: it is much more difficult to access and so never likely to be a tourist attraction, but by contrast it genuinely sings of Chekhov’s spirit. Discreetly tucked away in the midst of beautiful gardens planted by himself, it has the same ambiguous welcome-them but dread-them feel about visitors that Chekhov himself had. Chekhov loved the house, designed it and oversaw its construction, boasting that he had “all the American conveniences” (whatever that quite meant) and one of the first private telephones in the area, on which he could talk to Tolstoy.

The house, like Chekhov himself, is an extraordinary mixture of high aspiration and matter-of-fact details. Chekhov longed for a better life but preferred to talk to his guests about neckties. His house is imposing and confident and cosily welcome within. The entrance hall wide open and friendly, with a case holding champagne glasses that his parents drank from on their wedding day. On the first landing is a wardrobe with the boots and leather coat in which he crossed Siberia, as well as his shirts and summer hats, straight out of the photographs. His sister has a warm and airy room at the top - she was a talented painter. The room he gave to his mother - a pious woman who outlived him by 15 years - is quite stark, with an ikon on the wall. On the wall of the realist Chekhov’s bedroom, on the other hand, hangs a satchel he used when conducting a local census years before - his ikon for progress.

Leading off from the bedroom is the heart of it all - Chekhov’s study, designed for ease (and failing health), with a bed behind his writing chair to collapse into, a view of the bay, a favourite landscape painting on the wall in front of him, everything to hand. In a corner are the hideous gifts the Moscow Art Theatre gave him on the first night of The Cherry Orchard - gifts he detested, whatever the ever loyal museum staff tell you.

When my friend Rosamund Bartlett told me what had been allowed to happen to the house in the last few years, I was shocked. The Russian government declines responsibility for it because since the upheavals in Russia it sits in independent Ukraine. Meanwhile the Ukrainians say, “Well, he was a Russian writer,” and they demur as well. The modicum of government support the house gets comes from the small Crimean Autonomous Region within the Ukraine. Between 2003 and 2007 cracks appeared, the wallpaper peeled, and the land around was surveyed by speculators.

Thanks to the director Ala Golavacheva and her dedicated team - which includes an elderly lady who started work there in the 1950s when Chekhov’s sister was still alive and who knew her well - private money has been raised privately for immediate repairs and adequate security. What is still desperately needed is a long-term contingency so that staff can be paid and problems dealt with as they come up.

Rosamund has just started the Yalta Chekhov Campaign to help, and the idea soon arose for us foreigners to go further - a week at Hampstead, say with writers talking about their Chekhov stories. The writers include William Boyd, Richard Eyre, William Fiennes, Michael Frayn, David hare and Lynne Truss. I added the showbiz element , a top-line cast of performers for the week: Eileen Atkins, Simon Russell Beale, Miriam Margolyes, Rosamund Pike, David Horovitch and Penelope Wilton. And as its roughly his 150th birthday it’ll be a celebration with some usefulness. And very Chekhovian - apprehensive about the future, but comic and full of hope.

You could ask why it matters about bricks and mortar when the hero’s gone. In Chekhov’s particular case, it matters quite a lot. He is loved everywhere, by actors, by writers and by the public. We feel an intimate connection with this wise, complex and above all unassuming man. But he remains elusive, a mystery in the final account. The house tell you much about him in his last years - his sense of proportion, his courage, his feeling for what was right for the people he dealt with. There is no good reason I can think of why future generation should not have the same opportunities we have had, some chance of the same proximity. Better that than a prospector like Lopahin in The Cherry Orchard should buy the land, knock down the cherry trees and build holiday apartments. And believe me, it could happen.

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