Haunting tales

Anton Chekhov, photographed in 1889

Chekhov: the early stories 1883-88
Chosen and translated by Patrick Miles & Harvey Pitcher
Abacus 1982

This selection of thirty-five of Anton Chekhov’s short stories, covering a period of five years, is an object lesson in how one author can create variety in this small-scale genre. There are scarcely any false moves here: we’re presented with cheeky humour as well as deep emotion, and served up with well-observed portraits and dramatic episodes. Some pieces are really short — punchy, scarcely two pages long — others approach novelette length. All are quintessentially Russian, infused now by bureaucracy, now by irreverence, sometimes expansive as suits the country’s landscape or intimate as we focus in on a fireside scene. And, for the most part, these tales are about people in all their fragility and weakness — youngsters, old people, couples, bourgeoisie, soldiers, musicians, artisans.

It’s impossible to do more than suggest the range by reference to a few select examples, so I will endeavour to give a suggestion of Chekhov’s skill in the setting of mood. I can’t speak of whether the choices made by the translators are exemplary or not, but I can marvel how a young man in his twenties (born in 1860, he died at too early an age, in his mid-forties) was able to capture such a broad view of human nature.

The comic, sometimes absurdist, aspect of Russian life comes across in a number of tales. Rapture (1883) anticipates our modern obsession with fame and celebrity when Mitya gets excited over a local newspaper report of his needing superficial treatment after a road accident. The Objet d’Art (1886) is a clever take on that familiar conundrum, the unwanted gift. No Comment (1888) is a kind of shaggy dog story based on the notion that the devil always has the best tunes: how can monks keep their composure when they hear of the fleshpots of the local town?

All good stories are observational, but Chekhov can effectively pare his down. The Complaints Book (1884) is essentially a glance at the kind of comments in visitors book one sees in churches or the reviews posted on Trip Advisor: serious but tedious comments are interspersed with irrelevancies, personal comments and insults. Fat and Thin (1883) is a wry reflection on how a change of professional status can profoundly affect a friendship first established at school: the repeated phrase “it was a pleasant shock” takes on a subtly different tone at the end the story compared to the beginning.

As the years go on Chekhov’s short stories get longer and develop a maturity that counteracts his earlier impish efforts. For example A Dreadful Night (1884) is a classic Christmas ghost story but with a twist in the tail, certainly effective but also entirely frivolous. On the other hand the later Let Me Sleep (1888) is also a tale to be told at night but altogether more chilling: a 13-year-old nursemaid, Varka, is responsible for keeping an eye out for the household’s ill baby, but her incessant daytime duties combined with her disturbed nighttime vigils cause her to hallucinate from sleeplessness.

‘Bayu-bayushki-bayú,’ she croons, ‘I’ll sing a song for you . . .’ And the baby screams and wears itself out screaming. […] Through her half-sleep there is one thing that she simply cannot grasp: the nature of the force that binds her hand and foot, that oppresses her and makes life a misery […] and, as she listens to the sound of the crying, finds it, this enemy that is making life a misery.

The inevitable happens: and then finally she laughs with joy that now she can sleep, and a minute later is sleeping the sleep of the dead . . .

The Huntsman (1885), Grisha (1886), Kids (1886), Verochka (1887), The Kiss (1887) — I could go on quoting or noting tales that struck me, but it would simply be to reiterate what mastery of writing these choices illustrate. I shall just add something about this edition. The translators’ informative introduction is one best read after the stories themselves. The notes afterwards give the original titles and explain how Chekhov’s jokey names for individuals in the humorous tales are nearly always impossible to render in English. At times the translations are of their time and place, reflecting a rather British flavour in the use of words and phrases, but they are unable to disguise the Russian essence of these 19th-century pieces.

This, then, is a collection to keep and reread, for their skill and their haunting quality — I still hear the bells and the singing and see the bonfires and the river described in Easter Night (1886), for example.


2018 Ultimate Reading Challenge: a book with a number in the title

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30 thoughts on “Haunting tales

    1. Spaseeba, Ola! I haven’t looked at any Chekhov for decades, and then it was only play texts, so these stories were a revelation and a delight to read.

