The Essential Tales of Chekhov by Anton Chekhov
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I finally read Chekhov because Francine Prose said I should. In her excellent Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them, Prose venerates Chekhov as the writer’s writer, the master of human emotion, keen observation and the devastatingly well-placed detail.
Prose offers Chekhov as a writer of superhuman intellect and heart. She writes, ““By the time Chekhov died of tuberculosis at the age of forty-four, he had written, in addition to his plays, approximately six hundred short stories. He was also a medical doctor. He supervised the construction of clinics and schools, he was active in the Moscow Art Theatre, he married the famous actress Olga Knipper, he visited the infamous prison on Sakhalin Island and wrote a book about that.” (Prose 243) I happen to be 44 and suddenly feel like a slacker. I had to take a look.
Prose devotes an entire chapter to “Learning from Chekhov”. From Chekhov’s letters, “You are right in demanding that an artist should take an intelligent attitude to his work, but you confuse two things: solving a problem and stating a problem correctly. It is only the second that is obligatory for the artist.” (Prose 245) I was intrigued by the proposition that writers shouldn’t aim to solve problems but only ensure that the problem is properly stated.
And then this from Chekhov’s letters, “It is time for writers to admit that nothing in this world makes sense. Only fools and charlatans think they know and understand everything.” (Prose 246)
Having read Prose, I understood that I was supposed to love Chekhov and love him deeply. I picked up The Essential Tales of Chekhov (Richard Ford, editor) thinking myself ready to love. The actual experience was something else. Not love. Remote admiration, perhaps. Confused esteem. Chekhov, it turns out, is very Russian. He writes about thoughts and feelings so fine, so nuanced and mature that I revert to a confused, naive youngster. After all, I’m only 44. What’s this story about? Love. Passion. Disappointment. And also something more. It is the something more I could not grasp.
There are, to be sure, clear moments of brilliance. There are many more moments that sail entirely over my head. I’m not grown up enough, or cultured enough or, perhaps, Russian enough.
Chekhov had always been presented to me as the master of showing not telling, but in the stories I read he tells more often than shows. The fascinating thing about Chekhov is where he starts and stops his stories. He does not begin with catastrophe and he does not end with resolution. The beginning and end are more ambiguous. We meet characters in the middle of their situations and leave them before they understand their situations for themselves.
Chekhov, to me, seems the forefather of flash fiction. Stories told quickly in a rush that isn’t actual impatience but an attention to weird, unexpected detail that alludes to bigger truths off-page.
You can, it turns out, appreciate Chekhov without exactly loving him. If you get the chance to read for yourself, I recommend “Hush!”, “An Anonymous Story” and “The Lady with the Dog”.
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