Chekhov’s gun and The Cherry Orchard. Until I opened this book, this comprised the extent of my knowledge about the author: his oft-quoted rule and his last play, which I read for Mark Cayanan’s class three years ago. Forty Stories compiles Chekhov’s short fiction from over two decades of writing. Arranged chronologically, the stories in this collection reveal his development as a writer.
Chekhov begins with his career with tales of mischief, written for amusement. These range from short vignettes like “The Threat” to longer, more character-heavy pieces such as “St. Peter’s Day.” A few years into his writing, he begins incorporating socio-political issues in his works, and eventually arranges entire stories to revolve around this concern. Compared to his humorous sketches, these are more layered pieces that tend to opposite extremes: although often hilarious (“Sergeant Prishibeyev,” “Death of a Government Clerk”), these stories can also, at other times, be deeply disturbing (“Sleepyhead”). Later on he finds interest in emotional stories, in the daily grief of mortals (“The Huntsman,” “Heartache”), a preoccupation that will resurface toward the end of his career with newfound subtlety. His last few stories reveal a skillful combination of these fixations—humor, social commentary, and human emotion—in myriad situations set in the nexus of public and private life.
The back cover of Forty Stories quotes from Chekhov: “I long to embrace, to include in my own short life, all that is accessible to man. I long to speak, to read, to wield a hammer in a great factory, to keep watch at sea, to plow. I want to be walking along the Nevsky Prospect, or in the open fields, or on the ocean—wherever my imagination ranges.” And in his stories, the author does all these. His protagonists come from all walks of life: princesses, clerks, exiles, wives, servants. Chekhov covers a variety of experiences and problems, and illustrates them in diverse manners, so that even after forty stories, you don’t feel at all weary of his voice. He achieves a delicate poignancy in his character portraits, most notably in “The Bishop.” And although his latter stories are rather long, you don’t feel the length because of his easy pace and manner of storytelling. Lastly, Robert Payne’s competent translation and his excellent introduction (possibly the best I have ever read) also add to the qualities of this book—making it, for me, a worthy purchase.
Death of a Government Clerk
Very often in stories you come upon this word ‘suddenly,’ and this is all very proper, since authors must always concern themselves with the unexpectedness of life.
He heard the insults which were being hurled at him, he saw the people in the street, and little by little the feeling of loneliness was lifted from his heart.
The House with the Mezzanine
I am beginning to forget the house with the mezzanine, but sometimes when I am painting or reading, for no reason at all, quite suddenly, I find myself remembering the green lamp at the window and the sound of my footsteps echoing through the fields of the night as I walked home on the day I was in love, rubbing my hands to keep them warm. And sometimes too—but this happens more rarely—when I am weighed down with melancholy and loneliness, I am the prey of other confused thoughts, and it seems to me that I, too, am being remembered, and she is waiting for me, and we shall meet again…
In the Horsecart
Here was her past and her present, and she could imagine no other future than the school, the road to the town and back again, and again the school and again the road.
And it seemed to her that everything in the world was shivering with cold.
…I kept trying to understand why she had met him first and not me, and why it was necessary that such a terrible mistake should have occurred in our lives.
‘Can’t you realize that to enable you and your mother and your grandmother to live a life of leisure, others have to work for you, and you are devouring their lives? Is that right? Isn’t it a filthy thing to do?’
In her imagination life stretched before her, a new, vast, infinitely spacious life, and this life, though still obscure and full of mysteries, lured and attracted her.