Friday 27 August 2021

The Tempest

Having read (some of) Shakespeare’s comedies, tragedies, histories, and problem plays, I naturally turned to romances and picked up The Tempest. It is believed to be the last play Shakespeare wrote alone. 

Let’s get the who’s who out of the way before I continue:

On the island are Prospero (the rightful Duke of Milan), his daughter Miranda (15 years old), his servant Ariel (an airy spirit), and his savage slave Caliban (son of the witch Sycorax). 

Antonio is Prospero’s brother, who usurped him and is now the Duke of Milan. He works with Alonso, King of Naples. Alonso has a brother named Sebastian and a son named Ferdinand.

Gonzalo is a good councillor. 

1/ The Tempest begins with a chaotic, noisy scene—the tempest (obviously). It’s then followed by a rather still scene. Act 1 scene 2 is bold, as there’s lots of talk about the events 12 years ago (especially the usurpation by Antonio) but not much action until later on. I’m very curious about how different productions stage the scene. 

The story makes me think of Hamlet and Measure for Measure. Power and the thirst for power seems to be one of Shakespeare’s obsessions. 

This passage is interesting: 

“PROSPERO […] like one 

Who having into truth—by telling of it,

Made such a sinner of his memory 

To credit his own lie, he did believe 

He was indeed the Duke, out o’ the’ substitution 

And executing th’ outward face of royalty

With all prerogative…” 

(Act 1 scene 2) 

2/ The Tempest is extremely quotable. The poetry is extraordinary from beginning to end, but many “less lyrical” lines are still very quotable.   

“BOATSWAIN […] What cares these roarers for the name of king?” 

(Act 1 scene 1) 


“MIRANDA There’s nothing ill can dwell in such a temple.

If the ill spirit have so fair a house,

Good things will strive to dwell with’it.” 

(Act 1 scene 2) 


“SEBASTIAN [Aside to Antonio] He receives comfort like cold porridge”. 

(Act 2 scene 1) 


“GONZALO My Lord Sebastian,

The truth you speak doth lack some gentleness,

And time to speak it in. You sub the sore

When you should bring the plaster.” 


Just as a few examples. 

3/ Listen to Gonzalo, when the people of Milan and Naples are on the island. 

“GONZALO I’ th’ commonwealth I would by contraries 

Execute all things. For no kind of traffic

Would I admit; no name of magistrate; 

Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,

And use of service, none; contract, succession, 

Bourne, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none; 

No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil; 

No occupation; all men idle, all; 

And women too, but innocent and pure; 

No sovereignty.” 

(Act 2 scene 1) 


“GONZALO All things in common nature should produce

Without sweat or endeavor. Treason, felony,

Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine

Would I not have; but nature should bring forth,

Of its own kind, all foison, all abundance,

To feed my innocent people.” 


People often say everything can be found in Shakespeare, but I didn’t expect to find a communist. 

About 2 minutes after Gonzalo’s utopia’s speech, Antonio tries to talk Sebastian into killing his brother Alonso in order to become king of Naples. And some time after, Caliban plots with Trinculo and Stephano the murder of Prospero.

I can’t help wondering, though, if the island was such a utopia before Prospero’s arrival.

It is worth noting that, as Tony Tanner points out in the introduction, Gonzalo’s passage is a clear reference to Montaigne’s essay “Of the Cannibales” as translated by John Florio and published in 1603. 

4/ The 2 plays are of course very different, but Shakespeare seems to reuse some elements from Romeo and Juliet in The Tempest: Miranda and Ferdinand fall in love at first sight and their families are enemies; Miranda is also open, passionate, and forward like Juliet, and is the one proposing marriage; both girls are young, Miranda is 15 so older than Juliet, but innocent and inexperienced, without a mother or a nurse or any kind of female companion, and she has never seen the male sex apart from her own father and Caliban; Ferdinand has liked other girls like Romeo has loved Rosaline before meeting Juliet.

(Interestingly, in spite of the past, Prospero doesn’t object to Miranda marrying Ferdinand. I reckon he wants his daughter to later become queen). 

In some other ways, The Tempest is closer to A Midsummer Night’s Dream: both are fairytales; both have magic, A Midsummer Night’s Dream has fairies whereas The Tempest has a sorcerer (Prospero), spirits, and witches; both feel like dreams. 

5/ If I got to quote everything I love about The Tempest, I’d put here the entire play. The poetry, the language is wonderful. But this passage has an interesting image: 

“ARIEL You are three men of sin, whom destiny—

That hath to instrument this lower world

And what is in’t—the never-surfeited sea

Hath caused to belch up you and on this island,

Where man doth not inhabit, you ‘mongst men

Being most unfit to live. I have made you mad; 

And even with suchlike valor men hang and drown

Their proper selves.” 

(Act 3 scene 3)


The best speech in the play must be Prospero’s speech about renouncing his magic, but it’s too long to be put here. 

6/ The conversation between Prospero and Caliban in Act 1 scene 2 is interesting. Does the colonial reading of The Tempest make sense? Tony Tanner argues:

“Disregarding the fact that all talk of ‘property rights’ on this ‘uninhabited island’ seems faintly absurd, Caliban’s claim to, as it were, legitimate ownership is dubious. It will not do to see him as representing the expropriated native of shameful colonial history. The banished Sycorax (with child) has no more ‘right’ to the island than the exiled Prospero (with child). They are both alien interlopers (call them witches, call them settlers) on a land hitherto outside of history. Admittedly she was there first; but he seems to have made a better first of things.” (Introduction) 

Another point is that Prospero holds Caliban prisoner because Caliban once attempted to rape Miranda (we don’t know when it happened, but in this scene she is 15).

Interestingly, Caliban doesn’t seem to have learnt much from the experience with Prospero when he meets Trinculo (the king’s jester) and Stephano (the king’s butler), who also “survive” the shipwreck and get on the island.

