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Thursday 27 April 2023

On feeling close to Chekhov; 30 favourite stories

When I first read Chekhov, I was too young—I hadn’t lived. My rediscovery of Chekhov was two years ago, and now that I have loved and lost, now that I’m going through something never expected to happen, now that I must begin all over again and feel something akin to shame for doing so, I feel closer and closer to Chekhov. He is so good at discerning the subtlest emotional shades, at conveying the uncertainty and absurdity of life, at depicting the way people change and love doesn’t last. He writes about wasted lives, missed opportunities, and regrets, without descending into lachrymose wallowing or cynicism. 

I perhaps even feel closer to Chekhov now than to Jane Austen, because he writes about love and disappointment, sex, sexual desire, death, and the futility of life—which she doesn’t. On this blog, I have avoided identifying with characters and tried to write about literature with detachment, but reading is still a subjective thing, especially during a difficult time. 

It’s also interesting that at this time I’m turning to Chekhov rather than Tolstoy, my favourite writer of all time—why? 



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I have just finished Volume 4 of Constance Garnett’s Chekhov but find it hard to write about him, so here’s a list of my 30 favourite Chekhov stories so far: 

  • “Three Years”
  • “The Party” or “The Name-Day Party” 
  • “The Lady with the Dog” 
  • “About Love” 
  • “An Anonymous Story” 
  • “Terror” 
  • “My Life” 
  • “In the Ravine” 
  • “Peasants” 
  • “Ionitch” or “Ionych” 
  • “A Woman’s Kingdom” 
  • “A Dreary Story” 
  • “The Bishop” 
  • “The Betrothed” or “The Bride” 
  • “Neighbours” 
  • “The Murder” 
  • “Ward No. 6” 
  • “The Steppe” 
  • “The Kiss” 
  • “Verochka” 
  • “Man in a Case” 
  • “The Teacher of Literature” 
  • “An Artist’s Story” or “The House with the Mezzanine” 
  • “Volodya” 
  • “Ariadne”
  • “Mire” 
  • “The Chemist’s Wife” 
  • “The Duel” 
  • “The New Villa” 
  • “The Darling” 

The list is not in order of merit or importance; some of the stories are grouped thematically.  

Monday 17 April 2023

War and Peace (1966-1967), dir. Sergei Bondarchuk

What possessed me to watch the Russian War and Peace less than 4 months after the BBC adaptation from 1972?

Before commenting on Bondarchuk’s film, I should talk a bit about Tolstoy’s book. I have stolen and often used an image from Himadri (Argumentative Old Git) because it’s true—some writers, such as Jane Austen or Henry James, use small brushstrokes and delineate the subtlest things with great delicacy, whereas others, such as Melville or Dostoyevsky, paint with broad brushstrokes and vigour—Tolstoy encompasses the entire spectrum, capable of depicting both epic battle scenes, and the tiniest changes of facial expressions in a living room. Tolstoy’s works have both breadth and depth, scope and subtlety. 

The 2 adaptations have different approaches. If the 1972 TV series focuses on drama, on characters and the conflicts between them, the 1966-1967 Russian film (consisting of 4 parts and lasting more than 7 hours) focuses on the epic-ness of War and Peace

And as an epic, Bondarchuk’s film is spectacular. All the big scenes, ball scenes, battle scenes, scenes of Moscow burning… are breathtaking, especially when we remember that they couldn’t have used CGI the way Hollywood can today. War and Peace is the most expensive film made in the Soviet Union, and it must be one of the most visually impressive war films ever made. 

The trouble is that Bondarchuk and his co-screenwriter Vasily Solovyov only focus on War and Peace as an epic. Tolstoy’s book may be admired for its scope, for its picture of the entire Russian society, but I think it is loved for the individual characters. The characters in the Russian film are but shallow representations of Tolstoy’s creations: Bondarchuk and Solovyov simplify Pierre, cut down on his search for meaning, remove the Freemasons storyline and reduce the significance of Platon; fail to convey the depravity of Hélène and the frivolity of Lise; simplify Andrei and mostly concentrate on his love story with Natasha; reduce to background characters not only Sonya but also Marya and Nikolai, and get rid of that storyline; place Natasha in the centre, together with Pierre and Andrei, without the contrast with Marya; fail to convey the warmth of the Rostovs and the cold, hard love of the Bolkonskys, etc. 

