Reflections of an unhappy world

Anton Chekhov had an enviable career. Published at a young age, he found instant success. Soon, Chekhov was winning awards and being hailed by the likes of Tolstoy. In addition to his rare talent, Chekhov was prolific. He wrote over 200 short stories and authored eight plays. Yet, he wasn’t only a critical darling. His writing was popular with the regular people he wrote about. By the time of his death at age 44, Chekhov was considered a national treasure of Russia.

Book cover Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov
Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov
Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
496 pages
Published in 2000

Posthumously, his fame would increase. Chekhov’s first admirers in the West included James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Today, critics rank Chekhov among history’s greatest writers. His presence is felt in the shows we watch on Netflix and HBO, and in popular novels. Chekhov’s cool, detached style is there. Many believe Chekhov to be the father of the modern story.

If Faustian bargains were possible, Chekhov’s success would be a model case.

Taking this absurd notion one step further, within all of Chekhov’s worldly success, the Devil included a thorn. Chekhov’s stories are often not likable. Exquisitely crafted, well-paced, articulate, stimulating; Chekhov’s stories are all of these, but rarely simply enjoyable.

As we’ll see below, Chekhov’s prime goal isn’t to please us. Chekhov, the famed doctor, seeks to improve the reader by administering bitter medicine. Every serious writer hopes to improve humanity. Too often, Chekhov makes it the purpose rather than allowing it to be the side-effect of a graceful story that spontaneously inspires.

I say this as a great admirer of Chekhov and owner of a dozen collections in various English translations. Like other writer-types, I’ve long viewed Chekhov as the gold standard of fiction writers. He imbued his stories with subtlety and impartiality. His stories shined. He faded into the background. It’s how writing should be.

If Faustian bargains were possible, Chekhov’s success would be a model case.

Then I read Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov, a newer collection translated by a well-known team. Was I missing something about Chekhov? It appeared so. Whether it was intended or not, this collection showcases Chekhov’s toughest stories, his darkest side. It’s not only in the selection of the thirty stories present. The way the stories are ordered builds tension, uncomfortably so. Half-way through, I hoped to encounter one of Chekhov’s lighter sketches, like “The Chorus Girl.” Instead, I would find “In the Ravine.”

Ardent fans know Chekhov’s stories can seem cold and indifferent. It’s a mark of objectivity, we believe. Only, after powering through the 500-page Selected Stories, I began to lose confidence that Chekhov was objective. I began to see Chekhov, not as an oracle hovering over the landscape of literature, but as a flawed man. His worldview became clear, and I didn’t like it. Even worse, I didn’t agree with it.

That I could see this dark worldview of Chekhov’s is a testament to Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the translators and compilers of this collection. Pevear and Volokhonsky deserve praise for concentrating Chekhov’s power in one book. There are so many collections floating around, it’s difficult to get a true picture of Chekhov’s writing. Mixed together will be sad tragedies, serio-comic sketches, and first-rate dramas. Who is the real Chekhov?

Selected Stories offers a decisive opinion. Chekhov could write a clever story, and yet, comedic writing isn’t the reason for his fame. It’s the darker, dramatic narratives which are in abundance here. If someone wants to discover the legendary Chekhov, for good or for ill, this is the book.

Perhaps Chekhov viewed his story element dispassionately, like chess pieces. Even still, lines of play exist that don’t require a valuable sacrifice to win. “Sleepy” is a rough, clumsy story reportedly written to make some quick money. What purpose does it serve in this collection, other than to foreshadow the dark themes that will come later?

Who is the real Chekhov? Selected Stories offers a decisive opinion.

Pevear and Volokhonsky don’t ignore Chekhov’s comedic side. They begin the collection with the absurd charm of “The Death of a Clerk.” In this story, an oversensitive office manager sneezes on a high-ranking official and literally drops dead of embarrassment. The simple premise reminded me of another story, not in this collection, “The Witch.” There, a man is convinced that his wife can control the weather. He believes this because handsome men keep knocking on their door during a storm.

We hear these plots and smile. This is Chekhov, I thought, the writer I was following and trying, in some small way, to emulate. He’s there. And yet, evidence from Selected Stories suggests, comedy is a minor part of Chekhov’s world. Where he gets going as a writer, where Chekhov really finds his swagger is in critiquing mankind, not satirizing it.

