Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Chekov / The Seagull

The Seagull on its title page proposes to be a "comedy in four acts," but only the last three words seem to be accurate. The plot involves an neurotic aspiring artist Constantine, his actress mother, and some assorted romantic entanglements. I agree with the introduction that Chekov's plays are not without plot, but I'd say the plot really doesn't matter much because you can rapidly surmise the romances won't come to much and ultimately the outcome isn't very important.

I thought this play was a bit less interesting than Ivanov, but very similar in the sense that its characters are equally obsessed with their own misery. Constantine in particular emphasizes his incompetence. Even the most upbeat character in the play, the writer Trigorin, emphasizes that his life will be summed up on his tombstone as "not as good as Turganev." Probably the most interesting aspect of the play is associated with its title: the seagull which Treplev kills for his love Nina. Nina (and I) don't make much sense of this supposed symbol from Treplev's perspective, but Trigorin later runs with it and uses it to represent a woman after she meets a man who "wrecks her life for want of anything better to do." In this case, it's reflective of the relationship that develops between Nina and Trigorin until the latter becomes bored.

Constantine, presumable speaking for Chekov, pontificates at length (perhaps too much length!) about the nature of writing, the theater and the need for Russian authors to move beyond their current rut. He mentions the addition of dreamlike elements on the stage, but this seems like it couldn't be further from the direction Chekov heads in his later plays. I already read those a year or two ago but I'll probably read them again...maybe not this time around though.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Chekov / Ivanov

I like Chekov's plays because they tend to be vague and resist easy discussion. Ivanov was his first notable play, and concerns an angst-ridden government official, his dying wife and other assorted woes. Actually, the dying wife isn' much of a woe because he no longer loves her and her death allows him to marry the daughter of a friend. What's clear is that Nicholas is entirely self-centered, but obsessed with his own inadequacy including his selfishness. He describes his life as a void, saying he once worked hard and did not feel tired but now he "[does] nothing and think[s] of nothing" but is tired in "body and soul." A sense of tiredness and boredom pervades the whole play. The second act is a dinner party that involves primarily a group of old ladies talking about Nicholas and others behind their backs while complaining about their boredom, while a waiter perpetually fails to bring requested refreshments. Even the comedic figue of Kosykh, who tells endless stories of bridge games, seems entirely hollow. The phrase "boredom" appears all over the place.

Nicholas makes for an odd hero, and it's never quite clear whether all the negative stories (e.g., that he married his wife only for the dowry that never arrived and is involved in other schemes) are true or not. They evidently convince the doctor Lvov, who despite being the only honest and seemingly upstanding character of the play is portrayed in a deeply negative light and his judgments directly results in Nicholas' abrupt final suicide. I'm not sure what Chekov wants to say by this heroic inversion, yet it feels oddly natural.

I don't have many other reflections worth nothing. The translation is garbage. It's the Hingley version for Oxford Classics and is buried in tiresome Britishisms..."old chap" and "old boy" and so on. When I read a play, I try to envision it in my mind, but it's hard to mentally picture this play being performed by Russians as a consequence of the translation. I also very much enjoyed some of Nicholas's self-aware (if self-absorbed) speeches saying how he can't even "write bad poetry." He sounds like an unhappy teenager, frankly.

Saturday, April 25, 2009


Hello. When I was in elementary school and had to do book reports, we were always required to create "reading reflections" as we read. Of course, 90% of the time I did not reflect while I read and instead I wrote them all later. I even wrinkled the paper to suggest I had written them while reading, though I don't know why that would necessarily be convincing.

Anyway, I read a lot of books but find I have trouble remembering what I thought about them later, so I'm starting a blog where I'll post some thoughts as I read. They will very in length, quality, and profundity; the frequency of posts will also vary greatly. Mostly this is a tool for my own use and reference, but I might as well make it public for other people to enjoy.

Note that I typically read randomly. Literally...I have a large library and I use a random number generator to pick what book to read. Otherwise, I might never get around to reading some things. In general, if I pick a novel I'll finish it. If it's short stories or plays, I'll read some or all, but I feel free to quit and pick something new. My library is pretty wide ranging, but it's mostly fiction in a broad sense, including mythology and that sort of stuff. There's also some history, letters, speeches, essays, and the like, but I think it all falls under the heading of "literature."

I hope someone derives enjoyment out of this and, more importantly, it proves useful to me!