‘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

‘The Kiss’ by Anton Chekhov

James Wood’s description of ‘The Kiss’ in his book The Nearest Thing to Life is pitch-perfect. It relates to his theory of ‘serious noticing’ and he writes of how hypervigilance can transform our relationship to time and experience. The story exists also as an instruction of how to tell a story. Ryabovich becomes obsessed with a woman who erroneously kissed him in the darkness. He did not see her, only sensed her. If someone made a film-short of ‘The Kiss’ now, I’d put my money on Richard Linklater for the role of director. Experience isn’t as faithful to time as we think. Certainly not after it’s been fed through our brain repeatedly. Ryabovich is masterful at synthesising the experience in his head, but not in his life, and this is a common theme in the stories that I admire. We can all relate to the comfort found in projected experiences rather than lived ones.

Read in Short Stories from the 19th Century, selected by David Stuart Davies, 2000 and widely collected. Can be read online here

‘Gusev’ by Anton Chekhov, translated by Rosamund Bartlett

This story, written in 1890, describes a period of days in a stifling sickbay aboard a ship in the Pacific, returning to Russia from the Far East. Gusev, a batman, is baffled by the complaints of his educated companion, Pavel Ivanych, and dreams feverishly of his home village, longing to hurtle into its cold snowdrifts and to see his niece and nephew again. Gusev and Pavel Ivanych, and the soldiers and sailors sharing their cabin, are dying of tuberculosis. They are members of a crop of characters that contracted the disease in the stories Chekhov wrote in this period: a year earlier TB had killed his brother, the artist Nikolai Chekhov, at the age of 31, and in response Chekov had written ‘A Boring Story’ (sometimes translated as ‘A Dreary Story’), a lengthy and depressing account of the illness and death of a scientist. And since 1884 Chekhov had known that he too had TB, and that it would probably be the cause of his death (which it was, in a Black Forest hotel room in 1904, when he was just 44, an event Raymond Carver describes in his 1987 story ‘Errand’).

‘Gusev’ is desolate but also very beautiful, which makes it a notable counterpoint to the unremittingly bleak ‘A Boring Story’. Gusev’s death arrives starkly: “He sleeps for two days, and on the third, at noon, two sailors come down to the sick bay and carry him out”. In plain language Chekhov describes the preparation of the body for burial at sea, with Gusev’s body sewn up in his sailcloth shroud looking “like a carrot or a radish”. Just before the board is lifted and his corpse slides into the water, the soldiers and sailors on deck “look out towards the waves. It is strange to think that a person has been sewn up in a sailcloth and is about to go headlong into the waves. Could that really happen to anyone?”

This question works in tandem with a passage found a couple of pages earlier, when Gusev asks one of his surviving companions to take him up on deck for some air. They stand beside the rail at the bow,

looking silently up above and then down below. Up above is deep sky, clear stars, and silence, exactly like at home in the village, but down below there is darkness and disorder. For no fathomable reason the huge waves are making a lot of noise. Whichever wave you look at, each one tries to go higher than all the others, chasing after and pounding the one before it; a third, just as ferocious and wild, will fall upon it noisily, with its white mane shimmering.

The passage seems to describe the hopelessness of life, its “darkness and disorder”, and reading it makes me think of something similar in Maupassant, when the miserable, abandoned patrons of a temporarily closed bordello in the story ‘Madame Tellier’s Establishment’, stand on a Normandy beach halfway around the world and watch as the “foam on the crest of the waves made bright patches of white in the darkness which disappeared as quickly as they came, and the monotonous sound of the sea breaking on the rocks echoed through the night all along the cliffs” (translated by Roger Colet).

For all the preceding sombreness, the conclusion of ‘Gusev’ is one of the most remarkable and beautiful things in all Chekhov’s work: his focus becomes more expansive as he follows the corpse into the sea, past a shoal of pilot fish and into the path of a shark. Above the water, he continues this movement away from the tight confines of the sickbay, and eventually away from any kind of human concern: the sun is rising and lighting up clouds that resemble “a triumphal arch, another like a lion, and a third like scissors”. The sky takes on rich colours, and the ocean “frowns at first as it looks at this magnificent, mesmerising sky, but it too then takes on those tender, radiant, passionate colours which are difficult to describe in human terms”. It is beautiful, but it is vertiginous, too. It’s a piece of writing I sometimes find consoling and sometimes horrifying. It is a story I find I must return to, but I never do so lightly.

From About Love and Other Stories, Oxford World’s Classics 2004. Read a version from a 1944 collection of Chekhov stories – translator unknown, but it’s not Constance Garnett – here