Saturday, October 22, 2011

Anton Chekhov in the Philippines

In Dumaguete, Philippines, at 4 p.m. in the afternoon, the humidity is so overwhelming that the keys on my laptop stick. The “n” is barely functional; the spacebar is finicky; my touchpad has become schizophrenic. The black shirt I am wearing has been soaked and is already dried in sweat, and is oily with the residue of body odor. The skin on the inside of my left elbow is dry, an oval 2 inches wide maddeningly pink, the skin flaking off in white bits. In the last 10 minutes, 4 mosquito bites have showed up: on my right bicep, on a vein in my right forearm, on my neck, and on the bottom of my back where my too-small shirt left my midriff exposed.

The humidity here has the power to mess with the contours of my mind. When at night the heat wends its way over my body I begin to dream of vast black rooms, of invisible powerful contours, faceless walls—and all this accretion, tightness, without a ray of white light; hopeless and devoid like one who has nothing to look forward to, I look underneath at the shivering floor and feel that for some reason if I jump high enough I will escape my bondage, so I keep pressing, keep jumping higher and see the gleam of skyscraper windows and the tips of bridges, all a magnified pinpoint in the vantage point.

The heat, though -- and in all honesty, it isn't actually that hot -- is a small price to pay for the treasure I discovered in the small city: a used bookstore. It wasn't the first used bookstore I've ever been in, but it's the first one that I actually remembered. It was bursting with books. Crammed with shelves, I navigated the narrow walkways against the movements of the others there, surveying my landscape, squinting to note the bindings for the books stacked in all sorts of directions -- side by side; up to down; vertically, so I couldn't see anything but how thick it was -- and picked out my reading list for the next week. I ended up with 21: Bringing Down the House (how could I not), a diary of John Muir's travels in Alaska (only 20 pesos), Best American Sports Writing 2008, and surprisingly, the Penguin Classics edition of Anton Chekhov.

In my salad days, I would read everything but plays. It was an Achilles heel I didn't quite care about; I would never become a playwright, nor would I become a patron of theater. But that day, sitting in that theater, I looked at the dearth of fiction options and realized that this would be a prime opportunity for me to learn how to appreciate playwriting.

The Chekhov anthology is one neat book of his 5 most famous works: Ivanov, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard. Not only that, but there's a meaty, divisive, and illuminating introduction by Yale (whoo!) professor Richard Gilman on why most traditional interpretations of Chekhov's motivations and personal life are dead wrong. ("No contemporary playwright has been more widely misinterpreted; none has been more often wrongly directed or performed.")

I'd heard the name Chekhov before, but I didn't know anything about him. So before I took a crack at the book, I searched through old New Yorker magazines to build out the context of the man and his life. Here are a few that really got to me:

"Servants of Art," Hilton Als: This is where you start. Als breaks down the play's components and, thankfully (for me), tells me what to think about it, how to analyze it, etc. If you're a tyro to play-writing, read this.

"Travels with Chekhov," Janet Malcolm: Didn't like the focus on the author's journey, but her description of Chekhov's life in Yalta, the snippets of journal entries are some damn good reportage.

"Kicking up Dust," Hilton Als: Great first few paragraphs succinctly describing some of Chekhov's early life.

"Sea of Love," "Geography of Regret," John Lahr: Both are critiques of of modern performances of "The Seagull," and helps visualize the emotional landscape of the play:

"Three Journeys," Janet Malcolm: about Chekhov's journey to a Russian prison camp.

With a slow and shady internet connection, I read through the different interpretations of his plays, and then I started to read him in earnest. I got through the first Act of The Seagull, and stopped there, content in my first step of a thousand mile journey. But them something happened. I didn't know what I wanted to do with myself, so after dinner, I took up the book again and started reading in the low light of the hotel lobby. An hour and a half later, I was finished with the entire play, and I closed the book, reeling back in its implications. Chekhov comes at you with a small, strange, understated force, one that cuts to the pith of human relationships without telling us what to think. See, Chekhov abhorred violent plot lines that drowned out internal conflict. He was, as Gogol said, a "great, rare, deep genius [that] catch[es] what surrounds us daily, what always accompanies us, what is ordinary." He shunned the "egregiously melodramatic" and instead wrote scenes that blended, counterbalanced, and deftly built momentum without flash and filigree. It's the exact opposite of our 24/7 news cycle, and it takes some time calming your mind down to match Chekhov's cadences. If I wasn’t sitting in Dumaguete, Philippines, in a hotel in the middle of nowhere, there’s no way that I would have discovered Anton Chekhov, but there's also no way I would have had the wherewithal to actually sit down and try to read him. Which would have been bully for me, because his work is incredible. I wouldn't recommend watching HIMYM or having Spotify on while trying to read Chekhov; if you allow yourself to focus on the text, though, you'll be richly rewarded. 

(Some of the New Yorker articles are for subscribers only. PM me and I'll give you my pass/pin.)

Post inspired from a Quora answer I wrote in Dumaguete.

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