Ted's Reviews > Selected Stories

Selected Stories by Anton Chekhov
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Nov 29, 14

bookshelves: lit-russian, short-stories, classics
Read from January 24 to July 17, 2012

The stories in this collection (translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky) were written in the period 1883 to 1903. They appear to be set in the "present" - that is, they are tales of Russia and her people as things were in the last few decades of the 1800s. Chekhov's overall view of life, as revealed in the stories, is that the lot of man and woman is an unhappy one. This is true whether one is a peasant or a well off doctor, bishop, aristocrat, land owner, student ... whatever. The circumstances differ, the goods and evils of life vary from case to case, the balance figures differently from one man or woman to the next, but ultimately if we ask of each life "was it worth living?", Chekhov seems to say "perhaps, very marginally ... but at any rate that's all we have, so we soldier on, taking the bitter with the sour, and accepting (when we analyze things properly), that whether we have tried to do good to our fellow men or the opposite, the effect is pretty much the same".

Several stories from the last few years of the 19th century have very similar themes, contrasting the "happy, well-off" few to the miserable many. The way the stories play out, we are given pause to consider if the happy few perhaps in the end are the worst off, at least considered from the points of view that Chekhov develops. Such are, for example, the three stories written in 1898: "The Man In A Case", "Gooseberries" and "A Medical Case". In some stories (example, "The Fiancee") the protagonist appears to have averted disaster and to be headed for a fortunate future. But this has only been accomplished by, pretty much unwittingly, destroying the lives of others.

Like any selection of short stories by a good author, they are "uneven", which really means little more than "some affected me more than others". One which was perhaps very skillfully written, even though I was ultimately bored by it, was a story called ... "A Boring Story"! At over 60 pages, it was just about the longest story in the book, and was ... boring - at least to me.

I thought some of the best stories were "Sleepy", "Gusev", "Peasant Women", "Ward No. 6", "The Black Monk" and "At Christmastime". Of these, "Sleepy" struck me as one of the most horrifying stories I have ever read, all six pages of it. "Ward No. 6", a much longer story at over 50 pages, is a magnificent tale of the way in which two good men, through no fault of their own, can be dealt shockingly bad hands by life. "The Black Monk" is an astounding story that in my opinion fully deserves the description of magical realism. "At Christmastime" (another only six pages long) is wrenchingly sad, and the fact that it is an utterly common-place and completely believable story is what rescues it from being simply maudlin.

Chekhov is certainly not the only author to write short stories which express a basically pessimistic attitude about the human condition, in fact I would say that most short stories by good authors are more down-beat than otherwise. But Chekhov is a master story teller, and even if his outlook is not uniquely his own, the craftsmanship of the stories is.

Highly recommended to anyone who enjoys wonderfully written short fiction.


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Comments (showing 1-21 of 21) (21 new)

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message 1: by Scribble (new) - added it

Scribble Orca I have started reading these (on and off) and he is truly a master of the short story, as you write. Maciek recommended him to me as a study and so far I've been nothing short of impressed.

And I'm surprised more notice hasn't been paid your review, because you exactly pin point why Chekhov deserves attention. Thank you, Ted.


message 2: by Kalliope (new)

Kalliope I read Chekhov years and years ago. I should go back to them. I think I also have a bio by Henri Troyat.

Very inviting review, Ted.


message 3: by Ted (last edited Mar 02, 2013 08:08AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ted Scribble, Kalliope - Thanks much for the compliments. I usually find it hard to review fiction, but these stories impressed me so much that I wanted to try saying something intelligent about them.

This translation is of course by the current stars of Russian translation. I also have the book The Complete Short Novels, translated by the same pair, but I have not read it yet. (It may not even be on my to-read shelf, I need to check.)


message 4: by Kalliope (new)

Kalliope Ted wrote: "Scribble, Kalliope - Thanks much for the compliments. I usually find it hard to review fiction, but these stories impressed me so much that I wanted to try saying something intelligent about them...."

Yes, before I knew about this couple translating the Russians I would always read Russian literature in French (avoiding both Spanish and English translations).


message 5: by Ted (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ted Kalliope wrote "I would always read Russian literature in French (avoiding both Spanish and English translations)"

Well, being a typical American, I'm pretty much mono-linguistic.

I've been very interested since joining Goodreads to observe how my own view of the importance of translation issues has changed. I would usually try to get recommended English translations of foreign works, if I was aware of such recommendations. But I wouldn't go looking for them, and certainly had no one to ask that I personally knew. That has really all changed since I've become friends with so many non-U.S. readers.


message 6: by Fionnuala (last edited Nov 29, 2014 08:56AM) (new)

Fionnuala ... in fact I would say that most short stories by good authors are more down-beat than otherwise

Not a thought I'd ever formulated to myself before, Ted, but I absoluely agree with you. Now, why is that, I wonder....


message 7: by Garima (new)

Garima Chekhov is a master story teller, and even if his outlook is not uniquely his own, the craftsmanship of the stories is.

