Posts Tagged ‘Anton Chekhov’

Dostoevsky: Notes from a Dead House

March 16, 2017

51sti7s1M7L._AC_US218_Thinly disguised autobiography (to get past the Russian censor) by Dostoevsky here, and another really good translation from the Pevear and Volokhonsky duo. I’ve read a number of accounts of being a prisoner and an exile in both Russia and the Soviet Union, so there was also a chance to do some comparing.

Nothing prepares you for the utter sadism which led Dostoevsky to prison and exile. One of a number involved with opposition to the Tsar, he was initially condemned to death; this I had known, and obviously that the sentence was commuted, but apparently the Tsar planned, down to the minutest details, the mock execution to which the writer and his associates were to be subjected, before being reprieved at the very last minute…

So the account is initially carefully framed and disguised, although the mask slips fairly rapidly. We meet a range of the prisoners and hear about their crimes and punishments (as a nobleman, Dostoevsky was spared the compulsory corporal punishment, beating with rods – up to 4000 strokes – before his hard labour). There is much about the prison regime and the food, too, and here there is such a difference from the twentieth century accounts of like in the gulags by such writers as Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov or Evgenia Ginsburg. Dostoevsky and his compeers had the right to buy a pound of beef a day from the market and have it cooked for them… there is so much food and (illegal) alcohol available, compared with the starvation rations in Stalin’s camps. The description of their Christmas festivities does not sound like prison at all.

Prison does mean deprivation of liberty, hard labour does mean being made to work at tasks you’d not freely choose, and exile does mean being made to live somewhere not of your choosing, and it’s clearly these aspects that have the greatest effect on the writer. He and his fellow noblemen prisoners, including the many Poles who are in prison because of their efforts to win their country’s freedom from the Tsarist yoke, are isolated from the vast bulk of ordinary Russian prisoners, with whom they can enjoy no bonds of comradeship. An educated man like Dostoevsky is deprived of so much more along with his liberty, and again this lurks behind his accounts of friendships and kindnesses from others, and more general analysis of his condition and experiences, and those of his fellows. There are no kindred spirits, and you can feel the writer’s isolation behind his words.

Chekhov’s account of his visit as a doctor (so not a prisoner) to the convicts on Sakhalin island on the extreme eastern coast of Russia paints a far grimmer picture, but the nineteenth century accounts pale into insignificance compared with the horrors of the twentieth century gulag. It is important to remember that such camps were not per se designed to work men to death, as some of the Nazi concentration camps were, but they might as well have been, from the accounts we have of extreme conditions – the mines in Vorkuta in the Arctic or Magadan in far eastern Siberia – and permanent insufficiency of food. And yet, prisoners did live to be released and eventually tell their stories. And we are fortunate that Dostoevsky did, or we would not have his greatest novels to read today..

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Anton Chekhov: Three Sisters

November 12, 2014

41y5IgRroHL._AA160_It’s that time again: reading for the Russian literature group. I taught this play to drama students a number of times, and it was a challenge, because it’s so boring. Today I had a (small) revelation: it’s a nineteenth century version of Waiting for Godot. Once I had it in that viewfinder, it began to be rather more approachable.

There is something about a lot of mid to late nineteenth century Russian literature: it’s full of people with money and nothing to do, no skills or purpose or meaning in life. They literally don’t know what to do with themselves and they are bored to death. And there’s a sense that things cannot go on like this, something has to change. Sometimes there’s even a scent or a foreshadowing of revolution in the air…

The sisters in this play are stuck in the middle of nowhere – there’s a hell of a lot of middle of nowhere or back of beyond in Russia – if they work, their jobs are drudgery, and they have set their hopes of a new and more fulfilling life on getting back to Moscow, which they left thirteen years previously. In the same way, Vladimir and Estragon expect the arrival of Godot to change their lives, to bring some kind of meaning. The male characters in Three Sisters are utter wasters: a drunken doctor, a military man who resigns, threatens to go and do meaningful work eventually, and then is killed in a pointless duel the day before he is due to marry one of the sisters and start work. Another soldier ‘philosophises’ all the time (rambles pointlessly about inconsequential ideas) whilst conducting an affair with the married sister. Eventually the troops leave… and nobody goes to Moscow.

It seems an allegorical play – if there is any fathomable meaning to it – Russia is stuck in a time-warp, its people lack purpose, meaning to their lives; those with brains and ideas are idle and unproductive. That’s not to say that Chekhov was a revolutionary or that he was prophesying events twenty or so years in the future. But I do get the sense of a world that has lost its way here. (No change there, then, said he cynically.) Nobody is happy, even when they say they are.

I think Beckett does it better: I think the absurdity comes over more clearly and powerfully. But the end result is the same. And I suppose both plays can be looked from the perspective of tragedy: we were challenged a number of times at university to discuss and imagine whether tragedy was possible in the twentieth century. I always felt that Beckett achieved that sense of tragic waste in Waiting for Godot, and now I think that perhaps Chekhov does, too. There’s certainly some of the ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ in the plot, but I cannot really warm to any of the characters. To this outsider, there’s a powerful insight into the Russian soul.

Turgenev: On The Eve

July 13, 2014

9780140440096Reading for the Russian literature group again; unusually, a short Russian novel! Apart from Fathers and Children, I’ve not really been terribly moved by the other Turgenev we’ve read (mainly short stories) but I have enjoyed and been surprisingly moved by this tragic tale, the ending of which remind me very much of Charlotte Bronte‘s Villette.

The plot is predictable – Russian bourgeoisie with no purpose or meaning to their lives, and someone trying to find one – but Turgenev excels in creating a sense of place at atmosphere: lazy, warm, idyllic Russian country summer. No-one has anything they need to do other than talk (echoes of Chekhov’s Three Sisters here). The characters are very skilfully outlined, sketched, and yet come fully to life as the story develops.

It’s a tale of love: two men both in love with the only available woman; she loves only one of them, then along comes someone who doesn’t want to be in love, and they fall in love… the twist is that he’s an outsider to Russian life, he has a  purpose and meaning to his life which she comes to share, and they cause major upheavals in everyone’s cosy and comfortable lives. If I make it sound banal, it isn’t: Turgenev’s writing overleaps this, and achieves a well-rounded, minor tragedy.

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