Posted by: zhiv | June 5, 2009

Chekhov: Update and Thoughts

Obviously I steered off onto a major sidetrack by reading The Blithedale Romance. I suppose I had a suspicion that I was going to get sucked in by Hawthorne studies, and it’s an amazingly rich topic and has been quite enjoyable.

So I’m overdue to check in on Chekhov, to use an obvious phrase. Before the Hawthorne sidetrack there was a surprising turn in my Chekhov studies, as I jammed through the major plays much earlier than I would have expected, only because a friend was going to see Uncle Vanya in New York. I had already read more stories than I had written up before that, and in the interim I’ve probably added another dozen or more. I keep planning to catalogue my reading, get organized and make notes, but I don’t seem to be getting around to it. I’ll mention that I’ve been writing a larger, unrelated piece over the last couple of months, and that has further impaired my blogging.

Chekhov stories are easy to read and digest, while writing about them takes more of an effort. After reading Blithedale, while it was becoming obvious that I haven’t been reading any books this year, I decided to move to some of the longer stories of Chekhov, called Short Novels in the 1963 Norton Library edition I have here. So I read Ward #6 a few weeks ago, and Three Years more recently. Right now, with what I have at hand, it’ll be best to work backwards, going over what’s still somewhat fresh in my mind.

And I’ll say, generally, that this “Chekhov thing,” whatever it is that I’ve been doing, and regardless of the slow and leisurely pace, has been fantastic and is highly recommended. It’s satisfying, with great depth and infinite refinement, and it’s not especially challenging, although writing about the work isn’t so easy. One reason why I whiffed on Chekhov in my first breathless 10 year run through literature, I realize, is because it isn’t known for being difficult. There’s an attraction to dense and oblique modernist texts, from Virginia Woolf through Joyce and Proust and Musil. Alongside that is the attraction of the earlier big fellas, books like War and Peace and Brothers K and Moby Dick and Middlemarch and even Clarissa and Tom Jones. And with that, recognizing the quality of these writers, you want to read more of their works, trying to read all of Austen and Eliot and great gobs of Dickens, Thackeray, and Trollope. And moving forward, after modernism, in my time it was easy to get pulled in by John Barth and Pynchon, not to mention Kerouac, Mailer and Kesey and Nabokov, Marquez and Calvino and others. Skipping over realists like Richard Yates and Mary McCarthy happened as a result, and perhaps the neglect is akin somehow to missing Chekhov.

The point I want to make, I think, is about the variety of Chekhov’s canvas as a whole. At a glance, and this is the mistaken assumption that I made, a bunch of stories and a few plays don’t seem to amount to much. Part of this is presentation, as we generally see standard-sized assorted collections of Chekhov’s stories, which contain anywhere from 5 to 6 stories to 25 or 30. It’s an unfortunate fact that there is no readily available Chekhov big book, a volume or pair of volumes with 100 stories, including the longer ones, something hefty to set beside Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. The two newer black Norton Critical Editions, Short Stories and Plays, cover a fair amount of ground and set the mood, and the stories volume is a broad selection, but it’s missing a lot. One effect is that when you read one of these smaller collections there’s an impulse to say okay, I get it, I see what he’s doing, what he’s about. Yes, that’s obvious enough, but the format diminishes the accomplishment. It would be different if the quality wasn’t uniformly at the highest level, but what do we do when one story is better than the next, when we see the exquisite detail and twists and turns of character and event time after time? I myself made the mistake of skipping Chekhov, of glancing at it, of seeing his work as not particularly challenging, despite generally knowing that he was worthy somehow. With no big, challenging book of obvious variety and difficulty, Chekhov is too easy to miss and read in smaller, bite-sized pieces. I’m guilty of this myself, but I’ve read enough now that I’m starting to see the value of the whole. It’s a stunning accomplishment, and it seems as if part of the trick is to evaluate it from the perspective of completion (completion neurosis!), as one would with Austen or Dickens or Woolf. And batting average and slugging percentage are factors too. If Chekhov has no grand slam–although it’s easy to argue that the four plays are just that–and few home runs, how many doubles and triples does he have? Dozens?

And so I wonder about the path that people take, in the same vein, I suppose, as my remarks on “getting to Adam Bede.” The case is slightly different, falling under the heading of reading challenges. I’m reminded of the case of reading Clarissa, and Boswell for that matter, back in the day. When I was in college and grad school the only edition of Clarissa in print was the Riverside abridged version, which was four or five hundred pages–I can check. The abridgment allowed it to be assigned in 18th century lit and novel courses. I find myself on the same ground as the Adam Bede post, looking at the choices that are made in developing a syllabus. If you’re going to read Tom Jones, long enough in itself, you’re not going to get through Clarissa, and you have no chance if you want to do Tristram Shandy or anything else. It was strange, however, that one had to dig somewhat industriously, going to older out-of-print editions in the library, if you wanted to read a complete version of Clarissa. I remember being very proud of my copy of the Everyman 4-volume edition, which didn’t turn up very often. I’ve mentioned before that I read the Signet radically abridged version of Boswell’s life when I was a sophomore, and how I was overjoyed to discover that there were another six or seven hundred pages at least that had been left out. When a book is great, when you care, you want all of it. Not too long after my grad student days, in the mid-80s I would guess, a complete Penguin edition of Clarissa appeared, and the interesting thing is that the abridged version fell away and quickly disappeared. And a lot more people are probably reading Clarissa, and they’re reading it whole.

