Posts Tagged ‘Anton Chekhov’

How Thornton Wilder’s “tough love” made a playwright of Edward Albee

Monday, October 3rd, 2016
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edwardalbee

Farewell to one of America’s greatest playwrights.

Playwright Edward Albee died on September 16. He was 88. I wrote nothing about it, because it’s been too long since I read Albee, the winner of three Pulitzer Prizes, or saw any of his plays performed. I could think of nothing new to bring to the subject.

Fortunately, playwright and filmmaker Ian MacAllister-McDonald could. In the most recent issue of the Los Angeles Review of Books, he describes meeting Albee on a plane from New York to Los Angeles in fall 2006 when he was 21 years old. He was new to the theater world, and stopped Albee as he walked down the aisle to stretch his legs. “We talked about Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Zoo Story (the only two plays of his that I’d read at the time) and he stood there, patiently answering my questions,” he said.

Thornton_Wilder

Good advice.

“A few days later, we ended up getting lunch together and continued our conversation. At some point I asked him what other playwrights I should be reading, and Albee furrowed his brow and said, pragmatically, ‘Read all of Chekhov. Start there.’”

You can read the whole thing online at the LARB, but here’s my favorite bit, from a speech Albee gave five years ago at the MacDowell writer’s colony in New Hampshire:

He was funny and gracious, and told a story about meeting Thornton Wilder, when Albee was young poet, visiting a friend at the MacDowell. Albee, a fan, ran up to Wilder and shoved a bunch of poems into his hands and ran away. Later that night, Wilder found him and invited him to come sit by a pond so that they could discuss the work. The older writer took out a bottle of wine, poured them both a glass, and talked through each of the poems. And each time he finished talking about a poem, he would gently take the sheet of paper it was printed on and toss it out onto the water. When the discussion was over, the pond had all of Edward’s poems out floating on it, and Wilder turned to Edward and said, “Have you considered playwriting?”

Read “Edward Albee: Fragments” here.

Robert Conquest remembers Solzhenitsyn: “How should one judge him?”

Saturday, May 21st, 2016
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Conquest at work (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Conquest at work in 2010 (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Next month, I’ll be giving a talk about Robert Conquest – the legendary historian of Russia’s Stalinist period, and also a very fine poet. The occasion will be the West Chester Poetry Conference outside Philadelphia. Tonight, I’m working and thinking about Bob, who died last year at 98. While checking dates on the internet, I found this article from him about his collaboration with the larger-than-life Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

You can read it in its entirety in the Wall Street Journal here. Or settle for a couple excerpts below:

solzhenitsyn4

He’s working too, at Hoover Institution Archives.

Those of us who had long been concerned to expose and resist Stalinism, in the West as in the USSR, learned much from Alexander Solzhenitsyn. I met him in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1974, soon after he was expelled from the Soviet Union – the result of … The Gulag Archipelago, being published in Paris. He was personally pleasant; I have a photograph of the two of us, he holding a Russian edition of my book, The Great Terror, with evident approbation. He asked if I would translate a “little” poem of his. Of course I agreed.

The little poem, Prussian Nights, turned out to be 2,000 lines! Thankfully, he and his circle helped. It was an arresting composition, increasing our knowledge of him and his times – something worth reading, and rereading, for its stunning historical background.

Solzhenitsyn was one of the most striking public figures of our time. How should one judge him? As a writer, up there with Pasternak? As a moralist, up there with Czeslaw Milosz? But he should also be judged as one who might have won two Nobel prizes – not just for Literature, but also for Peace.

In his public capacity, he felt bound to stand forward as the conscience of his people. He said, in a July 2007 interview in Der Spiegel, “My views developed in the course of time. But I have always believed in what I did and never acted against it.” Yet above all, he saw himself as a writer – a Russian writer.
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For most of us, Russian literature is like a triangle around Pushkin, Dostoevsky, and ChekhovTolstoy is in his own class. Solzhenitsyn, on the strength of August 1914 alone, competes in the Tolstoy lane.
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L.N.Tolstoy

“Class of his own.”

Some giants of Russian literature appear more preachy than is common in the West, a trait that brings us to what many see as weaknesses in the Russian tradition. First is the feeling, without basis, that one is somehow being cheated – as in Gogol; second is a tendency to exaggerate or invent. Yet along with these weaknesses there is also painful honesty.

I did not sense the weaknesses when I met him. He was religious and Russian, but without exhibition – though it became clear he embodied Fyodor Tyutchev‘s famous dictum that “Russia can neither be grasped by the mind, nor measured by any common yardstick – no attitude to her other than one of blind faith is admissible.”

He remained staunchly anticommunist, noting in the July 2007 interview in Der Spiegel that the October Revolution “broke Russia’s back. The Red Terror unleashed by its leaders, their willingness to drown Russia in blood, is the first and foremost proof of it.” He also hoped that “the bitter Russian experience, which I have been studying and describing all my life, will be for us a lesson that keeps us from new disastrous breakdowns.”