I can, however, understand readers who read The Tempest through the lens of postcolonial theory, as Caliban’s born on the island and that’s the only place he has ever known. Shakespeare gives voice to Caliban, and from Caliban’s perspective, the island is taken away from him, freedom is taken away from him. The character is, for most of the play, primitive, simple, naïve, and angry, but Shakespeare also gives him this fantastic speech:    

“CALIBAN Be not afeared; the isle is full of noises,

Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not. 

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments

Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices

That, if I then had waked after long sleep,

Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming, 

The clouds methought would open and show riches

Ready to drop upon me, that, when I waked, 

I cried to dream again.” 

(Act 3 scene 3) 

Such a speech must come from Caliban, not Prospero. For Prospero, his stay on the island is temporary and his aim is to return to Milan. 

The speech has another significance, I’m going to quote Tony Tanner: 

“… Caliban also reveals an (innate) sensitivity, which manifests itself in one of the most beautiful speeches in the play—not, surely, something Shakespeare would have given him if he wanted us to share the unqualifiedly negative Prospero view of Caliban.” (Introduction) 

7/ I like the contrast between Ariel and Caliban. Look:

“ARIEL Before you can say “Come” and “Go”, 

And breathe twice and cry “So, so”, 

Each one, tripping on his toe,

Will be here with mop and mow.

Do you love me, master? No?

PROSPERO Dearly, my delicate Ariel. Do not approach

Till thou dost hear me call.” 

(Act 4 scene 1) 

It comes as a surprise that Ariel asks “Do you love me, master?”, and Prospero’s answer is also surprisingly tender. 

Now look at this exchange, when Ariel tells Prospero about the prisoners: 

“ARIEL Your charm so strongly works’ em,

That if you now beheld them, your affections

Would become tender.

PROSPERO Dost thou think so, spirit?

ARIEL Mine would, sir, were I human.” 

(Act 5 scene 1) 

That’s a thought-provoking passage. The non-human is more humane. 

On a related point, after writing about the savagery of Caliban, Tony Tanner compares him to Stephano and Trinculo and says “He is primitive; they are degenerate.” He then says: 

“The real ‘monsters’ on the island are, of course Sebastian and, particularly, Antonio. […] Antonio really is an utterly recalcitrant piece of degraded nature; impervious to, and contemptuous of, any grace or kindness. He may have the bearing of a courtier, but in him we see nature denatured, the last humanizing flicker extinguished.” (Introduction) 

That’s a good point.  

8/ The ending of The Tempest is a scene of reconciliation (or is it?). On the surface everything seems to be resolved: Prospero no longer wants a revenge, and would have his dukedom restored; Alonso seems to have more humanity after the painful fear of having lost his son, and now reunites with him; Ferdinand and Miranda are going to get married; Prospero reconciles with Alonso; Caliban’s plan to kill Prospero fails; Antonio and Sebastian no longer want to kill Alonso, because Ferdinand is alive; and Ariel is now free.

But there’s no real sense of reconciliation because the people who most need it are Prospero and Antonio, and they cannot reconcile—Antonio barely speaks in the final scene. Sebastian meanwhile may not have a reason to kill his brother anymore, but the fact remains that the thought has entered his head, that he has tried to kill Alonso earlier. 

Added to that is the sense that the innocent, sheltered Miranda is unequipped for life in Naples. She has seen some savagery and unkindness on the island (see Caliban), but doesn’t know the wickedness and evil of people like Antonio or Sebastian. 

Some readers may not like the ending, but to me, it’s like the ending of Measure for Measure: there are lots of questions, and a sense of unease about the characters’ future, but that’s no problem. 

What a wonderful play. 

9/ I’m going to end my blog post by quoting William Hazlitt:

“There can be little doubt that Shakespeare was the most universal genius that ever lived. 'Either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, scene individable or poem unlimited, he is the only man. Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor Plautus too light for him.' He has not only the same absolute command over our laughter and our tears, all the resources of passion, of wit, of thought, of observation, but he has the most unbounded range of fanciful invention, whether terrible or playful, the same insight into the world of imagination that he has into the world of reality; and over all there presides the same truth of character and nature, and the same spirit of humanity. His ideal beings are as true and natural as his real characters; that is, as consistent with themselves, or if we suppose such beings to exist at all, they could not act, speak, or feel otherwise than as he makes them. He has invented for them a language, manners, and sentiments of their own, from the tremendous imprecations of the Witches in Macbeth, when they do 'a deed without a name', to the sylph-like expressions 'of Ariel, who 'does his spiriting gently'; the mischievous tricks and gossiping of Robin Goodfellow, or the uncouth gabbling and emphatic gesticulations of Caliban in this play.” (Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays

Wednesday 25 August 2021

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2021

These days I’ve been very busy. I got accepted to The Network (a TV scheme), and got access to Edinburgh International Film Festival and also Edinburgh TV Festival. This blog post is about the former. 


Out of the 4 features I saw, I liked 3: Mandibles, The Road Dance, and Ballad of a White Cow

I have a few times wondered if today’s films are not as good as classic films—my favourite period is the 50s-70s. But good, interesting films are still being made today, just outside the US, generally speaking. Ballad of a White Cow for example is an Iranian film, Mandibles is French. In today’s Hollywood films, I very much dislike the unnecessarily fast cutting, the random camera movements, the bad pace, the formulaic scripts, the bad dialogue... In recent years things are even worse because of the tendency to prioritise diversity (or rather, “diversity”) and social issues over quality and enjoyment, and the tendency to push for certain political messages. In addition are the dominance of superhero movies in Hollywood, and Hollywood’s self-censorship for fear of offending China, neither of which are good for the film industry. 

But interesting films are still being made elsewhere.

