The four-volume Folio Society edition of Chekhov stories is a thing of great beauty, and it was my intention to stretch the reading of them over the course of 2018, with one story between novels throughout the year. There’s been a change of plan, based on my reading of the first volume, because in the course of just two stories, I became strangely addicted and decided to simply read it to the end!
I use the word strange because this happened despite me not caring particularly for the first story, The Steppe, one of Chekhov’s acknowledged masterpieces. More a novella than a short story, it documents the journey of a young boy across the Steppe as he is delivered to his new home and his new school. It didn’t leave me with a good feeling for the child as he is left greeting the advent of his new and unknown life with bitter tears when his uncle and the accompanying priest disappear from view.
What kind of life would it be? asks the final sentence. Based on the previous 90 pages, a difficult one, given that the boy, Yegorushka, has been transported across the Steppe, at one point handed off to an unknown band of wagon merchants, bullied mercilessly by one of them, almost caught his death of cold in a snowstorm, and is finally left to board with a woman, who isn’t really that willing. No wonder there are bitter tears. It’s almost as if this is an anti-bildungsroman story. His experiences on tne journey should have toughened him up, but Yegorushka is an remains a (lost young) boy.
There is another purpose to this story, of course, and that is to document the landscape and life on it as seen through the eyes of an innocent and inexperienced child. That was an education in itself, both for Yegorushka and myself.
However, I found the story quite upsetting. And was a little apprehensive about continuing. Was Chekhov going to put me through the emotional mangle with every tale?
Not quite, but let me tell you, he certainly doesn’t play it for laughs! (Do any Russians, I ask myself?)
This first volume of 4 contains 13 stories from the years 1888-1891. Table of contents for ardent Chekhovians below.
I’d only previously read one – The Bet, in which dinner party conversation turns to a debate on the death penalty vs life imprisonment. A young lawyer opines as follows: The death sentence and the life sentence are equally immoral. But, if I had to choose between them, I’d certainly choose the second. Any kind of life is better than no life at all. At which point a wealthy banker offers him 2 million roubles to voluntarily submit to 15 years of solitary confinement. He accepts and spends the next 15 years reading any and everything that takes his fancy. What’s the outcome? An unexpected drama with a surprisingly wise outcome.
Chekhov is very knowing – physicians generally are, coming into contact with the wide span of humankind – but his eye is not always kindly. While the upper classes in the form of the The Princess are lambasted with the harshest of criticism (though she is as impervious to it as a duck is to water.), so too are the attitudes of the bullying women abusers of the peasant classes.
The emotional turmoil I experienced during The Steppe is insignificant to the distress experienced by the hosts of The Party whose day descends by degrees from comfortable, if superficial, contentment to heart-wrenching personal tragedy. Life is fragile …
… and death something to which we must become reconciled. That this theme occurs again and again should not surprise. In 1884, at the age of just 24, Chekhov contracted tuberculosis and so, the transience of life was bound to occupy his thoughts. In Gusev he deals directly with death through consumption as a ship full of sick decommissioned soldiers makes it way back to Russia, although most of the passengers, including the title character, won’t survive the journey. In A Dreary Story a terminally ill, elderly doctor faces his final six months of life. This story was a difficult – dreary, even – read, because of the doctor’s dawning realisation that life has already stripped him of his joy. He may have an illustrious reputation, but what use is that now? He has only one relationship of value remaining, and events are conspiring to rob him of that also …. Death, when it comes, will be a relief.
Cheery stuff, isn’t it? Amazing that I found these stories so addictive. Perhaps that’s because I found Chekhov’s vision to be true.
But to end on a lighter note – if a story about the devil and a man’s soul can be said to be light material – it’s not every day that the man gets the upper hand, but the cobbler in The Cobbler and the Devil does just that – and all without the deus ex machina that Goethe used to get Faust out of a bind. Yes, I smiled at that.
Thoughts on volume two to follow shortly.