"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

February 23, 2013

Best Short Stories by Anton Chekhov (1): Earliest Comical Stories (1882-1885)

Together with Guy de Maupassant, Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) shaped the genre of the short story (and of the modern play, but that is another matter). According to one source, Chekhov published 588 stories, of which 528 between 1882 and 1888 and the rest (60) between 1888 and 1904. In other words, his youthful output was prodigious: at age 26 he had already published 400 pieces. Many of these are buried in the original editions of the magazines of the time, they were never reprinted in book form. (Some of these uncollected pieces have become the subject of the interesting The Undiscovered Chekhov by Peter Constantine, who also wrote an informative article about these often experimental stories and sketches). But other early stories were selected by Chekhov for his Collected Works (brought out between 1899 and 1902), and that are the stories we are talking about now, as these in turn have become the basis of most translations into English and other languages.

The first and most influential of those translations were the 17 volumes of 201 stories translated by Constance Garnett (1861-1946) and published between 1916 and 1922 - thanks to Garnett, Chekhov became known in the West and influenced such authors as Hemingway, Joyce, Woolf and Mansfield. Garnett's translations are in the public domain, and are quite reliable - on top of that, Garnett has a felicitous hand where it concerns Chekhov, just as in her Turgenev translations. They are available on Gutenberg, eBooks@Adelaide and other sites with public domain books.

[Chekhov (left) in 1882, with his brother Nikolai. 
Photo from Wikipedia]

Chekhov was born in 1860 in the port town of Taganrog, in southern Russia on the Sea of Azov. His father, with whom he had a difficult relationship, failed in business and fled with wife and two of his sons to Moscow when Chekhov was only 16 and still a pupil at the local high-school. Chekhov finished school in Taganrog, supporting himself in various ways, before joining his family in Moscow where he started studying medicine. Chekhov wrote his stories (plus other newspaper work as a column with Moscow gossip) because he badly needed the money, both for himself and his parents and brothers who were largely dependent on him. Chekhov worked under difficult conditions, on the kitchen table in tiny rooms filled with noisy people. He wrote fast and looked everywhere for new materials. As most magazines had little space, he also learned how to be concise and paint a character or situation in just a few brushstrokes.

Here we will look at the often comical stories that formed Chekhov's earliest production, those from the years 1882-1885. Although he dashed them off to support himself and his family, they are certainly no hackwork.

One important theme in this period is satire of the gigantic Tsarist bureaucracy or more in general, of the hypocritical behavior, absurd rituals and bribery that are rampant in a strictly hierarchical society as the Russian one. He attacks these with surrealistic humor and with the exasperation of a young man who is still idealistic. Another group of stories finds its humor more simply in comical situations, or people behaving in a stupid or extremely naive way. In comparison to the later stories, Chekhov in these years still observes mostly from the outside, the situation makes the story, rather than what is happening inside the head of the protagonist.

[Chekhov monument in Taganrog. Photo Wikipedia]

Here are the 10 best stories from 1883-85:
  1. "The Death of a Civil Servant" ("The Death of a Government Clerk"; July, 1883). Russian society is extremely vertical, and Chekhov has written several early stories to criticize the exaggerated humility of those in lower ranks towards their superiors. In this story, a clerk sneezes while watching a play in the theater and his spit hits the bald pate of a high official sitting in front of him. He immediately apologizes, but when the reaction of his exalted victim is rather tepid, he apologizes again, and again. The next day he visits the official and once more makes his excuses in a rather emphatic way. His repeated obsequiousness and reference to something unpleasant, but minor, so upsets the official that the clerk is literally thrown out. Paralyzed with fear that he will loose his job, the clerk takes to his bed and dies.
  2. "The Daughter of Albion" (August, 1883). A landowner is fishing at the riverside, together with the English governess of his children. A friend comes to meet him. The landowner speaks roughly and impolitely about the governess in her own presence, for even after ten years in Russia, she still can't manage a word of the language, he explains. Then his hook is stuck at the bottom of the river. He has to undress in order to go into the water and retrieve the hook, but the governess doesn't understand him when he asks her to leave or look the other way. So he just takes off his clothes in front of her and steps stark naked into the river. She seems unperturbed. This story is a critique of lack of respect for others.
  3. "Fat and Thin" (October, 1883). Two old schoolmates, a fat one and a thin one, meet in front of the station. They haven't met for many, many years and strike up an animated discussion. The thin one, who is accompanied by his family, tells he has just been promoted to head clerk. The fat one, as it turns out, is already a much higher ranking official. As soon as the thin man hears this, all normal human feelings are gone and he looses himself in groveling humility...
  4. "The Chameleon" (September, 1884). Again an excellent "hierarchy" story. A man has been bitten by a dog and asks the local policeman to take action towards the lax owner. But who is the owner? The behavior of the servant of the law changes like a chameleon, depending on his guessing of who the owner of the dog might be. After all, he can't inconvenience the local landlord or other authorities with a complaint about their dog!
  5. "Oysters" (December, 1884) A father and his young son stand in front of a restaurant. The father has lost his job and has no money left, this is the first day that they have to start begging for food. The father, however, is too ashamed to do so. The restaurant advertises "oysters" and the boy asks what these are. A customer hears the boy and invites him to a good meal of oysters. At night, the father who didn't get any food, is still hungry, and the boy has severe heartburn...
  6. "The Swedish Match" (1884). Detective stories with logically reasoning sleuths became popular around this time in Russia, and Chekhov wrote two:  a novel - his only one! - called The Shooting Party (available as a Penguin Classic) and this story, which in fact makes fun of the genre. A man is thought to have been murdered and the detective by strict logical reasoning solves the case and arrests the culprits... until the murdered man is discovered, in the shed of his mistress with whom he was hiding for a few days of intensive lovemaking!
  7. "The Marshall's Widow" (February, 1885). That strong liquor was just as popular in Russia in Chekhov's time as today, is evident from many of Chekhov's stories. A widow of a Marshall every year has a Requiem Mass read for her deceased husband, followed by a lunch for the local notables. The lunch is always excellent and therefore very popular, but there is one problem: it is a teetotalist event, as liquor carried the Marshall to his grave. But the participants know how to solve that problem in various, ingenious ways...
  8. "The Fish" (July, 1885) Two men are trying to catch an eelpout in the river, using their bare hands to get hold of the slippery fish. They have been at it for an hour, when more forces arrive, including the local landowner. But the result is not as hoped for... A beautiful description of the river scenery.
  9. "The Malefactor" (July, 1885). A villager has been arrested and stands in front of the judge. He has stolen iron bolts from the railway, which endangers the trains. He uses the bolts as weights for his fishing rod, and has no idea of the difference between things rightfully belonging to him and what is government property - let alone the larger idea of the public weal. As appears from his defense, neither have the other villagers... 
  10. "The Huntsman" (July, 1885) The best of the stories from this period, foreshadowing the later Chekhov. A huntsman always lives alone in the woods, busy with his occupation, away from his wife of twelve years. He even never visits her. When by chance he comes across  his wife, she tries to make him come home (she still harbors tender feelings for him), but he sees no point in it. It is the fate of his wife that she is married to a huntsman, he claims and leaves again. At their parting, he gives her a ruble. A deft story without moralizing, with an unspoken tragedy hidden behind the simple words.
I have read Chekhov in the Constance Garnett translations available on eBooks@adelaide (see the links in the story titles). The selection was made among 42 stories from 1883-85. A few more stories from these years are available in other collections, for example those in Penguin Classics or Oxford Classics.