Ballad of a White Cow is about a woman raising alone her deaf 7-year-old daughter after her husband’s executed for murder. A year after the execution, she’s told by the authorities that he was wrongfully convicted and executed, the real murderer has now confessed, and now the heir (the daughter) would get compensation money. As she juggles between working, taking care of her daughter, trying to get an official apology from the authorities, and fighting her late husband’s family over the custody of her daughter, she gets help from a man who says he owed money from the husband before. Gradually she falls for the man’s kindness, but he isn’t quite who he says he is.

It’s a quiet, well-paced film with a brilliant ending. I noticed, each scene is made up of just one or two shots, and there are moments another director may cut to the other angle or a close-up to show someone’s face, but the directors of Ballad of a White Cow don’t do so, and it works perfectly. I also love the silences in the film (one of the main reasons I dislike the popular In the Mood for Love is the complete lack of silence in it—when there’s no dialogue, there is music, there is no silence whatsoever).

The Road Dance is based on a novel by John MacKay, about a young woman named Kirsty who lives with her mother and younger sister in a small village on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland a few years before WW1. People around her are religious, and it’s set up from the beginning that a few people remark on young men flirting with Kirsty or her being a bit too close to her “beau” Murdo. One day, all the young men in the village including Murdo are recruited to war, and the day before they leave, a road dance is organised as a way of saying goodbye. The evening of the road dance, Kirsty is attacked and raped—she doesn’t know by whom.

The film is well-done, and interesting because it raises lots of questions. It forces us viewers to ask ourselves what we would do, were we in her circumstances: Would you tell anyone about the rape? How would you find out who the attacker was? What would you do if you got pregnant? What would you do when the constable came to your house and asked questions? What would you do if the only person you felt you could trust was the doctor? And so on and so forth. It’s a film that may easily go wrong in many ways, because of the subject matter and the main character’s decisions, but I think they do well.

Mandibles however is a completely different animal, with none of the seriousness of The Road Dance and Ballad of a White Cow. It starts off like a cliché heist film in which a broke guy is told by a friend to pick up and deliver a suitcase, without asking questions, for 500 euros. But soon it strays into demented territory, as the main character Manu and his friend Jean-Gab discover what’s inside the trunk of the car they stole—Mandibles is about the 2 guys trying to tame and train a giant fly. It is nonsensical, it is absolutely ridiculous, it is fun to watch. 


I don’t think very highly of Europa (2021), which I think is praised only because it’s about the migrant crisis. From one angle, it feels slight because it focuses on the perspective of one Iraqi migrant for the entire film, and doesn’t show the scope of the crisis, especially after the director Haider Rashid sets up something quite dramatic in the prologue. And from another angle, Europa feels like one of those films about issues that have nothing else to offer. It is dry and dull and not something you want to watch more than once.

I watched a few shorts at the film festival, and only enjoyed the one called Prosopagnosia, which is about face blindness. I hated Shagbands and Jambo Cinema, and have no interest in the rest. Excluding experimental and animated shorts, almost all the short films seem to be about social issues or to have the right political messages—it all feels heavy and suffocating. I can’t help thinking that the current environment in the West, especially in English-speaking countries, isn’t good for the film industry. Shagbands is weak and badly written, and feels amateurish, and I hate Jambo Cinema because I despise the identity politics and the filmmaker’s self-entitlement. 

Overall, it was a nice experience. These films may be hard to find, but if you can, try to get hold of Ballad of a White Cow, The Road Dance, and Mandibles, folks. 

Sunday 22 August 2021

Some wonderful passages in Chekhov’s “The Steppe”

I’ve been unwell and busy this week, so I’ve been enjoying Chekhov’s company without blogging. Here however are some wonderful passages in “The Steppe” that I want to save (translated by Ronald Wilks):  

“On July evenings quails and corncrakes no longer call, nightingales do not sing in wooded river-beds, there is no scent of flowers, yet the steppe is still beautiful and full of life. No sooner has the sun set and darkness enfolded the earth than the day’s sorrows are forgotten and the steppe heaves a faint sigh from its broad bosom. A cheerful, youthful trilling that cannot be heard by day rises from the grass, as if it cannot see in the darkness how it has aged; chirring, whistling, scratching – those bass, tenor and treble voices of the steppe – everything blends in one unbroken din and against the background of these sounds it is pleasant to reminisce and to be sad. The monotonous chirring is as soothing as a lullaby. On and on you drive and you feel that you are falling asleep. But suddenly the abrupt alarm call of a wakeful bird reaches your ears, some vague sound, like a human voice uttering a long ‘Ah-ah!’ of astonishment rings out – and slumber seals your eyelids. Or you may be driving past a gully where bushes grow and you hear the bird called the ‘sleeper’ by steppe-dwellers crying ‘I’m sleeping, I’m sleeping, I’m sleeping!’ – whilst another bird guffaws or breaks into hysterical weeping – it is an owl. For whom are they crying? Who can hear them on the steppes? God alone knows, but their cries are filled with sadness and complaining. There is a scent of hay, dry grass and late flowers – dense, richly-cloying and soft.

[…] But when the moon rises the night grows pale and languorous. It is as if the darkness never existed. The air is crystal clear, fresh and warm, everything is perfectly visible and even individual stalks of grass by the road can be made out. Far and wide over that immense expanse skulls and rocks are visible. The suspicious, monk-like figures seem darker and more sinister against the bright background of night. That surprised ‘Ah-ah!’ rings out more often amid the monotonous chattering and disturbs the still air, or the cry of some wakeful or delirious bird is heard. Broad shadows pass over the plain like clouds across the sky and if you peer for long into the inscrutable distance, hazy, weird shapes loom up, towering one behind the other. It is all rather eerie. And if you look up at the pale-green, star-spangled sky where there is not one small cloud or speck, you will understand why the warm air is so still, why nature is on her guard and is afraid to stir: she is terrified and unwilling to forfeit even one moment of life. Only at sea or on the steppe at night, when the moon is shining, can you judge the sky’s unfathomable depth and boundlessness. It is awesome, beautiful and inviting, looking down languidly and beckoning you – and your head grows dizzy from its blandishments.