An early example of Chekhov’s pointed criticism is “Sleepy.” In this story, a young nanny is employed by an upper-class family. She feels the weight of expectations on her. The family is lazy and entitled. Their treatment of her is harsh and abusive. She can’t afford to sleep. She must perform. Finally, in a moment of delirious exhaustion, the nanny strangles the baby she’s tasked to care for, so she can finally get some rest.

I must admit, “Sleepy” ends with a story-breaking moment in my view. Although, I do acknowledge the shock-ending tradition that “Sleepy” follows. One could argue there’s a point to the child’s murder. Chekhov protests that the nanny, a day laborer, has no rights. Serfs have been freed in Russia, officially, but people like her are living the same life.

…where Chekhov really finds his swagger is in critiquing mankind, not satirizing it.

This leads us to “Gusev.” In this story, soldiers are being shipped back to Russia from the Far East. The reason? They’re too sick to stay in the military. Most will die before reaching home. The story takes place in the unpleasant belly of a hospital ship. Gusev hears a dead man thrown overboard, watches men die, and then he too dies. The narration follows Gusev as he’s sewn up in a canvas bag and thrown into the sea.

What’s remarkable is how the narrator refers to Gusev as an object that has disturbed the ocean’s routine. “The pilot fish are delighted.” A shark plays with the body. A magnificent sunset touches the sea, and “the ocean frowns at first” and then accepts its various colors. As a statement about the cyclical nature of death and renewal, the story has its moments. Most likely, Chekhov would not commit to such a blatant explanation and instead juxtaposed the body, the fish, and the sunset for being artistically pleasing.

Which is, of course, the purpose of art. Only, is this moment artistically pleasing? A man has died. He’s dumped into the ocean like refuse, his canvas bag weighed down by iron bars so his body won’t pop back to the surface. The reverence of a funeral is noticeably absent, replaced by the callousness of viewing him as an inconvenience to the ocean.

Readers want drama, conflict, a transformation. Do they want pessimism, or worse, fatalism?

Readers want drama, conflict, a transformation. Do they want pessimism, or worse, fatalism? Jane Austen, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky are still widely-read because their dramas lead to constructive outcomes. Chekhov is read by literary people and post-modernists who prefer to debate whether truly constructive outcomes exist. There are also those, like myself, who are drawn to Chekhov’s talent and tolerate his choices.

Over the years, a few critics have broken ranks. They accuse Chekhov of being a misanthrope, a dour cynic. They complain he doesn’t paint a bright picture when a dark one will do. He errs on the side of melancholy and treats hope as an indulgence. In his work, Chekhov seems satisfied with negative choices as if to say, life bears out this unsatisfactory view. It’s life’s fault.

Stories in the collection follow narrative types. An older man ruminates over his life and times (“Gooseberries;” “The Bishop”). A man learns a harsh lesson; he’s not great but a pawn in an ugly system (“Ward No. 6;” “The Black Monk”). The most lively stories are about a young woman matched to an older man with money, whom she doesn’t love and is not worthy of her beauty. This woman seeks to be free at any cost (“The Fidget;” “Anna on the Neck;” “The Fiancée”). Gaining freedom and realizing one’s potential is a theme in Chekhov’s plays. Chekhov also lived as a bachelor for most of his life. Though he was generous with his time as a country doctor and a philanthropist, he was a man in control. Perhaps Chekhov felt most strongly about this theme because the stories he wrote about the young, trapped woman resonate.

In “The Fidget,” a young wife falls into a bohemian lifestyle with small-time artists and grifters. The woman seeks a flaky painter’s commitment in order to leave her dutiful, hardworking husband, an esteemed physician, and scientist. The woman’s goal is to live an exciting life of substance. Suddenly, her husband dies after treating a patient with a contagious disease. He disregarded his safety to save another. The woman realizes the remarkable life was right under her nose with her husband. Instead, the woman wasted her time with con artists and drove her husband to selflessly forfeit his life.

Chekhov has a moralist’s eye when creating a plot but is sensational in the details.

