Celebrity Chekhov by Ben Green­man, adapted from the short sto­ries of An­ton Chekhov, Harper Peren­nial, 205 pages

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - — Casey Sanchez

“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.

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