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Posts Tagged ‘Anton Chekhov’

I had a not-so-good reading year in 2016. I read only 18 books. That is not not-so-good. That is bad. I left some of the books half-read. Not because they were not good, but because I was distracted or got into a reading slump. I could finish reading only 18.

That is the bad news. The good news is that I liked most of what I read. Actually loved most of them. That makes me very happy. That means, my list of favourites will contain most of the books I read 🙂 I don’t have to differentiate between them and choose some over others for arbitrary reasons. That is one of the great pleasures of reading less number of books. That makes me very happy.

So, without much further ado, here is the list of my favourite books from 2016, in no particular order.

Short Stories / Short Prose Pieces / Novellas

(1) A Game of Chess and other stories by Stefan Zweig

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My first proper book by Stefan Zweig. The title story was exceptional – it had some of the best passages I have read. There was also a beautiful description of the Riviera in another. Loved the whole book. I can’t wait to read another Stefan Zweig book.

(2) The Steppe by Anton Chekhov

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Chekhov’s love letter to the Russian Steppe. Also his longest story. My most favourite of his.

(3) A Dreary Story by Anton Chekhov

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One of Chekhov’s longer short stories. Loved it.

(4) The Walled City by Zeenat Mahal

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One of my favourite discoveries this year was author Zeenat Mahal (the nom de plume of Faiqa Mansab) and her novella The Walled City. It is a love story set in the beautiful city of Lahore and evokes the sights, sounds, smells, people and culture of the city so brilliantly. It also had one of my favourite passages :

“Saqib watched his work with forced detachment. He’d put his dreams to sleep on canvas after canvas, crystallized in a vice of color and form. Some had emerged as twisted nightmares, others as singed vestiges of shattered hopes.
     This painting was both.
     Like the woman, it had exacted much from him. He could almost feel the weight of the palette knife in his hands again, as he’d mixed and smeared, brushed and stroked in a frenzy of ecstasy or despair, until she’d emerged out of its blankness in the arms of another man, a faceless lover. But her almond shaped eyes that had held him captive for so long, gazed out at him, even now. He wasn’t just the painter; he was voyeur and conspirator, sinner and judge, plunderer and savior. The man in her arms didn’t matter, not to her, not to him.”

If you want to read ‘The Walled City‘ online, you can find it here.

Faiqa Mansab’s new book “This House of Clay and Water” is coming out in May. I can’t wait to read it.

(5) Strange Tales from the Make-Do Studio by Pu Songling

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There is a story plot which I have been fascinated by. In this story, a character from a book jumps out into the real world. (Or conversely a real world character jumps into a book or a painting). When I first heard this story, it gave me goosebumps. I discovered that Jasper Fforde has written this. Jodi Picoult has also written this. Then I discovered that Cornelia Funke has written this before them both. I was amazed to discover that Woody Allen wrote a story with this plot in the ’70s. (In his story Madame Bovary jumps out of the book into the real world and falls in love with the reader). Then I further discovered that Raymond Queneau wrote this in his book ‘The Flight of Icarus’. I thought this must be the earliest form of this story. I let it be. Imagine my surprise, when I discovered that Pu Songling had written similar stories. In the late 17th century! He seemed to be saying from the distant past – “Experimental writers from the 20th / 21st century – Take that! All these innovative plots that you think you invented (or copied from others without acknowledgement) – it has all been written and done and dusted.” Songling’s book is made up of ghost stories and stories of the supernatural written for grown-up mature readers. There are probably 500 stories of his. I probably read around 30 in this book. Many stories involve the main character, who is a scholar, who falls in love with a beautiful woman, but who turns out to be a ghost or a fox fairy or flower fairy. In many stories, the beautiful woman loves our scholar back, they get married and have children and live happily everafter 🙂 It is the kind of ghost story that I have never read before. This book deserves a proper review. Highly recommended.

(6) Contemplations by Franz Kafka

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I read ‘ The Metamorphosis‘ and many other stories by Kafka this year. My favourite was this one – his first ever published collection containing short one or two page prose pieces. Very beautiful.

Novels

(7) A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

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A novel about an introverted, shy man whose life story it tells. Very beautiful. It got into many award shortlists. Wish it had won some.