On you drive for an hour or two… By the roadside you pass a silent, ancient barrow or a stone image put up by God knows whom and when. A night bird flies silently over the earth and gradually you recall all those legends of the steppe, wayfarers’ stories, folk-tales told by some old nurse from the steppe, together with all that you yourself have seen and grasped with the spirit. And then, in the buzzing of the insects, in the sinister figures and ancient barrows, in the depths of the sky, in the moonlight and in the flight of the night bird – in all that you see or hear – there are glimpses of triumphant beauty, of youth in its prime and a passionate lust for life. Your spirit responds to its beautiful, austere homeland and you long to fly over the steppe with the night bird. And in this triumph of beauty, in this abundance of happiness, you are conscious of tension and sad yearning, as if the steppe realizes how lonely she is and that her wealth and inspiration are lost to the world – unsung and unneeded – and through all the joyful clamour you can hear her anguished, despairing call for a bard, a poet to call her own!” (IV) 

“If you look at the deep sky for long, without averting your gaze, your thoughts and your spirit somehow blend in a consciousness of solitude. You begin to feel desperately lonely and all that you had once considered near and dear becomes infinitely remote and trivial. The stars that have been looking down for thousands of years, the inscrutable sky itself and the darkness, so indifferent to man’s short life – when you are confronted by them and try to fathom their meaning they oppress your spirit with their silence. Then you are reminded of the solitude that awaits all of us in the grave – and the reality of existence seems awful, terrible…

[…] Everyone was resting, musing, fitfully glancing at the cross over which the red patches were dancing. There is something melancholy, dreamlike and highly poetic about a lonely grave. You can hear its very silence and in that silence you sense the presence of the soul of the unknown being lying beneath the cross. Is that soul at peace on the steppe? Does it not grieve on moonlit nights? Around a grave the steppe seems sad, cheerless and pensive, the grass sadder and the grasshoppers’ chatter more subdued. No passer-by would forget to mention that solitary soul in his prayers or stop looking back at the grave until it was far behind and veiled in darkness…” (VI) 

Saturday 14 August 2021

“Man in a Case”, “Gooseberries”, “About Love”

After reading Rosamund Bartlett’s biography of Tolstoy (which is brilliant and fair-minded), I returned to Chekhov with the Penguin Lady with the Little Dog and Other Stories, translated by Ronald Wilks. I shouldn’t be writing about these stories because I’m new to them and don’t have a lot to say, but if that doesn’t stop others, why should it stop me. 

“Man in a Case”, “Gooseberries”, and “About Love” form a triptych, and they’re interesting for 2 main reasons. 

First of all, I can’t help thinking that quite a lot of Chekhov’s stories are some kind of reaction against Tolstoy. “My Life” is an obvious example, depicting the complications when a member of the intelligentsia returns to manual labour and marries a woman of the same class, who likes his ideals and decides to buy a farm but has never worked on one. “The House with the Mezzanine”, the first story in this collection, raises the question of what should be done about peasants and poor people in Russia, through its depiction of a conflict between a woman who is deeply engaged in the affairs of the local zemstvo and devoted to helping peasants, and a landscape painter who has different ideas.

“Gooseberries” has a passage that seems to be a direct reference to Tolstoy’s “How Much Land Does a Man Need”. “About Love” seems to be another of Chekhov’s responses to Anna Karenina, like “Lady with the Little Dog” and “Anna on the Neck”. It is about a man who falls in love with a friend’s wife and often visits them both, but never mentions his feelings till she is sick and moves away. 

Look at this passage:

“Whether I was at home, out in the fields, in the barn, I couldn’t stop thinking about her, and I tried to unravel the mystery of that young, beautiful, clever woman who had married an uninteresting man, who could almost be called old (he was over forty) and had borne his children. And I tried to solve the enigma of that boring, good-natured, simple-minded fellow, with his insufferable common sense, always crawling up to the local stuffed shirts at balls and soirées, a lifeless, useless man whose submissive, indifferent expression made you think he’d been brought along as an object for sale, a man who believed, however, that he had the right to be happy and to be the father of her children. I never gave up trying to understand why she was fated to meet him, and not me, why such a horrible mistake should have to occur in our lives.” 

Does that not make you think of Anna Karenina

Note too that her name is Anna Alekseyevna. In Anna Karenina, both Karenin and Vronsky are named Alexey.

But Anna Alekseyevna isn’t Anna Karenina and Alyokhin isn’t Vronsky, so they do nothing: 

“Although I loved her tenderly, deeply, I reasoned with myself and tried to guess what the consequences would be if we had no strength to combat it. It seemed incredible that my gentle, cheerless love could suddenly rudely disrupt the happy lives of her husband and children – of that whole household in fact, where I was so loved and trusted. Was I acting honourably? She would have gone away with me, but where could I take her? It would have been another matter if my life had been wonderful and eventful – if, for example, I’d been fighting to liberate my country, or if I’d been a famous scholar, actor or artist. But I’d only be taking her away from an ordinary, pedestrian life into one that was just the same, just as prosaic, even more so, perhaps. And just how long would we stay happy? What would become of her if I was taken ill, or died? Or if we simply stopped loving each other?” 

“About Love” is my favourite in the trilogy. 

The trilogy is also interesting because of the framing device: in “Man in a Case”, the story of Belikov is told by Burkin, a teacher, to his friend Ivan Ivanych, a vet; in “Gooseberries”, Ivan Ivanych tells Burkin and Alyokhin the story of his brother Nikolay; and in “About Love”, Alyokhin tells his love story to Ivan Ivanych and Burkin. 

Why does Chekhov do so?  

