This needs to be reviewed from three angles. On the first you have Anton Chekhov, the brilliant writer who gave us the enclosed short stories. But then you have Constance Garnett, who translated them into the language we can understand, and Stephen Fry giving all of it voice. That these people didn’t meet is unfathomable once you listen; Chekhov’s plotting, Garnett’s words and Fry’s voice meld into a quirky and sometimes slanted view of possibility. Fry’s musing tone perfectly compliments the passions and idiocies of characters trapped in tiny packets of plot. The end product is sublime.
In a few stories you’ll recognize Chekhov’s brilliance. With only necessary exposition he takes you into a premise (man wants a gun; man meets a beautiful woman), wraps you up in people defined by their desires (revenge, love, sex, dinner) and quirks (pretentions, cupidity, inadequacy). In less than a page a page (or less than two minutes in audiobook time) Chekhov gets the story going, which is an utterly lost art in today’s literary landscape. And his stories are slices of the human condition, idiosyncratic and entirely worthwhile. It’s a man who wants a gun, to kill his wife, his wife’s lover, or himself in grief. It’s two kids planning to run away to Africa. This is not slice of life, but slice of human desire, ambition, foolishness and fallibility. The good bits, kept brief.
How many of the phrases and how much of the slickness of prose is Chekhov’s or Garnett’s is harder to decipher. With Fry’s narrative ability, any possible clunkyness of Chekov’s composition or Garnett’s translation disappears. Fry has the ear for how people do speak and can speak; anywhere a simple reader might hear as awkward, he sees enunciation. Once you hear it, it’s hard to think of the short stories as anything but flawlessly conversational. If you know much about Chekhov, though, you’ll probably chalk that up to him and congratulate the translator and narrator on getting it right.