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Anton Chekhov

This year is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Anton Chekhov, who is indisputably one of the greatest of all short story writers (the greatest, according to Raymond Carver), and who, with Ibsen and Strindberg, breathed new life into drama. And on top of all that, he is a great personal favourite of mine. It would be a shame to let this anniversary pass without celebrating it. Would anyone be on for a group read of one of his plays, and, say, some half dozen or so of his short stories? If so, I’d be happy to set one up. In the meantime, when I have a few minutes to spare, I’ll try to post some notes on Chekhov.

I would certainly be up for reading some short stories - not sure about plays, I am not a great one for reading plays, but it's not impossible that I could be persuaded!

But would certainly join in with a group read of some of his short stories.

I'll go for a short story or two. I have a collection on the shelf, but would have to dig it out to tell you which stories are in it!

Yes please to a short story or two - am finding my present book so detailed but fascinating I could do with a break.

Count me in too.

I'd love to join, play and/or short stories.


There are three volumes of Chekhov's short stories in Penguin Classics, each covering different phases in Chekhov's artistic career, but if we're looking for a single volume edition, it's perhaps best going for the recent much-acclaimed translations by Rosamund Bartlett:

We could pick a few stories from there.

I have Oxford Classics' "The Russian Master and other stories":-
    His wife
    A Lady with a Dog
    The Duel
    A Hard Case
    Concerning Love
    The Russian Master
    The Order of St Anne

Those are the Ronald Hingley translations (Hingley was editor & translator of the Oxford Chekhov).

The Bartlett edition has 4 stories in common with the Hingley edition you have - "A Hard Case" ("The Man in a Case" in Bartlett's translation), "Gooseberries",  "Concerning Love" ("About Love" in Bartlett's translation), and "The Lasy With a Dog" ("The Lady With the Little Dog" in Bartlett's translation).

The first three of these are linked stories: I don't really know these particular stories too well, so they may be good ones to read. "The Lady With the Little Dog" (or however you translate it) is among Chekhov's greatest masterpieces, and I'd certainly be on for that. It captures in just a few pages what other writers can't say in whole novels.

Since I don't own an anthology (as far as I know!), I will get the Bartlett volume, and perhaps we can read the four that overlap as a core group read, but some may also want to read others.  I am sure if we have a core of stories a few of us read together, there will also be scope for people to comment on other stories they have read too.

I suspect there may be older translations available online.

Hello Himadri,
I'll join the Cekhov reading group.
I have three volumes of his stories in the Modern Library edition containing 123 tales altogether, translated by Connie Garnett.  

1. Early Short Stories 1883-1888 (Contains the marvellous 'The Steppe' which is really a novella)
2. Later Short Stories 1888- 1903. (Contains the lovely 'The Darling' and 'The Lady With the Little Dog')
3. Longer Short Stories From The Last Decade.  (Contains 'Three Years' which I haven't read).
I've also unearthed a volume called 'Undiscovered Chekhov' which contains stories, all very short, never translated before 1997, by Anton when he was very young. Most of them are humorous squibs. The first story is called 'Sarah Bernhardt Comes To Town'.
I have a 1926 edition of his Letters also translated by CG.
I wonder which play we should read.  

I don’t know if it’s worthwhile making this too structured a group read. It seems that many people already have some volumes of short stories, and that everyone has a different selection. It would probably be a good idea if people were to read any short story they want, and post something up on here on it. And those of us who have access to that story may, if they want, read that story as well, and respond to it. That would be better than being prescriptive, and saying “We must all read such & such stories”.

I have quite a few different translations – by Constance Garnett (who, I am reliably informed, often captured the feel of the story, but was sometimes cavalier about accuracy); by Ann Dunnigan; by David Magarshack (a splendid collection in Penguin Classics that is now out of print); by Ronald Wilks; by Ronald Hingley; and the recent, much-acclaimed collection by Rosamund Bartlett. I think I have just about all the major ones in some translation or other.

So would everyone be OK with this?

Just one more thing: many of Chekhov’s earlier stories (i.e. those written in the early to mid 1880s) were really no more than comic sketches, and delightful though they are, they aren’t really, I think, representative of Chekhov the mature artist. I don’t know if we want to discuss these stories: there’s much to enjoy, but not really much to discuss.
As for his major stories, here are a few off the top of my head that I think are indispensable (this list is by no means comprehensive; and different translators often use different titles):

“The Kiss”, “The Steppe”, “The Name-Day Party”, “A Dreary Story” (now – there’s a title!), “Ward No 6”, “The Grasshopper”, “In the Ravine”, “Peasants”, “The Student”, “A Woman’s Kingdom”, “The Man in a Case”, “Gooseberries”, “About Love”, “The House with a Mansard”, “Anna Round the Neck”, “The Black Monk”, “Ionych”, “The Darling”, “Ariadne”, “Three Years”, “My Life”, “Lady With a Little Dog”, “The Betrothed”, “The Bishop”.

That should be enough to be getting on with!

As for the play, my own favourite is Three Sisters. Since you're the theatrical one, Mike, how would you fancy leading a group read of one of the plays?

There are many preconceptions about Chekhov’s short stories – not all of them, perhaps, entirely justified. One is that his stories are lyrical, but rather pallid, and that not much happens. Yes, Chekhov could be deeply poetical at times (one of his late stories, "The Bishop", reads almost like a prose poem); and many of the significant events are internal changes within the characters (as in "Ionych", say). But at times, the stories burst with external action also. In "Ward 6", a doctor has a nervous breakdown, is admitted to the psychiatric ward, and is subject to the horrendous brutality that he had done nothing to challenge earlier; in "The Black Monk", a young man is subject to hallucinations where a ghostly monk speaks to him; and "In the Ravine" has a climax as sickening and as horrific as anything I’ve encountered in Zola.

But generally, Chekhov is more interested in what happens inside a character. In "Ionych", say, one of his most perfect stories, there are hardly any incidents at all. A young doctor takes up his position in a provincial town, and, over time, loses what idealism and high spirits he had, and becomes middle-aged, fat, and obsessed with money. It is not merely one or two incidents that cause this change: it is an accumulation of many apparently trivial things happening over the years. And this is what Chekhov depicts: change so gradual that it is virtually imperceptible, but which happens all the same.

