Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov
Reading authors who write about lives outside one’s own culture presents a major challenge for any reader. And if the scenarios are also set in a different and obviously unknown era, then the problem is at least compounded. Experience will challenge at least those things that we take for granted, those assumptions that we often ignore. When the experience also presents an unfamiliar and unexpected form, the challenge can even be daunting. And so it seemed during a recent visit to the stories of Anton Chekhov.
Contemporary advice advises that a short story be both succinct and forceful. We are often told that it should ignite in the first sentence and then burn more and more before exploding like a firework. This concept of form, however, could not be further from the experience repeatedly offered by Chekhov’s tales. How about these initial line examples, randomly selected from the collection?
“On a beautiful evening, the no less handsome government official Ivan Tcherviakoff sat in the second row of the orchestra looking through his Les Cloches de Corneville opera glasses.” (The death of an official)
“Two friends met at a train station; one was fat and the other was thin.” (Lean and fatty)
“A tiny and very thin peasant stood before the examining magistrate.” (The wrongdoer)
Clearly, Chekhov’s tales do not open with a burst of flames. They often greet us with what is almost an apology for their existence. Nor do they tend to burn more and more, and precisely none of them ends as a firework. Authors like Anton Chekhov do not need such an artifice because, for them, what interests them is simply, precisely, the very essence of ordinary life. The characters are not monsters, addicts, murderers, spies, or generally bigots. They are people we are introduced to and, after the initial meeting, we spend a little time with. Actually, if such a presumption is possible, it may be all the things in the list above, but while we find them, as real people, they keep their identities and motives, and hint at them only by occasional suggestions.
In these stories, too, Chekhov does not habitually indulge in the plot, much less allow for something as unnecessary as resolution. But it does observe and, often by mere implication, record human weaknesses, propensities, and weaknesses. As realistic paintings that capture only a moment in time, these works invite the reader to interpolate both the past and the future.
So for the modern non-Russian reader, these stories present a double challenge. There is an unknown culture set in a foreign time. But what’s even more difficult is that we often rely on our own imagination to provide the details.
But rest assured, the experience of reading these stories is precious and rewarding. Almost all human interactions require a kind of compromise, and Chekhov’s characters must often indulge each other, a requirement they frequently resent. The pages are full of humor, irony, observation and emotion, but much is implied or remains unsaid or, frustratingly for the reader, not even written. These snapshots of scenes from rural Russia and a 19th century small town, Tsarist Russia, present their own rhythm and time. Thus the reader is rewarded with an enlightening journey, but it is not an easy path for the contemporary reader to travel. The truly gratifying achievement is that none of these difficulties were easier in their own time. And today, the subject that Chekhov tackles remains as enigmatic, even difficult, as ever.