Thursday, October 30, 2008

In Anton’s Garden. The letters from Anton Chekhov and Olga Knipper.

(Translated from Spanish by Tadeo Berjón)

Anton Chekhov

"Who envelops you, beautiful Anton?"

More than 15 years ago I wondered about the mystery of his person and his writing, and at the same time I wrote:

¿Quién te envuelve, bello Antón?

Tu misterio se escribe en la cara.

Tus lentes, reflejo ríspido de soledad;

de ambición desmedida por la nada.

(Who envelops you, beautiful Anton?
Your mystery is written on your face.

Your glasses, rough reflection of loneliness;

of unbridled ambition for nothingness.)

I continuously looked at the only photo available in those times of no internet, I observed it trying to discover its hidden secrets behind the colourless image; his life came to my in small bits, all I knew about him were his theatre plays translated into Spanish.

Then I found some letters, very few short sentences about his life as a writer, advices for his brother, comments of his disgust towards certain freedoms the Moscow Art Theatre was taking with his plays.

And I kept coming back to that photo, and writing about it...

Sonrisa que no existe.
Monalisa rusa de color sepia.

Impresión de pasividad.

(Smile that exists not.
Sepia coloured Russian Monalisa.

Impression of passivity. )

Yes, I didn’t see a sexual Chekhov, I didn’t seem him as open, or loving, or loved. He was just one image and chosen words for saying something; a strange combination of ideas superimposed on each other in my mind. And I still saw him as beautiful, him, the man.

¡Ay, bello Antón!

(Oh, beautiful Anton!)

And his plays...

Cada palabra desluce mis ironías;
tus diálogos desnudan mi alma,
su alma,

y la de los demás...

(Every word dulls my ironies;

your dialogues disrobe my soul,

his soul,

and that of the others...)

Cada palabra tuya espera,

se alarga en hermosos silencios;

cada palabra tuya también grita

si deseamos hacerla gritar.

(Each of your words waits,

elongates into beautiful silences;

each of your words also screams
if we want to make it scream.)

I was fascinated by the mystery, of course, of his work, of his secrets, of his immense fame. I ask myself, why, then, did I also see him as part of a failure?

¡Ay, Antón, que lloras y glorificas tu fracaso!

(Oh, Anton, you cry and glorify your failure!)

I knew of his repulse, of his continuous illness, of his remote life in a southern port of the then Russian empire.

I wrote poems dedicated to him and based on small stories and impressions from his work; little by little my reading repeated itself, his plays again and again, his stories again and again, his few letters once more; and when languages (English and French) made their appearance in my life, the different visions that translations into other languages bring to us, and with that the doors they open.

On December 2004 I decided to take a week to submerge myself completely in the French theatre of the moment; I had six apotheotical nights of theatrical performances, Le Cirque Antoine, three Peter Brook’s productions, Théâtre du Soleil and Arianne Mnouchkine, among others. I went to the theatre on the second floor of the Théâtre de Champs Élysées to watch, not without emotion, in a production directed by Peter Brook, Natasha Parry and Michel Piccoli, “Ta main dans la mienne”, a play based on the letters that Anton Chekhov and Olga Knipper wrote to each other for 6 years.

“Lui : - Je prends votre main dans la mienne -
Elle : - C’est ainsi qu’il les a signées - ses lettres - ses lettres à Olga -
Lui : - 400 lettres. -
Elle : - 412 pour être exact - d’abord en amis -

Lui : - ensuite en amants -

Elle : - ensuite en mari et femme -

Lui : - une vie de passion en six courtes années -
Elle : - Il était écrivain -
Lui : - elle était actrice -
Elle : - et ils se sont rencontrés - comment se sont-ils rencontrés ? -
Lui : - J’ai oublié ! -
Elle : - C’était à une lecture - une lecture de La Mouette. Avril 1898 - tu t’en souviens?” (1)

The play presented to me, for the first time, a Chekhov in love, almost passionate about a woman (that was a surprise for me, of course), it presented, too, a Chekhov as an ordinary man, talking with less “Chekhovian sense”, well, not completely. For some (apparently obvious) reason, it was decided that the play be spoken mostly in the past tense; that made it Chekhovian, that made me lose he recently found man, it was as if it were a Chekhov written by Chekhov. But that didn’t keep me from enjoying it tremendously.

Something else from this mise-en-scene by Brook remained in my memory, Chekhov was old, very old; Michel Piccoli could barely stand, he was a man of wasted voice, an old man, and when he played a young man he seemed like an old man trying to feel youthful; Natasha Parry was also an older woman but, once you forgot her beautiful wrinkles, when she expressed her love, her adoring of the great author, with great subtleness, you forgot everything, she was Olga Knipper, who reminisced about those letters in her memories.

Anton Chekhov was then split into two in my memory’s image: a photo of a young man, maybe mature, with an air of loneliness and simplicity; and an acting of an old, live, loving man, who I’d seen die on stage.

An old Chekhov...?

In 2007, when retaking the text of the acting method of Antonio González Caballero, with all that part devoted to the naturalist current of modern acting proposed by Chekhov, I had to go back to the artist and the man, and to delve more deeply I ordered two books, “The Moscow Art Theatre Letters” and “Dear writer Dear Actress(2), both compilations by Jean Benedetti. It was (as it remains) also the era of the flood of information and images that internet provides.