Sometimes, Chekhov deliberately avoids depiction of incident. In "The Black Monk", for instance, one of the most important incidents - where the husband tells his wife why he had really proposed to her - is mentioned casually in passing. Any other author would have made a huge dramatic climax out of a scene like that. Similarly in "Three Years": after spending two whole pages describing a nocturnal walk taken by a couple of subsidiary characters, Chekhov tells us in a couple of sentences of the death of principal characters’ child. And he doesn’t even bother telling us of the parents’ grief.

The reason for this is that Chekhov was not primarily interested in what we usually think of as plot, i.e. events and incidents. If something occurs, Chekhov focuses on what had led to the incident; the various reactions to the incident; and the effect the incident has on the development of the characters. The incident itself is comparatively unimportant. And if the reaction of the characters is obvious - e.g. in "Three Years", the grief of the Laptevs on losing their child - Chekhov doesn’t bother telling us. What, after all, is the point of telling the reader what they could easily work out for themselves? Similarly in "My Life": Misail’s reactions to his wife leaving him, or to the tragedy that occurs at the end, are hardly mentioned. All this makes the stories very difficult to read. Chekhov expects much from his readers, and refuses to spoon-feed.

Even in something like "The Black Monk" - which appears to be more Poe’s territory than Chekhov’s - we may see his familiar themes. The protagonist of this story is an academic, but is aware of his mediocrity, and frustrated. In recuperating from a nervous breakdown, he has visions of a ghostly monk who convinces him that he is, in some way, special, and elevated from the vulgar mediocrity around him. And these visions give his life a meaning it had otherwise lacked. Of course, this meaning is illusory; but without this illusion, what is there to sustain him?

Chekhov reflects sadly on the waste of human life, of how it appears to pass without adding anything of significance to life, or without even achieving a semblance of happiness or contentment. He muses on the imperceptible changes that drag everything down to the level of mediocrity and worse. Even a successful and brilliant man - like the narrator of "A Boring Story" - faces death alienated from all around him, even his own family. There is much sympathy for the characters: but Chekhov’s sympathy is not by any means all-encompassing. It is a cliché to talk of an "all-encompassing humanism": it is a cliché that does not apply to Chekhov. The old patriarch in "Three Years", say, is simply an exploiter and a tyrant, an excrescence who has poisoned the life of all around him. The principal character of "The Two Volodyas" is a shallow, stupid, vain woman without the slightest semblance of moral fibre. And so on. There is no reason to waste sympathy on them.

Sometimes, Chekhov plays with our sympathy. In "Anna Around the Neck", a young woman from an impoverished family is forced into a loveless marriage with a pompous, middle-aged, wealthy bureaucrat. To start with, all the sympathy is enlisted on behalf of this young woman, who is sacrificing herself for the sake of her family. But then, Chekhov turns the tables. This woman, being beautiful, charming, and young, becomes a hit in high society, and a great favourite of those with whom her husband tries to ingratiate himself. Once she realises what power she has, she takes control. She tells her husband to go boil his head (or words to that effect); and then, a darling of high society, she cuts her family, who remain as impoverished as before. Chekhov doesn’t comment on any of this - he doesn’t need to. But the reader’s sympathies are very confused by the end. We can take nothing for granted in these works.

Thinking back, this is the sort of story someone like August Strindberg may have written. Indeed, the rapacious or grasping woman, or the stupid, shallow woman, appears quite frequently in these stories. But there are also many deeply sympathetic portrayals of women. In one of his finest early stories, "The Name-Day Party", the principal character, a pregnant woman, increasingly frustrated by the insensitivity and the boorishness of the party guests and of her husband, has a breakdown which leads to a miscarriage. In a late story, "The Bride ", a young woman breaks off an engagement with a very eligible young man in order to go to college and educate herself. (This remarkable story could almost be read as a feminist tract! Except, of course - as with Ibsen in "A Doll’s House" - Chekhov was more interested in the truthful depiction of people rather than with promoting an ideology.) In one of his most moving stories, "A Woman’s Kingdom", he depicts the utter isolation of a young woman who has inherited a factory. She is aware of dreadful exploitation in the factory, and of the appalling living standards of the working there. But she has absolutely no idea of how to set these things right. She knows nothing of the workings of the factory, and has to rely on various people who she knows are cheating her. And the factory destroys her morally and spiritually, as sure as it destroys its workers bodily.

There are so many stories of such varied brilliance, it is hard making general statements about them. There’s "Peasants", apparently a series of loosely connected vignettes describing the animal existence and the brutality of peasant life, but which has all the impact of a full-length novel; there is "In the Gully", dealing with the peasant merchant classes, and which is as horrific as anything I have read; there is "Lady with Lapdog", a lyrical gem, and a rare example of a love story that actually convinces. (With typical daring, it stops before any resolution is reached.) And so on. Each of these stories illuminates some aspect of life. The best move me more than I could explain.

If I had to pick a favourite, it would be "Three Years". It’s one of those works that is a bit too long for a short story (about 100 pages or so), but too short for a novel. It describes three years in the lives of a few characters, picking up the story at an apparently random point, and stopping at what may appear to be an equally random point. We follow the development of these characters over these three years. Julia marries Laptev, unprepossessing but generally decent, because that is the only chance she has of escaping from her dull town, and her increasingly eccentric father. Laptev belongs to a merchant family: he knows of the abuses and exploitation that go on in the family business, but feels unable to tackle any of it. The marriage is, predictably, unhappy: but characters develop, and - since Chekhov was not an incurable pessimist - the change is not always for the worse. After three years, the marriage that had started off so inauspiciously finds a renewed force and vigour, as husband and wife develop a respect for each other. Other things happen to the circle of friends and family: people become old, and ill; people die; people grow up. And, after three years, Chekhov stops. What will happen afterwards? They’ll go on developing, and other changes will take place, as imperceptibly as before. This is a most inadequate summary of a very great masterpiece. The technique is very different from that of Tolstoy - whom Chekhov revered as an artist, if not necessarily as a moral philosopher - but Tolstoy himself, I think, would have been proud of an achievement such as this. Within these hundred or so pages, Chekhov seems to capture the very essence and mystery of life itself.

Many thanks for that, and yes, I think it's a great idea just to have an informal Chekhov schmooze.

