Archive for the ‘chekhov anton’ Category


Translated from Russian by Ronald Bingley

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.


Folio Society Collected Stories of Anton Chekhov Volume 1

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.


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I’m pretty sure I said I’d read these last year, but what difference is another year, when you’ve been waiting for well over a decade on the TBR?

Which book(s) have you chosen for your first read(s) in 2018?

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Looking at my collection of unread and ignored volumes the other week made me feel guilty.  All that talent going to waste.  So I decided to meet the colour reading challenge head-on by taking an afternoon to digest some short stories (or novellas) with colours in the titles. 

This is what I pulled from the shelves: 

A colourful collection

From bottom to top:  Anton Chekhov – Anthology published by the Folio Society, Fighting It – Regi Claire, published by Two Raven’s Press; Collected Stories – Somerset Maugham, Everyman’s Library Edition; The Girl with the Golden Eyes – Honoré de Balzac, part of the Art of the Novella series published by Melville House Publishing.  

1835 – The Girl With The Golden Eyes – Honoré de Balzac.  (118 pages) I was left bemused by my first and (possibly my last) Balzac.  Lush, extravagant language almost baroque in its flourishes.  Savage biting criticism of  “the fierce impulses of the proletariat … the depraved interests that crush the lower and middle classes ..the cruelties of the artist’s thoughts … the excesses of pleasure constantly sought by the upper class – all these explain the normal ugliness of Parisian physiogomy”.    The story told is an ugly one too.  From the dust jacket:  “the story of a rich and ruthless young man caught up in an amorous entanglement with a mysterious beauty.  His control slipping, incest, homosexuality, sexual slavery and violence combine in what was then, and still remains, a shocking and taboo-breaking work”.  Had I read that before buying the book (which was purchased as I’m collecting the series), there’s no way it would have made it to my shelves.  In any event the story is by no means as explicit as the synopsis suggests to a modern audience, resulting in a  novella that manages to be seedy, surreal, melodramatic and boring at the same time and  I certainly don’t see myself diving further into the depths of Balzac’s 100-volume Human Comedy any time soon.

1894 The Black Monk – Anton Chekhov (29 pages)  Genius and madness are but a hair’s breadth from each other and that is certainly true in this story which charts the final two years in the life of artist Andrei Kovrin, a man blessed (plagued?) by the vision of a black monk  who tells Kovrin that he is one of God’s elect and warns him that the accompanying traits of “exaltation, enthusiasm, ecstasy” will not benefit his health.   The truth of those words unquestionable when Kovrin dies of a massive hemorrhage.  Tuberculosis or madness?  And the monk – is he a figment of an overactive imagination or an apparition with a 1000 year history.  It’s significant that the monk first appears after Kovrin has been walking through an orchard in whihc “a thick, black, acrid smoke was creeping over the ground and, curling round the trees” saving them from the frost.     I loved Chekhov’s control : the language, crisp and precise; the action vivid, three-dimensional; the meaning remaining ambiguous. 

The Lady and The DogClever, clever, clever man.  I just had to read more. 

As everyone who has spoken to me of Chekhov has mentioned The Lady with the Dog (1899) (15 pages) and there was a such  beautiful illustration of such in my Folio Society volume, how could I not?  And yes, I endorse all the recommendations made – this is a wonderful story, the first half of which reminded me strongly of Stefan Zweig’s Burning Secret (even if this was written some 15 years after Chekhov’s original).  The second half, though, surprising in the change of heart of the aging lothario and displaying once more an ambiguity of meaning and interpretation.  This is obviously a Chekhovian trademark and one I suspect that ensures the re-readability of his tales as does his use of language.  I particularly enjoyed the use of colour to show  both the changing spirits and feelings of the characters. The aging Dmitri’s hair is described as graying, and he often wears gray suits. Whereas the sea at Yalta,  the resort where the lovers meet,  is suffused with color as “the water was of a soft warm lilac hue, and there was a golden streak from the moon upon it.”  Life is about to veer away from the mundane.  There’s the promise of hope, optimism and enjoyment.

Got to say there’s a soft warm lilac hue in my heart when I contemplate reading the other 34 stories in this anthology.  What’s your advice – should I just dive in and lose myself or save them as treasures to be stored safely and brought out only on special occasions?

(Colourful stories – Part Two to follow)

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(T)he (S)hort (S)tory on (T)he (S)unday (S)alon

The Grasshopper by Anton Chekhov (1892)
Extracted from the Folio Society Anton Chekhov Anthology (2001)

 Mid-December already?  Where did 2008 go?  With only 3 weeks left, it’s time to make a sprint to the finish line of  my reading challenges.  The literary equivalent of a sprint being the short story and here I am sprinting with Chekhov to the end of the What An Animal! challenge.

My only previous experience of Chekhov was – confession time – a bad one.   Two years ago.   The Three Sisters at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, staged as part of the Edinburgh Festival.  Static, boring and not the ideal introduction to Chekhov, it would appear.  Best forgotten I’m told by those in the know.  In fact, I believe the word execrable was applied by some Chekhovians to that particular production.

It has still taken me two years to make a second sally into the world of Anton Chekhov, master of stage and short story.   Two years wasted it transpires because The Grasshopper entranced me from the very first.

All Olga Ivanovna’s friends and acquaintances were at her wedding.

“Look at him; isn’t it true that there is something about him?” she said to her friends,with a nod towards her husband, as though she wanted to explain why she was marrying a simple, very ordinary, and in no way remarkable man.

Within 50 words Chekhov has described the tensions that will pervade the whole narrative.  Olga Ivanovna, a social butterfly (Chekhov using the much less complimentary grasshopper metaphor), has married Dymov, 9 years her senior and a doctor of great promise.  He will make a name for himself in medical research – only the hard work, the long hours and the slog are still in front of him.  How will Olga handle the wait?

Obsession with celebrity and romance is nothing new it transpires and once the honeymoon period is over, Olga returns to her artistic circle to be seduced by the irresistible romantic flourishes of the artist Ryabovsky.

I feel  that I am in your power.  I am a slave. Why are you so enchanting today?

The Grasshopper is  the classic 19th century adulteress story – will the flighty Olga learn the difference between seduction and true love and if so, will she do so in time?  In terms of characterisation, Chekhov’s story has more in common with Flaubert’s Madame Bovary than Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina but with details and an ending sufficiently divergent to render it an original in the canon of a popular 19th century theme.

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