Chekhov has a moralist’s eye when creating a plot but is sensational in the details. And so, he has it both ways. The plots have a certain piety, while the paragraphs are filled with the drama of obviously wrong choices. In “The Fidget,” Chekhov focuses on the chaos, the “sin” of the woman. The epiphany she has, as Joyce would term it, is almost an afterthought. It’s there, and it makes the story sound noble, but it has little weight.

“The Fiancee” is a similar story, written years after “The Fidget.” This young woman avoids marriage altogether. Convinced by a bohemian friend not to get married, the woman runs off to school in St. Petersburg without breaking her engagement to the older man. She claims her freedom at the expense of her grandmother and mother’s reputation, which lies in tatters in the small community. The young woman doesn’t pay much attention. She intends to live to the fullest and sees a bright future before her by the story’s end. (What a utopian future looked like in the 19th century for a young woman with no family connections, and no money, is the story’s unspoken problem.)

Chekhov’s trademark ambiguity is welcome, even necessary. Moral ambiguity brings mystery to fiction. It’s been said, “we revere heroes in real life and villains in stories.” Chekhov’s negative attitude creates an engine for conflict. Tolstoy was criticized for writing black-and-white narratives once he found religion. Chekhov does no such thing.

One could argue, Chekhov goes further than to present moral ambiguity. He often revels in it.

One could argue, Chekhov goes further than to present moral ambiguity. He often revels in it. He popularized the story structure that lacked clear character motives. He favored an uncertain, almost flat ending that said little to nothing. Today, Hollywood films and New York publishers use these methods to tell modern stories. Chekhov mined pulpy subjects familiar to us, including adultery, madness, sickness, murder, and suicide. Bucking the tradition of his day, Chekhov didn’t lead the reader to a clear outcome. He used charged emotional material and ended a story unresolved, full of despair. Chekhov was only comfortable with questions. If he were alive today, he could be writing for HBO.

The story that could become an HBO miniseries is “In the Ravine.” It has a loose narrative form, unfolding as a series of episodes. Overall, it’s a deep dive into a wealthy family’s dysfunction, including a beloved son who’s a counterfeiter, a deaf son who’s portrayed as incompetent, and the two women who marry them.

“In the Ravine” is set in requisite modernist ugliness, a dirty village marred by toxic runoff from local factories. As Chekhov describes, “It was a place of ever-present fever, and there was swampy mud even in summer, especially under the fences; over which old pussy-willows hung, casting broad shadows.” The main characters are odious specimens, a corrupt merchant family, underhanded, mercenary, and cruel. The family patriarch makes exorbitant profits by price-gouging the townspeople, all the while scoffing at the world.

The main characters are odious specimens, a corrupt merchant family, underhanded, mercenary and cruel.

Chekhov explores the conflict between goodness and selfishness, using religious language to describe the town’s struggle. The family patriarch is said to be persuaded by the devil who runs the village. The patriarch’s shrewd daughter-in-law comes to embody this satanic viewpoint. Later in the story, she throws a scalding bucket of water onto an infant, killing him. She does so to prevent the family heir from taking her place.

Rather than being brought to justice, the daughter-in-law is allowed to go free. The incident is covered up. The infant’s mother, a tender young woman who was matched into the family but is out of her depth, returns to her life as a day laborer. The shrewd daughter-in-law gains control of the store while the patriarch suffers a mental break over the death of his grandson. He becomes as weak and needy as the townspeople he once scorned. Chekhov once again achieves symmetry in the outcomes. The patriarch gets his comeuppance. Evil flourishes. The young mother who lost her son continues to be sweet and gentle, a note of grace in a dark town, and as Chekhov suggests, a dark life.

“In the Ravine” can be seen as the precursor to “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad,” where the storytellers analyze evil to such an extent that we forget why. The murder of the infant is exactly like in “Sleepy,” (now we know why it’s here). An innocent life is again traded to “raise the stakes” of a story. In Chekhov’s brutal choices, one can accept the realism that he presents. People can be cruel. Individuals can be subjugated by the powerful. Even still, a pure heart can hold on through wicked tragedy. It all makes sense.

The translators … clearly admire Chekhov. In their collection, they also expose Chekhov.

