An American Reader's Guide to Enjoying 19th & Early 20th Century Russian Literature
by Emily Dzioba
I had my own episode recorded this season on one of my favorite dramatists.
Whether you love a dramatic realist play or a socially-poignant short story, Chekhov wrote something for everyone to enjoy! As we settle into cozier weather, I’ve compiled this helpful guide for all of us non-Russian friends of Anton.
Поехали! (Let’s get started!)
1. Make sure it is either raining, springtime, or that you are reading by candlelight on a cold late-autumn evening.
This may seem arbitrary, but it really sets the mood just right.
If it is raining, find a window in your house.
Sit near it on a rocking chair or window seat.
You are going to periodically want to stare out the window with intense longing
Windows that look out to some kind of nature are ideal.
If it is spring, go sit under a tree. Preferably one with blossoms.
A cherry tree may be too on the nose, though. Use your discretion.
If it is an autumn evening, I recommend lighting a woodsy-scented candle.
Personally? I like reading in November. It’s grey. Bleak.
“Really makes you think about your life and the world” kind of weather.
Regardless of season, a (faint) chill should hang in the air.
Potentially catching a cold due to chilly weather and being so sick your beloved
(who you haven’t expressed your feelings to outside of subtextual looks) rushes to
your home in an effort to make you feel better but never admits their sentiments
either and you just wind up sitting in the room together silently enjoying each
other’s company but being too shy to say what you feel and you recover and think,
just *maybe* we will be together!?, and then they move out of town two days later
and your dreams of love are shattered?
See The Cherry Orchard, Act 4, Varya and Lopakhin.
2. Are you wearing black? A babushka? A fur coat?
I always choose black. I am in mourning for my life.
Above all, choose something comfortable. You’re going to be reading for a while!
3. Do you have tea? If yes, good. If no, make some.
Fun fact: One of my favorite words is samovar.
You can read about the history and significance of the samovar and Russian tea here!
And also another link about tea ceremonies and samovars here, because I love history blogs. (*stares at the camera*)
3A. If you imbibe (*over 21 only, for legal reasons*) and are feeling fun, have some vodka ready.
If you really want to get into it, drink every time the characters do!
I hope your constitution is strong.
Na Zdorovie!…. or, Nostrovia, for English speakers.
You can find more drinking expressions here and choose whatever feels most
appropriate for the occasion. My favorite is, “May we suffer as much sorrow as
drops of wine we are about to leave in our glasses!”
Runner Up: “Life does not always go according to plan. I, for example, wanted to be the first to congratulate you today, but I didn’t manage. Hope you are pleased to hear my wishes anyway. May you always be in the right place at the right time! Happy Birthday!”
Russian: Жизнь не всегда идет по плану. Я, например, хотел сегодня
поздравить тебя первым, но не получилось. Надеюсь, тебе всё равно
приятно. Выпьем за то, чтобы ты всегда оказывался в нужное время в
нужном месте. Поздравляю!
4. Fetch your text-- read on paper. E-readers did not exist. (optional)
Call me a purist; there’s nothing like the feel of flipping pages. It’s what Chekhov would have done.
Oh, to be close to him...
Did you SEE the photo of him we posted?
5. For those who prefer background noise while they read to focus, may I suggest this compilation of Russian and Slavic folk music?
Alternatively, Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 is a boppin soundtrack.
I will fight anyone who says the Balalaika doesn’t absolutely SLAP.
6. Alright. The scene is set. Dive in! Enjoy your masterpiece!
Be on the lookout for Chekhov’s Gun: “a dramatic principle that states that every element in a story must be necessary, and irrelevant elements should be removed.”
"One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn't going to go off.
It's wrong to make promises you don't mean to keep." Chekhov, letter to
Aleksandr Semenovich Lazarev (pseudonym of A. S. Gruzinsky),
1 November 1889.
Think about your own hopes and dreams.
Do you want to find love? Fame? Happiness?
Are they attainable?
Will you actually try?
Or will the inevitable inaction of the human condition stop you?
Read between the lines. Everything is about subtext. Imagine the story playing out with people in your head!
"Chekhov often expressed his thought not in speeches," wrote [Konstantin]
Stanislavski, "but in pauses or between the lines or in replies consisting of a single
word ... the characters often feel and think things not expressed in the lines they
Get a road map to keep track of everyone's names and nicknames. Seriously.
STAFF CHEKHOVIAN RECOMMENDATIONS:
Three Sisters- This play “mainly follows the story of three sisters: Olga, Masha, and Irina Prozorov. They live with their brother, Andrey, in a big house on the edge of a small Russian town.” The story follows them as they each reckon with their own dreams.
This is my favorite of his plays. I take pride in my good taste; you be the judge.
The Lady with the Dog - (sometimes, The Lady with the Pet Dog) Arguably Chekov’s most well-regarded short story. It “describes an adulterous affair between Dmitri Dmitritch Gurov, an unhappily married Moscow banker, and Anna Sergeyevna Von Diderits, a young married woman, an affair which begins while both are vacationing alone in the Crimean (Black) sea resort of Yalta.”
Many regard the relationship between Dmitri and Anna as a proxy for Chekhov and his wife Olga Knipper’s feelings and relationship- he wrote it just around the time they fell in love. No adultery on their parts in their courtship, though!
The Seagull - Chekhov’s first major play, which “dramatizes the romantic and artistic conflicts between four characters: the famous middlebrow story writer Boris Trigorin, the ingenue Nina, the fading actress Irina Arkadina, and her son the symbolist playwright Konstantin Treplyov.”
The Seagull is a perennial favorite. I love the themes.
Note: These links all lead to a free version. I highly recommend finding better translations through your library! My personal favorite translator is Paul Schmidt.
Stupid F*cking Bird by Aaron Posner
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
I hope you enjoy your trip between the pages to the wide, open air of the Russian countryside!