By Sasha Dugdale
Tatiana Shchepkina-Kupernik was a friend of the Chekhov family and a frequent visitor to Melikhovo, Anton Chekhov’s house just outside Moscow. I first read her prose when we were holding a autumn translation seminar in Melikhovo. The poet Marina Boroditskaya and I were wandering in the gardens by Chekhov’s little writing shed, and discussing short stories by Chekhov and his more neglected contemporaries. Marina mentioned ‘Transition’ as a possibility for Moscow Tales and I sought it out online straightaway.
It’s the story of an actress who lives an impoverished life on the fringes of Moscow’s theatrical society. Widowed with two small children, she relies on her theatre company retainer to keep the wolf from the door. She sees and understands the disgusted pity of the men around her (there’s a repetition of words like ‘disdain’ in the story, as if her decline had a foul smell). These men, former lovers and former fellow actors have been allowed to keep up the pretence of youth and charm whilst her looks have been spoilt by grief, poverty and hardship. She recognises the whole charade of theatre life but with an astonishing lack of bitterness or malice. All she needs is the small wage she receives for remaining in the company, and the culmination of the story, her fateful meeting with the theatre director is tremendously poignant. I was struck by Shchepkina-Kupernik’s portrait of a brave, clear-sighted, anti-romantic heroine, who knows her beauty is gone and is waiting for the inevitable fall.There is something very particular about the description of the domestic interiors, the way in which the very furniture and textiles indicate a woman on the way down: the baby’s bottle; the stench of milk on the turn and supper boiling; the nappy flung over a mirror. These details are counterpointed by the meticulously observed domestic interior of another more successful actress, but one who is also on the point of tipping into unmarketable middle age. Nobody else has ever described this world and in quite this merciless way.
‘Transition’ is a modern story, it reminds me of twentieth-century prose and art (it has the feel of Virago prose), principally because it examines urban women’s lives with such a clinical eye, calculating the value placed on beauty and youth, and the terrible law of diminishing returns.
Tatiana Shchepkina-Kupernik was the great-granddaughter of a famous Moscow actor and part of Moscow’s world of theatre from her debut as a teenage actor. She went on to make her name as a translator for theatre, translating Rostand into Russian whilst still in her teens, Shakespeare, and Lope de Vega during her later life. She was surrounded by scandal: her long affair with the actor Lidia Yavorskaya was the stuff of Moscow gossip. The two women met together in the city’s hotels with others, including Chekhov, and there were rumours of orgies and wild parties. In 1894 the couple set off for Italy, where they briefly lived together openly.
Chekhov is perhaps the greatest short story writer in the Russian language and no anthology of Russian stories would be complete without him. I seized the nettle and translated two stories by Chekhov for my anthology. One of these, ‘Lady with a Little Dog’, needs no introduction. It is a singularly perfect thing, deeply atmospheric in an impressionist and painterly way and it contains so much wisdom about human affections that it becomes at points unbearable to read – and also to translate. The final scene is set in the sort of hotel Shchepkina-Kupernik might have used for her meetings with her lover, with suites of rooms for long-term stays, or short encounters. In this story it is the famous Slavyansky Bazar hotel, known now as the place where the Moscow Arts Theatre was conceived.
The other Chekhov story ‘Kashtanka’ needs more introduction. Although it is a compulsory school text in Russia it isn’t widely translated into English. Like Shchepkina-Kupernik’s story it inhabits the world of theatre and show, but seen through the eyes of a small fox-like dog who is left homeless and frozen and is rescued by an animal trainer and circus clown. It is a truly extraordinary story, thought-provoking and tragic, and Chekhov’s genius lies in the narrative tightrope he walks, allowing us to see things through a dog’s eyes, and yet revealing whole emotional worlds from this limited, low-level viewpoint.
I found out at Melikhovo that Chekhov was in fact a great dog lover. He particularly liked dachshunds (Kashtanka is part dachshund) and he had two of his own. He gave them magnificent medical names: ‘Quinine’ and ‘Bromine’, and clearly spent time wondering quite how they perceived a world in which sensual pleasures, cruelties and injustices, love and disappointment were almost indistinguishable.
British academic and translator Donald Rayfield has written on Shchepkina-Kupernik and I am grateful to him for the biographical details of her life.
Sasha Dugdale is the translator of Moscow Tales, a collection of tales set in Moscow, or with Moscow as a central theme or preoccupation. Tatiana Shchepkina-Kupernik and Anton Chekhov are just two of the writers included in the book. She has published three collections of her own poetry and two collections of Russian poetry in translation. She works with the Royal Court Theatre in London as an adviser on Russian New Writing and has translated over thirty plays from Russian. She lived in Moscow for five years in the 1990s and frequently returns there. She is currently editor of the magazine Modern Poetry in Translation.
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<em?Image credit: Tatyana Shchepkina-Kupernik by Ilya Repin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.