Saturday, February 17, 2007

Chekhov

I've had my edition of The Portable Chekhov since I was a senior in college (1991). Along with Gogol's Dead Souls, it was among the assigned reading for a course covering Russian history up to 1915. I remember reading some of the stories at the time (and possibly even some of the Gogol; I wasn't the world's most diligent student), but not anywhere near all of them. In the intervening years, I've pulled the book out on occasion to read a story or two, but for the most part it's sat on my shelves, mocking me.

Then last year, a post by Bud Parr at Chekhov's Mistress about the story "The Kiss" prompted me to look at it again. I was pleased to see that my edition had that story; I read it, and I liked it. I decided to return to the beginning of the book and read it straight through, but I had a hard time of it. Some stories I liked, but a lot of them seemed, well, lesser than I was expecting. Again and again, I put the book aside in favor of something else. Also last year, at a fire sale for a local crap bookstore going out of business, I bought the NYRB edition of Peasants and Other Stories, a collection of late Chekhov stories originally selected and introduced by Edmund Wilson in 1956. There is very little overlap between the two books (only two stories).

Last week, I was struggling through a couple of the shorter pieces in the Portable collection, wondering again what all the fuss was about this Chekhov guy. Some of these stories were mildly amusing, others annoying. In the middle of one such story, I tossed the book aside and picked up the other one to read Wilson's introduction. In it, he explains that all too often editions of Chekhov's work have not been chronological in nature: "You get humorous sketches from his earliest phase, when he was writing for the comic papers, side by side with his most serious stories; and the various periods of this serious work are themselves all jumbled together. . . " This, he writes, "has always been a serious obstacle" for those trying to understand Chekhov via English translations. Here he offers the longer stories from Chekhov's late period, but omits "the more anecdotal ones with which they are interspersed" (in a footnote he offers the full list of works from this period and says parenthetically that "If anyone should set out to read these consecutively in Constance Garnett's edition, he would be put to considerable inconvenience").

I felt I knew what Wilson was talking about. Though The Portable Chekhov is presented in chronological order, it nevertheless packs in so many different kinds of his work that I found it hard to read from piece to piece. Some of the comic stories are so broad and, well, obvious, that it makes sense that they appeared in newspapers. They're often rather tedious, a fact only barely mitigated by their brevity.

All of which is a long preamble to my saying that I think I finally understand what's so special about Chekhov. After reading Wilson's introduction, I decided to try the stories in Peasants. I'm glad I did. So far I've read the first three stories in the collection--"A Woman's Kingdom", "Three Years", and "The Murder"--and they're excellent. In general, these stories are much longer than the earlier ones (at 106 pages, "Three Years" is really a short novel). I've often read that Chekhov is credited with "inventing the modern short story", and certainly the form of these stories still seems to be the basic template followed by so many writers today--slice of life stories, with no resolution or judgment. Each story presents the social life of a particular milieu, the narrator subtly moving from character to character, describing in precise detail the thoughts and impressions of each, and even minor characters are given their due, with stories and personalities sketched in, with a natural-seeming ease, making us feel as if we do indeed know them.

In "Three Years", my favorite of the three, the central characters are Laptev and his wife Yulia, who married him out of some strange sense of obligation, but not for love or money. Both characters are confused about their lives--why have they made the decisions they've made?--and they feel trapped. Laptev is rich, but has nothing but contempt for his wealth and resentment for the abuse he suffered as a child, though by the end, his father's and brother's health failing, he is moving closer to taking on the role of head of the company they own. Toward the end of the story, Laptev again considers his life and surroundings, and finds them both essentially unchanged since childhood; he wonders that he should be unable to alter it:
Laptev went into the garden and sat down on a seat near the fence, which divided them from the neighbor's yard, where there was a garden, too. The bird cherry was in bloom. Laptev remembered that the tree had been gnarled and just as big when he was a child, and had not changed at all since then. Every corner of the garden and of the yard recalled the faraway past. And in his childhood, too, just as now, the whole yard bathed in moonlight could be seen through the sparse trees, the shadows had been mysterious and forbidding, a black dog had lain in the middle of the yard, and the clerks' windows had stood wide open. And all these were cheerless memories.

[...]

Laptev was convinced that the millions and the business which was so distasteful to him were ruining his life and would make him a complete slave. He imagined how, little by little, he would grow accustomed to his position; would, little by little, enter into the part of the head of a great firm; would begin to grow dull and old, die in the end, as the average man usually does die, in a decrepit, soured old age, making everyone about him miserable and depressed. But what hindered him from giving up those millions and that business and leaving that yard and garden which had been hateful to him from his childhood?
He imagines leaving, changing his life:
His heart ached sweetly with the foretaste of freedom; he laughed joyously and pictured how exquisite, poetical, and even holy, life might be. . . .

But he still stood and did not go away, and kept asking himself: "What keeps me here?" And he felt angry with himself and with the black dog, which still lay stretched on the stone yard, instead of running off to the open country, to the woods, where it would have been free and happy. It was clear that that dog and he were prevented from leaving the yard by the same thing; the habit of bondage, or servitude. . . .
I think these passages are beautiful, finely controlled; and this story is one of the finer shorter pieces of fiction I've read. I can't wait to get to the rest of the stories in this collection.

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