The film, especially Part 1, is not engaging, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the actors—the blame lies with the screenwriters and director. Solovyov and Bondarchuk don’t seem to care about conflict, and sometimes they remove the sense of conflict from a scene. For example, in one scene, Captain Tushin is questioned by his superiors about why he left the guns behind, and he remains silent, not wanting to blame his soldiers to justify himself—in Tolstoy’s novel, there’s a real sense of conflict as Captain Tushin says nothing and may be punished, but fortunately after some time, Andrei, an outsider, decides to speak up and defend him—in the Russian film, the superiors ask one question, then we see Captain Tushin saying nothing, then Andrei defends him right away, there’s no sense of conflict.

That is just one example.

Quite often, Bondarchuk depicts a scene as in the book, but rips it out of context and makes it devoid of meaning. For example, there’s nothing wrong as such with the scene of Nikolai running away in a battle and confusedly thinking why others would be shooting at him, but the scene loses its significance because up to that point, Nikolai has been in the background, barely remembered as a character.   

The film mostly focuses on spectacle, with the exception of Part 2. Part 2, named “Natasha Rostova”, demonstrates what Solovyov and Bondarchuk could achieve if only they paid more attention to individual characters. I love Ludmila Savelyeva as Natasha—not just in comparison with the dreadful Morag Hood in the 1972 adaptation (its only flaw)—but I do think Ludmila Savelyeva has the charm, the innocence and gracefulness of Natasha. In the ball scene, I like the shot where Bondarchuk places Natasha next to a large mirror, so we can see at the same time what she is looking at and what is happening on her face. The entire scene is good, but that is a particularly excellent shot. 


I also love the folk dance scene, and the sequence with Anatole. Ludmila Savelyeva has the qualities of the character, and portrays well Natasha at different ages: a lively child at the beginning of the story; a young, charming, impressionable woman; and a more quiet, mature Natasha who has gone through great suffering. Perhaps next time I return to the book, it will be Ludmila Savelyeva that I see in my head as Natasha.

Unfortunately, all the characters are pale representations of Tolstoy’s creations, especially the “thinking characters” like Pierre and Andrei. The 1972 adaptation from the BBC demonstrates that it is possible to represent Tolstoy’s characters well on screen. 

Solovyov and Bondarchuk also remove Tolstoy’s theory of history and religious ideas, and get rid of the epilogue. But perhaps these changes were due to censors. 

As a national epic and war film, the 1966-1967 War and Peace is magnificent. But it doesn’t have the qualities that make Tolstoy’s book a monumental work of art. It is hollow. 


The film is available on youtube: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

Monday 10 April 2023

Heartbreak and Chekhov

I’m going through one of the worst times—perhaps the hardest—of my life. Heartbreak.

So I turned to Chekhov.

At a time of heartache and dejection, Chekhov seems like a perfect companion, making one feel less lonely—there are others who also feel unhappy, who also struggle, who also find life hard and unfair—but his stories aren’t just bleak or cynical. I love the warmth, the compassion in Chekhov. And even though he doesn’t aim for moral instruction—as Tolstoy does—he still gets me to think about my life as he depicts, over and over again though in different ways, people wasting their lives and/or being unkind to others. 

I’ve just finished Volumes 1 and 2 of Constance Garnett’s 13 volumes. Volume 1 is good, especially “Three Years”, which I have read in the NYRB Peasants and Other Stories, but most of the stories feel relatively early, more like sketches. In Volume 2, most of the stories feel more substantial, and they are wonderful.

In “Mire”, a lieutenant comes to a Jewish woman named Susanna telling her to repay a debt to his cousin, as he (the lieutenant) needs the money in order to get married. The cousin and his wife wait all day only for him to return the next day, not only without money but also without the IOU, having been seduced by Susanna. Angry, the cousin himself goes to Susanna to get back his money, and also returns the following day. 

