The Miracle of Chekhov

Chekhov: The Early Stories, 1883–1888

chosen and translated by Patrick Miles and Harvey Pitcher
Macmillan, 203 pp., $14.95

Our view of Chekhov as a fiction writer has been a matter of luck—haphazard glimpses proffered at the whim of this or that translator and publisher. Chekhov wrote 588 stories; the mature work—some sixty pieces—appeared between 1888 and 1904. That leaves “528 items” (according to the introduction to this book) not quite accounted for, and the vagueness of that statement is typical of our relationship to Chekhov in English.

No complete chronological edition of the stories is available. Ronald Hingley’s Oxford Chekhov, for which there were such high hopes, turned out to be a disappointment.1 Hingley confined himself to the plays and the later fiction, and though he has provided the reader with the most extensive apparatus on Chekhov in English—revisions, alternate versions, the publication history of each story, and considerable background on the writing—his translation steers a rocky course between the colloquial and the academic. The truth is, Hingley, invaluable as a Chekhov commentator, has a tin ear. Though we are heavily in debt to him we pay a high price for the loan. Chekhov’s early stories come to us piecemeal—some in the Constance Garnett versions (all thirteen volumes about to be reissued by Ecco Press), and in sundry collections over the years.2

And so we have more reasons than usual to be grateful to Patrick Miles and Harvey Pitcher for these thirty-five early stories, known and unknown, arranged chronologically over a period of six years. They are smoothly readable for the most part, but the phrasing is sometimes relentlessly British or merely odd. Would anyone, even in England, say “Read it out” when they meant “Read it aloud”? Or “sneaking on people” when the sense conveys either “snitching on people,” in colloquial American, or “sneaking up on people,” in plain English?

The reprinting of any early work by Chekhov can be justified as representing the kind of thing he was grinding out as a medical student to make money. It is hard, though, to admire so fragmentary and lifeless a caricature as “Rapture,” the opening story of the book, where a young officer wakes his parents to share his newfound notoriety in the press—he has merely been apprehended for being drunk. In fact, it takes ten stories before we arrive at “The Huntsman,” of 1885, and are steeped in the special mixture that is ultimately to become the Chekhovian potion.

In it, a handsome young huntsman meets the peasant wife he deserted and has been avoiding ever since he married her in an alcoholic stupor years before. Now he belongs to the manor house, a favorite of the owner. He and his wife have been mismatched from the beginning—woods are not fields nor forests farms. Though the story consists mainly of dialogue, we feel the impact of the woods; they are the huntsman’s world and allow for sudden appearances and disappearances, for silences and murders. The huntsman is as much a part of the woods as the game he stalks. Yet inspite of his commitment…

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