Read 'The Darling' by Chekhov (1899) (trans C Garnett). I thought it one of AC's most delightful and touching stories, being both amusing and sad at the same time.
It''s about Olenka whom we meet first as a young woman.  Chekhov describes her thus: 'She was always fond of someone, and could not exist without loving.' People like Olenka and constantly refer to her as 'you darling'. Chekhov might very well have titled this story 'The Chameleon' because Olenka has a marked propensity for identifying to an intense degree with people she's fond of. She has a relationship with a theatrical entrepeneur and enters into that world with enthusiasm, learning all about theatrical practice and becoming an expert.  She does the same with a tmber merchant she marries and a veterinary surgeon. Olenka seems to have no resources of her own, living fully through the lives of others.  When she finds herself alone her life is meaningless without anyone to lavish affection on.
It has been suggested that in this story Chekhov is pinpointing and satirising the submissive role of women in 19th century Russia - a womn having no proper existence except with a man.  I'm not sure about that. Whatever the interpretation, it's a wonderful character study and Chekhov draws Olenka with enormous sympathy. At the end, when she is growing older and finds something else to lavish her affection on, we smile for her, but wonder what the rest of her life will be like.

Had an afternoon with Chekhov.
It's a bit difficult writing about these stories because I don't want to spoil them for other readers who haven't yet read them.  But anyway...

I started with 'The Kiss' (1887) which I had read before and enjoyed reading again.  Ryabovitch is a socially inept and unprepossesing young officer who, with fellow-officers, in invited to a big house. While there an incident occurs which transforms, albeit momentarily, his dismal view of his life.  The whole incident is beautifully imagined by AC.  But can someone who has read this story tell me why Chekhov includes, in the middle of it, a long and vivid description of a brigade on the march which, though brilliant, is arguably, irrelevant.
In 'The Horse-Stealers' (1890) a doctor is forced by a snow-storm to rest at an inn where he encounters a group of unapologetic horse-thieves and a desirable young woman.  The encounter has a lasting effect on him.
'Misery' (1886) is a short very sad tale about a sledge-driver whose son has just died. He is desperate to talk about it to someone, Anyone.  
'Children' (1886) is not so much a story as a picture of a group of children of varying ages playing Lotto. AC captures their varying personalities superbly.  
I wonder if the playing of Lotto played a large part in AC's life.  It plays a dramatic part at the end of his play 'The Seagull' where the characters, including his mother, play a game of Lotto, as her son Konstantin commits suicide in the adjoining room.  
My goodness how these characters in these stories live.  Caught helpless in the drifting tides of their lives. Especially Ryabovitch in 'The Kiss'.
I listened to 'Misery' and 'Children' read by Kenneth Branagh as I read them on a Naxos recording of several stories including 'In The Ravine'.

Mikeharvey wrote:
I started with 'The Kiss' (1887) which I had read before and enjoyed reading again.  Ryabovitch is a socially inept and unprepossesing young officer who, with fellow-officers, in invited to a big house. While there an incident occurs which transforms, albeit momentarily, his dismal view of his life.  The whole incident is beautifully imagined by AC.  But can someone who has read this story tell me why Chekhov includes, in the middle of it, a long and vivid description of a brigade on the march which, though brilliant, is arguably, irrelevant.

You've obviously read "The Kiss" more recently than I have, but from what I remember, the sense of elation felt by the soldier after that incident in the house dissipates slowly as he returns to his daily routine. And so, to depict this, Chekhov has to depict this daily routine, and this involves a description of the brigade on the march.

Or have I remembered this wrongly?

I think you're right, Himadri, about the point of describing the march in 'The Kiss'.

I read 'Joy' (1883) which is the first story in my collection. A delightful, very short piece about a young man's overwhelming euphoria because having had a accident it's reported in the newspapers!
And 'Death of a Government Clerk'(1883) is a comedy about a clerk who accidentally sneezes over the bald head of his boss in front. With disastrous results.

And ' A Dreary Story' (1899).  An absolute masterpiece. A superb sustained monologue. It's told in the first-person, present-tense, by Nicolay Stepanovich, a famous academic, who, we find out early in the story (60 pages), is ill and will soon die.  Nicolay's view of life is changing. Nothing pleases him. His wife cannot get through to him.  He finds his friends and colleagues tedious.  He is turning into a misanthrope.  He rails against many things. (One wonders how many of the views expressed are Chekhov's own - especially about the theatre). He is friendly with Katya, a failed actress with an unsavoury reputation.  As the story progresses he becomes more and more introspevtive and depressed. The end of the story finds him alone, in a dismal hotel bedroom, in a strange town.
This is an engrossing piece of writing, full of marvellous detail.  One shares Nicolay's anguish and sense of dislocation.  It's distressing. But Chekhov doesn't draw any conclusions or let the reader know his opionion of Nicolay.  As in all his stories and plays AC says 'This is how it is.' 'This is human life, absurd and probably pointless.' Lets us draw our own conclusions. He has no agenda. Unlike Tolstoy in 'The Death of Ivan Ilych' with which this story might be compared.  At the end of Tolstoy's story you know precisely LT's message.  Chekhov doesn't have one.  
The character of Katya reminded me forcibly of Nina in Chekov's 'The Seagull', also a failed actress with an illegitimate child.

I’m so glad you liked “A Dreary Story”. It seems so little known (does that title put people off, I wonder?) but, as you say, it’s a great masterpiece.

I think you’re right to draw a parallel with Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Illych”. Right to the end of his life, Chekhov felt himself to be under Tolstoy’s shadow, even though he had parted company with Tolstoy’s moral principles. “A Dreary Story” is, in many ways, Chekhov’s response to “The Death of Ivan Illych”: here, Chekhov dares take on the artist he couldn’t stop revering, no matter how profoundly he disagreed with him. Where Tolstoy’s Ivan Ivanovich was unremarkable in every way, Chekhov’s protagonist is a very distinguished man, but that doesn’t help when you’re facing death. Where Tolstoy’s protagonist achieves illumination, here, there is no illumination to find: the world Chekhov presents is empty even of that. But that final scene in that dismal hotel bedroom is about as moving as anything I think I’ve encountered in fiction. It really is one of those things that make you wonder why other writers bother getting out of bed in the morning.

Katya is obviously reminiscent of Nina in i]The Seagull[/i], but although this story came before the play, I think Katya is a more successful piece of characterisation. As I think I’ve told you, I’ve never really taken to The Seagull: I don’t think Chekhov had quite mastered his dramatic technique at that stage, and it seems to me an inferior work by far to the three plays that followed. But long before Chekhov developed into a great dramatist, he had mastered the short story, and “A Dreary Story”, unpromisingly titled though it is, is as fine an example of the form as I’ve encountered.

I've always had a soft spot for 'The Seagull'.  It's good theatre and plays well being full of good scenes.  It was the first Chekhov I ever saw on the stage, Arkadina was played by Diana Wynyard. And I have played Konstantin which is a smashing part. I can still remember playing that scene in the last act where, having just had an encounter with the changed Nina, Konstantin's left alone on the stage in a state of despair, and destroys his manuscripts before going into ther next room to shoot himself. I had to be careful not to milk it too much.  

For an interlude I got out my 'Undiscovered Chekhov - Fortythree New Stories' translated by Peter Constantine and published in 1997.  The translator found a complete run of Russian magazines from the 1880s in the New York Public Library containing previously untranslated pieces by Chekhov.  So he translated them. They were written by AC prinicpally to earn money.  I've read the first half-dozen. They are great fun, humorous sketches already showing great skill at drawing character and observation of absurdity.  

Found this piece by Vladimir Nabokov about AC

Chekhov managed to convey an impression of artistic beauty far surpassing writers who thought they knew what rich, beautiful prose was.  He did it by keeping all his words in the same dim light of the same exact tint of gray, a tint between the colour of an old fence and that of a low cloud. The variety of his moods, the flicker of his charming wit, the deeply artistic economy of characterisation, the vivid detail, and the fade-out of human life - all peculiar Chekhovian features - are enhanced by being suffused and surrounded by a faintly iridescent verbal haziness.

Things for him were funny and sad at the same time, but you would not see their sadness if you did not see their fun, because both were linked up.

But Nabokov, of course, had the supreme advantage of being able to read Russian.

I wonder is it too late to learn Russian.  I remember before going to Russia I took the trouble to learn the Russian alphabet.  It was not too difficult and I was thus able to read signs more easily.  A great advantage when riding the Moscow Underground.  In the graveyard of the Alexander Nevksy Monastery in St Petersburg I worked out the names of Tchaikovsky and others.  I was thrilled to be able to read a poster at the Moscow Art Theatre and deciphering 'The Seagull' which I think is 'Chaika'.  Am I right?  

I saw the Moscow Art Theatre in 'Uncle Vanya' in Russian at the National Theatre. Fortunately I knew the play quite well and was able to follow it reasonably well.  But it seemed a somewhat heavy production to me.

I would love to learn Russian too.  I remember when I read War and Peace, I kept thinking, 'If it's this good in translation, how amazing must it be in the original?!'  I may yet learn a bit of Russian, but doubt very much if I will ever know enough to be able to answer my own question!

I have an ambition to visit Russia again and see Chekhov's house which I failed to see in Moscow for some unknown reason.  My late partner had a holiday in Yalta and saw the Chekhov house there.  I was jealous.  I'd love to go on a literary tour of Russia.

To know a language well enough to appreciate its literature is, I think, quite different from merely being able to speak the language. To read Chekhov properly, one has to know Russian well enough to be able to pick up the sort of effect Nabokov describes in Chekhov. For instance, my late father spoke and wrote English well, but he didn’t feel he knew it well enough to read Shakespeare; and he used to regret this. (The poetry of Tagore, however, he knew backwards.)

But yes, if there is any language I wish I knew well enough to be able to appreciate its literature, it is Russian, as it’s Russian literature that’s dearest to me. However, I never was a good linguist, and, given all the other things currently on my plate, learning Russian well enough to read the likes of Pushkin or Chekhov is currently out of the question. However, I’m glad I have the privilege of being able to read Shakespeare, the King James Bible, Wordsworth and Dickens in the original.

The only Chekhov I managed to read yesterday was the very short 'Sleepy' (1888). It's about 13 year-old Varka who is looking after a fractious crying baby. She is very very tired and is worked to death by her employers. As she sits she dozes and dreams about her life at home. She grows tireder and tireder.  This finely-tuned story lulls you into a false sense of security and ends shockingly.

Just aquired a gorgeous volume called 'Anton Chekhov at the Moscow Art Theatre' edited and translated by Vera Gottlieb and published in 2005. It's a facsmile of a scrapbook originally published in 1914 and rescued by the editor from near destruction quite recently.  It's a tall book - 14 inches by 10 inches - and contains nearly 200 photographs of the original productions of Chekhov's plays by the Moscow Art Theatre. It makes for absorbing browsing.  The plays are all set in realistic sets - very different from our modern impressionistic stage designs for Chekhov.  It's fascinating to see how the plays looked in their first productions.
There are some marvellous portraits, among them a full page picture of Olga Knipper (Mrs Chekhov) looking thoughtful as Masha in 'Three Sisters' and the veteran A.R. Artem as Firs in 'The Cherry Orchard'.  But my favourites are of Stanislavski, whose stage magnetism comes across vividly. There are great pictures of him as Vershinin in 'Three Sisters' and Astrov in 'Uncle Vanya', but the one I like best is Gayev in 'The Cherry Orchard'. A beautiful sparkling portrait which suggests how S. must have played the role.  
I was intrigued by the picture showing Act Three of 'The Cherry Orchard' where the characters are dancing a chain dance through the room - like the one in Ingmar Bergman's 'Fanny and Alexander - an idea I unashamedly purloined for my own production of 'The Cherry Orchard'. Although I hadn't seen the photo of the MAT production then. There's also a companion picture to the famous one of Chekhov reading 'The Seagull to the actors. It shows the same group discussing the play afterwards.
When someone invents a theatrical time-machine to take me back to see the original productions of famous plays - the Moscow Art Theatre will be high on the list. Imagine seeing Knipper and Stanislavski in 'Three Sisters'.

Yesterday I read 'Ward No 6'(1892) which is another masterpiece.
It''s mostly about Ragin, a doctor who at first is assiduous in his attention to the patients in the local asylum.  As the story progresses he grows weary of his duties, becomes lazy, regards his work as pointless and his health breaks down. He has long philosophical conversations with an inmate of the asylum, and his life deteriorates.  Chekhov's description of the patients in, and conditions of, the the asylum are superb.  I wonder how much he was influenced by his observation of the conditions he saw when he made his trip to Sakhalin in Siberia. It's been suggested that in his portrayal of the various characters in the asylum Chekhov is creating a microcosm of Russian society in his time.  That might be so, but there's no doubt that AC by his depiction of the appalling conditions in the asylum, and the treatment of the inmates, is challenging and criticising society's dehumanisation of the insane.  Whatever the themes of the story might be there's no denying that the story is magnificently told. It's a splendid demonstration of the mature Chekhov's skill at drawing characters and describing things. You live through the events he's writing about.  And you begin to feel with AC that life is probably pointless, and hilarious in its pointlessness.

First of all, Mike, I wish I could have been there to see your production of The Cherry Orchard. And secondly, I wish I could fulfil my own fantasy of directing it: the production that goes on in my head as I read it is pretty damn good, let me tell you! Very Happy

"Ward No 6" really is a superb story, isn't it? It is very very dark. I don't know that it needs to be seen as symbolic of anything, or illustrative of the ills of a wider society: it is powerful enough to be taken on its own terms.

Just discovered on AbeBooks a first edition - in Russian - of 'The Cherry Orchard' (1904) for £9500.

So you snapped it up, I presume, Mike?   Wink

If I had been today's winner of millions in the EuroLottery. Almost certainly, but I would have to buy a new house somewhere else - probably near Stratford on Avon - with unlimited bookspace.
If I were a millionaire my first purchase would be a first edition of John Keats' 1820 volume containing the Odes and The Eve of St Agnes. You can get a nice copy for about £9000.  And I'd love an autograph letter of JK - assuming they ever come on the market.
The most valuable book I've ever held was a first edition of 'Ulysses'. It was worth a lot of money. This was a few years ago. I was visiting Alan Clodd, the founder of Enitharmon Press to have a look at his collection of first editions.  
He also showed me his hall table which had belonged to his grandfather and was signed by Thomas Hardy and other notable literary figures - but I can't now remember whom.  
I just checked.You can get a First of Ulysses signed by Joyce for £12000.


Read two more stories by AC both published in 1898. They share two characters each of which tells a story about someone he knows or knew.
'The Man In A Case' is a character study about a man who is obsessed with propriety and rules and regulations and living correctly. He falls in love with disastrous results.
'Gooseberries' is about a man whose ambition is to own a house and grow his own gooseberries.  He succeeds and is a happy man. Both these stories are quite slight but full of telling detail.  

Spent Saturday evening watching a BBC TV version of 'The Cherry Orchard' from 1981.  Directed by Richard Eyre. The cast: Ranevsky (Judi Dench), Lophakin (Bill Paterson), Trofimov (Anton Lesser), Varya (Harriet Walter), Gayev (Frederick Treves), Carlotta (Anna Massey), Epikhodov (Timothy Spall), Firs (Paul Curran) Pischik (Wensley Pithey), Sasha (David Rintoul, Anya (Suzanne Burden).
I enjoyed it but felt that it was a little heavy-handed, too many scenes in long-shot, and lacked humour. I think that if it were to be done nowadays the pace would be brisker.  All the acting, though, was splendid. Except Timothy Spall's Epikhodov. He has been allowed to over-act too eccentrically,and the character was more Dickensian than Chekhovian. The beautiful last act came over best with that touching scene between Varya and Lophakin. But I didn't like the way Firs fell over - dead? - at the very end.  In my production I had him cover himself with a dustsheet.
It remains one of my favourite plays.

I found this in a letter of Chekhov's written in 1888. He's writing about the composition of 'The Steppe'.

To begin with I have attempted to describe the steppe, the people who live there, and what I have experienced in the steppe.  It is a good subject and I enjoy writing about it, but unfortunately from lack of practice in writing long things, and from fear of making it too rambling, I fall into the opposite extreme; each page turns out a compact whole like a short story, the pictures accumulate, are crowded, and getting in each other's way, spoil the impression as a whole. As a result one gets, not a picture in which all the details are merged into one whole like stars in the heavens, but a mere diagram, a dry record of impressions. A writer will understand me, but the reader will be bored and curse.

Posterity thinks differently, Antosha.

I suppose this is one of the things that distinguish writers of Chekhov’s quality from the others: they set themselves more exacting standards than even the most critical of readers. I wonder if Shakespeare, on finishing, say, Othello, said to himself: “It’s not quite what I’d envisaged, but it’ll have to do!”

I hope to be able to contribute to the Chekhov thread in the near future as today I bought The Essential Tales of Chekhov (Granta) which contains 20 of his short stories together with The Exclamation Mark (Hesperus) which includes what appears to be another fine selection of stories from which there doesn't appear to be an overlap. I already own the complete short novels but think I only will have time to dip into some of the short stories at the moment.

On a side note, I also bought Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead which was much more on a whim as it was on offer. I finally got round to seeing David Tenant's Hamlet (or should that be Shakespeare's Hamlet which happens to involve David Tenant) at the weekend which was pretty good overall and certainly would have played a part in the impulse buy.



Hello Hector,
Hope you enjoy 'Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are Dead'. It's one of my favourite plays.  Have you seen it on stage?  I've seen several productions including the original by the National Theatre Comoany waybakwen.  I love it's wordplay and high spirits. It also has a very chilling undercurrent.  A remarkable play for the young Stoppard to have written.
 The last time I saw it at the Library Theatre, Manchester, during the coin-tossing scene at the beginning, where the coin keeps coming down heads, the coin got stuck in a crack on the stage and so was neither head nor tails.  It brought the house down.

Two more Chekhov short stories.

'Difficult People' (1886) (Garnett) is a brilliant 8 page story about family strife.  Son requires necessary money from cantankerous father. The situation explodes. AC sketches in the frightened family and the fraught situation and its aftermath wonderfully.  You SEE everything.  And BELIEVE everything.

'An Awkward Business' (1888) (Ronald Hingley) is about a doctor (one of Chekhov's many doctor characters) at the end of his tether. In frustration he strikes a lowly assistant. The story is an exploration of his mental see-saw contortions as he attempts to justify his action to himself, and deal with his colleagues and superiors in the fall-out from what he did.  A superbly written close-study of one man's state of mind while in a state of anxiety.

Chasing up the story 'Angel' which was Tolstoy's favourite I discovered it to be 'The Darling' under a different name.

You really are doing Chekhov proud in his anniversary year!

I find it wonderful just to immerse oneself in a particular body of work, and it’s hard to think of a body of work more remarkable than Chekhov’s short stories. He is still, I think, primarily known as a dramatist (for instance, the Cambridge Companion to Chekhov focuses solely on his plays, and doesn’t even mention the stories), but it does seem to me that he only achieved mastery in drama towards the end of his all to short life, whereas he was a master of the short story right from the beginning.

Ronald Hingley’s translations are fine, but he does have a tendency to rename some of the stories for no apparent reason. The story “Ionych” he renames “Dr Startsev”, and I’m not sure why: the title that Chekhov gave – “Ionych” – is the middle name (the patronymic) of the central character, and by referring to him by this name implies a slight sense of contempt. It is surely important to capture this nuance. Hingley’s title communicates, on the contrary, a sense of formality and of respect that was surely far from Chekhov’s intentions. Presumably Hingley thought that Western readers wouldn’t get the nuance implicit in Chekhov’s title, but surely a little footnote would explain that.

Another title he changed for no apparent reason is the story “Anna Round the Neck”. It doesn’t seem to me unduly awkward in English: indeed, it sounds quite intriguing. The Anna of the title is both the Order of St Anna (which is presented to one of the principal characters in the story)  and which he wears around his neck; and also to this character’s wife. The multiple meanings of the title become apparent as the story progresses. But Hingley, rather perversely I think, re-titles the story “The Order of St Anne”.

My copy of the Bartlett translation of Chekhov short stories arrived in the post this morning, so I may read one or two over the weekend - I have a lot of travelling tomorrow, and it's a nice slim volume to pack in my bag.

Oh, that's excellent. Rosamund Bartlett's translations have been particularly well received.

I'm not at home next week, and so won't have access to my library, but once I get back, I'll have to read a few of these stories myself: an anniversary such as this really does need to be celebrated!

'On The Road' (1886) (Garnett) is a rather curious piece.  Two travellers, a man and a woman, encounter each other overnight at a roadside tavern. The man, who is journeying with his young daughter, talks at length to the woman about his past life. In a torrent of words he reveals that he is an enthusiast, flying from one belief to another, from one passion to another. As he talks, the woman realises that she has sparked a new enthusiasm - women. Next morning they part. Absolutely packed with marvellous Chekhovian detail. Note the deft way AC sketches in the character of the daughter, the woman's clothing, the effect of the light from the stove on the icons, the snow-covered landscape, the lame serving-boy, the wind shaking the shutters.  Chekhov is already a dramatist in his tales.

I've read a few of Chekhov's (very) short stories from which are taken from Dec 1885 to June 1886 when Chekhov was only 26.

The first was The Exclamation Mark in which a civil servant of 40 years, who has obtained his knowledge of grammar without any education purely by being in the job for so long, is teased at at a party for not truly understanding grammar. What follows is a restless nights sleep in which he sees apparations of commas, full stops, semi colons and the like. His fear arrives when he can't work out when an exclamation mark should be used! It's a short, funny piece which works so well on the written page.

Other short stories of note were New Year Martyrs (very funny - the cries of the police especially) and also A Failure where eves-dropping parents listening in behind a door rush into a room to bless the partnership of their daughter and a local teacher with an icon - thereby making the union difficult to get out of as it is blessed by God. However, in their haste the parents accidentally pick up a portrait of a writer instead of an icon. When the teacher spots this he is relieved and scarpers!

Hello Hector, I haven't read those stories. I must look them up.

I read four stories from my new Chekhov collection today, and they were all wonderful - the first one I read was called Fish Love (I chose it because of the title!), and it was fab.  Just three pages, about a carp who falls in love with a young woman who comes to bathe in the pool where he lives, but he realises it is hopeless, and longs to die.  He nearly manages it when she comes to the pool to fish, and hooks him on her line, but somehow he survives and becomes a pessimist.  Then when a young male poet comes to bathe, the carp kisses him as he swims, and infects the poet with his pessimism; the poet goes back and writes lots of pessimistic poetry, and infects all those around him with pessimism too, and so there is a lot of pessimistic poetry published at that time.  It is a hilarious story.  I might even type it out so that everyone can read it, it's a long time since I read anythiing quite so delightful!

Will post more about the others later - am a bit tired after a very long day and a fairly grim train ride home - but just thinking about the poor carp has made me laugh again!

'Three Years' is a long short story, almost a novella. It's exactly what the title suggests and covers a group of lives over that period. At the beginning we meet Laptev who is smitten by the the beautiful Yulia. She agrees, for complicated reasons she doesn't quite understand herself, to marry him. The marriage soon sours and the couple grow indifferent to each other.  In very great detail AC tells us about their married life, their families, their friends, their social activities, what they talk about, where they go, their working lives, their children.  Chekhov places the marriage in a complex setting of Russian life.  There are a couple of deaths, serious illnesses and a birth.  When you get to the end you feel as though you have lived several lives. The story ends with these words: What is in store for us in the future? Let us live and we shall see.' Rather reminiscent of the final moments of 'Uncle Vanya' but not as sad.  This is splendid mature Chekhov. Showing us the tangled fabric of life.  At the start he lifts the curtain on a group of people, allows us to observe them for a while, then drops it again.

Three Years is great personal favourite o fmine. We had a discussion of it here:

I was thinking of Chekhov's dual literary career as short storywriter and as dramatist, and of the very different techniques required by the two genres. What would Three Years have been like, I wonder, if it had been written as a play? Conversely, what would Three Sisters have been like if it had been written as a short story (or as a novella)?

This is not really as fanciful as it sounds. The two works have more in common than teh word "Three" in the title. They are both, essentially, ensemble pieces: while some characters are more central than others, each has some 7 or 8 prominent characters whose development we follow. And each takes place over a few years, and each depicts the cumulative effect of apparently small events. Each ends wondering what the future has in store.

Now, there's an interesting exercise for an aspiring writer - write Three Years as a play, and write Three Sisters as a story! Which scenes would you add, and which scenes would you take away? If you were to write Three Sisters as a story, would you describe the events that led to Masha marrying Kulyghin? Would you introduce Vershinin's wife and daughters, instead of merely mentioning them and keeping them offstage? Would you describe how the doctor Chebutykin caused the death of the woman in childbirth through his incompetence? Conversely, if you were to adapt Three Years as a play, you'd have to select a few scenes over those three years in which to encapsulate the story. Would you start in the village, as the story starts? Indeed, would you set any scene in the village at all? Would Laptev's father be brought on stage?

Had I but world enough and time, I'd be tempted to try this exercise for myself!

TheRejectAmidHair wrote:

Now, there's an interesting exercise for an aspiring writer - write Three Years as a play, and write Three Sisters as a story! Which scenes would you add, and which scenes would you take away? If you were to write Three Sisters as a story, would you describe the events that led to Masha marrying Kulyghin? Would you introduce Vershinin's wife and daughters, instead of merely mentioning them and keeping them offstage? Would you describe how the doctor Chebutykin caused the death of the woman in childbirth through his incompetence? Conversely, if you were to adapt Three Years as a play, you'd have to select a few scenes over those three years in which to encapsulate the story. Would you start in the village, as the story starts? Indeed, would you set any scene in the village at all? Would Laptev's father be brought on stage?

Had I but world enough and time, I'd be tempted to try this exercise for myself!

A project for your retirement, Himadri?

I’ve read both ‘Three years’ and ‘Three Sisters’. I enjoyed both but never saw the similarity between them until now. My first reaction to your post was ‘Of course, it is so obvious’.
‘Three sisters’ is in my Wordsworth edition of Chekhov plays. I’ve read all of them and ‘Three sisters’ is the one I liked best.

Hello Himadri -
Your posting about dramatising Chekhov made me think I might try. Not 'Three Years' which is a daunting proposition, but something shorter as a one-act maybe. I'll think about it.  
I have seen a few attempts at dramatising AC in my theatre-going days most notably 'The Lady With The Little Dog' at Manchester Royal Exchange with Simon Cadell as the lover.  How succesful it was I cannot now recall. One of the funniest things I remember was a programme of Chekhov pieces at the Nottingham Playhouse, especially an hilarious play about a dentist and the tortuous attempts to remember someone's name. AC began his life as a comic writer, and humour is always lurking in his stories and plays. He was irritated with Stanislavsky's production of 'The Cherry Orchard' which he thought was too sentimental. Chekhov described it as a comedy, almost a farce.  The English tradition of playing Chekhov has always been one of langurous pauses - see the Richard Eyre TV 'Cherry Orchard'.  But the tradition is changing now and the comedy is given more prominence.  Of course, it depends on the actors' gift for comedy. Judi Dench was funny as Arkadin in 'The Seagull'. She had a lovely bit of business when bandaging Konstantin's head in act three. Having used up all the bandage, and holding it in its place with her finger, she couldn't reach the scissors to cut it.  And Vanya's attempt to shoot the professor in 'Uncle Vanya' is farce and tragedy at the same time.  In my own production of 'The Cherry Orchard' I had Ranevsky and Trofimov exaggerate their tears and weeping in their scene in Act Three till it became absurd.  Slapstick is never far from the surface in AC. Think of the squeaking shoes in 'Cherry Orchard' and the falling downstairs - Pischick swallowing Ranevsky's medicine.  
And of course a lot of characters in all the plays are so absurd in their self-absorption that it teeters on the edge of comedy.  Think of Gayev in TCO with his apostrophe to the cupboard and his billiards motif.
But there are wonderful pausing moments in the plays which are essential. Think of the scene in 'The Seagull' when everyone is quiet listening to the singing from across the lake. And the silence in Act Two of TCO when conversation has stopped and suddenly there is the sound of a harp-string breaking out of the sky.  And the languor of the scene in 'Uncle Vanya' as the characters sit quietly talking as Waffles idly strums his guitar.  And at the opening of Act Two of 'Uncle Vanya' at night with a thunderstorm iminent and characters unable to sleep.  Or was that all due to Laurence Olivier's direction in the renowned Chichester production?
Has anyone ever seen Walton's opera based on AC's 'The Bear'?

I thought 'Anna on the Neck' (1885/Garnett) was a short masterpiece. It's about Anna who has married an older man for his money, largely for the sake of her feckless father and her two young brothers.  At first she is discontented and her father is an embarrassment, but at a ball, where she is the focus of attention, she realises her power in society, and another man begins paying her attention.  It's hard to summarise this story, there's not a lot of plot. Chekhov, as is his wont, simply shows us this young woman at a particular period in her life. It's done with a marvellous attention to detail and people, their characters and personalities, places and occasions come to exuberant life. It reminded me of 'The Two Volodyas' in which a young woman marries an older man.
She danced the mazurka with the same huge officer; he moved gravely, as heavily as a dead carcase in his uniform, twitched his shoulders and his chest, stamped his feet very languidly - he felt fearfully disinclined to dance. She fluttered round him, provoking him by her beauty; her bare neck; her eyes glowed defiantly, her movements were passionate, while he became more and more indifferent, and held out his hands to her as graciously as a king.

'Mire' is a comedy in which a rich flirtatious womam avoids paying her debts to a pair of brothers who are seducedn by her personality. The use of the word jewess and its connotations rather jar on a modern reader.

In 'The Chorus-Girl' a wife confronts her husband's paramour and demands money that her husband has spent on her.  I think this might dramatise quite easily into a one-act play.

'Peasants' is a brilliant story about a couple who return to their peasant village  to live.  It's a horrifying tale of poverty, sexual licence, squalor, ignorance and superstition.  For the most part Chekhov describes and relates all the horrors impassively. But rather unusually in the final pages he seems to moralise about why theses peasants live in this way.

I'm pleased to note that since we started this I've read 25 Chekhov short stories. But six of them were quite brief.

"Peasants" is a marvellous story - one of his best - although I too find myself puzzled by the moralising in the final pages, which seems so unlike Chekhov. I wonder whether he was anticipating the censors' reaction to a story such as this, and felt he had to include a moral justification for it.

I don't know if you've read "In the Ravine" yet, but this is another rather brutal story about peasant life - although, this time, it is about wealthier peasants.

I read 'In The Ravine' some months ago before these readings began. Superb and grim.  
Yesterday I read 'The Teacher of Literature' (1894/Garnett).  For most of this story it's one AC's happiest and most exuberant stories. Nikitin is happy and exuberant, he appears to have everything he desires - a good wife, a secure job he loves - then in the final pages, Chekhov pulls the rug away, a couple of tiny incidents and remarks begin to undermine Nikitin's happiness.  He realises he is bored and discontented. The story ends:
'Where am I, my God? I am surrounded by vulgarity and vulgarity. Wearisome, insignificant people, pots of sour cream, jugs of milk, cockroaches, stupid women...There is nothing more terrible, mortifying, and distressing than vulgarity. I must escape from here, I must escape today, or I shall go out of my mind!'[/i]

'An Artist's Story' is told in the first-person and is about the narrator's relationship with two sisters.  He falls in love with one. With the other sister, who doesn't like him, he has fierce philosophical and political arguments.  This sister eventually causes his relationship with the other sister to be broken off.  All the characters come to vivid life.

I think you must have read the Ronald Hingley translation. "An Artist's Story". The original title is variously translated as "The House with a Mansard: An Artist's Story", or "The House with a Mezzanine: An Artist's Story", or even "The House with an Attic: An Artist's Story". The title refers to a floor level that is placed half way between the ground floor and the first floor, and there doesn't really appear to be a starisfactory English term for this that would look right in the title. I suppose "An Artist's Story" is a reasonable compromose here.

'My Life' (1896/Garnett) which is long for a short story, but slightly shorter than 'The Steppe', feels autobiographical.  Subtitled 'The Story of a Provincial' it's about Misail, the son of a privileged family.  He rejects his privileged life in spite of the opposition and scorn of his father and the arguments of his intellectual friends.  Misail marries Masha who appears sympathetic to Misail's way of life. At first the marriage seems happy, but Masha grows disenchanted with her life, and her proximity to the horrors of peasant life, and leaves Misail.  Also threaded through the narrative is the story of Misail's sister, who dies.  The story appears to be an examination of the gulf that lies between those who put their sociialist ideas into practice and those who intellectualise about things and do nothing.  That aside, the story is  enjoyable as a brilliantly detailed account of Russian provincial life with a large cast of characters and filled with superb detail.
But I felt that this story was too long for its material and it seems over-extended. Unlike those other long tales 'A Dreary Story', 'The Steppe' and 'Ward No 6' which succeed totally.

I finally got round to reading The Lady with the Little Dog (as my translation has it) on the train on Saturday.  It is masterly, isn't it?  How he creates something so far-reaching and satisifying in a short space - very beautifully structured and paced.  I love Chekhov's wry humour, sparingly used but which gives his stories a certain kind of energy.

I was expecting the little dog to play a bigger part!   Smile

Evie - I read The Lady with the Dog this afternoon. My thoughts on this are a little bit mixed. I feel that I have connected with this particular short story less than some of the others that I have read recently. That is not to say that I disagree with your comments - far from it.

Chekhov does seem to have a way in his short story writing to tell the reader what they need to know. He jumps in time and place quite dramatically whilst at the same time provides little details so specific - such as describing the sign "To The Ampitheatre" which the two characters stand next too. It is this masterful skill of mixing the scope of the larger story with the tiny detail that he uses so well.

I do feel that this story has less humour than some of the other Chekhov works I have read recently. Having said that, I do like the image of Gurov walking up and down along the fence of Anna's house a number of times in the hope that they could accidentally on purpose bump into each other! What I think is great is that Chekhov seems fit to mention this but at the same time Gurov's plan actually fails.

Given the amount of time spent on the relationship it was always going to be very loosely sketched and so I don't really think it right to say that it did not feel particularly believable. I did like the parts where Gurov ponders on the idea that the image one expresses in public is not necessarily the same as that which is on the inside. All in all, pretty good I think.

The relationship certainly wasn't believable, but none of the stories by Chekhov I have read have been believable - they are very contrived, and yet are in touch with very real experiences, somehow.

The humour in Lady with the Little Dog was barely there, but sometimes I felt some of his more throwaway lines were wrily humorous - the story itself wasn't, just some of the little details in the narration.

I have only read three or four of the stories, and Fish Love remains my favourite by far - I love its simplicity and surrealism and the energy in the writing; though energy is always there, I think - the writing is always delicious.

Thanks so much for your comments - it's good to discuss it a bit, though if I had my copy to hand I might be able to back up some of my comments with a few quotes, which would help!

Thanks Evie

Fish Love sounds excellent and I certainly remember your review. Unfortunately, I have three books on Chekhov and it appears none of them contain this story. I'll try and look out for it though.

It's beenome time since I read "Lady With the Little Dog" - I'll probably give it another read tonight - but I'm quite surprised to hear you say it wasn't believable. I found the tale of a casual pick-up that starts to develop into something deeper very believable, and all the more touching because it was so believable. I particularly love the way Chekhov ends the story - just at the point where the complications in the relationship are beginning to develop. It seems to leave the reader with the impression that these characters continue to live beyond the end of the story. It's not, admittedly, the most humorous of stories, but it has about it, it seems to me, a sort of lingering sense of melancholy.

I'll read it again tonight - it's been far too long sice my last reading.

The ending was great - leaving something for the reader to work out for themselves, and no cut and dried outcome - and Chekhov always (she says, having read about four stories!!) creates a wonderful atmosphere, whatever the particular atmosphere is; as you say, the melancholy in this story is beautifully done.

I just didn't believe in their relationship, somehow - need to read it again to think about why.  I think I believed in Gurov, but not the lady.

"Theatre on TV: Sky Arts leaves BBC in the wings with Chekhov revivals"

Can't say I'm overly excited about the cast (although I like a lot of Steve Coogan#s work) but I suppose it's better than nothing. Sky Arts normally shows some excellent productions so I hope for the best.

Not read some Chekhov for a while so will try and fit in a couple more short stories again soon.[/i]

Thanks for sharing this. I've  never seen these one act vaudeville plays before, so I'll make a point of seeing them. Of course, it would be good to see the current generation of actors perform the major Chekhov plays on television, but the days of BBC putting on Chekhov plays is long since gone, I'm afraid.

Incidentally, I believe William Walton compsed a short opera based on The Bear.

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