(8) The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

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I got this book years back when it first came out. I finally read it. It is a retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet set in post Second World War America. The difference though is that our American Hamlet cannot speak and his parents rear dogs.  So, while we are expecting Hamletian madness to happen, we get one of the most beautiful dog novels ever written. Almondine is one of my most favourite dog characters ever and Easy is another favourite. There is a black pup (of which animal we never know) which our Hamlet’s dad saves from the flood. It refuses to eat or drink anything and the part of the story where it comes is beautiful and heartbreaking. I really should have written a proper review of this beautiful book.

(9) The Memory of Things by Gae Polisner

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This much awaited novel from one of my favourite writers is set in the aftermath of 9/11 and tells the story of ordinary people who show extraordinary courage. Gae Polisner says that the manuscript of her next novel has gone out already. I hope that novel comes out this year. We readers are always greedy!

(10) A True Novel by Minae Mizumura

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The longest novel of the year for me (862 pages). The longest novel I have ever read on the Kindle too. It has been called the Japanese Wuthering Heights. It was long and epic and I loved it.

Graphic Novels / Manga

(11) A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin (graphic novel – part 1)

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I got this because I was planning to watch the TV show. Before long the show took over. But till then, the graphic novel version of the book was good, very good.

(12) Barakamon (part 1) by Satsuki Yoshino

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A Manga comic about a young calligrapher who goes and lives in an island and his friendship with the islanders. Very charming! Can’t wait to read the next part!

Science

(13) The Universe in your Hand : A Journey through Space, Time and Beyond by Christophe Galfard

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Stephen Hawking’s former student gives his own version of the history of the universe. And I can confidently say that the student has excelled the master here. Galfard’s book is very readable. (Hawking’s book is unreadable after the first chapter – believe me, I tried). He uses storytelling techniques and science-fiction-movie-style narration to bring the most complex concepts alive. Probably the finest book on physics written for the general reader. One of the wonderful things that I learnt from this book was about the things we don’t know and which we will never know. This is a book that I will be reading again.

(14) The First Three Minutes by Steven Weinberg

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Weinberg’s book has been called the finest account of the Big Bang theory ever written. Weinberg being a Nobel Prize winner himself, this book has been well respected. I have wanted to read it for years. Finally got to read it. The initial few chapters are easy to follow. The book then gets more challenging. The thing I loved about the book though was reading Weinberg’s thoughts on physics and why it is important and why we should be doing it. Weinberg’s humility as a person and as a scientist shone through when he talked about the larger issues in science and his confidence as one of the great scientists of the 20th century shone through when he talked about the science we knew and could predict. It made me fall in love with him. I will be reading those parts of the book again.

(15) Mr Tompkins in paperback by George Gamov

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One of my friends has recommended this for years. I finally got around to reading it. It has two parts  – Mr.Tompkins in Wonderland and Mr.Tompkins Explores the Atom. Beautiful book on relativity, radioactivity, structure of the atom and quantum mechanics. It has one of the finest descriptions of radioactivity that I have ever read. The book also has a foreword by one of my favourite scientists Roger Penrose. That doubled my pleasure! Great book to gift to your young ones at home. I wish I had read this when I was in school.

Have you read any of these? Which are your favourite books from 2016?

Happy New Year! Hope you have a wonderful year filled with great books and beautiful reading moments 🙂

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I read this piece recently by Teresa Preston called ‘100 Must-Read Plays Not by Shakespeare’. It made me think about the plays I have read, seen performed and watched adaptations of. I love plays but I haven’t read a lot of them. I thought that I could list them down in a page. And then I could look at the list and feel bad about it. As Woody Allen’s character says in ‘Annie Hall‘ – “I feel that life is divided up into the horrible and the miserable. These are the two categories. The horrible would be like terminal cases. And blind people. And cripples. I don’t know how they get through life. And the miserable is everyone else. So, you should be thankful that you’re miserable. You’re very lucky to be miserable.” I knew that my list of plays was going to be short and it was going to make me feel miserable. Well, I am happy to be miserable. Here is my list of plays – plays I have read, seen performed and watched film / TV adaptations of.

