Thursday, August 26, 2010
The Story on Thursday: Anton Chekhov
If we're going to talk about stories, then we are going to have to talk about Chekhov--he virtually created the short story, at least the short story as written today. Compressed, often focused on a single event or a single day, the modern story often ends on a note of irresolution.
Do hardship and suffering create the finest writers? If so, perhaps we should all be pursuing not happiness, but misery, which is arguably easier to find. A short history of Chekhov's life reveals great suffering and hardship; out of this came the most beautiful and profound stories ever written in any language. And Chekhov wrote around five hundred stories, from the comic to the sublime. Chekhov's grandfather was a serf who worked to buy his own and his family's freedom. Chekhov's father was strict, rigidly religious, and beat his children unmercifully. Initially Chekhov's father had some success, opening a grocery in the town of Taganrog; he soon became bankrupt, however, and moved the family to Moscow, leaving behind Anton, who supported the family at age sixteen, working as a tutor. Chekhov eventually was trained as a doctor; he referred to medicine as his lawful wife and writing as his mistress. Suffering from tuberculosis, mired in poverty, burdened with the support of his extended family, Chekhov began writing in order to earn money; not until he received encouragement and advice from a well-known Russian writer, D.V. Grigorovich, did Chekhov begin to view himself as an artist whose talent should be nurtured.
If you want to get to the heart of Chekhov, the best of his stories are the later ones. A few Chekhov stories are so famous as to almost need no mention: "The Darling," "The Lady with the Dog," "Gooseberries," and "Peasants" are so associated with Chekhov that they spring to mind with his name. Some of my personal favorites are "The Black Monk," "In the Ravine," "My Life," "A Woman's Kingdom," and "The Duel."
Constance Garnett is the translator of most of Chekhov's stories; more recently Richard Pevear and Larissa Volohonsky have offered newer translations of the work. If you haven't read Chekhov before and you'd like an excellent one-volume collection, Peasants and Other Stories, published by New York Books Classics is excellent, as are The Essential Tales of Chekhov, edited by Richard Ford, and The Complete Short Novels by Anton Chekhov translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volohonsky. I like the Modern Library three-volume collection edited by Shelby Foote, my favorite being Longer Stories of the Last Decade.
I hope I have convinced some of you short-story-loathers out there to give the story a chance. If not, I'll try again next Thursday....