One advantage is that he can get away with moralising—it’s not Chekhov but Burkin who talks about people who enclose themselves in some kind of shell, and it’s not Chekhov but Ivan Ivanych who argues that happiness is a mere illusion and people can only be happy because they don’t know about others’ suffering. More importantly, the device creates some kind of distance and makes us question the “morals” and even the storytellers. In “Man in a Case” for example, Burkin talks about Belikov but he himself was also scared of Belikov and feels relieved after his death, only to realise that everything afterwards remains the same in the village. In “Gooseberries”, Ivan Ivanych preaches about doing good and not getting lulled into complacency, but there doesn’t seem to be any indication that he himself does good—he doesn’t notice the lack of interest from his listeners, and at the end of the story, doesn’t notice that the terrible smell of stale tobacco from his pipe makes his friend Burkin unable to sleep for a long time. 

In “About Love”, there’s no moralising, but the framing device allows us to see Alyokhin and his prosaic life from the outside, before he begins his story, and that has an effect on how we take his story and how we imagine things would be if Alyokhin declared his feelings earlier and Anna Alekseyevna left her husband for him. 

These are wonderful stories. 


I got my second dose yesterday afternoon and have been sick from last night. I was so miserable earlier that I couldn’t even read. Now I’m still tired but slightly better, and can read some Chekhov. 

Sunday 8 August 2021

Tolstoy and his sister’s unhappy marriage

I’ve been reading Rosamund Bartlett’s biography of Tolstoy and something caught my attention: Tolstoy’s sister Masha left her husband in summer 1857. 

“None of the Tolstoy brothers had particularly liked Valerian Petrovich, but they had not known quite how depraved he was. It now emerged that when he was not away on hunting expeditions, or continuing to spend periods living with his peasant mistress, who had borne him several children, he had been a cruel and despotic husband.” (Ch.6) 

No longer wanting to be part of a “harem”, she left him and moved to her part of the Pirogovo estate, becoming neighbour to her brother Sergey. Lev Tolstoy went there the day after he arrived home from his European travels. 

In 1861, in Aix-les-Bains, Masha met the Swedish Viscount Hector Victor de Kleen, with whom she spent the next 2 winters in Algiers. 

“Her brothers learned they were living together when she made a trip back to Russia in the summer of 1862, just when Tolstoy was about to get married. The following autumn, fearing their censure, she wrote from Geneva to tell them she had given birth to a little girl. Both Tolstoy and his brother Sergey had fathered illegitimate children themselves, and were sympathetic. Tolstoy hastened to reassure Masha of their support, and resolved to try to help her. In January 1864 he and Sergey met with Valerian Petrovich, who acknowledged his responsibility in the breakdown of the marriage and agreed to a divorce. Tolstoy obtained the necessary permission from the bishop, and then sent the documents for Masha to sign and return. She was scared to set things in motion, however, as Valerian Petrovich sent her a threatening letter, telling her a divorce would ‘harm his position and bring him a great deal of unpleasantness’…” (Ch.9) 

That sheds a different light on Anna Karenina, does it not? 

Because of his sister’s situation, Tolstoy had to do research on divorce laws and other related details in Russia, a lot of which went into the novel. Masha didn’t need to go through the divorce from her husband, however, because the viscount returned to Sweden to marry someone richer, leaving Masha mired in debt. His family persuaded him to leave her, “a woman with four children who would also soon bear the stigma of divorce”. Rosamund Bartlett continues: 

“Masha returned to Russia and Valerian Petrovich died the following year, but she remained deeply unhappy in her personal life, having left her daughter Elena behind in Switzerland. As she wrote in the desperate letter to her brother in 1876 in which she likened herself to Anna Karenina, she knew of no single woman from their background with the ‘courage’ to admit to the existence of an illegitimate child.” (ibid.)

Masha’s situation was certainly one of the influences on the depiction of Anna Karenina, as Rosamund Bartlett suggests, but I think some of her unhappy marriage also went into Dolly, Tolstoy’s sympathetic and moving portrayal of a woman worn out by several children and unloved by her husband.

“It was Aunt Toinette, however, who had perhaps the greatest influence on Tolstoy’s views about adultery. In his memoirs, in which he writes about her at length, Tolstoy records telling her late one night about an acquaintance of his, whose wife had been unfaithful and absconded. When he expressed the view that his friend was probably glad to be shot of his wife, he describes how Toinette at once assumed a serious express and urged instead forgiveness and compassion. This is precisely the sentiment Tolstoy voices through his unsung heroine Dolly in Anna Karenina. When Karenin tells Dolly about his predicament at the end of Oblonsky’s dinner party in Part Four of the novel, she pleads with him not to bring shame and disrepute on his wife by divorcing her, as it would destroy her. Toinette’s general view, that one should hate the crime, but not the person, was essentially Tolstoy’s, and holds the key to why Anna Karenina is one of the most compelling and complex literary characters ever created.” (ibid.) 

What I love about Rosamund Bartlett’s biography is that she portrays Tolstoy as a complex man, with both flaws and admirable qualities, and full of contradictions. There’s no denying that Tolstoy had conservative views about a woman’s place in society, and that he was increasingly difficult to his wife Sonya. But he was no mere misogynist—a misogynist like many people claim Tolstoy was would not have been able to write, with so much compassion and sympathy, Anna and Dolly (and Natasha, Marya, Sonya, even Lise… in War and Peace).

The biography also shows that throughout his life, Tolstoy constantly tried to do something about inequality and injustice in Russia (such as his efforts in education, his schools for peasant children, his ABC book, etc.). Tolstoy, despite many of his wrong-headed and maddening views, was in some other ways admirable.

Friday 6 August 2021

Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, and readers

 1/ Recently I’ve reread Tolstoy’s short story “Polikushka”. Still love it.

