‘The Kiss’ by Anton Chekhov, translated by Ronald Wilks

What would a class on the short story be without some Chekhov? I usually teach three favourites, ‘The Lady with the Little Dog,’ ‘The Darling,’ and the one I finally settled on for this list, ‘The Kiss.’ Coming as it does after Balzac’s ‘Sarrasine’ and Kipling’s ‘Mrs. Bathurst’ (wonderful stories I cut from this list with regret), ‘The Kiss’ is a lesson in how nothing much needs to happen in a story. Balzac and Kipling’s melodramatic plottiness contrasts with Chekhov’s lassitude, boredom, and melancholy.

My students and I spend a lot of time on a single passage, in which the protagonist, the hapless Staff-Captain Ryabovich, whose “lynx-like side whiskers and spectacles seemed to be saying ‘I’m the shyest, most modest, and most insignificant officer in the whole brigade!’”, has what the narrator calls “a little adventure.” Along with some other officers, Ryabovich has been invited to a party at a country house near the town where six battalions have put up for the evening. Too shy to dance, too clumsy to play billiards, Ryabovich wanders the house until he gets lost. Opening a door at random, he finds himself in a dark room, where he is astonished to hear a voice whisper “At last!” before he is embraced: “a burning cheek pressed against his and at the same time there was the sound of a kiss.”

We parse this unusual, almost synaesthetic description (why the sound of a kiss rather than a feeling?), and reflect on what follows it: the woman utters a cry, shrinks back in what Ryabovich is convinced is disgust, and rushes from the room. The rest of the story is an extended depiction of how a non-event, or, at best, near-event, can expand in fantasy, to the point of consuming a life. The story is full of people who can’t imagine that others don’t think the way they do, don’t fancy the same types of women or men they do, don’t tell the same sort of lies they do.

The ending offers a classically Chekhovian irony: Ryabovich is disabused of his fantasies, realizes what a fool he’s made of himself, resigns himself to the stupidity of the human experience, as endless and aimless as the water in a river purling against the piles of a hut. Or, at least, it seems he does. At the very end, though, he’s still telling himself stories of “how fate had accidentally caressed him.” The moral of the story is that we can’t help but make our lives into stories.

First published in Russian in New Times in 1887. Published in English in The Steppe and Other Stories, 1887 – 1891, Penguin 2001. Read the Constance Garnett translation here

‘The Student’ by Anton Chekhov

Chekhov is surely the most compassionate writer there is. His worldview allows for all kinds of failures and he fully accepts human weaknesses, able to see the beauty in even the most ugly behaviour. I can’t find my copy of this story but I remember its contrasts – of dark night and harsh weather against the warmth of the women’s fire, their lack of education compared with the eponymous student’s. What stayed with me, strongly enough to feel as if my brain chemistry might  be altered by it, is the shape of the story and its movement from distance (the student’s observations of the “tall fat old woman in a man’s coat” and her daughter’s “stupid’ pock-marked face”) through emotion (the widow wipes her tears away with her sleeve), to catharsis (the student surveys his village from a hilltop and understands the meaning of life). The women are reminiscent of Macbeth’s witches as they wash up their cauldron and wipe away their tears and the student casts himself as St Peter as he warms himself by their fire. It isn’t lost on me that the women’s connection is human and small scale while the (male) student’s is epic, vast, historical, as he experiences connection with landscape and time. This is Chekhov’s point. I experience the catharsis he describes as I read his story, to such an extent that I feel physically transformed. This is also the effect of the Kafka and Welty stories I have chosen.

First published in Russian in Russkie Vedomosti, 1894. First translated by Constance Garnett in 1914. Available in various editions and translations since, including online here, no translator credited: boo!

‘An Anonymous Story’ by Anton Chekhov

Most of the stories here stand out as strange or memorable even within a body of work I love, but sometimes they’re the only story by a given writer I really remember or return to.  If it’s the latter, and everyone does it, and every does it to the same story… it’s a pretty tricky dynamic. A short story writer can accidentally becomeone story. With a writer who is many things, like Chekhov, that’s a kind of death. Long ago, after a really grim, famous-writer-craft-talk on ‘Lady with Lapdog’ I promised myself I’d never teach that story and I’ve avoided rereading it: my life in Chekhov has been blissful and varied and surprising ever since.

This story, ‘An Anonymous Story’, is a long, long first-person tale, and a great departure from what we think we know about this Russian. In this, Chekhov is a smirking, slippery writer, who would likely be appalled by the decorum of craft that’s crept up around him.

(Another strange writer, the Russian-born Englishman, William Gerhardie, author of the first study of Chekhov in English, was puzzled that we so often read Chekhov’s humor only as sadness.)

