The Book Group reads Chekhov short stories

Anton Chekhov, The Lady with the Little Dog and other stories, 1896–1904 (translated by Ronald Wilks, Penguin 2002)

I was enthralled by The Brothers Karamazov when I was 16 – the Grand Inquisitor raised the hairs on the back of my Catholic neck – but have so far managed to read very little of other 19th century Russian writers. The Book Group made me read Anna Karenina a while back, and now it’s Chekhov.

Before the meeting:
Knowing that Chekhov is one of the masters of the short story, I was vaguely expecting a display of virtuosity – cleverly constructed mechanisms with twists in the tail, perhaps, like O Henry’s ‘The Gift of the Magi’ only profound. The stories in this late collection aren’t like that at all. (I don’t know about his earlier stories, and it would probably have been better to start with some of them.)

To generalise, the stories are studies in Russian provincial life at the turn of the twentieth century. It’s hard if not impossible to read them now without an awareness that the Communist revolution was on the horizon. Chekhov’s picture of the oppression of the peasants, the hand-wringing of liberal land-owners and the viciousness of others, the flailing about of the intellectuals, and the way the economic and social system stifles and corrupts everyone, clearly reflects a world ripe for revolution. Not that he calls for revolution, but he does lay out the inadequacy of anything else on offer. These are stories, not tracts. They contain a lot of argument, but they don’t push a line – or if they do, it’s in terms that have become impenetrable to this casual reader a century and a hemisphere away.

In ‘The House with the Mezzanine’, when a socially responsible woman chides the artist–narrator for having no interest in such matters as the creation of a clinic for peasants, he replies that on the contrary the question interests him a great deal, and in his opinion the peasants do not need a clinic:

‘To my mind, with things as they are, clinic, schools, libraries, dispensaries only serve to enslave people. The peasants are weighted down by a great chain and instead of breaking this chain you’re only adding new links … What matters is not Anna dying in childbirth, but that all these peasant Annas, Mavras and Pelageyas toil away from dawn to dusk and that this unremitting labour makes them ill. All their lives they go in fear and trembling for their sick and hungry children. … You come to their aid with hospitals and schools, but this doesn’t free them from their shackles.’

And he goes on. Up to the point where he starts talking about spirituality, he could be a hardline lefty of a couple of decades ago railing against reformism. In the story, the dilemma is not resolved. At the end the peasants are still suffering and the narrator, without explanation and perhaps symbolically, fails to find true love. (A while after I’d written that, I came across this quote from Chekhov’s correspondence:: ‘You … are confusing two concepts: the solution of a problem and the correct formulation of a problem. Only the second is required of the artist.’)

Or take this rant in ‘Gooseberries’, in which a character is talking about his brother, who chose to live a contented life on a small farm. It could be 21st century polemic against the self-help industry:

It’s obvious that the happy man feels contented only because the unhappy ones bear their burden without saying a word: if it weren’t for their silence, happiness would be quite impossible. It’s a kind of mass hypnosis. Someone ought to stand with a hammer at the door of every happy contented man, continually banging on it to remind him that there are unhappy people around and that however happy he may be at the time, sooner or later life will show him its claws and disaster will overtake him in the form of illness, poverty, bereavement and there will be no one to hear or see him. But there isn’t anyone holding a hammer, so our happy man goes his own sweet way and is only gently ruffled by life’s trivial cares, as an aspen is ruffled by the breeze. All’s well as far as he’s concerned.

There’s a lot of grim humour. The wedding celebration in ‘In the Ravine’ could have been the inspiration for Jack Hibberd’s Dimboola – but audiences laugh at the latter, while any laughs at the former are tinged with despair and disgust. And the stakes are raised by the peasants outside, one of whom shouts, ‘You’ve sucked us dry, you rotten bastards. You can all go to hell!’ That moment, of course, quickly passes as the peasants too join the celebratory mood. But the reader has been warned.

Chekhov isn’t one of those writers who ties everything up in a neat little bow. In ‘In the Ravine’ when a baby is murdered, his mother is blamed and the murderer goes free – but we are given no explanation for the mother’s failure to defend herself or other people’s silence about the cruel injustice. ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’ is a love story. Instead of ‘happily ever after’, it ends, ‘ And both of them clearly realised that the end was far, far away and that the most complicated and difficult part was only just beginning.’ Which is my sense of what all the stories are saying, about everything.

I’ve seen Eudora Welty quoted on the Internet as saying, ‘Reading Chekhov was just like the angels singing to me.’ That transforms my sense of what an angel can be.

The meeting: This meeting was postponed a number of times because I was hosting it and I was down with a heavy cold. As a result, most people’s recollection of the stories wasn’t very precise, but we’d had time to absorb them – in particular I had read some new Australian short stories (about which I’ll post separately), and my appreciation of the Chekhov had grown with the comparison. A big impediment to our discussion was that, as it turned out, we’d read different books: three of us had read The Lady with the Little Dog and other stories, 1896–1904. Others had read Lady with Lapdog and other stories, translated by David Magarshack, which contains a different set of stories (damn you, Penguin, for giving different books almost identical names!). The only stories in both books are ‘The House with an Attic’ aka ‘The House with the Mezzanine’, ‘Ionych’, and ‘Lady with Lapdog’ aka ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’.

We had a lively discussion. I think Chekhov was a bit of a surprise for everyone – not enough story for one chap (who thought the title of ‘A Boring Story’ said everything that needed to be said about it), a bit on the grim side for another, surprisingly modern in his discontinuities and sexual morality, surprisingly not, or not always, about the sufferings of the peasants.  At one stage, for the benefit of someone who hadn’t read it, I gave a synopsis of ‘The House with the Mezzanine’. It seemed a bit on the incoherent side, and then someone realised that I’d thrown in a key scene from another story altogether. Will I ever be trusted again?

Since the meeting, I found ‘A Dreary Story‘ on the internet in Constance Garnett’s translation (I think). There’s a wonderful passage near the beginning that could have been about me:

 I write poorly. That bit of my brain which presides over the faculty of authorship refuses to work. My memory has grown weak; there is a lack of sequence in my ideas, and when I put them on paper it always seems to me that I have lost the instinct for their organic connection; my construction is monotonous; my language is poor and timid. Often I write what I do not mean; I have forgotten the beginning when I am writing the end. Often I forget ordinary words, and I always have to waste a great deal of energy in avoiding superfluous phrases and unnecessary parentheses in my letters, both unmistakable proofs of a decline in mental activity. And it is noteworthy that the simpler the letter the more painful the effort to write it.

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