Very well said! Wonderful review, Ted.


message 8: by Ted (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ted Fionnuala wrote: "... in fact I would say that most short stories by good authors are more down-beat than otherwise

Not a thought I'd ever formulated to myself before, Ted, but I absoluely agree with you. Now, why ..."


My theory would be that, aside from intentionally funny stories, it's easier to find something interesting to say about the human condition which is down-beat rather than up-beat? I mean there are many things that are uplifting - but many more that are the opposite.

Maybe even most good writers are drawn to this, as opposed to uplifting things?


message 9: by Ted (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ted Garima wrote: "Chekhov is a master story teller, and even if his outlook is not uniquely his own, the craftsmanship of the stories is.

Very well said! Wonderful review, Ted."


Thanks, Garima.


message 10: by Praj (last edited Nov 29, 2014 11:01AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Praj Chekhov can make barren trees sing bizarre yet melodious tunes while hinting the darkness of realism. The undertones of hilarity meshing with boisterous cynicism are stunning. Reading your eloquent write-up on Chekhov’s work made me think of re-visiting Chekhov, soon. Thank you, for bringing to my notice, the books that need to be opened once again.


message 11: by Ted (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ted Praj wrote: "Chekhov can make barren trees sing bizarre yet melodious tunes while hinting the darkness of realism. The undertones of hilarity meshing with boisterous cynicism are stunning. Reading your eloquen..."

I'd wish I'd written those first two sentences in the review Praj. Of course my prose is not melodic enough, but that's okay. I'm overjoyed with being complimented by such as you, and many other friends whose opinion means so much to me. ;}


message 12: by Fionnuala (new)

Fionnuala Ted wrote: "My theory would be that, aside from intentionally funny stories, it's easier to find something interesting to say about the human condition which is down-beat rather than up-beat? I mean there are many things that are uplifting - but many more that are the opposite.
Maybe even most good writers are drawn to this, as opposed to uplifting things? ."


You're right there but why is this more the case in short stories than in novels? Is it that the short story, if it is light in tone, might not be taken seriously? Might be considered as frivolous? For children? I don't know...

PS, I think your prose is pretty perfect, Ted.


message 13: by Ted (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ted Fionnuala wrote: "Ted wrote: "My theory would be that, aside from intentionally funny stories, it's easier to find something interesting to say about the human condition which is down-beat rather than up-beat? I mea..."

Hadn't thought of how the observation might not apply (or even whether it applies) to longer fiction. I see your quandary. Seems like a dense question which I have no qualification to attempt answering. And thanks for the pretty unique complement about my prose! 8}


message 14: by Jan-Maat (new)

Jan-Maat hmm, I find that Chekhov stories can be both down beat and uplifting Lady with lap dog for instance, the ending of in the ravine in which there is survival despite a horrible set of events in a devastated semi-industrial landscape.

Dunno, I always put it down to Chekhov being a doctor in the days before antibiotics! ;)


message 15: by Ted (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ted Jan-Maat wrote: "hmm, I find that Chekhov stories can be both down beat and uplifting Lady with lap dog for instance, the ending of in the ravine in which there is survival despite a horrible set of events in a de..."

That's a good point about his being a doctor, Jan. That would be a pretty good reason for being particularly attuned to the bad stuff that can happen to people in life, even when one is from the more fortunate classes.

(view spoiler)


message 16: by Praj (last edited Nov 29, 2014 12:31PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Praj Ted, I agree with Fionnuala! Your prose is perfect with the apt dose of lyricism and astute analytical precision.


message 17: by Jan-Maat (new)

Jan-Maat Ted wrote: "even when one is from the more fortunate classes."

Yes, I think the little dog is the lap dog. I've always found it an uplifting story - maybe that's just me.


message 18: by Ted (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ted Praj wrote: "Ted, I agree with Fionnuala! Your prose is perfect with the apt dose of lyricism and astute analytical precision."

thanks much, Praj. I tend to the opinion that there might be too much analytical whatever, and not enough of the lyrical whatsis ... but I can pretend that I've been convinced by the gracious words. :)


message 19: by Ted (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ted Jan-Maat wrote: "Ted wrote: "even when one is from the more fortunate classes."

Yes, I think the little dog is the lap dog. I've always found it an uplifting story - maybe that's just me."


Maybe I scanned it too fast. It didn't seem to have the setting you speak of, but I probably just missed it. I don't scan very well.


message 20: by Glenn (last edited Nov 30, 2014 04:47AM) (new)

Glenn Russell Fine review, Ted.

And those short excellent Chekhov novels are really neglected, such as The Duel, In the Ravine, Three Years, Peasants --- perhaps because they are, in many respects, simply too bleak. You mention Ward Number Six, which could qualify as one of these short novels.


message 21: by Ted (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ted Thanks Glenn. I have another (unread) P&V volume named The Complete Short Novels. These are in the 100-120 page range and include The Steppe, The Duel, The Story of an Unknown Man, Three Years & My Life.

The volume I reviewed here has three stories of 40-50 pages: A Boring Story, Ward No. 6 & In the Ravine.


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