“Kryukov flopped on the sofa, thrust his head in the pillow, and shook with suppressed laughter. A minute later he got up, and looking at the surprised lieutenant, with his eyes full of tears from laughing, said:

“Close the door. Well . . . she is a fe-e-male, I beg to inform you!”

“Did you get the IOUs?”

Kryukov waved his hand and went off into a peal of laughter again.

“Well! she is a female!” he went on. “Merci for the acquaintance, my boy! She’s a devil in petticoats…”” 

It’s an excellent scene. 

“Of Susanna Moiseyevna and the IOUs they said nothing. Both of them felt, somehow, ashamed to speak of the incident aloud. Yet they remembered it and thought of it with pleasure, as of a curious farce, which life had unexpectedly and casually played upon them, and which it would be pleasant to recall in old age.” 

But it doesn’t end there. The lieutenant decides to leave, and the married cousin one day cannot resist the temptation to go to Susanna again. The final scene—the shock, the shame, the anger—is magnificent. 

In both “Excellent People” and “Neighbours”, Chekhov writes about strained brother-sister relationships. 

In “Excellent People”: 

“His sister had become a stranger to him. And he was a stranger to her.”

In “Neighbours”, the relationship between the brother and sister changes because she comes to live with a married man, despite the family’s disapproval. 

“It seemed to Pyotr Mihalitch that she had not changed in the least during the last week, except that she was a little paler. She looked calm and just as usual, as though she had come with her brother to visit Vlassitch. But Pyotr Mihalitch felt that some change had taken place in himself. Before, when she was living at home, he could have spoken to her about anything, and now he did not feel equal to asking her the simple question, “How do you like being here?” The question seemed awkward and unnecessary. Probably the same change had taken place in her. She was in no haste to turn the conversation to her mother, to her home, to her relations with Vlassitch; she did not defend herself, she did not say that free unions are better than marriages in the church; she was not agitated, and calmly brooded over the story of Olivier. . . . And why had they suddenly begun talking of Olivier?”

I love the subtlety in Chekhov. Pyotr Mihalitch sets off in anger to have a talk with his sister Zina and Vlassitch, but the meeting doesn’t happen as he has imagined in his head: 

“And Pyotr Mihalitch felt all the bitterness and horror of his position. He thought of his deserted home, the closed piano, and Zina’s bright little room into which no one went now; he thought there were no prints of little feet on the garden-paths, and that before tea no one went off, laughing gaily, to bathe. What he had clung to more and more from his childhood upwards, what he had loved thinking about when he used to sit in the stuffy class-room or the lecture theatre—brightness, purity, and joy, everything that filled the house with life and light, had gone never to return, had vanished, and was mixed up with a coarse, clumsy story of some battalion officer, a chivalrous lieutenant, a depraved woman and a grandfather who had shot himself. . . . And to begin to talk about his mother or to think that the past could ever return would mean not understanding what was clear.”

Chekhov’s writing about a brother and sister, but that could be true for everything: life changes, people change, and the past could never return.

Another story I love in Volume 2 is “At Home”, in which a young woman named Vera returns to an estate she has inherited: 

“The space, the lovely peace of the steppe, told her that happiness was near at hand, and perhaps was here already; thousands of people, in fact, would have said: “What happiness to be young, healthy, well-educated, to be living on one’s own estate!” And at the same time the endless plain, all alike, without one living soul, frightened her, and at moments it was clear to her that its peaceful green vastness would swallow up her life and reduce it to nothingness. She was very young, elegant, fond of life; she had finished her studies at an aristocratic boarding-school, had learnt three languages, had read a great deal, had travelled with her father—and could all this have been meant to lead to nothing but settling down in a remote country-house in the steppe, and wandering day after day from the garden into the fields and from the fields into the garden to while away the time, and then sitting at home listening to her grandfather’s breathing? But what could she do? Where could she go? She could find no answer, and as she was returning home she doubted whether she would be happy here, and thought that driving from the station was far more interesting than living here.” 

Chekhov writes with compassion, and gets one to sympathise with Vera’s loneliness and restlessness. But somehow, in a subtle way, he changes one’s perspective of Vera towards the end of the story, as she becomes so wrapped up in her own problems and in her passivity that she does nothing when her servants are treated badly. 

