Posts Tagged ‘Anton Chekhov’

‘My Life’ by Anton Chekhov – “Worms eat grass, rust eats iron, and lying eats the soul!”

 

‘My Life’ by Anton Chekhov (1896) – 106 pages          Translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

 

I am always up for reading more Anton Chekhov so I grabbed the chance to read Chekhov’s novella ‘My Life’ especially since it was translated by the current gold standard in Russian translation, the team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

In the novella, young man Misail is the son of the town architect who is well-respected in the town. At first, friends of Misail’s father were happy to hire the young man. So far his father has lined Misail up for nine office desk jobs around town, and Misail has been dismissed from every one of them.

I keep you only out of respect for your esteemed father, otherwise I’d have sent you flying long ago.”

Many townspeople look upon Misail as a ne’er do well, but he isn’t enamored of the town either. Misail sees the corrupt underside of the most prominent people in the town. Even his own father is not exempt.

I didn’t know a single honest man in the whole town. My father took bribes and imagined they were given him out of respect for his inner qualities; …And those who didn’t take bribes – for instance the court administration – were haughty, offered you two fingers to shake, were distinguished by the coldness and narrowness of their judgments, played cards a lot, drank a lot, married rich women, and undoubtedly had a harmful corrupting influence on their milieu.”

Everywhere Misail looks in these upper echelons of town society, Misail finds dishonesty, chicanery, and mendacity. After losing his ninth office job, Misail finally decides to forsake his family’s position in the community and takes a job involving physical labor; he becomes a house painter. His father threatens to disown him.

Here he encounters the rough peasants of the town, but are they any more dishonest than the upper classes? Misail finds satisfaction in honest physical work. He actually becomes a town sensation among the younger people of the town for making this choice to forsake the town’s conventions. This is probably Chekhov’s most political work.

But as always with Chekhov, some of the main characters are female. We have Misail’s sister who tries to bridge the gap between him and his father. We have Misail’s girlfriend who is one of the young people who is enamored of him for choosing to do hard physical labor. Both of these young women figure in poignant story lines in ‘My Life’. There is always an emotional payoff in reading Chekhov.

‘My Life’ is a good indicator of the Russian people’s mindset just before the Communist revolution. What does a people do when the upper classes of society are rampant with corruption?

 

Grade:    A-

 

 

‘The Seagull’ by Anton Chekhov – A Play of Unrequited Lovers

 

‘The Seagull’ by Anton Chekhov (1898) – 61 pages             Translated from the Russian by David Magarshack

When the one you love loves someone else, it’s a problem that only a play can resolve.

The schoolmaster Simon loves only Masha, but Masha ignores Simon because she has her heart set on aspiring writer Konstantin. However Konstantin is madly in love with and has eyes only for aspiring actress Nina. Nina begins the play in love with Konstantin but when renowned author Trigorin arrives, Nina immediately falls for him. Meanwhile Trigorin hangs around with the famous actress Irina Arkadina who happens also to be the mother of Konstantin, but Trigorin is open to any and all affairs on the side. And the married Paulina, the mother of Masha, is having an affair with the doctor Dorn. Of course women have always fallen for the doctor Dorn. So it goes.

Each of these unrequited love situations resolves itself in its own way.

Anton Chekhov subtitled ‘The Seagull’ as “A Comedy in Three Acts”, but for the life of me I can’t find much of anything humorous about the play. There is a silly play within the play in which Chekhov makes fun of symbolist plays which were coming into vogue in Russia at that time. Also there are plenty of other good-natured people around besides all these unrequited lovers. However I believe most viewers would say this play is a tragedy.

‘The Seagull’ contains a large cast of characters, and the amazing thing is that Chekhov can capture the human qualities of each person on stage with just a few lines of dialogue for each. Although Konstantin and Nina and Trigorin would probably be considered the main characters, Chekhov does not slight any of the more peripheral characters, and their life situations are also rendered with poignancy. I believe that is why I admire Chekhov’s writings so much, his strong empathy for each of his characters. Someone may be off to the side, but their life is just as important to them as it is for the main characters. Chekhov recognizes this fact.

The following introductory lines by the translator David Magarshack go a long way to explain the appeal of ‘The Seagull’:

Chekhov’s attitude toward the characters in his plays is one of profound understanding without any false sentimentality. It is this that explains best of all the marvelous blend of the tragic and the comic that is so characteristic of them.”

Much of ‘The Seagull’ takes place near the lake on the country estate of old man Sorin. Here Chekhov is opening up the stage beyond the restrictions of the drawing room.

And then there is the seagull or, in a fancy literary term, the objective correlative of the play. First Nina mentions the seagull to show how she is drawn to the lake. Later Konstantin shoots the seagull and gives it to Nina who just leaves it lying dead on the stage. Then Trigorin has the seagull stuffed as an ironic token of what he is doing to Nina by entering into a love affair with her. Heavy stuff.

 

Grade:   A

 

 

‘The Beauties’ – Essential Stories by Anton Chekhov

 

‘The Beauties’ Essential Stories by Anton Chekhov (1880-1904) – 218 pages     Translated from the Russian by Nicolas Pasternak Slater

 

I am pretty sure that I had read all or nearly all of these stories before, but as someone who loves good fiction I like to return to the stories of Anton Chekhov from time to time. Besides these are all new translations of the stories by Nicolas Pasternak Slater.