There are many people who keep repeating some stock opinions about Tolstoy, I don’t know where from, such as that Tolstoy can’t write about the working class. He can, “Polikushka” is the answer, among others. I also think that he would still be considered one of the greatest writers if he hadn’t written War and Peace and Anna Karenina—his name would have survived on The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Hadji Murad, The Forged Coupon, The Devil, “Polikushka”, “Master and Man”, and plenty of other wonderful works.

His ability to inhabit characters’ minds is unparalleled. I can’t help thinking, we can never know another person in real life as well as we know the fictional people in literature, especially Tolstoy’s characters. 

Interestingly, for me reading Anna Karenina didn’t have an effect on Chekhov’s stories (the way some other works such as Doctor Zhivago or Lady Chatterley’s Lover suffered in comparison when I read them right after Tolstoy), and reading Chekhov’s stories didn’t have an effect on “Polikushka”, Tolstoy’s short story about a house serf. 

2/ The other day I was asked if I thought there were two Tolstoys: Tolstoy the artist and Tolstoy the thinker/moralist.

I think in a sense there are, but I don’t think it’s simple to separate them. Tolstoy’s a complex man, and many of his ideas are part of his art, embedded in his art. Having said that, I personally think Tolstoy isn’t as preachy and didactic as people often say—some even accuse him of forcing his opinions down their throats—but again, this is one of those stock opinions people keep spouting about Tolstoy that are very far from the truth. In Anna Karenina, he presents different opinions and different perspectives, and if Levin is meant to be a stand-in for the author, in some discussions he is silent or unable to express his ideas, or finds himself conflicted and unsure. In fact, Levin has a questioning attitude throughout the entire novel, even after his “conversion” at the end. 

At the moment I’m reading Rosamund Bartlett’s biography of Tolstoy. So far it seems fascinating, she accepts and presents him as a complex man, and doesn’t reduce him to a naïve, idealistic fool like so many people do. I do see Tolstoy’s faults and disagree with many of his views, but do I wish he had been saner and not had any of his maddening views? Probably not. Perhaps he’s capable of entering the minds of a wide range of people and writing such complex, multifaceted, and self-contradictory characters because he himself was full of self-contradictions. 

I’m live-tweeting interesting passages from the biography here: 

3/ As I read about the events and experiences that shaped Tolstoy as a man, as a thinker, and as a writer, I also want to read a Chekhov biography, though perhaps after knowing his works better. Chekhov’s personality and temperament were different, his life was also different. 

It’s hard to read about Tolstoy’s life and not think about the narrow, circumscribed lives of 19th century female writers such as Jane Austen or the Brontes. Tolstoy could write about a wide range of experiences because he himself did a lot and went everywhere—he grew up on a country estate but also moved between places and knew well both Moscow and St Petersburg; went to university, played music, learnt languages; went to balls and parties, went hunting, went gambling, went to brothels; was in the army, knew the Caucasus, Crimea, and other places around Russia, met people of different classes and different ethnicities; travelled around Europe; and so on and so forth.

Tolstoy, compared to Chekhov and Dostoyevsky, had the advantage of not having to worry about money and write against deadlines. 

I don’t know a lot about Chekhov’s life, but I imagine that he also had a wide range of experiences, though in a different way, as a doctor. He would have gone everywhere and met everyone, and had better understanding of peasants and the working class. I’m also aware that Chekhov went to the Sakhalin island for some time.   

4/ These days I’ve been thinking, why is it that certain authors such as Tolstoy or Dickens are often cut down to size and spoken of condescendingly by so many people on the internet, especially Twitter? Why Tolstoy more than Dostoyevsky, for example? I’m not talking about dislike, but condescension. 

Sometimes I hear from someone that Dostoyevsky writes badly, or can’t write women, but I’ve never heard anyone speak of Dostoyevsky as a naïve, foolish man the way some people talk about Tolstoy. We are talking about the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina and The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Hadji Murad, and it was the late Tolstoy who wrote Hadji Murad.

Looking at Twitter, I can’t help noticing that somehow some authors such as Dostoyevsky or Kafka are perceived as cool and “edgy”, whereas some others such as Tolstoy or Dickens are seen as “safe”. It’s almost as though some people think preferring Dostoyevsky makes them more intellectual (even if they can’t say much more than some generic statements about Dostoyevsky’s insight into the human psyche), the same way teenagers think they’re cool for liking Camus or Murakami. 

I also think on Twitter, Tolstoy seems to get more hate than other writers (or do I notice more because I love Tolstoy?). He gets hate from Dostoyevsky’s fans. From Turgenev’s fans. From Chekhov’s fans. From those who dislike Russian literature. From those who hate classic literature and “dead white men”. From everywhere. Preference is understandable, but it’s hard to understand hostility and obsessive hatred. Within 19th century Russian literature, I’m team everybody—I’m team Tolstoy, team Chekhov, team Turgenev, team Gogol, team Leskov, team Dostoyevsky, etc. Beyond the Russians, I don’t see other dead writers get quite the same hate and condescension as Tolstoy—wouldn’t Zola or Balzac be more maddening in some other aspects? Or Henry James? Or George Eliot? Or Dostoyevsky? Tolstoy may provoke hostility because of his sexism, but what about Dostoyevsky’s anti-Semitism? But no, I don’t see other writers get the same kind of obsessive hatred and regular attacks. 

I’m writing about this not because it matters—it doesn’t. People disparage Tolstoy the same way they disparage Shakespeare all the time, not realising the problem is in themselves, and it means nothing. I see it mostly as a curious phenomenon, an amusing spectacle. 

5/ I should return to Dostoyevsky this year, especially when it’s going to be the 200th anniversary of his birthday. I’m a bit afraid that my sensibilities have been so strongly shaped over the years by Tolstoy and similar writers that I may not be able to appreciate Dostoyevsky now, so we’ll have to see. 

