I recently came across an old notebook in which I scribbled a holiday diary of sorts. As usual it petered out quickly into merely practical memos (addresses, phone numbers, train times) but it began well – as these things often do, with the enforced captivity of a transatlantic flight as inspiration. In this case, it was en route from Amsterdam to Washington DC that I read Chekhov’s ‘The Lady with Lapdog’ (in David Magarshack’s translation), and felt compelled to record my responses.
The dog plays only a minor role in the story. G, a late thirties’ serial adulterer, is in Yalta, his curiosity excited by a new arrival, a lady with a lapdog. He sees her first walking along the promenade as he sits in a restaurant. And then again, and again. Always ‘followed by the white pomeranian’. ‘No one knew who she was, and she became known as the lady with the lapdog.’
The narrator tells us a little about his marriage and his attitude towards women, which is disrespectul, and yet he is drawn to female company, as women are to him. He is seized with the desire to seduce her, and his chance comes when she happens to sit at the next table in a restaurant in the park. The dog provides useful pretext to talk to her, for G first attracts its attention, and in fact she speaks to him first: ‘He doesn’t bite,’ she said and blushed. She says she’s bored in Yalta and G makes a droll remark that gently chides her statement as a somewhat ridiculous cliché.
That’s what one usually hears people saying here. A man may be living in Belev and Zhizdra or some other God-forsaken hold and he isn’t bored, but the moment he comes here all you hear from him is “Oh, it’s so boring! Oh, the dust!” You’d think he’d come from Granada!
She laughs. We learn her name, A, and she’s quite young, only two years married, although she doesn’t know what her husband’s job is. G is attracted to her youth – only recently ‘she had been a schoolgirl like his own daughter’; to her ‘diffidence and angularity’ evident in her laughter and her conversation with a stranger. G concludes that is is the first time she had found herself alone in the company of predatory men.
He gets off with her, but the time comes for her to return home to S__ and they both seem to agree that they will never see each other again. But G is unable to get her out of his head and in December he tells his wife he is going to St Petersburg, but instead goes to S__ where he takes a room in a hotel and, having learnt A’s address, observes the house from the street. He hears her playing the piano, and even sees an old woman appear at the front door with the lapdog. But he can’t risk announcing his presence, and returns to his hotel, deciding to go to the theatre that evening to the first performance of The Geisha Girl. And of course A is also there, with a man he supposes is her husband. During the interval he takes advantage of her husband’s absence to approach her seat in the stalls. She hurriedly leaves the auditorium and they steal a few tense, intimate moments on a narrow staircase. She implores him to leave immediately, but promises to visit G in Moscow.
And she does. Every few months, she leaves P__ to visit her Moscow gynaecologist (so she tells her husband, who believes her and doesn’t believe her), takes a room at the Slav Bazaar, dispatching a porter with a message for G when she arrives.
The story concludes with an account of one of these secret meetings. (On this occasion, he doesn’t receive her message till the following morning, and he goes to the hotel after dropping his daughter off at school). She bursts into tears, wanting so much the secrecy to end, while G glances at himself in the mirror – reflecting on his advancing years and realizing that he had fallen in love for the first time in his life. And Chekhov leaves us on the threshold of a complicated future.
Then they had a long talk. They tried to think how they could get rid of the necessity of hiding, telling lies, living in different towns, not seeing one another for so long. How were they to free themselves from their intolerable chains?
‘”How? How?” he asked himself, clutching at his head. “How?”
And it seemed to them that in only a few more minutes a solution would be found and a new, beautiful life would begin; but both of them knew very well that the end was still a long, long way away and that the most complicated and difficult part was only just beginning.
If we rewrote this story and moved it closer to home, with a title like ‘Lady with Laptop’, how would this work? The opening scenes could take place in Rothesay. G would be from Glasgow. A from a small town outside Edinburgh: Musselburgh perhaps.
A would certainly attract some comment if she appeared in Rothesay, sitting down in parks, restaurants, opening up her laptop and typing away. Certainly it would provide a useful ‘way in’ for a predatory male such as G to initiate a conversation.
The laptop, like the dog, could fade into the background once it had served this purpose (maybe reappearing – like the dog – once more, as G stalks outside her Musselburgh home, and catches a glimpse of it through the window?). But it would be good to introduce a twist.
One possibility is that she herself is writing a story. So while Chekhov’s story privileges G’s point of view – and it is his transformation from adulterer to genuine lover that is its focus – this reworking would offer a glimpse of A’s version of the affair as it appears in the story or diary she is writing on her laptop. Or perhaps she’s posting updates to a blog or social network account of which G, but not the reader, is totally unaware.