“As we read these little stories about nothing at all, the horizon widens; the soul gains an astonishing sense of freedom.” –Virginia Woolf on Chekhov.
I finished The Three Sisters last night, and I’ll say right off that I did a bad job of reading it. The process was a strong contrast to my reading of Uncle Vanya weekend before last. I covered my reading of UV pretty carefully in my post on it, and the short version is that I sat down and read it on Friday night, woke up on Saturday morning and wrote about it, and then put up the post that afternoon. The sequence on Three Sisters was quite different. I started at some point on Saturday or Sunday, just getting through the first act and not feeling much traction. I guess I was having trouble differentiating the male characters as they were introduced, and I had a vague sense of the sisters but I couldn’t get a clear sense of their concerns and where they might be headed. I was tired and reading lazily, with no vigor to devour a play. In my next session I got warmed up with a few of the early (short) short stories, Anyunta, Grisha, A Gentleman Fried, The Chorus Girl, Vanka, and At Home, all of them intriguing and worthy of comment, but I’m already building up a healthy little backlog of stories that I’ve read and haven’t written about, including Lights, The Grasshopper, The Student, The Teacher of Literature, Ariadna, The Doctor’s Visit, and The Bishop. After my warm-up I tackled the middle of Three Sisters, picking it up at the second act, and the truth is that I didn’t get it. I had trouble remembering even the basic characters and issues from the day before, and I found myself struggling and wondering, who are these people, hanging out and doing nothing (core philosophy) and chatting about what to do; they seem to be going out of their way to build up my indifference. None of the dilemmas seemed focused or intriguing, even as there was an offscreen fire and a third act turn and climax of sorts. When I read the 4th act last night, the culmination was simple and clear and it all coalesced quite neatly. But I though that somehow I had had a standard Chekhov experience, as I felt the malaise and nausea of stasis, so clear in the 20th century drama that would follow after Chekhov. I got it–I had been lulled and duped and twisted up into despair and boredom and passivity. So I took a nap.
I tossed out my “first impressions” on Vanya with the intent to go back and examine it more carefully, perhaps find a topic to explore. With The Three Sisters I have to go back just to see what happens when I know who everybody is and I’m paying attention. In any case, it will clearly yield up its meaning and cruxes less easily than Vanya, I’m afraid.
So I’ll stumble back to Vanya, for just a moment, and record some reflections a week later. One quickly learns that Uncle Vanya was originally written as The Wood Demon, or more fittingly I think, The Demon of the Woods, named after the forester/doctor Astrov. Thus Chekhov’s original intention in the play was to draw the portrait of a radical environmentalist, who is a man of science. Stunningly, the original play is structured as a “romantic comedy with a suicide,” with three couples pairing off at the end after Vanya shoots himself in a 3rd act romantic climax. It was originally an outline for a novel, and Chekhov returned to it in his maturity and transformed it into the complex modernist drama we know and revere.
At the end of my “first impressions” post I mentioned that I was going off to see what Virginia Woolf had to say about Chekhov. Her essay “The Russian Point of View” is marvelous, and she moves from Chekhov to Dostoyevsky to Tolstoy in a graceful, classical line. The essay is preceded in “The Common Reader” by her essay “George Eliot,” so after writing about Casuabon and reading her on the Russians, I enjoyed her carefully measured study of her great predecessor, whose reputation at the time she wrote the essay wasn’t nearly what it is today.
She writes this about Chekhov:
Once the eye is used to these shades, half the “conclusions” of fiction fade into thin air; they show like transparences with a light behind them–gaudy, glaring, superficial. The general tidying up of the last chapter, the marriage, the death, the statement of values so sonorously trumpeted forth, so heavily underlined, become of the most rudimentary kind. Nothing is solved, we feel; nothing is rightly held together. On the other hand, the method which at first seemed so casual, inconclusive, and occupied with trifles, now appears the result of an exquisitely original and fastidious taste, choosing boldly, arranging infallibly, and controlled by an honesty for which we can find no match save among the Russians themselves. There may be no answer to these questions, but at the same time let us never manipulate the evidence so as to produce something fitting, decorous, agreeable to our vanity. This may not be the way to catch the ear of the public; after all, they are used to louder music, fiercer measures; but as the tune sounded, so he has written it. In consequence, as we read these little stories about nothing at all, the horizon widens; the soul gains an astonishing sense of freedom.