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An Exercise in Learning From the Best

Stories, by Anton Chekhov - Part 1

(Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky)

image via stevenwbeattie.com

I’ve had this book of stories for a while, waiting, I suppose, for the time and mood to be right to not only read them but to study them. If you aren’t familiar with Chekhov, he was a ground-breaker in story style, up there with de Maupassant and Hemingway.  Tolstoy sang young Chekhov’s praises (Why? Keep reading.) and every writing class in the northern hemisphere makes much of these stories (and deservedly so). The book is voluminous for one who insists on studying it, so I’m reading it in halves; hopefully I won’t miss much of significance.

To generalize, and counter to Pevear’s assessment of Chekhov as one with no social agenda, I found him much like Tolstoy - critical of those in power in the last years of Tsarist power and grudgingly supportive of those on society’s lower rungs.

But these stories are more complex than that. Chekhov bemoans ignorance, superstition, and blind faith in his lower and middle class characters. He tends to become mildly outraged at those who spurn science and rationality for all those famous emotional fig leaves Russians in that era tended to drape over their foibles.

While extremely dated, there are universal characteristics here, as we’ve grown to expect from our greatest writers. The stories are heavy on character, but they begin and end without the moral points readers no doubt sought in that age. Not that Chekhov is a nihilist; he simply depends on his characters to render situations the reader can use to make those points for him.

Favorites? A couple stand out from the rest in these predominantly present tense stories:

The Malefactor” is a very short piece written in 1885 in which Denis Grigoriev, a hapless peasant is hauled before a magistrate to answer for his stealing bolts from a railroad track.

“A Boring Story” is a much longer piece, in first person present tense (begun in faux-third person) told by one Nikolai Stepanovich, a well-known professor. This is both Chekhov’s opportunity to depict academe in late 1800s Russia, but also to air philosophical bits on family life.

More when I get back to these stories.

My rating 17 of 20 stars