Ted's Reviews > Selected Stories

Selected Stories by Anton Chekhov
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Jul 17, 12

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 1900s. 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 1-5 of 5) (5 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.


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