‘An Anonymous Story’—also known as ‘The Story of an Unknown Man’—is a comic set-up played straight: a revolutionary operative, seeking to gain information on a high government official, takes a job as the high official’s son’s valet… and promptly falls in love with the son’s mistress. Everything goes awry, of course, and leads us to a beautiful, terrible ending where the absurdity of all that has gone before is reaffirmed and redeemed in the space of a page and a half, or even just a paragraph.

My chest tightens thinking about that ending, which recently came to mind as I read the close of Rachel Cusk’s Kudos, holding us in a moment that is much in the same register.

First published in Russian as ‘The Story of an Unknown Man’ in Russkaya Mysl, February and March 1893. Translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky included in The Complete Short Novels, Everyman’s Library, 2004

‘Gusev’ by Anton Chekhov

Chekhov writes about all life, but the two great forces pumping through his short stories are love and death. They often meet in the same story but there are stories that are primarily about one or the other. ‘Gusev’ is a death story. Its plot is ostensibly simple. A discharged soldier boards a ship, becomes sick, and dies. However, the texture Chekhov builds around this simple plot is symphonic. There are deep digressions on metaphor, the nature of boredom, the nature of play, human prejudice, and God knows what else. That’s all part and parcel of Chekhov, though. There is something else that makes ‘Gusev’ special to me. I guess Chekhov was in his late style when he wrote it and was pulling off different formal tricks in each story, the way Cezanne, say, does in every painting of his mature period. He pulls off this formal trick at the end, which stops me every time I read it. The character, whose mind the text inhabits, dies, but the text continues, as life does. The text pans out from the ship. We see the dead character, wrapped in cloth, slide overboard and drift slowly, weirdly, down through a mile of sea, as sharks and pilot fish nuzzle it. We then pan out further, and into the best ending of all the short stories I’ve read. We are left hovering somewhere between the sky and the sea, which are both huge, empty, persisting, and assuming “the sweet, joyous, passionate colours for which there are scarcely any names in the tongue of man.”

First published in the Christmas 1890 edition of the newspaper Novoye Vremya. First published in English in The Witch and Other Stories, translated by Constance Garnett, in 1918. Currently collected in Forty Stories, translated by Robert Payne, Penguin Random House, 1991 and About Love and Other Stories, translated by Rosamund Bartlett, Oxford World’s Classics, 2008. Read Garnett’s translation online here

‘Verochka’ by Anton Chekhov

What can I say about Chekhov that hasn’t been said before? Probably not a lot other than to reiterate his genius as a master of the short story form. In ‘Verochka’, a twenty-one-year-old country girl by the name of Vera declares her love for Ivan Ognev, a somewhat naïve statistician who has been visiting Vera’s father on business. When Ognev leaves the country to return to the city, Vera accompanies him to the outskirts of her village where she makes her feelings as clear as decently possible. It’s a story of missed chances, pain and regret as Ognev struggles to respond to Vera’s advances. There is a sense here of individuals’ lives turning on the tiniest of moments as the choices they make set the direction for their future.

First published in New Times. Collected in In the Twilight, 1887, available in a new translation by Hugh Aplin from Alma Classics 2014. Available online in Constance Garnett’s earlier translation here

‘The New Villa’ by Anton Chekhov

In life you’re either a bastard or you’re a stupid bastard. That’s what my pal said. Kutcherov, an engineer, is involved in building a bridge near the village of Obrutchanovo. He and his wife like the area and so build a beautiful house there which becomes known as the New Villa. Generous and well-intentioned, Kutcherov and Elena treat the local peasants with kindness, but the people in turn regard them as fools, stupid in their benevolence. Even the bridge is called into question. Did they ask for a bridge? No. Did they get by without it before? Yes. Baffled and frustrated at their harsh treatment, Kutcherov and his wife eventually leave Obrutchanovo. In their place a government clerk comes to the New Villa, someone whose behaves as the villagers expect: “he talks and clears his throat as though he were a very important official, though he is only of the rank of a collegiate secretary, and when the peasants bow he makes no response.”

First published 1899, from Later Short Stories 1888-1903, trans. Constance Garnett, The Modern Library, 1999 and The Lady with the Little Dog and Other Stories, trans Ronald Wilks, Penguin Classics, 2002. Available online here

‘The Lady with the Little Dog’ by Anton Chekhov

So much has been written about Chekhov that I could hardly add anything original, but I just love the way he writes a few words and trivial details of the most ordinary lives of his summer guests, doctors on call, hunters in the field, riders on ferries, passers-by, city people displaced to the country, country people out of place in the city. There’s no plot, just an impression of these lives in their waves, repetitions and unexpected resolutions. He refuses to pass judgement. He said, ‘The fire in me burns evenly and sluggishly, without flashes or crashes. So what I write is neither outstandingly stupid nor remarkably intelligent. I have little passion. In matters of morality, I’m neither above or below the average. I’m like most people.’

First published in 1899. Widely collected, including in Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov, trans. Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky, Modern Library, 2000