Incidentally, I would never call Milosz “a moralist” – he certainly would not have considered himself as such, and was far too aware of his fallibility. Nevertheless, read the whole thing here.

What does it take to be a “cultured” person? Anton Chekhov tells us (with a few qualifying words from Jane Austen).

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2016
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Russian author Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) was apparently free with his advice. Maria Popova over at “Brainpickings” found Chekov’s 1886 letter to his older brother Nikolai, an artist. We can only imagine how well the advice was received. After all, the letter is written to an older brother, when Anton was 26 and Nikolai 28. In any case, the older brother died three years later of tuberculosis.

As for our humble selves, we can only quote Elizabeth Bennet, in the conversation with Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bingley, and Bingley’s sister Caroline Bingley, from Jane AustenPride and Prejudice:

jane-austen

Sensible lady

“It is amazing to me,” said Bingley, “how young ladies can have patience to be so very accomplished as they all are.”

“All young ladies accomplished! My dear Charles, what do you mean?”

“Yes, all of them, I think. They all paint tables, cover screens, and net purses. I scarcely know anyone who cannot do all this, and I am sure I never heard a young lady spoken of for the first time, without being informed that she was very accomplished.”

“Your list of the common extent of accomplishments,” said Darcy, “has too much truth. The word is applied to many a woman who deserves it no otherwise than by netting a purse or covering a screen. But I am very far from agreeing with you in your estimation of ladies in general. I cannot boast of knowing more than half-a-dozen, in the whole range of my acquaintance, that are really accomplished.”

“Nor I, I am sure,” said Miss Bingley.

“Then,” observed Elizabeth, “you must comprehend a great deal in your idea of an accomplished woman.”

“Yes, I do comprehend a great deal in it.”

1898_by_Osip_Braz

He looked the part. (Osip Braz portrait, 1898)

“Oh! certainly,” cried his faithful assistant, “no one can be really esteemed accomplished who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half-deserved.”

“All this she must possess,” added Darcy, “and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”

“I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing any.”

Well, then. That’s almost as long as Chekhov’s letter from Moscow. He begins with the good news: “You have often complained to me that people “don’t understand you”! Goethe and Newton did not complain of that…. Only Christ complained of it, but He was speaking of His doctrine and not of Himself…. People understand you perfectly well. And if you do not understand yourself, it is not their fault.

“I assure you as a brother and as a friend I understand you and feel for you with all my heart. I know your good qualities as I know my five fingers; I value and deeply respect them. If you like, to prove that I understand you, I can enumerate those qualities. I think you are kind to the point of softness, magnanimous, unselfish, ready to share your last farthing; you have no envy nor hatred; you are simple-hearted, you pity men and beasts; you are trustful, without spite or guile, and do not remember evil…. You have a gift from above such as other people have not: you have talent. This talent places you above millions of men, for on earth only one out of two millions is an artist. Your talent sets you apart: if you were a toad or a tarantula, even then, people would respect you, for to talent all things are forgiven.”

Then the bad news: “You have only one failing, and the falseness of your position, and your unhappiness and your catarrh of the bowels are all due to it. That is your utter lack of culture. Forgive me, please, but veritas magis amicitiae…. You see, life has its conditions. In order to feel comfortable among educated people, to be at home and happy with them, one must be cultured to a certain extent. Talent has brought you into such a circle, you belong to it, but … you are drawn away from it, and you vacillate between cultured people and the lodgers vis-a-vis.”

Then the list:

Chekhovs

Anton and his artist brother in 1882.

Cultured people must, in my opinion, satisfy the following conditions:

