Anton Chekhov is known as a master storyteller, so it seems natural that I should try and read some of his stories. I recently picked up a copy of Chekhov's Selected Stories, which contains twenty of his short stories. Over the weekend I read the first three, and hope to work my way through the book over the course of the Summer. Many are quite short, so it should be easy to dip into them. Of course I have a small stack of books of short stories next to my bed with the same intention to read those as well.
Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) was Russian. He was a doctor as well as a writer and playwright and once said "medicine is my lawful wife, and literature my mistress". Apparently his work is considered highly innovative and influential, and he anticipated techniques used by later modernist writers. I thought it interesting that he left much of the work to the reader, insisting the job of the writer was to pose questions not answer them (actually I rather like that!).
This edition of stories has an excellent introduction with lots of information to consider when reading the stories. I think it may make more sense after I've actually completed the book, but it has given me some things to think about as I begin. During Chekhov's lifetime Russia (like so many countries at this time) underwent a rapid change from an agrarian society to an industrial one. Chekhov had a "democratic worldview where no one was excluded". His writing included all types of characters from all walks of life.
"...Chekhov whispers of freedom, human potential and dignity. His art is a continuing and heroic creative act in the face of malevolent nature and nihilism. The creative act is an emanation of freedom. Though creation needs materiel (a preexisting cultural context), it itself is unprecedented; this is the freedom that gives it unique life. Though freedom, human communion, conscience and love are rare in Chekhov's world, he implicitly accentuates their value by showing their scarcity."
I guess that means there aren't going to be a lot of happy times in these stories? I do like what the editor had to say about women in his stories, though:
"Chekhov's deep understanding of the unequal treatment of women and his awareness that such repression deprives society of a source of energy, creativity and well-being are part of what mark him as a modernist. Nowhere in his works does he privilege one gender over another."
In "The Confession" a man has been promoted to cashier and given a small raise. He's so happy that everything and everyone he previously viewed pessimistically, he now views through "rose colored glasses". All of a sudden however, everyone is spending or borrowing the money he has yet to even earn. They all love and respect him now, he also takes on a certain glamor. In the end though, all the people who lauded and kissed him were also talking about him behind his back, claiming he was a thief and stole the money. It didn't stop them from taking advantage of him, though.
One sultry June day a peasant named Pavel goes poaching on a wealthy landowner's property in "He Understood". He spots a starling and takes several shots before hitting it. He's soon caught by the overseer and detained in the landlord's office. He spends hours there wondering if he'll ever be released, much like a wasp that keeps butting against a window trying to get out. Eventually the angry master comes to question him, pointing out that a starling can't even provide a meal and it was a senseless and sad killing. Pavel insists that he couldn't help himself. Like an alcoholic that can't say no to a drink, so he couldn't say no to hunting. Understanding, the master lets him go.
"At Sea: A Sailor's Story" is a rather surprising story of two rather dissolute sailors--father and son, who win the "honor" of looking through two peepholes drilled into the wall of a cabin that happens to be occupied by honeymooners. What happens in their cabin is slightly shocking, but in a way that you might not exactly imagine.
The stories are arranged in the order they were written starting from 1883 and the last one written in 1898. I'm looking forward to seeing how Chekhov's work develops. Although I don't plan on doing this in this case, I was thinking how interesting it would be to read a biography of an author and also read his work as it is discussed in the biography at the same time. Wouldn't that be very illuminating? If only I had time to work on all the reading projects I have in mind.
One last note--I love the illustration on the book cover. It is a painting by KonstantinYuon (1875-1958) called "Evening in August". If you click on it, it will enlarge slightly and you can see the detail. It's a lovely room with the windows open and the sunlight streaming in. There is tea poured and flowers on the table (no doubt they smell wonderful) and yes, there is a little stack of books on the edge as well. If you look out the windows everything is bright and green. It's a picture I wish I could just walk into!