The book about the letter from the Moscow Art Theatre didn’t but corroborate my opinions and information about the opinion Chekhov had of his plays and of Stanislavsky himself, but it was “Dear Writer Dear Actress” which, along with the letters exchanged between Chekhov and Olga Knipper, that created a revolution in my perception of the man that wrote one the the most important groups of plays belonging to the universal theatre.

Having turned forty, I would wake up almost before dawn with a strange feeling of apparently endless youth; confused, I’d look at myself in the mirror and was surprised by what nature, genetics and exercise maintained in my body and face; that was the time I read that Chekhov felt old at the same age... at forty, at my forty... Ill with tuberculosis he saw life leave while love arrived with all its power; locked in a boring, uneducated and lonely Yalta, his writings enjoyed a success he himself simply could not enjoy.

Only irony saved his mind.

My little doggie” (“¡Mi perrita!”, how rude that sounds in Spanish!) was how he called, amongst dozens of other ridicule pet names, Olga Knipper, his beloved wife. In a 6 year-long love they met just a few times, and I strongly believe that that’s what kept their love alive while it lasted. Little sex, yes, but intense when it happened, sex that left them expecting a son, miscarried, who was supposed to be called Pamphil.

Letters upon letters show us how strange it was to depend on mail in those times; between Yalta, Moscow and Saint Petersburg, between Nice, Naples and Rome. Letters that arrive weeks late, some that arrive earlier than others, answers to others from weeks before...

-Why haven’t you written?-
-But I’ve sent you letters twice a day!-,

-Don’t be sad.-,
-I’m not sad, I wrote that in a different letter; now I’m happy-,

-I hear you’re ill-,
-I don’t have any health problems now-,

-Don’t send letters to Rome, send them to Naples; I haven’t been able to receive any from you.-

... A wonderful world of sentimental misunderstandings that never become a vaudevil, as it doesn’t happen either in his “comedies”.

Letters that presented a delicious Chekhov that washes little, that washes his hair even less, but who changes clothes somewhat more often; who enjoys a friendly dog until the dog prefers to sleep in his mother’s room. Chekhov, the man, lives the strange and tragic love of a young man that lives like an old one, who can’t go up the stairs, who suffers from colds, indigestion, continuous diarrhea, and an actress wife who parties and miscarries his son. A man who loves flowers, who devotes himself to a garden that sometimes goes crazy with tropical flair and other times remains as boring and dry as his neighbours in Yalta.

Those letters showed me also a Chekhov friend, worried for the health of Tolstoy and for the folkloric shirts of Gorky, for the lack of talent of his dear Nemirovich Danchenko and his wife’s worries; he is a man that dreams with a dacha near Moscow and with enjoying the silly and intellectual nights of a big city. Chekhov is a man of national fame but completely ignored internationally, who can travel through Europe and go to the theatre and not be recognised by anybody; he jokes with his wife for her being an actress that, thanks to a soon-to-be contract, would become as famous as Sarah Bernhardt.

Chekhov in his letters is a forgotten man in a small and remote world, old, sick, a smiling and ironical man that takes pleasure in seeing how people live while his wife reads or sings at his side. A man who constantly loses faith in his writing and suddenly becomes big with confidence once he finishes a play.

Chekhov, from what I read and I can read, was a man who, when he died, said a sentence in German and had a bit of champagne...


And today, watching his photograph again, I can write:

En el jardín de Antón

¿Quién te envuelve, bello Antón?

Tu misterio se escribe en tu cara.

Tus lentes, reflejo ríspido de soledad;

de ambición desmedida por la nada.

Sonrisa que no existe,

como una Monalisa rusa de color sepia.

Eres un hombre-mujer,

impresión de eterna pasividad.

¡Ay, bello Antón!

Cada una de tus palabras desluce mis ironías.

Tus diálogos desnudan mi alma,
su alma,

y el alma de los demás.

Cada una de tus palabras espera,

se alarga en hermosos silencios.
Si queremos las hacemos gritar.

Grita diciendo uno o dos...

¡Ay, Antón que lloras y glorificas al fracaso!

¡Revolucionario de 40 años que a nadie mató!

In Anton’s Garden

Who envelops you, beautiful Anton?

Your mystery is written on your face.

Your glasses, rough reflection of loneliness;
of unbridled ambition for nothingness.

Smile that exists not.

Sepia coloured as Russian Monalisa.

You’re a woman-man,

Impression of eternal passivity.

Oh, beautiful Anton!

Every word dulls my ironies;

your dialogues disrobe my soul,

his soul,
and that of the others...

Each of your words waits,

elongates into beautiful silences;

if we want we make it scream.

Scream saying one or two...

Oh, Anton, you cry to and glorify failure!

40 year revolutionary who nobody killed!

(1) Original text of "Ta main dans la mienne"
“Dear Writer Dear Actress” The Love letters of Anton Chekhov & Olga Knipper. Selected, edited and translated by Jean Benedetti. Methuen. U.K. 2007.

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