Sunday, April 26, 2015

Review: The Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov

I had scant experience with the short stories of Anton Chekhov prior to tackling this lengthy collection translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. I had read one much-slimmer collection more than a decade ago, but comparing the tables of contents between it and this new purchase (as well as another volume that belongs to my wife) I saw virtually no overlap in terms of the stories included. In other words, I was long overdue to correct this oversight in my reading history.

Pevear does a great job in his thorough introduction of putting Chekhov’s work into both the broader context of Russian history at the time he was writing and the enduring influence of his work on the short story form throughout the 20th and, now, 21st centuries. Russian literature in the 1800s reflected a lot of the social and political upheaval occurring at the time, and authors were often expected to be (as it sometimes feels now, too) didactic, moralizing, and politically engaged via their fiction. As Pevear puts it, “The writer was seen first of all as a pointer of the way, a leader in the struggle of social justice; his works were expected to be ‘true to life’ and to carry a clear moral value.’” Chekhov wrote against this tradition, embracing what Pevear refers to as a kind of literary impressionism:

In fact, just as Chekhov created a new kind of story, he also created a new image of the writer: the writer as detached observer, sober, restrained, modest, a craftsman shaping the material of prose under the demands of authenticity and precision, avoiding ideological excesses, the temptations of moral judgment, and the vainglory of great ideas.

The results took the Russian reading world by storm, and also created the template for what we now refer to as psychological realism. This collection lays out Chekhov’s groundbreaking work in strict chronological order, beginning with pieces he published while barely in his twenties. These early stories, like “Death of a Clerk” and “Small Fry,” do seem very much in the vein of juvenilia, and deal with the theme of a young person struggling against the power or presence of someone older and from a higher social rank. But even these early sketches reveal a writer consumed with capturing the inner world of his characters with succinct exactness, and we can see flashes of the genius that was to come.

The collection moves through the short decades of Chekhov’s oeuvre, republishing such classics “Peasant Women,” “Gooseberries,” “The Lady with the Little Dog,” and “In the Ravine.” It’s interesting to watch the darker side of Chekhov’s astute eye come out in this later stories. He was obsessed with capturing small, telling moments, the keen revelations in the lives of the people around him, whom he knew intimately. Each piece creates its own inner world, as detailed and harrowing in 20 pages as anything you would find in a long Russian novel.

My favourite pieces here include the ironically titled “A Boring Story,” which tells the tale of a middling medical academic who navigates the irksome, mediocre relationships in his life and his own disappointments. I also loved “Ward No. 6,” set in a Russian mental asylum, in which it’s the crazies incarcerated within, and not the doctors who treat them, who tell the greatest truths. And finally, there is “The Bishop,” about a clergyman who reunites with his estranged mother and the psychological tests that the experience puts him through. In each of these pieces, I found men who were thwarted by life and yet keenly aware of what redemption might look like should it land on their doorstep.

A collection like this can help to remind us of the masterful power of such canonical writers like Chekhov, and take us on a tour of their developing art. There is no mystery after this long, detail collection as to why this man’s work endures.

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