Life of Chekhov by Irene Nemirowsky, adapted by Michael Hastings

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BBC Radio 7, 26-30 January 2010
Published four years after Nemirowsky's death in 1942, A Life of Chekhov dramatizes crucial points in the dramatist's life, from his tough beginnings in the remote port of Taganrog to marriage in his final years. The book is a testament to Nemirowsky's abilities as a writer; her ability to create characters so lifelike that readers can almost "feel their flesh" (in Carmen Calil's phrase). Calil continues: "This is where she is irresistible - addictive - so that once you pick up one of her novels, you cannot put it down." Her technique might be said to have been inspired by Chekhov. Critics have accused her of being a Jew-hater, of anti-semitism; although a Jew herself, she did not shy away from criticizing the faith. Perhaps this was because she was alienated from her Jewish roots. Whatever her leanings, however, her Jewishness made her an enemy of the Nazis, which led to her being gassed in Auschwitz at the age of only 39.
Sadly none of Nemirowsky's humanity emerged in Lucy Bailey's five-part radio adaptation. She made the curious decision to have all the actors speak in Irish accents - perhaps believing that this would be the best way to communicate Chekhov's modest origins to the listeners. Moreover, the five-part episodic structure of the adaptation meant that each segment had to end on a climax, as a way of sustaining attention. This might work with Our Mutual Friend, but here it transformed Chekhov's life into something resembling a soap opera. Despite the efforts of a competent cast, including Andrew Scott (Chekhov), Naimh Cusack (Yevgenia Chekhov), and Dave Hill (Paul Chekhov), I confess to being rather relieved when the adaptation concluded.