San Michele is a rectangular island, separated from Venice by a stretch of water and surrounded by a high wall. From an airplane, its cemetery could seem like an enormous hardback book: one of those stout, heavy dictionaries in which words – decomposing skeletons – rest for ever. There is something ironic about the fact that Joseph Brodsky is buried there, facing that city in which he was always to be found but always wanted to be just passing through. Perhaps the poet would have preferred a grave far from Venice. When you come down to it, the city was, for him, a ‘plan B’ or, to use a more literary metaphor, an Ithaca whose attraction consisted of being unattainable, an ephemeral, imagined place. What’s more, Brodsky once stated in an interview that he would like to be buried in the Massachusetts woods; or perhaps it might have been more correct for the body to be returned to his native St Petersburg. But I suppose there is no sense in speculating about a person’s posthumous wishes. If volition and life are two things impossible to separate, so are death and chance.
An abridged version of Valeria Luiselli’s beautiful essay abuot searching for Joseph Brodsky’s grave in Venice can be found on Granta Magazine.
Chtenia / Чтения - Journal of Russian readings
Issue 15: Summer - Table of Contents
7: Summer Delight tamara eidelman :: Translation by Paul E. Richardson
14: What a summer, what a summer this is! fyodor tyutchev :: Translation by Lydia Razran Stone
17: White Nights fyodor dostoyevsky :: Translation by Constance Garnett and Paul E. Richardson
65: The Cathedral Clergy nikolai leskov :: Translation by Margaret Winchell
74: Rainy Summer afanasy fet :: Translation by Lydia Razran Stone
77: Memoir of a Gulag Actress tamara petkevich :: Translation by Ross Ufberg and Yasha Klots
102: I embraced by midday maximilian voloshin :: Translation by Lydia Razran Stone
105: Return to Ithaca irina bogatyryova :: Translation by Liv Bliss
127: August, Asters marina tsvetaeva :: Translation by Nina Shevchuk-Murray
This evening’s entertainment arrived in the post today. It’s about to be consumed with perfect Damson plums and Pearl Jam bootlegs, as the St Pancras sunset fills our living room with an orange glow.
In 1892 the editor of a literary journal which was to publish some of Chekhov’s short stories asked him to send in a short autobiography to accompany his photograph. Chekhov was always reluctant to write about himself in public, so he sent this note:
Do you need my biography? Here it is. In 1860 I was born in Taganrog. In 1879 I finished my studies in the medical school of Moscow University. In 1888 I received the Pushkin Prize. In 1890 I made a trip to Sakhalin across Siberia and back by sea. In 1891 I toured Europe, where I drank splendid wine and ate oysters. In 1892 I strolled with V.A. Tikhonov at [the writer Shcheglov’s] name day party. I began to write in 1879 in Strekosa. My collections of stories are Motley Stories, Twilight, Stories, Gloomy People, and the novella The Duel. I have also sinned in the realm of drama, although moderately. I have been translated into all languages with the exception of the foreign ones. However, I was translated into German quite a while ago. The Czechs and Serbs also approve of me. And the French also relate to me. I grasped the secrets of love at the age of thirteen. I remain on excellent terms with friends, both physicians and writers. I am a bachelor. I would like a pension. I busy myself with medicine to such an extent that this summer I am going to perform some autopsies, something I have not done for two or three years. Among writers I prefer Tolstoy, among physicians Zakharin. However, this is all rubbish. Write what you want. If there are no facts, substitute something lyrical.
Quoted by Janet Malcolm, in “Travels With Chekhov,” The New Yorker, February 21, 2000, p. 242
J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey (Buddy Glass’ letter to Zooey 3.5)
I went to see The Cherry Orchard at the National Theatre last night and remembered these words. The production was competent, smart, energetic; it was genuinely funny and very enjoyable, but yet something of the balance Chekhov carefully wrote into it was lost.
Many critics had trouble with Andrew Upton’s translation, which updated the language of the play with some modern expressions and phrasing, particularly in Lopakhin’s dialogue. Not my problem, I have to say I thought that worked quite well: Lopakhin represents a practical, necessary, somewhat crass future that leaves no space for the flourishing language of well-educated aristocrats like Ranyevskaya or hopeless intellectuals like Trofimov. Lopakhin’s business-like manner and reduced vocabulary inevitably failed him when it came to discuss his feelings, and were accountable for both his inability to propose to Varya (whom he doesn’t love) and to confess his atrocious, unrequited love to Ranyevskaya.
Chekhov weaves into the play a very subtle, delicate, painful conflict between Lopakhin’s desire for social ascent (his grandfather was a serf, his father was a servant, and now he gets to own the estate!) and his emotional attachment to the estate and its people (embodied in the Countess, whom he calls his “mistress”). But more than half of what Lopakhin’s character is about is deliberately subtextual, and must be questioned in production: why does he buy the cherry orchard? Was it a scheme from the start? Is it a grand gesture to gain Ranyevskaya’s love? Does he know that she is intending to return to Paris anyway? Does he deliberately lead Varya on to believe he is interested in her? What is it in him that she loves? Howard Davis’ production made great use of Chekhov’s written humour, but slightly missed his great unwritten depth of emotion. It’s bizarre because usually British productions of Chekhov fail the other way round - too much melancholy and gloom and not enough comedy.
In thinking about this I was also reminded of a great lesson in balancing dramatic swings I once got from watching Mark Rylance play Cleopatra - not his best role and a questionable project in many ways, but he pointed out to me how, before a great tragic moment such as the death of Antony in Cleopatra’s arms, Shakespeare writes in some rather farcical stuff - the bearing of Antony’s body aloft to the monument, and Cleopatra’s line “how heavy weighs my lord!” It is the juxtaposition of the ridiculous and the sublime, if you will, or simply of comedy and tragedy, that generates drama or emotion, the thing that literally moves the spectator.
Chekhov writes high comedy but doesn’t write high tragedy. The comedy is outlined in great detail in his stage directions and dialogues to be rough, loud and visual; on the other hand, the tragedy in his characters’ lives is always subdued, simmering under the surface, and therefore the balancing act is more difficult to pull through. But all the material is there for an actor to juggle, and when it does work (and I have seen it work, particularly in Russian productions) its power is devastating.
A written play is only the tip of an iceberg, really it should be a user’s manual, a guide to an unfamiliar place, but it is not the whole picture. So while some of Chekhov’s plays are practically perfect from a dramaturgical point of view, his great talent as a dramatist can only be put to its intended purpose when it is lifted from the page and onto the stage. We keep going back to watch his plays in the hope that the potential of the page is realised, that its beauty explodes like the cherries in bloom.
Maybe like Zooey I demand too much from art, from theatre in particular. Maybe it’s why I had to get out.