Plays read

(1) The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
(2) Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov
(3) A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen
(4) Oedipus by Sophocles
(5) The Winslow Boy by Terence Rattigan
(6) A Streetcar named Desire by Tennessee Williams
(7) And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
(8) The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie
(9) Witness for the Prosecution by Agatha Christie
(10) The Robbers by Friedrich Schiller
(11) Mary Stuart by Friedrich Schiller
(12) Hayavadhana by Girish Karnad
(13) Nagamandala by Girish Karnad
(14) Tughlaq by Girish Karnad
(15) Muhammad bin Tughlaq by Cho Ramaswamy
(16) La Ronde by Arthur Schnitzler
(17) Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf by Edward Albee
(18) The Homecoming by Harold Pinter
(19) She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith

Play performance watched

(1) A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

Narrated / performed by my mom

(1) Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

Film / TV Adaptations watched

(1) Gods of Carnage by Yasmina Reza
(2) Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire
(3) My Zinc Bed by David Hare
(4) Platonov by Anton Chekhov
(5) The Odd Couple by Neil Simon
(6) The Little Foxes by Lillian Hellman
(7) The Petrified Forest by Robert E. Sherwood
(8) Proof by David Auburn
(9) Alfie by Bill Naughton
(10) Hamlet by William Shakespeare
(11) The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
(12) The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare
(13) The Rose Tattoo by Tennessee Williams
(14) Closer by Patrick Marber

I think in terms of quality the list is good, actually excellent. Not very diverse, but excellent still. In terms of quantity, bad, very bad. I am not much of a theatre goer and have never been. That is not going to change much. But I hope to read more plays and watch more film / TV adaptations and improve that number above, which stands at 35 right now.

Which are my favourite plays from the above? I loved all the film / TV adaptations except for Patrick Marber’s ‘Closer‘. That one, I didn’t like much, eventhough it had Julia Roberts in it. I loved the performance of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. It was, interestingly, performed by an Italian theatre company. ‘Twelfth Night’ was one of our family favourites – my mom used to narrate us the story / perform some of the scenes during dinner time or during weekends when I was a kid. She was a great storyteller. Those were magical times. My mom inspired me to read. She passed on her infectious love for literature to me. I miss her so much. Out of the plays I read, I liked all of them except for the last three. Harold Pinter’s ‘The Homecoming’ was powerful, but I didn’t like it much. Oliver Goldsmith’s ‘She Stoops to Conquer‘ was disappointing.

So, do you like reading plays? Do you like watching performances in the theatre? Which are your favourite plays?

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This is my second Chekhov long story. It is around sixty pages long – the size of a short novella. The narrator of the story is Nikolay Stepanovitch. Nikolay is a professor of medicine at the university. He is over sixty years old. He has a health condition and he feels that he doesn’t have long to live. The story starts with Nikolay describing how his morning starts after a sleepless night (because he has insomnia), how his wife is the first person who meets his while he is still in bed and comes and have a short conversation with him, how his daughter comes next and it goes on to describe his day – his arrival at the university, his meeting with his two assistants, his lecture, his meetings with students, his work at his office, the constant interruptions by students and other doctors who need his favour, the visit by Katya who is like his daughter. While describing his day, Nikolay also describes in detail the various people he meets. They are wonderful character sketches. After describing a typical day, Nikolay goes on to describe his relationship with Katya in detail and how she came to be a kind of adopted daughter to him and the relationship that Katya has with the rest of his family. In this part of the story, one of my favourite passages is the one in which Nikolay describes his thoughts on the theatre (Katya is a former theatre actress). It makes me smile everytime I read it. It goes like this :

“I have never shared Katya’s inclinations for the theatre. To my mind, if a play is good there is no need to trouble the actors in order that it may make the right impression; it is enough to read it. If the play is poor, no acting will make it good.”

Events in the story move at a steady pace after that and I am not going to describe what happens – you should read the book.

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I had a couple of problems with the story. The first one was the title. I don’t know whether Chekhov was trying to say something with that title – that there is more to the story than meets the eye. The story was anything but dreary. The character sketches were masterfully done, Nikolay is a wonderful narrator and the beautiful Chekovian passages keep flowing throughout the book. The second problem I had was with the ending. The ending had two parts. I loved the first part. The second part – I couldn’t understand it. I don’t know whether one needed to be Russian to understand it. If you read the story, do let me know what you think.

The story had many beautiful passages. Some of them come when the narrator shares his thoughts and others come in the middle of a conversation between some of the characters. I think the novella length suits Chekhov very well. It gives him room to tell a story and sneak in many beautiful passages and thoughts. One of my favourite passages was about teaching and lecturing. I think it is the finest passage on giving lectures that I have read. Here it is :

To lecture well – that is, with profit to the listeners and without boring them – one must have, besides talent, experience and a special knack; one must possess a clear conception of one’s own powers, of the audience to which one is lecturing, and of the subject of one’s lecture. Moreover, one must be a man who knows what he is doing; one must keep a sharp lookout, and not for one second lose sight of what lies before one.

