Ask a variety of readers the genre of this little volume, and you'll get a variety of answers: fiction, biography, memoir, travel narrative, literary criticism. A former professor of English at Cornell University, James McConkey has crafted a ''minor classic'' (to quote Jay Parini in the introduction) which seamlessly and movingly tells the story of Anton Chekhov's 6,500 mile journey from Moscow to Sakhalin Island. In 1890, the thirty-year-old Chekhov was well-known as both a doctor and writer. He was also in the midst of a near-debilitating depression. But why did he choose to escape a life of relative success and luxury for the perils and horror of a Russian penal colony? Using the Russian author's own book and letters about the experience, McConkey conjures not only the vast and terrible beauty of Russia at the turn of the century, but he also manages to circumscribe the whole of Chekhov's desire for ''absolute freedom'' by imaginatively setting Chekhov's experience alongside one of his short stories. The book ends with a lyrical passage from ''Gusev'' and goes a long way toward answering the mystery of Chekhov's journey. In McConkey's words, ''A wanting for what cannot be attained might lead us into alienation and bitterness, but what would happen if we became aware...of the human condition itself? Conceivably, such an awareness would create a compassionate understanding of our fellows, and return us to the pleasures and sensuous joys available to us in our human attachments and in our appreciation of the natural world.''
An Eighth Day View:
""In 1890 Anton Chekhov--thirty years old and already a famous writer--left his home and family in Moscow to travel 6,500 miles across Russia, over frozen land and sea, by train, ferry, and troika, to visit the island of Sakhalin, a penal colony off the coast of Siberia.
What was Chekhov seeking by undertaking such a harrowing journey to that God-forsaken island? Ostensibly, he went in his role of physician, to observe the medical conditions and to collect statistical information (Indeed, Chekhov wrote that during his stay he filled out more than 10,000 census cards based on interviews with prisoners and exiles.) But his motivation, as James McConkey reflects, was more likely escape: escape from the sense of confinement that fame, fortune, and family had brought--a search, in other words, for freedom in a place where no one was free.
In "To a Distant Island," McConkey recreates Chekhov's remarkable journey in all of its complexity, while interweaving a journey of his own. As McConkey guides us through the Russian wilderness and into the soul of this great writer, he uncovers the peculiar and hidden forces that shaped two lives.
"We have had many straight biographies of writers in recent years . . . that leave their subjects curiously diminished. Mr. McConkey's achievement . . . is to send the reader back to the Russian master with renewed wonder." --Harvey Shapiro, "The New York Times"
"A deeply moving, exquisitely written book." --"Washington Post Book World"
"Exceptionally serene prose . . . leveled with sharp observation and subtle wit . . . neither history nor fiction, but rather a kind of reimagining of the past." --Michael Dirda, "Smithsonian Magazine"
James McConkey is the author of "Crossroads, The Tree House Confessions, The Novels of E.M. Forster," and "Court of Memory" (a continuing biography that appeared serially in various magazines, primarily "The New Yorker"), and many other books. He is Goldwin Smith Professor of English Literature Emeritus at Cornell University.
Jay Parini is Axinn Professor of English at Middlebury College. He is the author of "The Last Station: A Novel of Tolstoy's Last Year" and "Robert Frost: A Life" and many other works of fiction, criticism, poetry, and biography.