Wednesday, 5 June 2013

The short stories of Chekov

 I read a selection of Chekov’s short stories mostly because it was the last thing on a list of top writer’s favourite books that I had yet to read. Chekov, contrary to popular conception, was a plump, ruddy fellow who enjoyed a good time and a hearty laugh. I always thought him a sickly pale scholar, but not a bit of it.

Chekov is considered one of the world’s best short story writers. His style is utterly compact. The reader travels a long way in a few sentences, and a lot of the action is left ‘off camera’. All of his stories seem to zoom in on something very specific. He writes two different kinds of stories: little comedies that are often a raucous, acerbic criticism of high society, designed to show how ridiculous it all is. And his later ones, which are much more ‘serious’ and tend to have strong morality at their core.

The comedies were my favorite. One of them tells the story of an army corporal who accidently sneezes on a superior. He tries to say sorry, and the superior, with embarrassment, declares there is no need for apologies. The corporal thinks that he is being brushed off because his apology isn’t accepted, so he tries again, and again until he drives the senior official to irritation. Of course, the corporal confuses this for annoyance at the original sneeze, and going home, lays on his bed in complete resignation – and dies.

Another that I enjoyed tells the story of a man being driven home in a carriage on a deserted road. He talks himself into a paranoia that the driver is going to rob him, so he starts trying to make himself seem like a formidable foe. He describes how he has two guns with him and would shoot the driver without a second thought. The driver promptly deserts his carriage and runs off thinking he is being robbed.

 My thoughts

Some of Chekov’s stories have the kind of zinging pithiness of Zen Master tales. I didn’t always get the morality or purpose at their core, but I think sometimes that’s the point, to let us glimpse the meaningless of it all. I remember reading a beginner’s philosophy guide when I was a teenager, and it said that ‘meaning is in the mind, not in the world’. And that my blew my mind - things could mean anything then. Chekov did something similar for me.

I really liked Chekov’s stories, but I don’t think that they are up there with the greats of world literature. His stories are very concise little vignettes capturing a piece of information, emotion, or a comedic moment perfectly. But I didn’t find much else other than humor or poignancy. For example, I didn’t see much symbolism, plot, characters, deeper meaning, or fundamental truths about humankind. Perhaps I missed it. His stories are certainly allegorical – and the later ones are deeply moral. However, I found that the truths buried in Chekov’s stories, were actually more easily discovered in the world.

Chekov had great skill at writing; the succinctness of his sentences is fantastic. I can see why other writers would regard him as one of their favourite authors – his work is like a text-book for writers. And I could perhaps let him contend for the title of greatest short-story writer ever. But maybe I just don’t think short stories can ever be very good.  You put a lot of work in to understand a new fictional world, but the pay off is never really worth it. I love the idea of short stories, but try as hard as I do – I just don’t love them, the poor little things.

1 comment:

  1. Hey, I really like your list. I will be getting several of those from the Library. Just from observing your list, I believe you will enjoy this book: House of Leaves by Mark z. Danielewski.

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