How I wrote Chekhov’s Journey
(This is a special introduction I wrote for the beautiful 2012 Spanish edition of the novel published by La biblioteca del laberinto.)
Back in 1973, the year my first novel was published, I wrote a short story called “To the Pump Room with Jane”, which appeared in print the following year. Jane is Jane Austen, the early 19th century writer whose sharply witty novels (including, incidentally, an abandoned one called The Watsons) about upper-middle class life, preoccupied with courtship, etiquette, property, and social events, continue to enchant modern readers, as well as viewers of the many ‘costume drama’ TV versions of her books. Since 2009 she acquired alternate notoriety due to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which uses Jane Austen’s own words from her most famous book blended with modern genre horror. Jane Austen was, in fact, familiar with the shocker ‘Gothic’ novels of her time, the dark underbelly of the Romantic Movement, which ultimately gave rise to our own horror genre, and she satirised these gently in her comedy of manners, Nightmare Abbey. However, no calamitous phenomena vexed her own sedate life in Regency England, a life mainly characterised – so far as we know – by its lack of any dramatic events.
Anyway, 32 years before zombies and sea monsters invaded her books, I had the same idea – of using (or abusing) Jane Austen’s own words in a story of future ecocatastrophe, in this case the words mostly being taken from her novel Persuasion. In reality the posh Pump Room in the fashionable city of Bath was where the smart crowd gathered, nominally to drink natural mineral water which might cure afflictions or simply boost their health. In my story people go to the Pump Room to collect their water ration, since global drought reigns, and sailing ships of Jane Austen’s era are towing icebergs to Britain from Antarctica. I had a lot of fun with this story!
Some seven or eight years later I became interested in the Tunguska event.
In 1908 something exploded over remote Siberian forests, flattening millions of trees, as described in well-illustrated popular books with titles such as Tunguska: Cauldron of Hell. A comet core, perhaps. And I thought to myself: what Russian author might best correspond to such a titanic circumstance? Would it be Dostoevsky with his raging imagination and his tumultuous characters? Furthermore, Dostoevsky was imprisoned in Siberia!
Then I remembered how I’d juxtaposed Jane Austen with ecocatastrophe, and thought to myself: Who in Russia might correspond to Jane Austen?
The answer: Anton Chekhov, with his comedies of upper-middle class and lower-nobility manners.
Until then I hadn’t paid much attention to Chekhov, although I’d devoured the novels of Dostoevsky when I was a schoolboy. As soon as I paid attention, to my amazement I discovered that Chekhov had journeyed across the whole of Siberia to visit the island of Sakhalin, north of Japan, which Russia used as a penal colony. His mission, a mixture of social duty and a duty to science which in his own case was Medicine. Surely here was a sign to me of who to juxtapose with the Tunguska enigma!
So I started reading Chekhov intensively for several weeks, and I still remember how hot the experience was. Okay, Russia also gets pretty hot in the summer, but it seemed somehow paradoxical that I was reading autumnal and wintry Russian things in such heat as that particular summer in England. Back then, my office was only half the size it is now, so I worked at a table in a bay window facing the morning sun. Even with the curtains closed, sweat still ran down my cheeks.
After the plays, I read Chekhov’s Selected Letters. In fact I read all of whatever was available in English, since I don’t read Russian; plus a biography of the man. Subsequently Chekhov’s own account of his visit to Sakhalin has come into print in English along with 30 pages he wrote entitled “Across Siberia”, but this wasn’t around back then; or at least I couldn’t find it anywhere (and I shan’t read it now just in case it suggests something lovely, too late to put this lovely thing into the novel!). Those were the days before googling on the internet made research considerably easier (as well as reviewers’ ability to check up on the accuracy, or otherwise, of what a writer used as background…). For Chekhov’s own take on his arduous journey, basically I had to rely on a few letters and invent the rest. The novel is dedicated to the excellent author Brian Stableford because he sent me some useful photocopied material relating to the rocket pioneer Tsiolkovsky. Back then: no internet, no Google; just books borrowed from a public library plus a friend with a huge personal library. And then: invention. In a sense such an ‘innocent’ book can no longer be written nowadays. Despite some research Chekhov’s Journey is an improvised book, just as the characters themselves are improvising a film script. And since in the novel we are still in the Soviet era, the setting is also improvised because it was difficult to imagine actually travelling there. But if an author can’t imagine somewhere on his own planet, to which he’s never been, how can he hope to imagine alien worlds?
At the same time the novel is set in an era, the 1980s, when we were hearing tales about paranormal research in Soviet laboratories (such as levitation and remote-viewing) – in books with titles such as Psychic Discoveries From Behind the Iron Curtain – as dialectical materialist mystics (sorry, scientists with a deeply Russian outlook!) seemed almost to be searching for techniques to combat Cowboy Reagan’s forthcoming Star Wars. In a sense, Rasputin rides again! Hence my hypnotist in Chekhov’s Journey.
Oddly, Reagan first announced Star Wars (the Strategic Defence Initiative, not the movie) in a speech in March 1983, the same year that my novel was published, although I forget in which month that was. Thus, logically, I should have finished writing Chekhov’s Journey a bit before Reagan’s speech. Usually about 9 months passed between finishing writing and a novel being published. Yet I find references in my novel to “Captain America’s Shield”. Most probably there was already speculation in the news about Star Wars, rather than that I saw into the near future while I was reading Chekhov half-blinded by sweat.
Back then in the 1980s I – and many other people – lived for years on end with a constant background awareness that global thermonuclear warfare between the West and the Soviet bloc might at any time destroy civilisation and most of the human race, perhaps even extinguishing all life on land. Britain – the USA’s aircraft carrier and missile and radar base – seemed especially doomed. This particular dread has gone away now, replaced by what seem in comparison relatively lesser anxieties regarding climate change (though climate change might in itself prove to be a self-caused extinction event!). In fact the nuclear weapons haven’t gone away by any means, and more countries possess them, yet nowadays a global nuclear armaggedon seems less likely. Back then, this fate seemed very likely.
Around the time I wrote Chekhov’s Journey I joined, and was active in, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. I marched, I protested outside military bases. Later, I found that I could write about nuclear war obliquely in the form of a horror novel called The Power. But in the early 1980s my novel-length response as a writer was the sceptical and ironic Chekhovian comedy which you’re about to read, set in two eras which are actually doomed, the Czarist – and, little did I guess, also the Soviet.