Wednesday, February 4, 2015

He spends two minutes tearing up his manuscripts and throwing them under the table

1. I just re-read Anton Chekhov's play "The Seagull." I am working on a novel that has some things to do with Chekhov, and the chapter for which I'm preparing is going to be written in the form of a play, so I thought I should review Chekhov's works for the theater. My original conception for the play I'm writing was that it would be stylistically quite similar to the plays of Chekhov, but I began to describe it to Mighty Reader and she pointed out that it is in fact quite dissimilar to Chekhov's plays. Huh, I said. Look at that. Still, I'm going to write it the way I think it must be written because who is Chekhov to me or me to Chekhov, eh? Some day we'll both be dead and then it won't matter a lick.

2. I just re-read Anton Chekhov's play "The Seagull," which is a play about art. The cast revolves around four central characters: two actresses and two writers, a young generation of artists and their immediate predecessors. In some readings, the young writer is Anton Chekhov and the older one is Ivan Turgenev. In other readings, the older writer is Chekhov and Turgenev's ghost hovers just off-stage. The older writer (Trigorin) compares himself--unfavorably--to Turgenev, just as Chekhov did for a while:
Yes, it's a pleasant feeling writing; . . . and looking over proofs is pleasant too. But as soon as the thing is published my heart sinks, and I see that it is a failure, a mistake, that I ought not to have written it at all; then I am angry with myself, and feel horrible. . . . [Laughing] And the public reads it and says: "How charming! How clever! . . . How charming, but not a patch on Tolstoy!" or "It's a delightful story, but not so good as Turgenev's 'Fathers and Sons.'" And so on, to my dying day, my writings will always be clever and charming, clever and charming, nothing more. And when I die, my friends, passing by my grave, will say: "Here lies Trigorin. He was a charming writer, but not so good as Turgenev."
Harold Bloom would have a field day with this one; the oedipal struggle of the young artist is featured prominently here. Or, it could be something else.

3. I just re-read Anton Chekhov's play "The Seagull," which is about a writer named Boris Trigorin who has disconnected himself emotionally from the world, who walks through landscapes and the lives of others and sees only the bits of reality that please or excite him aesthetically, scribbling notes to himself incessantly so that he will remember that he saw a cloud in the shape of a piano and now must put such a cloud into his next story. Trigorin is worshiped by Nina, the young actress, and this worship interests him but does not move him emotionally. Nina's contemporary, the young writer, kills a seagull because the bird with its beauty and freedom reminds him of Nina, whom he loves uselessly. Trigorin sees the dead gull and declares it "a beautiful bird" and has it stuffed for him by the steward of the estate where the action is set. He subsequently forgets the dead bird and his request to have it stuffed. Over the next year he runs away with Nina, impregnates and then abandons her, and thinks no more about it. Nina struggles as an actress in the provinces, her mind coming apart a little bit, as she increasingly identifies with the dead seagull, killed and forgotten for no reason:
Why do you say you kiss the ground I walk on? I ought to be killed. I'm so tired, Kostya! If I could only rest... rest. I am the seagull... No, that's not it. I'm an actress! It doesn't matter. So he's here, too! It doesn't matter! He didn't believe in the theatre, he laughed at my dreams, and little by little, I stopped believing myself. I lost heart. And always the strains of love, jealousy, constant fear for the child...I became trivial, and commonplace, I acted without thinking or feeling... I didn't know what to do with my hands, I couldn't move properly, or control my voice. You can't imagine what it's like to know you're acting badly! I am a seagull. Do you remember the seagull you shot? You left it at my feet, he came to me and said, "I had an idea. A subject for a short story. A girl, like yourself, lives all her life on the shores of a lake. She loves the lake, like a seagull... But a man comes along, by chance, and, because he has nothing better to do, destroys her..."
The final act of "The Seagull" brings all of these characters back onstage after quite some time has passed, and the results are predictably unhappy. My play will have an ending that's considerably less grim, though it will feature a seemingly endless monologue from Count Leo Tolstoy, interrupted by asides from other characters and nifty flashbacks.

Tonight I'll start re-reading "The Cherry Orchard," a beautiful play. Nobody dies in that one. It is much more sad than "The Seagull."


  1. Well, if it were not "quite dissimilar" to Chekhov's plays, it might be exactly the same as Chekhov's plays, which would be either a very boring and familiar experimental project, or else would mean you had succeeded in exactly replicating Chekhov's plays, which would mean that you had become Chekhov--only Chekhov is dead, so you would be dead and never have the chance to be "quite dissimilar." So all is well. Though sad, yes, very sad.

    1. When I began this project, the only idea I had was to write a piece where Chekhov falls inside a Kafka story while Kafka falls into a Chekhov story, so I was interested in mimicking those two styles. In the end I found two different voices for the stories, but they were not the voices of Chekhov and Kafka. The rest of the stories point at Chekhov but don't try to be Chekhov stories, even though I tell myself the whole project is "Chekhovian." But you're right, if I really tried to be Chekhov, I'd accomplish nothing except my own early death from consumption! It's always more interesting to just follow the writing where it goes. The final story in the book (spoiler) will be about Nabokov trying to write a story in the manner of Chekhov. He too will fail, but he'll...well, something good, I promise. What am I really saying? That I don't actually know what I'm doing but I keep doing it, I guess.

      I'm now reading "Three Sisters" again. A miraculous and beautiful thing.