It is difficult to “follow your bliss” during a pandemic; I have been all over the map with my reading. But one of the great comforts this month has been Anton Chekhov, whose graceful style and genuine characters make it easy to lose yourself in his world.
I began with 100 pages of the new translation of Chekhov’s stories by Pevear and Volokhonsky, but realized I prefer the plays. After rereading The Sea Gull and The Cherry Orchard, I dusted off our copy of The Portable Chekhov, a brilliant collection of short stories, plays, and letters, edited and translated by Avrahm Yarmolinsky, except for five stories translated by Constance Garnett.
Let me digress by saying how much I have always loved The Viking Portable Library, which has been around, I think, since the 1940s. We were forever being assigned these books in college, because they were inexpensive, attractive, and edited by scholars: The Portable Thomas Hardy, The Portable D. H. Lawrence, The Portable Chekhov, The Portable Nineteenth-Century Russian Reader, The Portable Twentieth-Century Russian Reader, The Portable Nietzche–so many Portables! I love these volumes because they are lightweight, with perfect-sized print even for the nearsighted, and the heft of a much smaller book than their average of 700 pages.
Chekhov, who was a doctor as well as a writer, had a wide-ranging knowledge of people of different classes. The early stories are often simple tales and sketches about peasants; later he moves on to more complicated and, to my mind, more interesting stories and novellas about the middle- and upper-classes. Sometimes there is a hint of Tolstoy in his style, sometimes of Turgenev, sometimes even of Lermentov. I alway admire his gift for describing unhappy circumstances concisely and sharply without a trace of sentimentality.
Yet you will be devastated by the early story” Vanka,” with its cruel sense of irony. Vanka, a nine-year-old orphan who has been a shoemaker’s apprentice in Moscow for three months, stays up on Christmas Eve to write a letter to his grandfather. Vanka wants to go home: he is bewildered by the big city, where boys don’t go caroling; he is beaten by his master and mistress for for falling asleep while rocking the baby in a cradle, and not cleaning the herring properly; and he is given only bread or porridge to eat. He is so hungry.
“Do come, dear Granddaddy. For Christ’s sake, I beg you, take me away from here. Have pity on me, an unhappy orphan, here everyone beats me, and I am terribly hungry, and I am so blue, I can’t tell you how, I keep crying.”
At this point, we need Dickens to intervene and save him, but alas, it does not happen. Chekhov is an observer, not a social worker. And so Vanka addresses the letter to “Grandfather in the village” and mails it. He is happy and full of hope, and we are saddened by the irony.
In Chekhov’s wickedly astute stories, wisdom is not always held by the best-educated. In “The Letter,” Archdeacon Fyor Orlov unwillingly entertains two collegues, Father Anasty, an old man who has been forbidden to officiate because of drinking and negligence in keeping church accounts, and deacon Lubimov, who has just heard disturbing news that his son is living with a woman out of wedlock. Archdeacon Orlov says he must write a letter to his son, and ends up writing the letter for Lubimov. Both Lubimov and Father Anasty praise the letter, but Father Anasty later tells Lubimov not to send it. “What’s the good of it? You’ll send it, he’ll read it, and then what? You’ll only upset him. Forgive him, let it be.” And this story has a happy, comical ending.
I have to admit, the famous stories are famous for a reason. “The Kiss” is an exceptional story, in which a shy army office is kissed in the dark at a party by a woman who mistakes him for someone else. For the next year, he fantasizes about her and wonders which woman she was. An ironic circumstance prevents from form finding out.
In my favorite, “The Name-Day Party,” a young pregnant woman is outraged when she overhears her husband flirting with a young girl and complaining about his life. She has to behave pleasantly, because the guests will be there till midnight, but she is raging under her mask. And their fight after the party unveils their true relationship.
So what can be more fabulous than Chekhov?
And shall I read the letters? But I’m not sure I want to know that much about Chekhov!