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