Friday, April 23

Considering “Anton Chekov's Short Stories, Norton Critical Edition”

I'm still terrified of reading the greats, pillars of the Western canon, and finding them lacking, only proving my lack of refinement in the process. Emmett did his best to reassure me that my feelings with regard to Dostoevsky were shared by such luminaries as Harold Bloom. The Millions, Bookslut and Tobias Wolff disagree. I can convince myself the other don't want to be caught out as Philistines themselves and lay on the praise, but that last one rankles.

With Chekov, I came prepared. I made my collection of his short stories a Norton Critical Edition. It has essays that give me some context and tell me exactly why he is so great with specific examples from the assembled stories.

That's a good thing because my initial reaction to this selection of his works was, like my response to every Russian so far, underwhelming. The first, “Chameleon,” was just silly in its close adherence to a conceit too thin to hold together for the three pages. No doubt, there were scattered poignant moments. The father's tears at his daughter's requiem service. Iona telling his misery to his horse, the only one who will listen to him. The trouble is, even these beautiful moments don't seem earned. In Chekov's earliest works, there is no conflict. They are sketches of a scene, more anecdotes than anything else. They seem more appropriate as stories like those told by the three friends in the trilogy of “The Man in a Case,” “Gooseberries” and “About Love.” They don't seem to serve much purpose in themselves except to illustrate a point about what misery or boredom is truly like. According to the essays, this is the point. They're part of Chekov's psychological aspect. They illustrate a a precise state of being with a minimum of words. What that state of being ultimately comes to is something else.

Conflict does appear in the later works, mostly in the form of men and women falling and out of love. These would seem more suited to my interests, but the characters normally appear to me as wholly detestable in their willingness to abandon their families and responsibilities for the sake of some new lust, that none of my sympathies or interests come to them. This is not what Chekov expected, I think. He honestly cares for them and about will happen after the story is done.

In contrast to earlier pictorial pieces, the attached essays suggest these mature works are stories of ambiguity where the end is in question and can only be answered by the reader though Chekov's brilliance makes a multiplicity of conclusions possible, even diametric opposites. It is very possible that Nadya does find the happiness she expect outside of her family home. It is also very possible that she does not. All we know is that, after her family collapses around her, “She went upstairs to pack, and the next morning said good-bye to her family, and left the town, gay and full of spirits—she she supposed, forever.”

I don't know. I appreciate that these people have enjoyed Chekov and found something special in him, but to have it explained like a complicated pun is less than great. I may still get a chuckle out of the joke, but the spark is not there. But this is literature. It does not depend on the final twist but on the craft of getting there. Maybe I will enjoy them more on the second or third go around. Donald Rayfield's essay did a lot to redeem “The Student” for me. We'll see have to see.

For what it's worth, I don't much know the state of the short story before Chekov's time, but the advice he dispenses in his letters seems awfully modern. He advises Gorky to “cross out as many adjectives and adverbs as you can.” To Avilova, he says, “The more objective you are, the stronger will be the impression you make.” If these contributions to literature are original with Chekov, he deserves his place in the canon.

No comments: