Case Closed? The Piano Man, Olga Chekhova, and the Pleasures of Uncertainty

Well, the case of the “Piano Man” has been solved, it appears—and another mystery disappears. The denouement could hardly have been more disappointingly prosaic. It tends to be so with mysteries: unraveling them means to explain them away. “Mystery,” as I discovered when I looked up the word in my etymological dictionary, has its roots in muein, “to close the eyes,” as well as mu, a “slight sound with closed lips; of imitative origin.” Mystery is a condition, a state in which the people and things we perceive remain unclear; it is the temptation to discover and the pleasure of delaying the solution.

To “love a mystery,” as I put it in Etherized Victorians, suggests a delight in suspension rather than solution—a reveling in the act of unravelling in which what matters is a good yarn, not the clew one walks away with when it’s all done, or undone. It is a precarious and wondrous state of twilight and hushed voices, of bewilderment and speculation. That the biographical impulse to shed light on and make sense of things are at odds with the mysterious was conclusively demonstrated by a documentary I caught on BBC2 last night.

It was Antony Beevor’s account of his endeavor to tackle the The Mystery of Olga Chekhova, a book I picked up a few months ago after having attended a screening of the silent movie Moulin Rouge, starring the alluring Ms. Chekhova. Niece of the playwright Anton Chekhov, major film star in Nazi Germany, and a spy for Russian intelligence, Chekhova sure is an intriguing personality; but little of that came across in the matter-of-fact sleuthing to which Beevor subjected her story.

In the documentary, we see him peeping through windows and rummaging through files in hopes of finding compelling evidence of her espionage activities; we hear him in conference with his translator, piecing together fragmentary data to forge causal relationships and force romance into patterns of logic. It was a dull display of diligence, only occasionally brightened by glimpses of his enigmatic subject.

The book itself, to be fair, is rather superior to the documentary, even though it nearly drowns the subject in heaps of historical detail surrounding her existence. As David Edgar remarked in his review, “somehow [Chekhova] seems smaller than her story, and it’s tempting to wonder what she would look like in the hands of a writer who could indulge in more speculation and extrapolation than the historian can allow.”

In search of truth, Beevor dismisses Chekhova’s brazen autobiographies as spurious. Factual lies, such embellished memoirs may tell so much more of the writer’s desire to be the author of her own life, to obfuscate and overwrite, to put pen to paper and eraser to past.

Over the years, “[r]umours about her mysterious life continued to grow,” Beevor writes in the concluding paragraph of his book. To me, the chief merit of his investigation is that it might give rise to further wonderings, that the rumors have not been quelled but quickened as a result. Grateful to the historian for having given me hooks on which to fasten my imaginings, I continue to dwell between the lines, where mystery lingers.

Right now, I am picturing Chekhova as a chameleonic adventuress, someone like the heroine of Top Secret, a radio series of spy thrillers starring “gorgeous Ilona Massey” (as she was tantalizingly announced). Here, as in Beevor’s documentary, mystery lies beyond tired phrases and contrived storylines; here, it is the allure of Ms. Massey’s voice that draws me in, just as Chekhova’s image captured my imagination when I saw her in the silent Moulin Rouge. Perhaps mystery is the willingness to take leave of at least one of your senses. Ahh, to be closing my eyes again . . .

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