Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey
by Janet Malcolm
Random House, 210 pp., $23.95
The Complete Early Short Stories of Anton Chekhov, Volume One (1880–82): ‘He and She’ and Other Stories
translated from the Russian by Peter Sekirin
Megapolis, 204 pp., $16.00 (paper)
Before the smoking ban it might have happened that a lively young instructor running a creative writing course and picking up an ashtray from his or her desk could have said, “Well, class, for our next assignment I want you to write me a story about this ashtray.” The class would then be doing what Chekhov as a needy young medical student had nearly done a hundred years before. In Chekhov’s case the assignment was an imaginary one: his friend and fellow writer Vladimir Korolenko recorded in his memoirs that Anton Pavlovich had once picked up an ashtray when they were discussing together how stories should be written, and joked that if Korolenko had happened to be an editor, and would like a tale called “The Ashtray,” he could have it by next morning at the latest.
In practice the young Chekhov was a faster worker even than that. He could dash off a little sketch, a joke, a street scene, while hanging around the printer’s or the newspaper office and let them have it on the spot. At the age of twenty, in 1880, he was studying in Moscow to take his medical degree and writing quickies of all kinds for the magazines and newspapers in order to earn money both to pay for his own education and to subsidize his feckless family, as he would continue to do for the rest of his life. His patron and friend at this period was Nicholas Leikin, owner and publisher of the popular St. Petersburg journal Oskolki (“Splinters”), for which during the next few years Chekhov was to write more than a hundred and sixty pieces. Well translated by Peter Sekirin into a simple colloquial prose which adequately matches the Russian original, these brief stories and sketches—”A Letter to an Educated Neighbor,” “A Rotten Case,” or the wryly haunting “He and She”—often exhibit a zany charm which in the mature Chekhov has sobered into an assured although often no less inconclusive simplicity.
Chekhov’s early and late manner have in common the absence, in the ordinary literary sense, of “point.” Both these instant sketches and the quiet unfathomable masterpieces of Chekhov’s maturity are about as far as they could be from the brilliant fables of Guy de Maupassant or Somerset Maugham, which plan their timing and denouement with extreme care, keeping an encouraging eye on the reader as they do so, and making quite sure he doesn’t miss the point. Chekhov’s stories, whether late or early, are never the kind that can be told by a good raconteur to an appreciative audience; there is nothing anecdotal about them. However accustomed by now to absurdist and experimental literature, a modern audience might well find itself baffled by the young Chekhov’s little jeux d’esprit. They give us the sense, which we certainly do not have in Chekhov’s later work, that not only in our own countries but in Russia too the past is …