Thursday, July 14, 2011

Reading Chekhov in the Rain

I have laid Henry James' The Ambassadors aside today (but just for today, I tell you) in order to read some Chekhov stories. I have a business purpose behind reading Chekhov just now, but one should read him on a regular basis anyway. There's a thirteen-volume set of his complete stories that I might like for Christmas, if anyone I live with is reading this post. Just saying, as the kids say.

Where was I? Oh, my Anton. So far today I've read "Death of a Government Clerk," "Sergeant Prishibeyev," "Kashtanka" and the first part of "The Grasshopper." They are all different, they are all quite good, they are all Chekhov. I am not familiar enough with his work to know how his style developed over the years and over the course of his writing 1,000 or so stories so I can't say if the folktale quality of the first three of these stories has to do with them being from a particular period of his life. Certainly Chekhov rarely strayed far from the ironical voice of a self-aware and self-mocking 19th-century Russian, and that ironical self-mocking and loving but critical eye cast upon the Russian character is one of the enduring charms of reading Chekhov.

But some of his stories are more serious in tone, maybe more urbane, for lack of the actual word I want, than others. "The Lady With the Little Dog" is ironic without being ironical; the humor is more gentle, the beating heart of the characters more delicately and sympathetically exposed. In "The Grasshopper," Olga Ivanovna is a type, certainly, and you know right away that because she is weak and vain and self-absorbed she will do wicked things, but Chekhov uses some of his most gorgeous prose to tell her story:

On a still moonlit night in July Olga Ivanovna was standing on the deck of a Volga steamer and looking alternately at the water and at the picturesque banks. Beside her was Ryabovsky, telling her that the black shadows on the water were not shadows, but a dream, that it would be sweet to sink into forgetfulness, to die, to become a memory in the sight of that enchanted water with the fantastic glimmer, in sight of the fathomless sky and the mournful, dreamy shores that told of the vanity of our life and of the existence of something higher, blessed, and eternal. The past was vulgar and uninteresting, the future was trivial, and that marvellous night, unique in a lifetime, would soon be over, would blend with eternity; then, why live?

And Olga Ivanovna listened alternately to Ryabovsky's voice and the silence of the night, and she thought of being immortal and never dying. The turquoise colour of the water, such as she had never seen before, the sky, the river-banks, the black shadows, and the unaccountable joy that flooded her soul, all told her that she would make a great artist, and that somewhere in the distance, in the infinite space beyond the moonlight, success, glory, the love of the people, lay awaiting her. . . . When she gazed steadily without blinking into the distance, she seemed to see crowds of people and lights, to hear triumphant strains of music, cries of enthusiasm; she saw herself in a white dress as flowers showered upon her from all sides. She thought, too, that beside her, leaning with his elbows on the rail of the steamer, there was standing a real great man, a genius, one of God's elect. . . . All that he had created up to the present was fine, new, and extraordinary, but what he would create in time, when with maturity his rare talent reached its full development, would be astounding, immeasurably sublime; and that could be seen by his face, by his manner of expressing himself and his attitude to nature. He talked of shadows, of the tones of evening, of the moonlight, in a special way, in a language of his own, so that one could not help feeling the fascination of his power over nature. He was very handsome, original, and his life, free, independent, aloof from all common cares, was like the life of a bird.

That, kids, is great stuff and no mistaking. Another thing about Chekhov that makes him worth returning to often is that no matter how naive the surface of his stories, no matter how simple his characters (Olenka, the protagonist in "The Darling" sweeps to mind), there is something more--usually several layers of something more--waiting under the surface for the reader. I don't want to sound like too much of a cranky old man, but a lot of today's short fiction writers could do well to spend some time with Mr Chekhov. Certainly I should. The pleasures of reading Anton Chekhov's stories are superior to the pleasures of reading almost anyone's short stories since his (I except, of course, the stories of Cheever and my pal Davin Malasarn, which amaze and annoy me with their superiority).

Anyway, go read Chekhov to see how it's done. Don't just read one story; the benefits accumulate quickly if you read them in groups of half a dozen or so. One cannot be a writer and remain unimproved after exposure to Anton's tales.


  1. I often tell myself that I need to study Chekhov more. I've read a few of his stories and seen a few of his plays, but not enough of either to really get a good sense of him. So many people whom I admire admire Checkov, which makes me think I should spend more time with him.

  2. Well, the world being a very ironic place, you might just hate Chekhov. I see a lot of similarities between your stories and his, but that might just be the way I read. I would suggest you find "Kashtanka" online (I'm sure it's out there) and give it a read. It's from the POV of a dog and has a surprising, Malasarnesque ending.

    Everyone should read Chekhov. Have you and I talked about Cheever? Have you read his stories? I may be about to go on a short story kick and avoid novels for a while. We'll see. I have collections from ZZ Packer, Lydia Davis, Raymond Carver, Thomas Mann, Miranda July, Alice Munro, Troy Nethercott and God knows who else all waiting for me. Maybe I'll spend the summer with shorts and settle into winter with Finnegans Wake.

  3. My first writing teacher told me my writing reminded her of Cheever's The Swimmer, so I read that and I liked it. It's the only Cheever short story I've read, though. About a month ago, I read his novel Falconer, which was pretty good. I've read several of Miranda July's stories. They surprised me by how good and emotional they were. I'll check out Kashtanka!

  4. "The Swimmer" is sort of the archtypal Cheever story and it's good but it's not my favorite. I like the way he draws characters and the subtle details he works in, and the blunt way he has of presenting truths. I've only read one of his novels (The Wapshot Chronicles) and it was funny but not brilliant, though the first page is absolutely beautiful in terms of imagery and language.