Briefly Noted

I am reading Memories of Chekhov edited by Peter Sekirin. It is not a biography, or an autobiography but rather the recollections of the many people who knew Chekhov during his relatively short life-- he died from tuberculosis when he was only 44. The book recounts his early life from the members of his close and large family. He was described as outgoing, friendly, well-read and eager to pass along writing suggestions to the aspiring writers who knew him. One friend wrote that Chekhov was “a thin tall man with a fine, dark beard…who seemed to me a very joyful and happy young man.” Another recalled that “he was a very graceful, proud and tender man.” The book is a delightful account of a fascinating individual.

In a moving tribute to his wife, Iris Murdoch, John Bailey writes about their early life together and her gradual descent into the ravages of Alzheimer’s. He says: Alzheimer’s is, in fact, like an insidious fog, barely noticeable until everything around has disappeared. After that, it is no longer possible to believe that a world outside fog exists. It begins with forgetting words. Iris is talking or lecturing and then comes to a thought that she can’t find the word for. Sentences are not always completed. They start and then stop in mid-stream. Bayley comments, When writing about the onset of Alzheimer’s, it is difficult to remember a sequence of events—what happened when, in what order. There are 5 million people in the United States who have Alzheimer’s. And while much has been written about the neurophysiology of the disease, little is known about what it is like to experience it. Anyone who tries to write about it is limited by the fact that they are either beset with it or are only able to observe how the stricken person behaves.

Hemingway is most often associated with Spain, Cuba and France, but he visited Italy frequently and wrote about it often. He first spent time there during World War I when he volunteered as a Red Cross ambulance driver. Then again in Venice after World War II, where he went duck hunting in the Venice Lagoon and wrote Across the River and Into the Trees at the Locanda Cipriani on the island of Torcello. Richard Owen’s Hemingway in Italy reminded me of the times I have visited those places and the good times I have had there. “If the Italian landscape, from the Venetian lagoons and marshes to the Dolomites as well as Liguria and Sicily, had a profound effect on him, so too did the Italian people – not just the aristocrats he came to know so well in Venetian high society, but also the ordinary Italians he came across, from soldiers, drivers and waiters to lace makers and hunters.”

Shortly before he died, David Hume wrote a short summary of his life and works. In My Own Life, he writes about his youth, family and especially his mother who devoted herself entirely to rearing and educating her children. What a difference that can make! From time to time he traveled to France to write and edit his books that were not well received initially. Late in life he suffered from gastrointestinal problems that led to his death. Although in some pain, he confessed, “I have suffered very little pain from my disorder and what is more strange, have, notwithstanding the great decline of my person, never suffered a moment’s abatement of my spirits…” My Own Life ends with a moving eulogy by his friend and fellow writer, Adam Smith.