And yet, to what end? “In the Ravine” stretches to nearly 40 pages. All the hypocrisy, greed, and despair Chekhov can muster is presented in full. One can ask, “why,” but modern channels like HBO gives us the answer. Ugliness is fascinating to many people. Wickedness sells; only be sure to have a thread of redemption in there to keep people from feeling too gross. “In the Ravine” features dark characters and plot lines, seemingly, because. It’s the story the writer wanted to tell. Go with it. Baby, that’s art.

The translators Pevear and Volokhonsky clearly admire Chekhov. In their collection, they also expose Chekhov. Over the course of 30 stories and nearly 500 pages, the effect of Chekhov’s dramatic style can be wearying. It isn’t an original criticism of Chekhov but a longstanding one, and it hasn’t diminished the establishment’s enthusiasm for its favorite author. If anything, the aspiring writer and the intellectual reader agree with Chekhov’s outlook on life. Their reaction is an indifferent shrug. It’s life’s fault.

The third story about a woman who must escape, “Anna on the Neck,” ends quite differently. Anna stays married to the older man who doesn’t deserve her. Instead, she flips the script. After making a smash showing at a high society ball, Anna lands an opportunity to have an affair with a real man of power. In response, her older husband cowers under Anna’s newfound connections. Anna now runs the house and freely spends her husband’s money. It’s a fitting ending, one might say. The woman wields power and gets what she wanted. Only, Chekhov goes further. In becoming a woman of the world, Anna forgets her destitute family. Anna had hoped her miserly husband would help provide for them. Now that Anna is wealthy, she is too busy to remember her father and brothers. They watch from afar as she lives a life of envy.

Why would Chekhov add this ending? It’s a melancholy note in a story with a lot of unpleasantness already. It’s something Chekhov does when he doesn’t have to. He adds in a moment that knocks you senseless. His elegant writing style lulls you into a dreamy state, and then his pugnacious narrative choices leave you with bruises. Why?

A possible answer to Chekhov’s rough treatment of his reader lies in the story “Gooseberries.”

In this scene, a disillusioned man describes his jaundiced view of the world. He believes the people around him are selfishly happy. They eat, drink and sleep “while the horrors of life go on somewhere behind the scenes.” This man accuses people of not caring about the pain of others, but only of their own gratification. And he has a solution. “At the door of every contented, happy man somebody should stand with a little hammer, constantly tapping, to remind him that unhappy people exist, that however happy he may be, sooner or later life will show him its claws, some calamity will befall him——illness, poverty, loss——and nobody will hear or see, just as he doesn’t hear or see others now.”

Chekhov injures us, story after story, in order that we not smile while his kind suffers.

One can picture Chekhov standing by our heads while we read his stories, tapping the little hammer on our brows. His writing is filled with transcendence, and yet he punctuates it with contrarian views to inflict pain that he believes we’re avoiding. Chekhov injures us, story after story, in order that we not smile while his kind suffers.

What does it look like when Chekhov puts the hammer away? The standout of Selected Stories is “The Lady with the Little Dog.” It’s a psychological study of a banker and family man who routinely betrays his wife to feel alive in another woman’s arms. In his middle-aged years, the man meets and seduces a fresh young woman who is unhappily married. Instead of making a clean break afterward, the man finds himself inconveniently attracted to her. His age has left him thoughtful and indecisive. Finally, he allows himself to want true love.

The man’s usual goal of no-strings love is changed when he can’t let this very ordinary woman go. The woman feels the same, although her youth and lack of experience are a concern. Does she have the ability to choose this complex affair? Their connection is kept under wraps for years as they try to find a way to leave their real lives without actually doing so. It becomes clear, the man and woman have cursed each other by tempting a love that can never be real. They have no way forward and no way out.

When I opened Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov, I believed I would find a dozen stories like this, sad, romantic, and bittersweet. Neither the experienced banker nor the younger woman can navigate the love they started. As the years pass, moments together increasingly feel stolen. The story ends on a relatable note of self-deception. “And it seemed that, just a little more——and the solution would be found, and then a new, beautiful life would begin…” This is the Chekhov that truly inspires.

This post first appeared at The Writing Press.

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