“At Home” pairs well with “The Princess”, the story about a princess who feels unhappy about her life but finds consolation in philanthropy, only to be told the painful truth that her charities help nobody but her own self-satisfaction: “There was nothing but the desire to amuse yourself with living puppets, nothing else. . . . A person who does not feel the difference between a human being and a lap-dog ought not to go in for philanthropy.” But Chekhov has no illusion about human nature—the honesty shocks her, but doesn’t transform her. 

In Volume 2, I also love “Expensive Lessons”, about a man who hires a Frenchwoman to teach him French and gets nothing out of his lessons, but who continues taking lessons and falls in love with her; and “The Chemist’s Wife”, a little sketch about an unhappy wife. 

Chekhov is such a wonderful writer. 

Thursday 6 April 2023

Ranking Shakespeare [updated on 17/6/2024]

Now that I’ve read all of Shakespeare’s plays, why not do some rankings and annoy people with my choices? 

So here we go: 


My 5 favourite plays:

King Lear

Macbeth 

Othello

Measure for Measure 

The Winter’s Tale 


My 15 favourite plays: 

Macbeth 

Othello

King Lear

Measure for Measure 

The Winter’s Tale 

Hamlet 

Henry IV, Part 1 

Henry IV, Part 2 

Twelfth Night 

The Merchant of Venice 

Antony and Cleopatra

A Midsummer Night’s Dream 

The Tempest 

Richard II

Julius Caesar 

(updated on 6/6/2024) 


5 greatest male characters:

Macbeth in Macbeth 

Hamlet in Hamlet

Iago in Othello

Falstaff in Henry IV plays (not The Merry Wives of Windsor

Shylock in The Merchant of Venice 


5 favourite male characters:

Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet 

Falstaff in Henry IV plays (not The Merry Wives of Windsor

Barnardine in Measure for Measure 

Macduff in Macbeth 

The Fool in King Lear 


5 greatest female characters:

Lady Macbeth in Macbeth 

Rosalind in As You Like It

Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra 

Viola in Twelfth Night 

Isabella in Measure for Measure 


5 favourite female characters: 

Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing

Emilia in Othello 

Hermione in The Winter’s Tale

Rosalind in As You Like It  

Margaret in Henry VI Part 2, Henry VI Part 3, and Richard III (not Henry VI Part 1)


Favourite couple:

Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing


Favourite non-speaking character: 

Crab the dog in The Two Gentlemen of Verona 


5 most evil characters: 

Iago in Othello 

Goneril in King Lear 

Regan in King Lear

Leontes in The Winter’s Tale 

Richard III in Richard III 


10 favourite Shakespeare productions and films: 

Macbeth (1979), dir. Trevor Nunn, with Ian McKellen as Macbeth and Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth 

King Lear (2016), dir. Michael Buffong, with Don Warrington as Lear 

The Winter’s Tale (1999), dir. Gregory Doran, with Antony Sher as Leontes 

Hamlet (1990), dir. Kevin Kline, with Kevin Kline as Hamlet 

The Merchant of Venice (1973), dir. John Sichel, with Laurence Olivier as Shylock 

Twelfth Night (1988), dir. Kenneth Branagh, with Frances Barber as Viola and Richard Briers as Malvolio 

Measure for Measure (1979), dir. Desmond Davis, with Kate Nelligan as Isabella 

The Taming of the Shrew (1976), dir. William Ball and Kirk Browning, with Marc Singer as Petruchio 

Ran (1985), dir. Akira Kurosawa 

Much Ado About Nothing (1993), dir. Kenneth Branagh 


10 favourite books about Shakespeare: 

Prefaces to Shakespeare by Tony Tanner

Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth by A. C. Bradley (updated on 8/6/2023) 

The Wheel of Fire by G. Wilson Knight 

The Crown of Life by G. Wilson Knight 

The Imperial Theme by G. Wilson Knight (updated on 17/6/2024 because of an error) 

The Genius of Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate

Soul of the Age by Jonathan Bate 

Shakespeare: The World As Stage by Bill Bryson 

Shakespeare by Anthony Burgess 

_ 


Now give me your lists.