Several years ago, I didn’t like Crime and Punishment but loved Notes from Underground and The House of the Dead, both of which were written from the first-person point of view. I expect to clash with the novels because they’re novels of ideas. I expect to clash with the excesses, with the chaos and shapelessness, with the way characters are embodiments of ideas rather than human beings, etc. Woolf says Dostoyevsky’s novels are “seething whirlpools, gyrating sandstorms, waterspouts which hiss and boil and suck us in”, but I wonder if I’ve not changed in the opposite direction over the past few years—I used to find Chekhov too quiet but now become more sensitive to his subtlety and openness; similarly in cinema, I used to love only Kurosawa and Mizoguchi, but have come to appreciate the quietness of Ozu.

But we’ll see. 

I shouldn’t be prejudiced against Dostoyevsky because of some of his fans. After all, I didn’t let the idiotic things Chekhov’s fans say about Tolstoy make me prejudiced against Chekhov. Can’t judge an author by their (so-called) fans, and frankly I don’t think those who belittle Tolstoy and talk as though he’s some second-rate writer would truly get Dostoyevsky anyway. 

Monday 2 August 2021

“The Bishop”, “Betrothed”, and Chekhov vs Tolstoy

As I read “The Bishop” and “Betrothed”, the last 2 stories of the collection Peasants and Other Stories (translated by Constance Garnett), I couldn’t help thinking about how different Chekhov was from Tolstoy, in views and temperament.

“The Bishop” is about the last days of Bishop Pyotr, and Chekhov’s depiction of illness and death is significantly different from the way Tolstoy writes about death—most famously in “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”, but in more or less every single work of his. The bishop has to continue working, meeting one person after another, running from one place to the next, having no time to think about death, and he doesn’t think about death—he doesn’t even think about God. 

“The bishop of the diocese, a very fat old man, was ill with rheumatism or gout and had been in bed for over a month. Bishop Pyotr went to see him almost every day, and saw all who came to ask his help. And now that he was unwell he was struck by the emptiness, the triviality of everything which they asked and for which they wept; he was vexed at their ignorance, their timidity; and all this useless, petty business oppressed him by the mass of it, and it seemed to him that now he understood the diocesan bishop who had once in his young days written on “The Doctrines of the Freedom of the Will,” and now seemed to be all lost in trivialities, to have forgotten everything, and to have no thoughts of religion.”

I can’t help thinking, how extraordinary it is that Chekhov writes about a man of God, in illness, feeling oppressed by his work and having no thoughts of religion.  

When Bishop Pyotr thinks about his own life, he doesn’t think about whether he has lived a morally good and worthwhile life, the way Ivan Ilyich does, but instead, thinks about his childhood, his mother, and his loneliness, as he can’t confide in anybody and his own mother is uncomfortable, unable to be herself in front of him. Only in the last moments can his mother see him as her son and call him Pavlusha, but it’s too late, he’s too ill to respond or even hear her. 

“Betrothed” is about a young woman called Nadya, who lives with her mother Nina Ivanovna and her paternal grandmother Marfa Mihalovna. She’s engaged to be married to Andrei Andreyich, son of a priest, and at the beginning of the story, the wedding is fixed but there is no joy in her heart. 

“She could hear from the open windows of the basement, where the kitchen was, the hurrying servants, the clatter of knives, the banging of the swing door; there was a smell of roast turkey and pickled cherries, and for some reason it seemed to her that it would be like that all her life, with no change, no end to it.” 

Nadya realises that she doesn’t love Andrei Andreyich, and under the influence over the years of a distant cousin called Sasha (Alexandr Timofeich), she has gradually realised that her mother is not an exceptional woman, that they all are idle and do no work, even around the house, that Andrei Andreyich also does nothing except play the fiddle, and that she has to escape from this life, she has to live. And then she runs away—not to be with Sasha but to go to university. 

This is the ending: 

“…Nadya went on walking about the rooms and thinking. She recognized clearly that her life had been turned upside down as Sasha wished; that here she was, alien, isolated, useless, and that everything here was useless to her; that all the past had been torn away from her and vanished as though it had been burnt up and the ashes scattered to the winds. She went into Sasha’s room and stood there for a while.

“Good-bye, dear Sasha,” she thought, and before her mind rose the vista of a new, wide, spacious life, and that life, still obscure and full of mysteries, beckoned her and attracted her…”  

For those of you who don’t know and are wondering, “Betrothed” was published in 1903.

Is it not incredible that he writes sympathetically about a woman, who is engaged, running away from home to go to university and to have a new, wide, spacious life? I can’t imagine Tolstoy writing such a story, for his vision of women is in the home. 


People have different tastes, different sensibilities. If asked, I’m still a Tolstoy girl, but Chekhov is now another favourite writer of mine and I get it when some readers prefer, or feel closer to, Chekhov. 

It’s only when people act as though it’s a competition where only one can win and the other must be eliminated, when people have to denigrate Tolstoy in order to praise Chekhov, that I feel annoyed. Tolstoy and Chekhov, despite some similarities, are very different writers. They do different things and have different strengths: reading Tolstoy, I love the detail, the psychological depth and complexity, and never feel that it’s too long or superfluous; reading Chekhov, I love the mood, the restraint, the compassionate tone, and never feel that it’s too short or badly paced. It always feels right. 

I love both Tolstoy and Chekhov.  

And I’m grateful we have them both.     

Sunday 1 August 2021

“In the Ravine”, “Three Years”, and the question of sympathy/ empathy

Most of the Chekhov stories I’ve been reading lately, like “A Woman’s Kingdom”, “Three Years”, “My Life”, “Peasants”… are melancholic and gloomy. “In the Ravine” is tragic, and devastating. The shocking scene and its aftermath (those who have read the story know what I’m talking about) are probably going to haunt me for a while. 

One of the things I noticed reading “In the Ravine” was that there were 2 passages where Chekhov’s opinion came through.