Slater does a fine job of capturing the poignancy in each of these stories. All of these stories are beautiful and affecting; they are from Anton Chekhov after all.

I would like to concentrate on one story, ‘About Love’, in particular which moved me greatly. It is about a guy who is ‘adopted’ by a husband and wife to be their very good friend. It is this guy who has been adopted who is telling the story.

First there is a sentence which frames the story.

There is only one indisputable truth that has been told about love, and that’s ‘This is a great mystery.”

So the husband and wife invite this guy into their house as a good friend to both of them, but soon the wife realizes there is a strong bond and attraction between her and this male friend, and the male friend realizes it too. But neither wants to hurt her husband.

When I came to town, I could always tell from her eyes that she’d been expecting me; and she herself would confess that right from early morning she’d had sort of a special feeling, and guessed that I would come. We spent a long time talking or saying nothing, but we didn’t admit that we loved one another – timidly, jealously, we kept that secret. We were afraid of anything that might reveal that secret to ourselves.”

Circumstances bring them together frequently, and they both realize that they were meant for each other. That over the years they never go beyond just being great platonic friends makes the story even more moving. Finally the husband and wife move away.

Some might claim that not much happens in this story, but that they restrain themselves for the sake of not hurting the husband despite their strong feelings for each other only makes the story more intense.

Chekhov frequently uses a device that seems almost a natural one for telling a story. Two friends are discussing a mutual acquaintance. This seems like the perfect way to get introduced to the traits, peculiarities, and foibles of a character. We all have strong opinions about our friends.

This is a strong starter collection because the stories for which Chekhov is famous are here. Chekhov captures the essence of each of his characters, and the stories are always true to his characters.

The stories are compassionate, warm, understanding, and kindly. In other words they are just the opposite of the writing of Georges Simenon except for the understanding part.

I want to end with two quotes about Chekhov and his art.

Chekhov is a hero to many writers. He was so immensely skilled at revealing character – and describing life – without sentiment, without judgmental-ism, and ostensibly without the least show of self. It’s his sense of the ridiculousness of human life that intrigues, because we aren’t sure what to take from it. Maybe we are tragic because we are ridiculous. Or perhaps it’s the other way round.” – Lynne Truss, author

He saw the world and the human condition with absolute clarity and no sentimentality. He did not believe in any god (and was baffled by intelligent people who did). He refused to judge. He changed the way we wrote and thought. He was a very complex, flawed, kind man.” – William Boyd, author

 

Grade : A+

‘Three Sisters’ by Anton Chekhov – “How strangely life changes and deceives one!”

‘Three Sisters’, a play by Anton Chekhov   (1901)  –  64 pages

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There are two sides to Anton Chekhov for me.  First there are the short stories which are simple, direct, and easy to understand and love.  But then there are the plays which are a much more complex situation.  There are four major Chekhov plays:  ‘The Seagull’, ‘Uncle Vanya’, ‘Three Sisters’, and ‘The Cherry Orchard’.

I have attended a fair number of performances of Chekhov.  They always teem with Russian village life, contain a variety of colorful characters, and are loaded with poignant stories, but they often leave me wondering, “What’s the point?”  However I know Chekhov is a major playwright so I keep coming back to the plays.

‘Three Sisters’ is, as its name indicates, the story of three sisters, Olga, Masha, and Irina.  They are living in a Russian village, but they long to get back to their old home of Moscow which they had to leave after their father died.  As the play starts, Olga is 28, a school teacher, and she realizes she probably will never marry.  Masha is 24 and married, but her husband bores her.  Irina is 20 and pursued by the persistent Baron who is not very good looking and whom Irina does not take seriously as a suitor.   There is also a brother, Andrei, who is prone to gamble away large amounts of money and who winds up marrying the harridan Natasha.  This woman makes the sisters’ lives a living hell, and she is probably the villain of the play.

Life in this Russian village is dull, and the Russian army unit stationed in the village is the only thing that brings excitement and color, and when the army leaves in the fourth act, the villagers lament that the town will become insufferably dull.  Masha, the married sister, has fallen in love with one of the soldiers.

There are four acts to the play.  The acts are separated in time by months or a couple of years, all occurring in the 1890s.  This is a time in Russia when the people realize that Russian life is changing momentously but they still don’t fully realize what the changes will bring.

“Perhaps our age will be called a great one and remembered with respect. Now we have no torture chamber, no executions, no invasions, but at the same time how much unhappiness there is!”

‘Three Sisters’ was written in 1901 and this was the time when Stanislavski was a powerful force in Russian theatre.  Stanislavski took a special interest in Chekhov’s plays and directed all of them.  The Stanislavski method of using an acting ensemble and his concepts of naturalistic acting and psychological realism are evident throughout the play, even though Stanislavski and Chekhov were often at odds.

o_three-sisters-chekhov-kristin-scott-thomas-kate-burton-9d37Despite some comedy, there is a sadness that permeates ‘Three Sisters’ of loveless marriages, of empty days and nights, of being dissatisfied with one’s current life and wishing for something else.

Originally I was going to listen to the audio book of the play which has worked well for me on several plays before.  However I quickly found that there are just too many characters in ‘Three Sisters’ to separate them all by voice only.  Fortunately there was a good version of the play on YouTube starring Kristin Scott Thomas as Masha.

I would really like to find out about your own reactions to Chekhov’s plays.

 

Grade:   A-   

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