A good conductor, interpreting the thought of the composer, does twenty things at once : reads the score, waves his baton, watches the singer, makes a motion sideways, first to the drum then to the wind instruments, and so on. I do just the same when I lecture. Before me a hundred and fifty faces, all unlike one another; three hundred eyes all looking straight into my face. My object is to dominate this many-headed monster. If every moment as I lecture I have a clear vision of the degree of its attention and its power of comprehension, it is in my power. The other foe I have to overcome is in myself. It is the infinite variety of forms, phenomena, laws, and the multitude of ideas of my own and other people’s conditioned by them. Every moment I must have the skill to snatch out of that vast mass of material what is most important and necessary, and, as rapidly as my words flow, clothe my thought in a form in which it can be grasped by the monster’s intelligence, and may arouse its attention, and at the same time one must keep a sharp lookout that one’s thoughts are conveyed, not just as they come, but in a certain order, essential for the correct composition of the picture I wish to sketch. Further, I endeavour to make my diction literary, my definitions brief and precise, my wording, as far as possible, simple and eloquent. Every minute I have to pull myself up and remember that I have only an hour and forty minutes at my disposal. In short, one has one’s work cut out. At one and the same minute one has to play the part of savant and teacher and orator, and it’s a bad thing if the orator gets the upper hand of the savant or of the teacher in one, or vice versa.

One of my other favourite passages came at the end of the story. It is beautiful, philosophical and very Russian. This is how it goes :

      When I have wanted to understand somebody or myself I have considered, not the actions, in which everything is relative, but the desires.

“Tell me what you want, and I will tell you what manner of man you are.”

And now I examine myself : what do I want?

I want our wives, our children, our friends, our pupils, to love in us, not our fame, not the brand and not the label, but to love us as ordinary men. Anything else? I should like to have had helpers and successors. Anything else? I should like to wake up in a hundred years’ time and to have just a peep out of one eye at what is happening in science. I should have liked to have lived another ten years…What further? Why, nothing further. I think and think, and can think of nothing more. And however much I might think, and however far my thoughts might travel, it is clear to me that there is nothing vital, nothing of great importance in my desires. In my passion for science, in my desire to live, in this sitting on a strange bed, and in this striving to know myself – in all the thoughts, feelings, and ideas I form about everything, there is no common bond to connect it all into one whole. Every feeling and every thought exists apart in me, and in all my criticisms of science, the theatre, literature, my pupils, and in all the pictures my imagination draws, even the most skilful analyst could not find what is called a general idea, or the god of a living man.

And if there is not that, then there is nothing.

I loved ‘A Dreary Story’. I will be reading my favourite passages from the story again. This is the third Chekhov long story that I have read. There are still four more to go. I feel sad that there are only four more.

Have you read ‘A Dreary Story’? What do you think about it?

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I have wanted to read Anton Chekhov’s ‘The Steppe’ for quite sometime. Chekhov has written many short stories and is an acknowledged master of that literary form. Generations of writers have been inspired by him. Chekhov also sneaked in a few long stories among his shorter ones. These were not technically short stories, because they were closer in length to a novella. ‘The Steppe’ is the longest of these long stories. It is around a hundred pages. I read it slowly in a few days time. Here is what I think.

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Yegorushka is a young boy. His mother decides one day that he should be sent to a good school in a bigger town. She asks Yegorushka’s uncle to take him and put him up in a friend’s place and get him into a good school. This place is far away. Yegorushka’s uncle is a businessman who makes frequent business trips and decides to take Yegorushka with him during one of these trips. An old priest accompanies them alongwith the coachman. They travel through the Russian steppe, stay in an inn, meet interesting people there, then the uncle has to take a detour and leaves Yegorushka with a group of peasants who are travelling in a group of coaches with bales of wool. During this trip Yegorushka meets an old man called Panteley whom he treats like his grandfather and who tells tales in the night by the campfire while everyone is having dinner, he sees all kinds of strange things in the steppe, meets a stranger who joins the group in the middle of the night and tells his own story over a campfire dinner, encounters a storm, gets unwell and then gets back well and finally ends up in his mother’s friend’s place where his uncle and the priest bade him goodbye and Yegorushka cries and wonders poignantly how his future will pan out.

