Tag Archives: Anton Chekhov

A Pocket Book of Short Stories

A Pocket Book of Short Stories is something I have seen in National Book Store since I was in grade school. Over the years, I developed the impression that these old stocks waited year after year for buyers that rarely came along. I never thought I would actually own a copy until Kai gave me her book.

With the increasing number of must-read authors nowadays, I rarely get the chance to read (or reread) classics. Each year, circulating before-you-die checklists remind me of how little of classic literature I’ve read. The short stories included in this collection, diverse as they are, share one thing in common: they all belong to a different time, and that is exactly what constitutes a classic—something recognizably dated, yet still works even after all those years. Nevertheless, certain problems arose in my reading which I think mostly have to do with chronological distance. I had to read “The Killers” twice to appreciate it (like my first time with “Hills Like White Elephants,” which grows better with every reading). Other stories I grasped immediately. I admired O. Henry’s narrative skill in “A Municipal Report” and Somerset Maugham’s excellent characterization in “Rain,” which had a strong impact on me, that deviously crafted story. Then there are those I completely fail to appreciate, despite repeated readings, like Sherwood Anderson’s “Seeds.”

I am particularly fond of two stories about women: Dorothy Parker’s “Big Blonde” and Katherine Mansfield’s “Bliss.” I remember Mansfield’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which I taught in class last semester. If anything, this second encounter made me realize how much I want to read more of her. I looked up her story collections, but the only one available from the Rizal Library—The Garden Party and Other Stories—is dilapidated to the point of decay.

Although some stories here barely leave any impression on me, there are also those I would want to assign to my students if ever I teach again—stories I would want them to remember. For these are not stories you simply breeze by and forget. You contemplate them because they bother you, and eventually you find that in the course of such reflection, the story has carved out a space inside you, a small repository of beauty that you will carry with you wherever you go.

Introduction (M. Edmund Speare)

The desire to tell stories and to listen to them is one of the qualities inherent in all human nature, and the storyteller’s art is perhaps the oldest of all the arts in the world, and the best-loved.

[The short story] is just the right length in a world of tumult and hurry…

The essential quality of the short story is its economy. …here everything must show intensity of concentration, a squeezing of a slice of life into the narrowest of compasses…

The Devil and Daniel Webster (Stephen Vincent Benét)

There was sadness in being a man, but it was a proud thing too.

Big Blonde (Dorothy Parker)

To her who had laughed so much, crying was delicious.

There was nothing separate about her days. Like drops upon a window-pane, they ran together and trickled away.

Somewhere in her head or her heart was the lazy, nebulous hope that things would change and she and Herbie settle suddenly into soothing married life.

Paul’s Case (Willa Cather)

It was at the theater and at Carnegie Hall that Paul really lived; the rest was but a sleep and a forgetting.

Seeds (Sherwood Anderson)

There is a note that comes into the human voice by which you may know real weariness. It comes when one has been trying with all his heart and soul to think his way along some difficult road of thought.

‘We all want to be loved and the world has no plan for creating our lovers.’

‘I have seen under the shell of life and I am afraid.’

Bliss (Katherine Mansfield)

Although Bertha Young was thirty she still had moments like this when she wanted to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement, to bowl a hoop, to throw something up in the air and catch it again, or to stand still and laugh at—nothing—at nothing, simply.

Disorder and Early Sorrow (Thomas Mann)

Bert is blond and seventeen. He intends to get done with school somehow, anyhow, and fling himself into the arms of life.

Rain (W. Somerset Maugham)

But the most striking thing about him was the feeling he gave you of suppressed fire. It was impressive and vaguely troubling. He was not a man with whom any intimacy was possible.

A Municipal Report (O. Henry)

I must tell you how I came to be in Nashville, and I assure you the digression brings as much tedium to me as it does to you.

She was exquisite, she was a valuable discovery. Nearly everybody nowadays knows too much—oh, so much too much—of real life.

‘Isn’t it in the still, quiet places that things do happen?’

A Lodging for the Night (Robert Louis Stevenson)

‘As for change, let somebody change my circumstances. A man must continue to eat, if it were only that he may continue to repent.’

The Procurator of Judea (Anatole France)

‘It is a knotty point, how far one is justified in devising things for the commonweal against the will of the populace.’

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Forty Stories

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.

Heartache

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.

On Love

…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.

The Bride

‘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.