      1. piotrek

        Exactly, his plays are what comes to mind when you hear “Chekhov”. And maybe his gun 😉 I’ll have to also think about short stories now, although I have to admit that the Russian part of my TBR is already quite long and sadly neglected…

        1. These 35 stories are only a small selection of his short fiction, and only representative of one translated English edition—I imagine there must be loads of others, perhaps with fewer tales, and no doubt online versions, in Polish and other languages including, naturally, Russian. From your writings I’m assuming you’re both outstanding multilinguists!

          Chekhov’s gun: this was a new phrase to me but I have come across the concept before in various dictums about keeping all parts of your writing relevant. The opposite concept must then be the MacGuffin, I assume? 🙂

          1. piotrek

            Indeed 🙂 Chekhov is a bit too strict for me here, I like context and wide descriptions, but for a short story – great rule.

            Sadly, I can only claim my native Polish, English, and perhaps a tiny little bit of German 😉 I’m a great believer in the concept of lingua franca, and while languages are fascinating, and translations are always only approximations – in a limited time here on Earth I’ll have more than enough to read with what I have…

            1. The Chekhov gun may do for three act plays but it certainly doesn’t work for epics or for series where a writer may be trying to create a complex secondary world. And speaking of complex worlds, if I had time to live over I’d have loved to have read a lot more literature in the original languages. As it is, the occasional parallel text in Latin, Italian or Welsh now has to suffice, and that only in short chunks, though I used to read the odd French novel at school—I remember Camus in particular, and rather fancy revisiting La Peste or L’Etranger.

            2. piotrek

              Latin I envy you, I missed my chance in high school, pure laziness, and it’s s key to so much of European history… Welsh, on the other hand, I admire, but, written down, it looks scary 😉

            3. I’m glad I had a chance to study Latin to age 16, certainly the basis of all those Romance languages and the root of so many technical terms. Even English contains a fair share of Latin-rooted words via Norman French, and Welsh too from direct occupation by the Romans for four centuries! Sadly all my foreign language learning (I even studied — and failed — Ancient Greek at school) has fallen by the wayside, and yes for me it’s down to pure laziness too…

            4. piotrek

              There are many reasons to despise Boris Johnson, but once I saw him quote Ancient Greek texts from memory, during an intelligence2 debate,and I was impressed…

            5. Yes, he can parrot the classics like a mynah bird when it suits him, but it’s a pity when he can’t remember telling lies or that he forgets his Turkish ancestry when supporting Vote Leave or when he insisted immigration was not the reason Britain voted for Brexit (the chief issue for the rival Leave.EU campaign).

              And I can’t forgive him and his friends for supporting far right politicians in Hungary and Turkey. No doubt he would like to emulate the many autocrats in the Roman Empire (and the Republic before that), which may be the reason for his Latin love affair.

            6. piotrek

              I absolutely share your sentiments, it’s just that his Polish equivalent would hardly speak Polish 😉

  1. I believe he wrote quite a number of them just because he needed the money, and some of them do feel a bit like that. But I’ve never forgotten the first time I read ‘Let Me Sleep’.

    1. He did indeed, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, is it, I wouldn’t be unhappy to be paid for writing short stories! I did enjoy the variety in this selection, from frankly groan-worthy tall tales to ‘Let Me Sleep’ and others like it.

        1. Perhaps no different from investigative journalists who have to follow their noses and then present their findings every day or week? Perhaps short story writers are, in their own way, news journalists, digging the dirt or finding nuggets of truth about whichever fictional characters their investigating?

  2. You’re probably going to hate me, but….never read Chekhov. Nope. I starred in a play about him during my college years, but…nope, just couldn’t bring myself to read him outside the required short story in Lit 101.

    I know, I’m a horrible person. 😦

    1. No, I don’t hate you at all, Jean, I had the same sort of experience of Chekhov when younger and have avoided him up till now. But I thought I’d ease myself into his writing by trying him in small chunks and — it works! I’m totally taken. Maybe one needs a few years distance to see what he’s about… 😁

      1. Ooo, fair point. In college I didn’t bother reading Count of Monte Cristo when it was required. A couple years ago I finally picked it up, and was totally taken with all its thousands of pages of narrative. 🙂

        1. I still can’t understand people who never revisit or reread fiction (or even non-fiction) — it’s always a different read the second time around after the passage of years! 🙂

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