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Though Yegorushka is the main character in the story and we see events through his eyes, the story is really about the Russian Steppe and Yegorushka’s journey through it. The Russian Steppe is one of the main characters in the story and we can feel it breathing, feeling happy and sad and angry and indifferent to the humans who travel through it. Chekhov’s prose glows in those parts in which he writes about the steppe and makes it come alive for us. Those were some of my favourite parts of the story. I also loved the way the different characters were sculpted so beautifully in the story and the way they were distinctive from each other, starting with the uncle and the priest, an inn-worker called Solomon who doesn’t care about money and who is not afraid of anyone and Panteley, the old grandfather-ish man from the coach caravan. Those storytelling nights around the campfire were also some of my favourite moments from the story. Though Chekhov is regarded as a master of the short story form, he equally excels in the longer format. The beautiful descriptions of the steppe and its features, of the characters and their quirks, the graceful pace at which the story runs, the poignant scenes and the beautiful ending – they were all a pleasure to read.

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‘The Steppe’ is regarded as marking a turning point in Chekhov’s career. It has been described as a ‘superb and sustained prose poem’. It has also been described as evoking the soul of Russia itself. I loved that last description. I think it is perfect. I think ‘The Steppe’ is a love letter to Mother Russia, to the Russian soul and the soul of Russia, to the Russian way of life of a bygone era which is almost mythical now. It is beautiful to read, it gives goosebumps and one longs to be in the middle of the steppe and listen to Panteley’s tales while sitting next to the campfire while having some hot stew.

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I wish Chekhov wrote more novellas. There is only one more story of comparable length to this one – ‘The Duel’ – and there are a few more which can be regarded as short novellas (between 40 and 60 pages), and if I keep at it, I know that I will finish reading them in a week. I wish there were more. Chekhov died in the prime of his life – when he was forty four years old. I wish he had lived for more years. I wish he had written more novellas. I wish he had written a sequel to ‘The Steppe’. I would have loved to read that.

 

I am glad that I finally read ‘The Steppe’. I want to read Chekhov’s other long stories now. ‘The Steppe’ is one of my favourites of the year and it is a story that I will be definitely reading again.

 

Here are some of my favourite passages to give you a flavor of the book’s beauty.

 

The song was subdued, dreary and melancholy, like a dirge, and hardly audible, and seemed to come first from the right, then from the left, then from above, and then from underground, as though an unseen spirit were hovering over the steppe and singing. Yegorushka looked about him, and could not make out where the strange song came from. Then as he listened he began to fancy that the grass was singing; in its song, withered and half-dead, it was without words, but plaintively and passionately, urging that it was not to blame, that the sun was burning it for no fault of its own; it urged that it ardently longed to live, that it was young and might have been beautiful but for the heat and the drought; it was guiltless, but yet it prayed forgiveness and protested that it was in anguish, sad and sorry for itself.

 

And then in the churring of insects, in the sinister figures, in the ancient barrows, in the blue sky, in the moonlight, in the flight of the nightbird, in everything you see and hear, triumphant beauty, youth, the fullness of power, and the passionate thirst for life begin to be apparent; the soul responds to the call of her lovely austere fatherland, and longs to fly over the steppes with the nightbird. And in the triumph of beauty, in the exuberance of happiness you are conscious of yearning and grief, as though the steppe knew she was solitary, knew that her wealth and her inspiration were wasted for the world, not glorified in song, not wanted by anyone; and through the joyful clamour one hears her mournful, hopeless call for singers, singers!

 

When you gaze a long while fixedly at the deep sky thoughts and feelings for some reason merge in a sense of loneliness. One begins to feel hopelessly solitary, and everything one used to look upon as near and akin becomes infinitely remote and valueless; the stars that have looked down from the sky thousands of years already, the mists and the incomprehensible sky itself, indifferent to the brief life of man, oppress the soul with their silence when one is left face to face with them and tries to grasp their significance. One is reminded of the solitude awaiting each one of us in the grave, and the reality of life seems awful…full of despair.

 

Life is terrible and marvellous, and so, however terrible a story you tell in Russia, however you embroider it with nests of robbers, long knives and such marvels, it always finds an echo of reality in the soul of the listener, and only a man who has been a good deal affected by education looks askance distrustfully, and even he will be silent. The cross by the roadside, the dark bales of wool, the wide expanse of the plain, and the lot of the men gathered together by the camp fire – all this was of itself so marvellous and terrible that the fantastic colours of legend and fairy-tale were pale and blended with life.

 

Have you read Chekhov’s ‘The Steppe’? What do you think about it?

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