Tag Archives: Anton Chekhov

16: Forty Stories

Forty StoriesForty Stories by Anton Chekhov

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bought new (at Chapters).

Read in June 2013.

View all my reviews

I’ve read Chekhov stories before, but never a whole book of them. I picked this up a while ago; I don’t remember the exact impetus, but I’m going to guess that it was probably something I read whilst blog/twitter-grazing.

So it was sitting on my to-read shelf. Meanwhile, I read that Frank O’Connor book, with its offensive chapter on Katherine Mansfield, and The Sky is Falling, in which the narrator was obsessed with Chekhov. That was it. The time was right to read this. I’ve long wanted/planned to read more Chekhov because he’s always described as being a big influence on Katherine Mansfield, whose work I love.

Trivia: both Chekhov and Mansfield died young of tuberculosis. A cause of death I realize wasn’t unusual back in the day, but hey! thank science that same fate won’t befall you, present-day-writers!

The stories are arranged in chronological order, starting in 1880, when Chekhov was 20 years old—nice from a writer-reader standpoint because you can see how his writing progressed. A lot of the early stories are very short, flash fiction length. The later stories are longer, more developed. His early work tended toward punchlines (I’m not usually a fan of this style of short story, but some of these were ok. I liked “The Threat” :)), but got more subtle as he grew as a writer.

It includes the well-known stories, of course: “Death of a Government Clerk,” “The Huntsman,” “The Lady with the Pet Dog.”

Some of the other titles I made note of:

  • “Joy,” in which a young man gets mentioned in the newspaper for drunkenly falling under a horse. He’s thrilled because he thinks he’s famous. (This one just seems so… prescient, ya know?)
  • “Who is to blame?” in which a tormented kitchen kitten grows up to be a sleek outdoor cat… who’s afraid of mice.
  • “Sleepyhead,” in which a young nursemaid’s sleep-deprivation leads to tragedy.

I noticed he seemed to have a fondness for the name Pelageya. I looked it up and it means “open sea.” (doh! pelagic!) Cool name. I think I’ll steal it. Now I just need a character to give it to…

Searing, disquieting honesty

Given how sympathetic [Jean] Thompson’s characters are, and how tenderly she cares for them, I found it puzzling that after a while, I was anticipating the epiphanic, redemptive plot turns with something closer to apprehension than to the relief and satisfaction I assumed I was meant to feel. … I kept putting down the book to ponder how the greatest writers, the Chekhovs and the Alice Munros, can make the quotidian seem transcendent, while others (not that Thompson is necessarily among these) merely remind us of the claustrophobia-inducing banality of the everyday.

Part of the trouble with “Do Not Deny Me” may be that the structure of these stories can seem more formulaic than organic. … Too often, she seems more interested in finding something with which the reader can safely identify … than in risking the searing, disquieting honesty that makes us (as we do, reading Munro) see and admit something secret and previously hidden about ourselves, our behavior and the world in which we live. It’s the reader, not the character, whose epiphany can make a story memorable.

Francine Prose

The way people speak without listening

How to define the timeless, seductive allure of Chekhov? Part of it lies in his elusiveness, subtlety, adroit dialogue, precise descriptions and confident use of understatement. Unlike Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, there is no sermonising, no extremes. He never tells us what to think. There are no heroes. There is little action. Chekhov instead makes telling use, as Eudora Welty once noted, of the way people speak without listening to each other. No one grasps the relevance of the untidy present better than Chekhov.

Eileen Battersby

The Significance of Silence

Mood and atmosphere are vital in [Chekhov’s] explorations of emotional dilemma which, at times, border on the abstract. For him, the purpose of art is the depiction of unconditional truth and the pursuit of it; he invariably exposes hypocrisy and deception, most emphatically self-deception. Above all, Chekhov, described by Tolstoy as impressionist, understands compromise, downplays plot and avoids conventional denouement. As a playwright he knew both the risks and the significance of silence on stage, of the pause that articulates truth.

Eileen Battersby