No, that isn’t the title of some strange book I’ve discovered but rather a description of this week’s reading experience. The Brick is “Sakhalin Island” by Chekhov which I’ve been struggling with over the past several days – it’s a thick volume from Alma Classics which I got with a Waterstones gift card someone kindly gave me (yay!) and I confess it’s not been the easiest reading experience…..
Basically, in 1890 Chekhov made a long and difficult journey through Siberia to Sakhalin Island, to inspect the prison settlements there and report on his findings. This was not an official visit, and it’s not really clear what his motivations were in making the visit. Certainly, he had been suffering ill-health and coughing up blood for some years, so it was an arduous journey for someone in that condition to undertake. It may be that he was motivated by humanitarian motives, wanted a dramatic change in his lifestyle or wished to make a change from his usual type of work – I guess we will never know. Anyway, Sakhalin Island itself is a long way away from Chekhov’s home – it’s actually quite a large island just to the north of Japan off the Siberian coast, and had not been a Russian territory for that long.
The first part of the book, titled “From Siberia” collects together articles sent back by Chekhov dealing with his journey across the wastes of Siberia, and in some ways these are the most interesting part of the book, being lyrical, descriptive and beautiful in places. Then there is the collection of chapters on Sakhalin itself, 23 in all, plus copious notes and extra material on Chekhov. It’s a loooong book!
“Let it be said without offence to the jealous admirers of the Volga that I have never in my life seen a more magnificent river than the Yenisey. A beautifully dressed, modest, melancholy beauty the Volga may be, but, at the other extreme, the Yenisey is a mighty, raging Hercules, who does not know what to do with his power and youth. On the Volga a man starts out with spirit, but finishes up with a groan which is called a song; his radiant and golden hopes are replaced by an infirmity which it is the done thing to term “Russian pessimism”, whereas on the Yenisey life commences with a groan and finishes with the kind of high spirits which we cannot even dream about.”
The conditions Chekhov encountered in the penal settlements were quite appalling, and his reports must have come as quite a revelation to much of Western Russia. He encountered brutality from both prisoners and warders, floggings, dreadful living conditions, starvation, forced prostitution and on and on. Nowadays, from our 21st century view of all the vile happenings of the 20th century, this is not quite so shocking but it is hard to underestimate the effect it would have had at the time, and Chekhov’s book has been credited with changing the penal system. The position of women prisoners and exiles was particularly harsh and he devotes a whole chapter to it.
However, I struggled with this book. Not because of the length, I hasten to add, or the subject matter, because I’ve read much worse. The trouble is possibly with me, in that I may have approached it expecting more of a travelogue, which this patently isn’t. The latter half of the book is chapter after chapter of facts and figures – there are moments when Chekhov will relate a specific story of a prisoner and the human element creeps in, but to be honest a simple reeling off of statistics loses the reader and weakens the point the author is trying to make. Chekhov is as critical as he can be about the regime, strongly so in many places, but he is always working within the confines of his editors and the authorities. He was shielded from contact with political prisoner although he does drop hints in places about them.
And yet, there are places when Chekhov forgets his fact-finding and lets rip with a single masterly sentence which drives home the isolation of the location and the cruelty of imprisonment in a much subtler way than just ranting about it:
“It is always quiet in Dooay. The ear soon grows accustomed to the slow, measured jangle of fetters, the thunder of the breakers on the sea and the humming of telegraph wires, and because of these sounds the impression of dead silence grows still stronger.”
He is the master of the dry one-liner which tells you so much about the situation in Sakhalin:
“The unloading of ships here always takes a tediously long time, and is accompanied by exasperation and loss of blood.”
And Chekhov is not slow in condemning the ignorance and corruption among the overseers and those in charge – I loved this example where he dropped in a lovely sideswipe while describing one of the better areas:
“… there are no workers in government offices who barter alcohol in exchange for luxurious fox furs and then display them to their guests with a beatific smile.”
But in the end, I confess I got about three-quarters of the way through and was so bogged down that I skip-read the rest. I know this material was written in an effort to open people’s eyes to the dreadful conditions in Sakhalin and bring about change, and perhaps it might be better if that is emphasised in descriptions of this book. There were lovely, lyrical passages that I enjoyed and plenty that is memorable about the book – but it seems more of a specialist read than anything else. I prefer Chekhov in this mode:
“My rambles around Alexandrovsk and its environs with the postal official, the author of “Sakhalino”, have left me with pleasant recollections. Most often we would walk to the lighthouse, which stands high above the valley, on Cape Jonquiere. By day the lighthouse, if looked at from below, is a modest little cottage with a mast and lamp, but at night, however, it glows brightly in the darkness, and it seems that the penal settlement is peering at the world with its own red eye.”
