Strangers on a train

To a Distant IslandIn April of the year 1890, a group of friends boarded a train in Moscow headed northeast for Yaroslavl. It was an odd collection of intelligentsia; a doctor and his wife, a Jewish painter who was her current lover. Two musicians, a young and beautiful teacher, and a world-class mathematician who hid her intelligence under flamboyant clothes.  There was also an elderly, infirm woman who wrung her hands and gripped her walking cane with white fingers, a young man and woman who were obviously the old woman’s son and daughter.  The train compartment is too small to hold so many and so odd an assortment of people, the group shifts and eddies as they spill out into the passageway and into adjoining compartments. But the restlessness of the friends, obvious in their edgy and forced hilarity and the way they shift from seat to seat, is held in check by the last of the party, the one man whom they all seem to circumnavigate, whose internal gravity seems to keep them all in orbit. A stolid, respectable man, who might even be thought of as affable if it weren’t for the remote and aloof air that shrouds him. He talks quietly with the elderly, worried woman who must also be his mother, and gently with the woman who is his sister. He makes small talk with the painter and the musicians, he smiles, but doesn’t flirt with the mathematician and the teacher.  They all watch him anxiously, out of the corners of their eyes. They are worried for him, because when the train reaches Yaroslavl they will all turn around and return to Moscow, but he will continue on, bound literally for the ends of the earth, and none of them—not his mother, his sister or the women who wish to be his lovers—none of them know why he is going.

People go on journeys for lots of reasons and often those reasons don’t become apparent until the journey has already begun, or is even finally over.  In the spring of 1890, the Russian writer Anton Chekhov decided quite suddenly to travel across the whole of the Russian continent to visit the island of Sakhalin, over five thousand miles from his comfortable home in Moscow. He gave various conflicting and unsatisfactory reasons for this sudden trip to his friends and family, ranging from a desire for scientific discovery to artistic compulsion.  But various biographers have since peered into the recesses of Chekov’s life (he would be appalled if he knew) and come to other conclusions. He was fleeing a love affair with a married woman. He was fleeing a love affair with a married man. He was in financial difficulties (but really, who wasn’t in that era?). Most recent biographers now concur that the doctor-turned-literary star was suffering from severe manic depression.  Indeed, he may have been on the verge of a total breakdown, and was taking the only course that seemed open to him: he was fleeing his life. He was trying to escape.

Most people, when they think of “getting away from it all” usually have someplace sunny in mind, preferably with beaches. But either Chekhov wasn’t a sunbather, or perhaps he felt that the sun-kissed southern climes would stand in too sharp contrast to his current mood of despair. So he chose to travel across the northern Russian continent, through some of the most inhospitable and inclement country created by God, until he reached Sakhalin, a penal colony on an isolated island off the eastern coast of Russia, north of the Sea of Japan.  Once there, Chekhov—who was after all a physician and a scientist—conducted an exhaustive census of the prisoners and their families (some ten thousand people in all), all of whom lived in such abject conditions that its debatable to say that they “survived”.  Chekhov returned to Moscow by ship through the warmer waters of the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, and whether the experience “cured” him of  his mysterious malaise or not, it is true that it was after this trip that he wrote most of the stories and plays that he is known for today.

He also wrote a book about of the trip itself, a somewhat dry, “scientific” account called The Island: A Journey to Sakhalin, that is righteous in its declamation of the human suffering he witnessed, but utterly silent on the reasons that caused him to take such an arduous journey in the first place.

Perhaps it was this silence that drew author James McConkey to the story in the first place.  McConkey first discovered Chekhov’s trip in a series of letters he unearthed in a library in Florence—where he had fled to escape his own demons. Something in those letters—something of Chekhov’s spiritual apathy and despair must have called to him, because McConkey spent the rest of his year in Italy’s most beautiful city reading about the Russian steppes and the dark plains of a wide, cold country.

Naturally, like all readers McConkey was searching for himself in Chekhov’s letters and stories. Great fiction asks us questions, but leaves it to us to find our own answers. It was the search for answers that resulted in To a Distant Island, McConkey’s re-invention (there is no other word) of Chekhov’s expedition to Sakhalin. In a unique and odd blend of travel writing, memoir, philosophical speculation, and fiction, McConkey attempts to recreate the Russian writer’s arduous journey, both internal and external, and to find parallels with his own life and his own troubled spirit.

Chekhov may have been fleeing, in part, a growing political unrest in his country as students and radicals began to erupt against a glittering and repressive regime.  McConkey himself fled to Florence after a brutal year watching student violence and racial tensions explode on his university campus.  An English professor and rather gentle literary critic, he found himself devoured by the simmering violence underlying the anti-Vietnam protests and the marches for civil liberties and racial (and sexual) equality. The more rarified atmosphere and the ancient stones of Florence—which had seen far more violence than his upstate New York campus—were supposedly to help him recover his equilibrium. Yet he spent hour after hour staring out at ancient olive trees, unable to put pen to paper, until he discovered Chekhov, and felt a familiar echo in the Russian writer’s sad letters home to his bewildered friends and family.

Although it would be fair to call this book “travel literature”, To a Distant Island, originally published in 1984 and now re-released by Paul Dry Books as a “forgotten classic”, is not your usual adventure story.  The goal is not to see distant exotic lands or marvel at the customs of unfamiliar people. It is not even to climb mountains simply because they are there to be climbed. Chekhov’s purpose was to wrest free his psyche by cutting his ties with all he has known. The journey may be external, but the territory he must conquer is internal.  McConkey follows both expeditions with a determination that is almost fearless, and the book rocks back and forth between the vivid accounts of the people and countryside that Chekhov sees as he makes his way eastward, and rarified explorations into the nature of hope, despair, and what it is to be human.  The author is a literary critic and a trained philosopher himself, so abstract concepts have mass and solidity, and he uses ideas the way most people use a knife and fork.   This makes reading the book go nearly as slowly as Chekhov’s original journey, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Instead, the reader is inclined to stop every few pages lest he accidentally skim over some teasingly profound observation.

McConkey’s, To A Distant Island is a literary chimera of the sort that would drive most historians mad but will delight people who love to see language used beautifully. Although his account of Chekhov’s expedition is basically accurate when it comes to dates and places and railway timetables, he brazenly invents scenes and conversations, describes inner conflicts and dreams he can have no way of knowing, and creates a vivid internal life for Chekhov that, while wholly unsubstantiated, nevertheless like all good fiction has the weight of reality. One feels, at the end of the book, that McConkey’s invented Chekhov is somehow the REAL Chekhov.

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