13 March 2008

Quid pro quotation. Part I.

Chekhov wasn't always my cup of tea. I don't think I had a bum translation. I think I found his work to be dry, formal and not terribly interesting. Smart people kept telling me otherwise, but I've always felt that intelligence does not make one exempt from being full of shit.

All of this changed while I was reading The Seagull. I hadn't read that particular play before, and I remember picking it up with an attitude of resignation. My train of thought was something akin to, "Well, if I've made it through Ivanov..." But by the end of the first act, the magic of Mr. Chekhov had been revealed.

If my life was a cartoon, this revelation would be the equivalent of an arm popping out of a secret door in the wall, snagging me into a rococo treasure trove. The room would be crammed floor to ceiling with piles of decadent sweets, stacks of gold coins, and several dozen chests full of brightly polished gemstones and strands of pearls. A miniature stage with tiny actors in period costumes would serve as a centerpiece to the smörgåsbord of riches. Were my ears sensitive enough to hear the tiny actor's tiny voices, I'm sure their words would be Chekhov's.

I often attribute a cartoon-like quality to things I don't completely understand. I usually reserve the practice for the doozies in life; messy ideas like hate crimes, ritual sacrifice, or volunteering for military service. Discovering an affection for Chekhov seems comparatively innocuous. Particularly when I can cite my shift in opinion to one very famous quotation.

"I'm in mourning for my life."

Minor detour time. There's at least two important people in my life who keep collections of quotations. These quotes (and their sources) are carefully documented in notebooks or on computers for random perusal and for use at a later date. I don't keep any personal record of quotations, but my mind has a soft spot for details. In turn, I have quite a collection of paraphrases for random perusal and for use at a later date.

Somehow, when I recall Masha's line, it's spoken by someone else. A gentleman says, "Masha is in mourning for her life." His commentary is received with a roll of the eyes by anyone acquainted with her dour disposition. It is said with the sort of apathy that develops between the overly familiar.

My recollection probably detaches Masha from her words because I was more affected by the nuance of the various reactions to her line than by the line itself. So long as this nuance was latent, the appeal of Chekhov couldn't make any sense to me.

End part one.



Mead said...

Somehow it fell out that The Seagull was the last Chekhov play I read, instead of the first. Yet it was that play that made me "get" all the later ones. You know what did it? The play within the play, that little avant-garde spoof at the start. It was a revelation to me beause it made me realize that all my friends and I who thought we were so groovy were merely reinventing the wheel, we weren't the first to make non-realistic thee-ater. (Yes, I was a tad young at the time.)

That allowed me to look at all of Chekhov with a new sense of detachment AND compassion, both at once, like putting on 3D glasses. And he's been one of my favorite writers ever since.

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