Onto the diversion! I was getting so bogged down with Chekhov that I decided I needed a little light relief alongside, so I picked a book off Mount TBR that I’ve been meaning to start for a while: “Twenty Five” by Beverley Nichols, in a lovely old Penguin edition (it was one of the first 10 Penguins issued, though mine is not a first edition, alas!) I first came across Nichols nearly a year ago via the Reading 1900-1950 blog and read his “Crazy Pavements” which I loved. His style is light, witty and very, very readable but often hiding a darker, more serious side. I thought this would be just right to lift my reading state of mind and I was right!
“Twenty Five” is Nichols’ autobiography, written when he was – you’ve guessed it! – 25! It might seem rather absurd to write such a thing at such a young age, but in fact Nichols had led quite an eventful life up to that point and has plenty to cover already. Strictly speaking, it’s not really a proper autobiography – more a collection of reminiscences, stories round a dining table, full of name-dropping and lively events. But it’s none the worse for this. Some of the chapter headings might give you an idea of the contents: “Containing a fruitless search for American vulgarity”, “In which we meet a ghost”, “Showing how a genius worshipped devils in the mountains” and “Containing the hideous truth about Noel Coward”. There is shameless name-dropping of royalty (the King and Queen of Greece), politicians (Winston Churchill and President Wilson) and authors (Masefield, Yeats, Bridges, Chesterton, Maugham) – but this never seems gratuitous and Nichols comes across as a fairly modest, very likeable chap!
“Oxford from the hills is a dream eternally renewed. Under the rain, when only a few spires and towers rise above the driving sheets of grey, on an April morning, when the whole city is sparkling and dappled with yellow shadows, by moonlight when it is a fantastic vision of the Arabian Nights.”
We follows roughly Nichols’ life, from Oxford student, to cultural missionary to American, to proto-spy in Greece, to journalist, writer and drama critic. He mixes with those still remembered (Dame Nellie Melba) and those now less well-known (the cartoonist Sem) – and though we may not know who his contacts are, he is always a witty read. Some of his travel tales, going through post WWI Europe, are fascinating and offer a vivid snapshot of what life was like at the time:
“A word about Belgrade, the capital of Yugo-Slavia, because it is, of all the cities I have seen, the most sinister and the most melancholy. It would appeal to Poe. We arrived at about dawn and I woke up to look out on a dreary, broken-down station, snow-bound, and to hear the monotonous echo of some soldiers singing round a little fire which they had built on the platform. I dressed and went outside with some Greeks, who spoke bad French. We were all terribly hungry and were determined to eat some breakfast or die in the attempt.”
At all times Nichols writes with a wonderful mixture of the lyrical and flippant. He is capable of some beautiful descriptions of, for example, Athens at night, which he follows with the quip:
“I offer no apology for this sentimental outburst. I have no sympathy with the man who does not grow sentimental amongst the columns of the Acropolis. I have read about him in Freud, and he is a very dirty dog.”
He is, indeed, a great champion of the flippant, stating “If, however, there were a little more flippancy in the world, there might be a few less wars. Swords cannot be unsheathed flippantly. Poison cannot be made with an airy gesture. Notes cannot be flicked across the Channel from one ambassador to another, like blowing kisses. If they could, they might not cause so much trouble.” Which, if you think about it, is quite good advice – if the world lightened up a little, there might be less conflict.
But all the time I was reading this book, I was struck by the quality of Nichols’ writing – and I was laughing out loud a lot of the time; for example, this description of a bad play was one of my favourites:
“If a Nonconformist father and a Baptist mother had produced a daughter of the lowest intelligence who had sedulously been kept from entering the theatre until she was thirty, at which date she had been to a pierrot performance on a small sea-side pier on a rainy day at the end of the season, and had then returned with a splitting headache to record her impressions, that was the sort of play she would write. Ten sentences of it, in typescript, would have given the average reader a feeling of desolate despair that the human brain could conceive such banalities.”
There were two parts that stood out for me, too, as a Virago reader. One was a moving little pen portrait of “Lady Russell” the author of “Vera” – known of course to Virago readers as Elizabeth von Arnim. The other was the chapter “Hanged by the Neck”, which covered the Bywaters/Thompson murder trial, the case being the basis for the wonderful book “A Pin to See The Peepshow” by F. Tennyson Jesse. In his role as journalist, Nichols followed the trial and had contact with Thompson’s family and his descriptions of their sufferings are quite heartbreaking. He is not afraid to lay his feelings on the line and this section of the book is particularly moving.
So actually, “Twenty-Five” ended up for me being more than just a diversion. It’s a witty, wonderful, clever and surprisingly deep book written by an entertaining and decent human being who has quite a lot to say about the human condition in an oblique way. Highly recommended!