  1. They respect human personality, and therefore they are always kind, gentle, polite, and ready to give in to others. They do not make a row because of a hammer or a lost piece of india-rubber; if they live with anyone they do not regard it as a favour and, going away, they do not say “nobody can live with you.” They forgive noise and cold and dried-up meat and witticisms and the presence of strangers in their homes.
  2. They have sympathy not for beggars and cats alone. Their heart aches for what the eye does not see…. They sit up at night in order to help P…. [here a mediocre poet is named], to pay for brothers at the University, and to buy clothes for their mother.
  3. They respect the property of others, and therefor pay their debts.
  4. They are sincere, and dread lying like fire. They don’t lie even in small things. A lie is insulting to the listener and puts him in a lower position in the eyes of the speaker. They do not pose, they behave in the street as they do at home, they do not show off before their humbler comrades. They are not given to babbling and forcing their uninvited confidences on others. Out of respect for other people’s ears they more often keep silent than talk.
  5. They do not disparage themselves to rouse compassion. They do not play on the strings of other people’s hearts so that they may sigh and make much of them. They do not say “I am misunderstood,” or “I have become second-rate,” because all this is striving after cheap effect, is vulgar, stale, false….
  6. They have no shallow vanity. They do not care for such false diamonds as knowing celebrities, shaking hands with the drunken P., [Translator’s Note: Probably Palmin, a minor poet.] listening to the raptures of a stray spectator in a picture show, being renowned in the taverns…. If they do a pennyworth they do not strut about as though they had done a hundred roubles’ worth, and do not brag of having the entry where others are not admitted…. The truly talented always keep in obscurity among the crowd, as far as possible from advertisement…. Even Krylov has said that an empty barrel echoes more loudly than a full one.
  7. If they have a talent they respect it. They sacrifice to it rest, women, wine, vanity…. They are proud of their talent…. Besides, they are fastidious.
  8. They develop the aesthetic feeling in themselves. They cannot go to sleep in their clothes, see cracks full of bugs on the walls, breathe bad air, walk on a floor that has been spat upon, cook their meals over an oil stove. They seek as far as possible to restrain and ennoble the sexual instinct…. What they want in a woman is not a bed-fellow … They do not ask for the cleverness which shows itself in continual lying. They want especially, if they are artists, freshness, elegance, humanity, the capacity for motherhood…. They do not swill vodka at all hours of the day and night, do not sniff at cupboards, for they are not pigs and know they are not. They drink only when they are free, on occasion…. For they want mens sana in corpore sano [a healthy mind in a healthy body].

And so on. This is what cultured people are like. In order to be cultured and not to stand below the level of your surroundings it is not enough to have read The Pickwick Papers” and learnt a monologue from Faust. …

What is needed is constant work, day and night, constant reading, study, will…. Every hour is precious for it…. Come to us, smash the vodka bottle, lie down and read…. Turgenev, if you like, whom you have not read.

You must drop your vanity, you are not a child … you will soon be thirty.

It is time!

I expect you…. We all expect you.

Elif Batuman: “I feel like I’m living in the country of squirrels”

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011
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Elif Batuman, author of the acclaimed The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, is serving a sentence as writer-in-residence at Koç University, on the outskirts of Istanbul.  Here’s the way she describes it: “I don’t really feel like I’m living in Istanbul because I’m in this office all the time, and then I work here until late, and miss the bus that goes home, and then I walk home through this forest for 25 minutes.”

“I feel more like I’m living in the country of squirrels than the country of Turkish people.”

What’s she thinking about?

“Well, I have been thinking about how a lot of the writers that I know are incredibly good email writers and a lot of the time I find their emails more compelling than the things they are writing at the time. It is connected to this thing that I quoted from Chekhov in The Possessed, about how everyone has two lives and one is the open one that is known to everyone and one is the unknown one, running its course in secret. The email is kind of the unknown life, and the published writings are the known life.”

No squirrels in sight

Helen Stuhr-Rommereim got a chance to interview her over at Full Stop (the interview is here). Book Haven offers a few excerpts:

On writing:

For me, [writing] is about turning off the censor that says you are writing something bad, so stop writing. It’s like going to the gym. Once you go to the gym you never regret that you went to the gym. Once you sit down and write, even if you can tell that what you’re writing is bad and isn’t leading anywhere, the cognitive act of moving sentences around is making you a better writer. You just have to remember that and not censor yourself. And in writing non-fiction there were a lot of times that I was imagining the various annoying voices in my head of people who would be offended that I’d written that or annoyed that I’d written that. Learning to turn that off was useful in a broader sense. You have to make sure that it is just you and the computer screen and other people aren’t going to come into it until later.

On the ideal reader (warning! opposite p.o.v. from statement above):

I’ve been trying to think about that more. It’s something my editor told me when I was working on The Possessed. He said, “I think you should be writing this for my mother. My mother already loves this book, but she doesn’t know that she loves it. If you keep using words like ‘over-determined’ she is never going to know that she loves it.” It was about taking out the jargon without dumbing it down or removing the theory. That was actually really useful.

She hears "annoying voices" in her head

On funny academics:

… they are all pretty funny. They are all kind of marginalized from real life, and they are all aware of that. They are very self-reflective, and where there is self-reflectiveness and breadth of reading there tends to be humor. It isn’t a hard and fast rule. You meet plenty of humorless academics, especially in older generations and in other countries. But American academics have a pretty good sense of humor, and they aren’t that inhibited. If they want to do something crazy they will just go ahead and do it.

Will she ever burn out on Russian lit?

Absolutely! I absolutely think I will. When you write a book and promote a book, you really aren’t an expert on anything except having written that book. In my case it was very small and idiosyncratic book that did not have an encyclopedic knowledge of very much of anything, but they have to make you an expert on something. You find yourself on this cycle of festivals, and I was on all of these panels about Russia with Sheila Fitzpatrick and Pavel Basinski and these great guns of Slavic studies. So I imagine that my next book is not going to have very much to do with Russian literature, and then there will be another slot to put me in. I don’t think I will go down as an expert on Russian literature for very much longer.