Thursday, 30 January 2014

Anton Chekhov on Writing

I’m playing Dorn in a production of Chekhov’s ‘The Seagull’ that goes up next week in Margate. Every actor wants to play Chekhov, but every writer can learn from him, too. In this passage from the play (translated by Elisaveta Fen), Constantine Trepliov, the young novice writer, compares his work to that of his mother’s lover, the famous author Trigorin:

TREPLIOV (preparing to write, reads through what he has already written)... This won't do at all! (Crosses out.) I'll start with the passage where the hero is woken by the noise of the rain. The rest will have to come out. The description of the moonlit evening is too long and rather precious. Trigorin has worked out his own methods - it comes easily to him. ... He will just mention the neck of a broken bottle glistening on the dam and the black shadow of a mill-wheel - and there you'd have a moonlit night. But I have to put in the tremulous light, the soft twinkling of the stars, and the distant sounds of a piano dying away in the still, fragrant air. ... And then it's excruciating!

Chekhov obviously thought this was important advice, for he had previously included it in a letter of 1886 to Alexander P. Chekhov (Translated by Constance Garnett):
In my opinion a true description of Nature should be very brief and have a character of relevance. Commonplaces such as, ‘the setting sun bathing in the waves of the darkening sea, poured its purple gold, etc.’ – ‘the swallows flying over the surface of the water twittered merrily’ – such commonplaces one ought to abandon. In descriptions of Nature one ought to seize upon the little particulars, grouping them in such a way that, in reading, when you shut your eyes, you get a picture.

For instance, you will get the full effect of a moonlight night if you write that on the mill-dam a little glowing star-point flashed from the neck of a broken bottle, and the round, black shadow of a dog, or a wolf, emerged and ran, etc. Nature becomes animated if you are not squeamish about employing comparisons of her phenomena with ordinary human activities, etc.           

Is this nineteenth century advice still relevant in the twenty-first century? I think it is...


Rosalind Minett said...

Yes, it is good advice. It tends to militate against writing too long at the computer. Outside, the eye can alight on such detail.

Chekhov had the skill of spotting the momentary image that would help the reader visualise the scene. It's interesting that he chose to insert the advice into the play. Did he have in mind novels with vacuous and irrelevant descriptions of landscapes and skies? Was he talking, through his character, to such writers?

Paul Curd said...

I'm sure the answer to both your questions is 'Yes!', Rosalind. A play (or a novel) is a great place to have a rant. By putting their words into the mouth of a character an author can make their point almost without raising their head above the parapet. But you're right - it's very good advice.