Celebrity Chekhov by Ben Greenman, adapted from the short stories of Anton Chekhov, Harper Perennial, 205 pages
“I have lived out here for a while,” Jamie Foxx began, “since just after Booty Call, I think. I am a kind of sedentary man by temperament.” Foxx, of course, is not the original character Anton Chekhov had in mind when he wrote the stories that make up The Little Trilogy, but he’s one of a cavalcade of celebrities who strut through literary cameos in Ben Greenman’s Celebrity Chekhov. Writer and
The New Yorker editor Greenman adapts and “celebritizes” 17 classic stories by the famed 19th-century Russian writer, using modern personalities such as Tiger Woods, Paris Hilton, Oprah Winfrey, and Nicole Kidman in place of Chekhov’s original protagonists. The result is like that other elusive celebrity commodity, the perfect face-lift — something that maintains the dignity of the original material while endowing it with new youth and luster.
Chekhov wrote achingly about boredom, heartbreak, longing, and stultified family relationships. Ruined heiresses, listless actors, and young raconteurs — the stories of Chekhov revolve around men and women whose passions get the better of them. It’s as if he envisioned our own debased era of Gawker and Us Weekly more than a century in advance. Greenman took Chekhov’s originals and cast modern celebrities in their places. “The Darling,” in his adaptation, follows the marital arc of Nicole Kidman as she drifts from struggling actor Tom Cruise (who dies from overwork) to country singer Keith Urban (who dies of consumption) before she enters an intense if unrequited relationship with married father Brad Pitt, who contracts with Kidman to board his son while he is abroad on work. What emerges is a devastating picture of a woman who has no personality or ambition beyond having a man. Forced to fend for herself, she falls apart. “This was not what she needed. She wanted a love that would absorb her whole being, her whole soul and reason — that would give her ideas and an object in life, and would warm her old blood.” This book is a far cry from Pride and Prejudice and
Zombies or any of the other overblown historical mash-ups foisted on us by prankster literary revisionists. Greenberg remains largely faithful to Constance Garnett’s public-domain translations of Chekhov, while incorporating enough contemporary details that the stories never seem anachronistic.
“The Death of a Government Clerk,” Chekhov’s story about the unraveling of a man who can’t get over accidentally sneezing on one of his social betters, becomes “The Death of a Redheaded Man.” The opening sentence of Chekhov’s story — “One fine evening, a no less fine government clerk called Ivan Dmitritch Tchervyakov was sitting in the second row of the stalls, gazing through an opera glass at the Cloches de Corneville” — becomes in Greenman’s hands: “One fine evening, Conan O’Brien was sitting in the second row at the Staples Center, watching the Lakers run away from the Sacramento Kings.”
Greenman has said he hopes these stories “make people think about why they are so celebrityfocused and what that focus does to their ability to view celebrities as real people grappling with real problems.” Portraying the essential humanity of people was Chekhov’s talent, and he used his short sketches to dissolve a person to his or her essence in just a paragraph or two. The assembled celebrities in Greenman’s book provide a way for modern readers to become acquainted with an author who is too often left shelved and unread out of the unfounded fear that his work is too dated and difficult.
Newcomers to either Chekhov or Greenman’s surreal People magazine hybridization of him should read “A Lady’s Story” — the tale of a doomed, mismatched couple drawn together by mutual attraction and flung apart over the years as they attain wildly different levels of success with their careers. The pursued woman in the story realizes she has become obsessed with a man who is the opposite of a fair-weather lover. “He quickly became the kind of acquaintance who was charming in Louisiana or Orlando, in a storm, but lost his appeal in Los Angeles, in less dramatic weather.” She grows distant from him as her singing career reaches dizzying heights but eventually grasps that her material success is an anesthetic balm that prevents her from absorbing any of the lessons that a welllived life should afford. “I was loved, happiness was not far way, and seemed to be almost touching me; I went on living in careless ease without trying to understand myself, not knowing what I expected or what I wanted from life, and time went on and on. People passed by me with their love, bright days and warm nights flashed by, the nightingales sang, the grass smelt fragrant, and all this, sweet and overwhelming in remembrance, passed with me as with everyone rapidly, leaving no trace, was not prized, and vanished like mist. Where is it all?”
At the end, the reader realizes that one of the best short-fiction pieces he or she will read this year is a story whose protagonists happen to be Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears.