Reprise Books

‘Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov’

For someone who once said, “medicine is my lawful wife, and literature my mistress,” Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (1860-1904) paid equal attention to both his loves. He practised as a doctor throughout most of his life, often treating the poor, and is considered to be one of the greatest Russian storytellers. Besides his four masterly plays, The Seagull,Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov wrote hundreds of short stories, initially to pay for his studies and feed his family, but later to nurse his ambition.

His own special form

He chronicled every aspect of Russian life, village, provincial, city. So fresh was his gaze on the human condition that Russian great Leo Tolstoy said Chekhov “has his own special form like the impressionists.” There are innumerable collections of Chekhov’s works and Selected Stories (Modern Library Classics) has 30 of the best from various periods of his life.

It includes, for instance, one of Chekhov’s early stories, ‘The Huntsman’, which he wrote before he was 26 years old, catching the eye of writer Dmitri Grigorovich (who had helped Fyodor Dostoevsky’s first novel reach a publisher and would help the young writer too). In the story, the hunter in his red shirt and white cap is waiting by the forest, “the sun-baked grass had a disconsolate, hopeless look”; a woman joins him, “as though she had sprung out of earth”; they talk, “her face radiant with happiness,” he, scowling and boastful; the couple will eventually go their separate ways.

Richard Pevear writes in the introduction that in a letter to his brother in 1886, Chekhov had laid bare six things that made for a good story. “1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature; 2. total objectivity; 3. truthful descriptions of people and objects; 4. extreme brevity; 5. audacity and originality, flee the stereotype; 6. compassion.” As Pevear says, “It is a remarkably complete description of Chekov’s artistic practice.”

In ‘A Boring Story’, a renowned professor of medicine, Nikolay Stepanovitch, recounts his own decline, and he finds his fame and success to be of little value at a time when he longs for some company. When Chekhov was criticised for concentrating on the minutiae of existence, ignoring a writer’s social role, he defended his writing. Pevear mentions a letter written by Chekhov to Grigorovich in 1888, “I still lack a political, religious, philosophical worldview... I change it every month — and so I’ll have to limit myself to descriptions of how my heroes love, marry, give birth, die, and how they speak.”

The writer looks back at one classic each week.

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Printable version | Feb 20, 2020 7:58:23 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/selected-stories-of-anton-chekhov/article26457875.ece

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