“The clerk and the elder of the rural district who had served together for fourteen years, and who had during all that time never signed a single document for anybody nor let a single person out of the local court without deceiving or insulting him, were sitting now side by side, both fat and well fed, and it seemed as though they were so saturated in injustice and falsehood that even the skin of their faces was somehow peculiar, fraudulent. The clerk’s wife, a thin woman with a squint, had brought all her children with her, and like a bird of prey looked aslant at the plates and snatched anything she could get hold of to put in her own or her children’s pockets.” 

Chekhov’s renowned for his total objectivity and “invisibility”, but his opinion about the clerk and the elder of the rural district can be seen here—there’s a harsher, more contemptuous tone than usual.

Compare that to this passage about Grigory Petrovich Tsybukin (or old Tsybukin): 

“Grigory kept a grocer’s shop, but that was only for appearance’s sake: in reality he sold vodka, cattle, hides, grain, and pigs; he traded in anything that came to hand, and when, for instance, magpies were wanted abroad for ladies’ hats, he made some thirty kopecks on every pair of birds; he bought timber for felling, lent money at interest, and altogether was a sharp old man, full of resources.”

Or this one, also about old Tsybukin: 

“His wife and daughter-in-law saw him off, and at such times when he had on a good, clean coat, and had in the droshky a huge black horse that had cost three hundred rubles, the old man did not like the peasants to come up to him with their complaints and petitions; he hated the peasants and disdained them, and if he saw some peasants waiting at the gate, he would shout angrily:

“Why are you standing there? Go further off.”

Or if it were a beggar, he would say:

“God will provide!””

In these passages, Chekhov presents the character as he is, saying what he does and how he acts, without commenting. In the other one, he is not so “invisible”. I’m not complaining—my point is that the sentence about the clerk and the elder of the rural district stands out to me because Chekhov normally presents characters as they are, in all of their foibles and weaknesses and absurdities, and depicts everything in an objective way.

(I wrote “invisible” and “invisibility”, in quotes, because no novelist or short story writer, as opposed to a playwright, can be completely invisible and hidden. We can hear the compassionate, warm tone of Chekhov just as we can hear the harsh tone of Flaubert but also his overwhelming sadness about human stupidity and mediocrity. But place Chekhov next to Tolstoy, or more extreme, George Eliot, we see that Chekhov generally withholds judgment). 

In these lines about Aksinya, I think I can see what Chekhov thinks about her: 

“And in those unblinking eyes, and in that little head on the long neck, and in her slenderness there was something snakelike; all in green but for the yellow on her bosom, she looked, with a smile on her face, as a viper looks out of the young rye in the spring at the passers-by, stretching itself and lifting its head.”

The translation is by Constance Garnett so I can’t be sure of its accuracy, but a viper is a venomous snake, not a harmless one. 

Later Chekhov compares her to a snake again: 

“She drove herself, and when she met acquaintances she stretched out her neck like a snake out of the young rye, and smiled naively and enigmatically.” 

In the stories I’ve been reading lately, Chekhov seems to have compassion for everybody: all the characters in “Peasants”, including the mean-spirited and bitter Fyokla; both Laptev, the man who marries a woman who doesn’t love him, and Yulia, the woman who marries a man she doesn’t love, in “Three Years”, both Laptev’s former mistress Polina, an unhappy, resentful woman, and his tyrannical father, now lonely and blind; both Misail and his wife Masha in “My Life”; both the engineer’s family and the peasants in “The New Villa”; even the religious fanatic and convict in “The Murder”, and so on.

But it’s impossible to have compassion and sympathy for everybody. How can you have sympathy, or even empathy, for someone like Aksinya, especially when she doesn’t feel remorse and doesn’t pay for what she’s done? After the shocking event, Chekhov mostly focuses on Lipa and old Tsybukin. I’m trying to imagine “In the Ravine” where Chekhov entered the mind of the cruel Aksinya. 

On a side note, the question of sympathy and empathy makes me think of “Three Years”: as a pious, good-hearted woman, Yulia wants to take care of her father-in-law, despite his despotic and unkind nature, because he is now old, blind, and lonely, but is it right for her to expect her husband Laptev to do the same? 

The scene of Lipa going home from the hospital is magnificent: 

“The sun went to bed wrapped in cloth of gold and purple, and long clouds, red and lilac, stretched across the sky, guarded its slumbers. Somewhere far away a bittern cried, a hollow, melancholy sound like a cow shut up in a barn. The cry of that mysterious bird was heard every spring, but no one knew what it was like or where it lived. At the top of the hill by the hospital, in the bushes close to the pond, and in the fields the nightingales were trilling. The cuckoo kept reckoning someone’s years and losing count and beginning again. In the pond the frogs called angrily to one another, straining themselves to bursting, and one could even make out the words: “That’s what you are! That’s what you are!” What a noise there was! It seemed as though all these creatures were singing and shouting so that no one might sleep on that spring night, so that all, even the angry frogs, might appreciate and enjoy every minute: life is given only once.
A silver half-moon was shining in the sky; there were many stars. Lipa had no idea how long she sat by the pond, but when she got up and walked on everybody was asleep in the little village, and there was not a single light. […] Lipa walked rapidly; she lost the kerchief from her head . . . she looked at the sky and wondered where her baby’s soul was now: was it following her, or floating aloft yonder among the stars and thinking nothing now of his mother? Oh, how lonely it was in the open country at night, in the midst of that singing when one cannot sing oneself; in the midst of the incessant cries of joy when one cannot oneself be joyful, when the moon, which cares not whether it is spring or winter, whether men are alive or dead, looks down as lonely, too. . . . When there is grief in the heart it is hard to be without people. If only her mother Praskovya had been with her, or Crutch, or the cook, or some peasant!”

It is deeply moving.

I’d choose Chekhov’s apparent simplicity and artlessness over many other writers’ linguistic brilliance any day.