book report: uncle vanya


today after ceramics class i walked down vanderbildt to pick up lunch. i ended up at prospect butcher co, which was staffed by three particularly kind young women. this was surprising and pleasant to me because “butcher,” for some reason, feels like an especially gendered role played exclusively by gruff men. maya was just telling me about how her friend liz met her boyfriend at the butcher shop (he was the butcher), which we agreed was hot, as butcher is a decidedly hot profession. this also made me feel kind of topsy-turvy because i always think of hitting on a service worker as a big no-no (this may only be because i am a boy and i am straight?), and obviously hitting on a customer is also a big no-no (or maybe not? others please confirm/deny these statements) so how could that pairing have happened? it’s already so easy to have a crush on, say, your butcher, and when the mystery and imagination provoked by mask-wearing becomes involved those crushes come even easier. in my head these brief infatuations which i often call LOMLs (obv short for “love(s) of my life,” a term that i think came from one time i was at the dog park with my cousin or maybe from jake in college) are distinct from crushes in that they have no substance or possibility of working out. i got a roast beef sandwich from the butchers and ate half on the way to the park. it was delicious and included pickled green tomatoes which i can't say i have ever eaten before and were very tasty. i desperately wanted to sit in the park and read, but it was too cold and i didn’t have a book with me, so i just sat in the park to eat the other half of my sandwich. after one or two bites i realized i did not actually want to be sitting so i ate it on the walk back to my apartment. recently i had been thinking about how i enjoyed reading chekhov short stories in high school and wanted to read them again. at westsider books on saturday there was no book of short stories, but there was an old paper back of “chekhov: the major plays” so i bought that instead. today after class i decided to read “uncle vanya” solely because they performed it in drive my car. also it was only ~50 pages. the book i bought was from the 60s and feels like it, although seemingly uncreased—the edges have bleached (anti-bleached?) to burnt sienna (in crayola terms), the pages often cracked under the light pressure of my thumb, and the front cover nearly came off without me realizing just from holding it open. i also question the translation because on one line the first and last names of two characters were combined; i may never know who said “it’s a fine day today… not too hot…” one of my favorite things about this play is that the characters spend a lot of time talking about how hot the other characters are. everyone is decidedly ugly except the doctor astrov who was hot 10 years ago and now has “a tired, nervous[...] interesting face,” and 27-year-old elena, who is the helen of troy of the rural area outside of kharkiv. there’s also a guy who had such bad acne everyone calls him “waffles.” anyway. most of the play is about astrov and the titular vanya drooling over elena while she tries calmly and tiredly to shut them down so she can get on with her life with her rich(?) old husband, a successful but uninfluential ex-art professor (once hot, apparently). vanya is the type of edgelord peon to empathize with the joker and robert de niro in taxi driver and brad pitt in fight club, and early in the first act creepily pines over his dead sister (she was hot, rip). the two men independently come to the conclusion that elena must be a witch for being literally so hot that they are unable to do any work while she is proximate and instead just have to follow her around all day. it’s addressed how problematic this is for astrov, who is the only doctor in the area. unfortunately elena is also not totally redeemable because she is so out of touch with how not-hot people live that she refuses to work or help her community in any way. the professor, equally out of touch, wants to sell off the estate given to him by vanya’s family, where vanya and his mother and his niece (prof’s daughter w/ vanny’s dead sis) live, so they can live off interest from bonds and move to a villa in finland. this upsets vanya enough to shoot at the prof with a gun that, in very non-chekhovian fashion, never showed up on stage before, but tbh this all sounds like a pretty sweet deal to me. like, you can’t go 30 pages talking about how unhappy you are and then get mad once someone suggests something new. eventually everyone leaves and they all go back to work. this all sounds a little ridiculous, and it is, but i was surprised how compelled i was when reading it. maybe this is why i enjoyed chekhov in the first place. vanya has worked hard and forfeited his inheritance to raise his niece and provide for his sister and her husband. it seems that only now that the professor and elena have moved in, well after the death of his sister, does he start to question how he should have spent his youth and whether his selflessness has been worthwhile, and this question is answered unsatisfyingly when the professor tells him he could have kept more money for himself, and could have been doing so for years. his whole arc is really just a catalyzed mid-life crisis. it’s easy, at least for me, to imagine myself as vanya in another world, having done what was expected of us or even more for years, and to hear, when we finally muster up the courage to demand a reward for our loyalty, that at any time we could have just asked (all in all i would much rather imagine myself as elena or the professor). i wonder if the stir-crazed emotional melting pot of my pandemic apartment might have shared some feelings with turn of the century rural russia. neither sound appealing. it also freaks me out that in this play from 1898 elena is already fully a climate nihilist and astrov, ever the dilf, spends his free time petitioning against deforestation and replanting trees. i guess nothing really is new. i don’t understand if sonya’s closing monologue (below, partially) is meant to be taken as satire or naïveté or genuine reassurance, but it sure doesn’t help with the sunday scaries. tomorrow the union bargains about layoffs again. “We shall go on living, Uncle Vanya. We shall live through a long, long chain of days and endless evenings; we shall patiently bear the trials fate sends us; we’ll work for others, now and in our old age, without ever knowing rest, and when our time comes, we shall die submissively; and there, beyond the grave, we shall say that we have suffered, that we have wept, and have known bitterness, and God will have pity on us; and you and I Uncle, dear Uncle, shall behold a life that is bright, beautiful, and fine. We shall rejoice and look back on our present troubles with tenderness, with a smile—and we shall rest.”