Part of what I was interested in with Clarissa, along with Boswell and Tolstoy and Proust, was the challenge. I can figure out Chekhov for myself, although the cataloguing process would be simpler if I didn’t have five or six different books I was sampling, and maybe all of this is just a complaint about my own lack of organization. But I wonder how the available editions affect our exposure and experience, and if a large group of readers might not be missing something great in Chekhov because his work isn’t presented in a more challenging and comprehensive format.


  1. Well, count me in as a person who has only sampled Chekhov, and it’s exactly because I never saw a large collection of his stories. I have a small Penguin collection of some of the stories which I read and loved quite a long time ago, and I’ve read, hmmm, one play, and that’s it. And while I always say I’d like to read more, I haven’t, and it’s partly because I’d have to figure out what other collection I could get that doesn’t overlap with the one I’ve got. But I count myself a fan. Could I count myself an Eliot fan having read only, say, Silas Marner? Not really. I think also people think of “the Russians” as one block of people and if they are going to read “the Russians” turn to Tolstoy or Dostoevsky first. Also I think people are more likely to pick up novels rather than stories and definitely novels rather than plays, so Chekhov suffers on a lot of counts. Which is too bad.

  2. I think you’re really on to something here – getting Chekhov treated liked Balzac, for example, would be great – seeing his work as a large and orchestrated completed project would be a useful way to approach him. Do you know if he saw himself this way, I only ask since I put up a Balzac comparison and Balzac did see himself that way, which is makes it easy to take that approach.

    And I like Dorothy’s comment about how people first approach The Russians and how that often leaves Chekhov out. I know that he is read widely in creative writing programs since he’s supposed to be the greatest short story writer ever…some people do really start to go through his work, piece by piece. Unfortunately, this hasn’t translated into a body of critical work (that I know of) because the appraoch isn’t critical, but practical, a kind of apprenticeship.

  3. DW–The more you read, the clearer the dilemma becomes. You’re prompting me to continue in this vein, and write about the different editions running around. We’ll see if I get around to it. I would be curious about your reading of Clarissa… but any girl weighing doing the Infinite Summer understands a challenge. My daughter is sitting alone in a lakehouse feeling sorry for herself and she powered to page 300 on Sunday. The perfect combination of youthful alienation and intellectual enthusiasm.

    V–I’m trying, or at least I’m going to try to view the work as something like a whole. But no, part of the problem is that Chekhov seems to feel just the opposite impulse. He has a mania for brevity and an attraction to depth of character at the same time–it’s fascinating. On top of that he seems quite unassuming about his work, turning out gems which satisfy his refined aesthetic, but not pushing towards a larger, more expansive format, and turning towards drama instead. The best idea I’ve bumped into for understanding Chekhov’s program, which I wrote about previously, is the medical diagnosis and treatment metaphor, a clinical starting point. There’s no connection between cases.

    There’s a ton of criticism, once you start looking for it. Chekhov has gotten his due, but as I’ve said about some other authors and books recently, it’s a bit tricky to get to sometimes.

  4. About Clarissa — I read the book for an 18C novel class I was auditing in grad school. Funny story, actually — the professor assigned the abridged version, just to keep the reading load in the class manageable. But when she got a guest speaker to come in and talk about the book and when she heard the guest speaker had strong feelings about NOT assigning the abridged version, she made a last-minute switch and made us all read the entire thing. Because I was auditing, I only made it through 500 pages (only!) during the semester, but I finished it up that Christmas. I have memories of sitting on the couch for hours and feeling like I hadn’t made any progress at all …

  5. Please excuse the tardiness of my reply. Life moves slower outside of the states during summer, it seems. Perhaps only because Chekhov is my favourite Russian author, and the one that I read first (discounting the poetry of Pushkin, that is), I feel compelled to share with you the following.
    I am not sure as to whether or not you came across this compilation during your searches for Chekhov works, but I cannot help to think to the edition a colleague of mine owns:
    While it certainly possesses some drawbacks, most notably with regards to Ecco’s choice of paper and the overall printing quality, I have yet to come across so thorough, and so enjoyable a collection. In addition, I supplemented borrowing my colleague’s editions with this fantastic read,
    which gives insight an author, as mentioned, oft overlooked.
    I hope this helps.

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