Monday, 12 July 2010

Was Chekhov an Aberration?

I studied Russian because I loved Russian literature. Misguidedly, I thought I would therefore love all Russians. I imagined that they would have the calm detached sense of absurdity of Chekhov, the godlike understanding of humanity of Tolstoy, the surreal sense of life's tragicomedy of Gogol. I see now that this was as idiotic as imagining the people you meet in London are all going to be as wise as William Shakespeare.

The trouble is though that, while Londoners are not all William Shakespeare, they are not all utterly antipathetic, whereas in my experience Russians usually are (yeah, yeah, I know it's a huge generalisation, but I'm sticking with it, until something happens to make me believe otherwise - and it's been quite a few years since I first arrived at this sorry conclusion and nothing has yet suggested I'm wrong).

Not only have I never met a Russian even a bit like Chekhov, I'm not sure I've met one who properly understood what I think are his absolutely central themes - that life is a joke made by the universe and that our individual posturings are silly and hilarious and pathetically sad. This is what Fawlty Towers is all about, as well, in my opinion, but Russians of my acquaintance all reject Fawlty Towers. It is emblematic of everything they despise about us. For them there is nothing humorous or even interesting in the situation it portrays. They are happy to wallow in the sadness of existence, but they do not want to make light of it. They look at us laughing and shake their heads. They retreat back behind the barrier they have built between us. It is made from their own unwavering, accusatory sense of cultural superiority and their unconcealed disgust at our Anglo Saxon frivolity and lack of proper seriousness.

But the poet Bronwyn Lea has described all this so much better than I have in her poem called 'Miserability':

Grey skies over Brisbane today -
maybe like the skies over St Petersburg,
I think, but she says, 'No.
The clouds in St Petersburg are heavy like bells'
And so it is with her eyes.
'Your people are kind,' she says, 'this is true
but because I know how it is
to be whittled down to a twig and grow again into a tree -
because I know it & speak it,
they think me clown.'
'Yes,' I say, 'my people are kind
but we do not like to talk about sad things.
It's always been this way.'
She looks at me through wet lashes
in that wounding way of children,
her black eyes bright with 'miserability' -
'Then tell me,' she says, as if I were her
messenger and not her witness, 'where are your poets?'

How brilliant of Bronwyn Lea to write a poem as revenge.


  1. Insensitivity does seem to be a trademark Russian characteristic. But I guess they'd argue (if arguing with foreigners such as us was of any interest to them) that it's the most necessary step to survival their. Like you I'm inclined to judge a people by their literature: I made the mistake of reading Homer before visiting Greece - absolutely nothing like it, especially the Sirens.

  2. Hello Gadjo, how excellent to hear from you - hope the new contract has not burdened you with twice as much work and a third the pay. Thugs one and all (the Russians I mean - not Greeks [my memory of the Iliad is lots of stabbing and wine dark blood, so I wouldn't mind if Greece turned out a bit different to that.)

  3. z: I too spent a period studying things Russian and agree they're a people best experienced through their literature. I've written a novel which features Russia - it does however contain some 'good' people but then they're mostly Chechen.

  4. I know one russian person, and they are quite humorous. However, I also feel that beneath the laughter lies the tacit knowledge that they could go on a mad killing rampage at any moment.

  5. Hang on, Gaw, I'm sure you mentioned not liking fiction, and now you're writing novels? Neither am I, as Peter Cook would say - and if you really are, I hope they're short enough for Mr Haycraft, and where can I buy them?
    Worm - I just wish they'd lighten up

  6. Er, did I say that? Anyway, my book is blessedly concise at about 60k words. I've been hawking it around for about three months now and have got two agents interested. However, their interest is difficult to distinguish from the total lack of interest evinced by the others. If all else fails I shall self-publish - I'm giving it to the end of the year.

  7. Excellent to talk to you again too, z! (Good heavens, the word verification is "amica".) Great to hear that Gaw is determined to get his book out there.

  8. Gadjo's back, hurray, we're cracking open the palinka (any excuse)at our house to celebrate (so that's the rest of the week gone). Actually I may be going to Melbourne shortly and while there I will probably go to see lots of Romanian films during the Melbourne film festival. Any advice re ones to avoid gratefully received. So often films with prizes from Cannes et cetera turn out to be almost unspeakably solemn or obscure wastes of time.
    And Gaw, I have worked unrelentingly for 18 hours 47 minutes and 8 seconds looking for my evidence and am now as triumphant as my mother when she produces something I've said in a moment of weakness and totally forgotten until she brandishes it at the most unhelpful point in an argument. Your Honour, Gaw did on the whatever it was inst, in response to my inquiry about whether he had read Jeff in Venice, respond with the words "I shy away from novels" I rest my case. BUT, Gaw, before you go off spending money on self-publishing, have you tried this::
    And there's something Harper Collins has, which is probably a bit of a con,although I believe some people have been published through it. It's called Authonomy I think.

  9. Thanks z. I must get round to reading Jeff in Venice and somehow overcome my whatever it is.

  10. Love the poem