When the subject comes up I often find myself saying that I don’t like short stories, but that blunt statement is misleading. It is not really short stories themselves that I have a problem with, it is collections of short stories. Yet even the use of the term collections is a poor choice, because there are certain kinds of short story books that I do like. The ones that I have enjoyed have, to my mind anyway, certain things in common that are absent from most collections. The first thing that unites them is that they were put together by the author specifically to stand as a complete work. I have very little interest in what I call random collections, which are those put together by a publisher, translator or other writer. These collections will, in most cases, span the author’s career and include stories dealing with a multitude of themes or ideas. My aversion to these types of books is not really about quality; a collection such as this might, on a story to story basis, be more consistently excellent than one put together by the author, but, I dunno, they bore me or rankle me. Reading them is like listening to a best of or greatest hits album, i.e. someone’s lazy, subjective idea of what are an artist’s finest moments.
In terms of collections put together by an author the stories were chosen, one imagines, with care; the author intended those specific stories to be included, they were in some way connected in his mind. This leads to the second common quality found in good short story collections, which is that the stories will share themes and style and ideas. One of the things I most like about novels is development, both in terms of character and plot, and obviously a short story collection is not going to give you that, but certain ones do at least satisfy my need for completeness and connectedness, or, if you prefer, a unified vision. I am fully aware that my understanding of these terms is ambiguous, that it may be hard to grasp what exactly it is I mean by them. Certainly one could argue that a bunch of stories chosen by a publisher could equally be said to be complete or connected. Undeniably they are connected by author and by virtue of having been chosen, but these kinds of connections are less necessary, less important to me. One could also argue that some collections put together by an author do not have a unified vision. I accept that might be the case, but would call those bad collections too, or at least boring ones or ones unlikely to satisfy me.
I could write thousands of words about this, and the resulting essay would be interesting to no one but me; it would probably only make sense to me too. The point of all this waffle is to try to explain why I have been so resistant to reading the book under review here, which is a randomly chosen collection of Chekhov’s stories translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Indeed, I have started and then abandoned the book many times, feeling no desire to wade through it, no compulsion to continue, despite the obvious quality of the stories I read. It wasn’t until I found myself at an absolute reading standstill last week that I returned to it again and, this time, forced myself to carry on beyond the first 40-50 pages. What I found as I entered further into it is that although the stories do not follow on, do not share characters or situations, they, taken as a whole, do at least have that unified vision which is so important to me. This unified vision has, I think, nothing at all to do with the choices made by the translators or publishers, but with Chekhov’s narrow focus, his limited concerns. In the same way that all of Thomas Bernhard’s novels can be described using the words ranting, hate, repetition, madness etc, nearly every story here brings to mind the words boredom, pettiness, poverty, and disquiet. In fact, the stories can probably be best summed up by one of the author’s own titles: Small Fry; almost all of his characters are exactly that, they are small fry, they are the little man; they are clerks, and peasants; they are, more than anything, largely insignificant and downtrodden.
It is difficult to review short story collections because a few words about each individual story would be tedious, for both the reviewer and the reader, and yet an overview of one’s impressions of the whole book would likely result in one or two superficial paragraphs. What I will do, then, is to focus on a couple of my favourites from this collection. One of Chekhov’s earliest and, if this book is anything to go by, funniest stories is The Sneeze. In it a man accidentally sneezes on another, more important, man; his initial attempts to apologise are accepted, but not in the way, not as graciously, as he would like. So he continues to try and apologise, to try and illicit the response he deems satisfactory. The more he is rebuffed, the greater his anxiety, and so his apologies become increasingly intense, aggressive and ridiculous. The upshot is that his obsession with apologising, with it being accepted in the way that he would like, makes him a complete nuisance. If you are a fan of Curb Your Enthusiasm you will understand and appreciate this kind of humour. The man’s desires, the desire to make amends and for his apology to be accepted, are entirely rational, but they become irrational by virtue of the status, the importance he gives to them. A normal person, a truly rational person, would apologise once and if it was not accepted in a way that he would like or expect he would brush it off and forget about it. In terms of literary antecedents The Sneeze is clearly influenced by Gogol and his epic silliness; it is also reminiscent of Kafka, and his protagonists who want to accomplish seemingly straightforward tasks, and satisfy entirely rational desires, but find that they cannot, that other people, or circumstances, prevent them.
The Sneeze is only a couple of pages long, but Chekhov was no Borges; he also wrote many longer pieces, some of which are actually novella length. Four of these, including the highly rated The Duel, are available as The Complete Short Novels, but some of them are included here. One of the most well-known is A Boring Story, which features an academic who has some unspecified illness [which comes across more as a kind of existential sickness or ennui, than something physical] and is convinced that he will soon pass on. The man surveys his life and deems it a failure; he hates his wife and daughter and his colleagues. It is impossible for me to say whether they were influenced by A Boring Story, but both Joseph Heller’s Something Happened and William Gass’ The Tunnel are strikingly similar. There is something very modern about the professor’s weariness; it is not that his life has been especially hard or bad, just that it has been a let down. I think that is how many people feel these days; it is the horror of being middling, of having an average or not-quite-brilliant existence. In The Tunnel Gass has his protagonist fantasising about a Party of Disappointed People, a party that the professor would undeniably have lobbied to join.
Someone who was by his own admission very influenced by Chekhov was Raymond Carver, and like Carver, the Russian’s best stories are snapshots. They don’t tell a story, as we generally understand that term, but often capture an insignificant moment in an insignificant person’s life, thereby giving that moment significance. There are some that are more dramatic, but even with these the tone is one of banality; what I mean by this is that there might be death or arguments or whatever, but these things are treated as absolutely ordinary [which of course they are]. Chekhov’s prose style is well suited to his subjects; it is simple, straightforward, without ever seeming stupid or inconsequential; it is, however, occasionally dreamy, almost surreal, like in the story of Gusev where his body is weighted and dropped into the ocean; we follow it as it falls and frightens a shoal of fish and catches the attention of a shark.
In terms of the translation, I am on record in having my doubts about the abilities of Pevear and Volokhonsky; my main gripe is that much of their work reads exactly the same, regardless of which author they are dealing with; their translations read as though they were all written by the same person, and I refuse to accept that many of the great Russian authors did not have their own individual style. Furthermore, at least two of their translations are pretty much unreadable; the sentences, phrases, word order etc in their versions of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and Gogol’s Dead Souls are often confusing and almost impossibly ugly. However, neither of those two issues are present in Chekhov’s Stories to any great extent; sure, there were a couple of times I raised my eyebrows, but in this case the occasionally strange English was distracting rather than a major problem.
In any case, to sum up, while this particular collection did not blow my mind [some of the selections struck me as odd, considering the translators had almost the entire back catalogue to plunder; the story involving a recently deceased monk, for example, seemed an esoteric inclusion, at best], a number of the individual pieces did, certainly enough of them to convince me that Chekhov was a very fine writer and that from the 100+ stories he authored someone could put together something genuinely stunning, a kind of flawless best of. If you like that sort of thing. Which, generally speaking, I don’t.