One-Minute Book Reviews

April 16, 2008

Travels With Chekhov

Filed under: Classics,Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:55 am
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1 p.m. Wednesday. A church book club I attend is reading seven Chekhov short stories in April. The group chose a 1,104-page Stephen King novel in March. Chekhov should be easy compared with It.

5:30 p.m. Wednesday. My library has several collections of Chekhov’s work, but none has all the stories I need: “Peasants,” “The Bride,” “The Bishop,” “About Love,” “A Visit to Friends,” “The Lady With the Little Dog” and “The House With the Mezzanine.”

Out of sheer loyalty I pick up Constance Garnett’s 1962 translation of 15 stories. I owe a lot to Constance for her translations of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, the first I read. Many libraries purge books that haven’t been checked out in a while to make room for new ones. I feel I must support Constance by checking out her translation – even though I probably won’t read it – to keep her spot from going to a Mitch Albom novel.

I also get from the library two books that, between them, have three kinds of tape peeling from their spines: duct, clear and Scotch. They give Chekhov’s name as “Tchehov” and “Tchekoff” and have cream-colored pockets in the back. The three books I check out have only one of the stories I need, “The Bishop.”

10 p.m. Wednesday. Search the Web for the six other Chekhov stories. Get distracted by John Gross’s fine review of V.S. Pritchett’s Chekhov: A Sprit Set Free in the New York Times. Gross writes:

“It is as a story writer, in Sir Victor’s view, that Chekhov stands supreme. He is unhappy to see the stories overshadowed by the plays, as they tend to be nowadays — they seem to him far richer in texture; and to a considerable extent his book is an attempt to redress the balance.”

Gross adds:

“If you want to sample [Pritchett’s] quality, try his account of ‘The Bishop’ (one of Chekhov’s finest achievements — it reads, he observes, ‘like a sustained anthem’ to the writer’s own death).’”

Must have Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free by the late Sir Victor, a brilliant critic and perhaps the nearest English counterpart to Edmund Wilson.

Thursday, 4 p.m. The library doesn’t have Chekhov: A Sprit Set Free. But it does have Pritchett’s Complete Collected Essays, which has 10 pages on Chekhov. The book has 1,319 pages, only 215 more than It, and is one of my favorite books of criticism. How can I resist? I check it out along with a) the volume on Chekhov in the Twayne’s World Authors Series of brief critical studies, and b) Philip Callow’s Chekhov: The Hidden Ground, the only biography at the library that analyzes most of the stories on my list.

I now have six books about Chekhov but only one of the stories I need.

Thursday, 5:30 p.m. Visit a tiny but wonderful independent bookstore. It has two fine Chekhov collections: The Portable Chekhov, edited by Avrahm Yarmolinksy, and Peasants and Other Stories, nine tales selected and introduced by Edmund Wilson. I want the Wilson. But it’s a hardcover book that seems to have only one story I need apart from “The Bishop.” (Later I find out that it has “The Bride,” too, under an alternate title, “Betrothed,” and is available in paperback.) I buy The Portable Chekhov, which has The Cherry Orchard, seven letters and 28 stories, four of them on my list.

Yarmolinksy says in his introduction:

“The most characteristic of Chekhov’s stories lack purely narrative interest. They no more bear retelling than does a poem. Nothing thrilling happens in them, nor are the few reflective passages particularly compelling. Some of the tales, having neither beginning nor end, are, as Galsworthy put it, ‘all middle like a tortoise.’”

This does not diminish their impact, Yarmolinsky suggests:

“A man of sober and naturalistic temperament, Chekhov was dogged by the thought that our condition in this uncomfortable world is a baffling one. He liked to say that there was no understanding it. And, indeed, his writings heighten that sense of the mystery of life which is one of the effects of all authentic literature.”

Thursday, 11 p.m. Read “The Bishop,” the story of the last week in the life of a bishop. The bishop rejoices when his mother, whom he has not seen in years, visits during Holy Week. Yet her presence recalls a time when his position had not set him apart and he could unburden his heart to others. At vespers, he listens to chanting of monks:

“He sat by the altar where the shadows were deepest, and was swept in imagination back into the days of his childhood and youth, when he had first heard these words sung. The tears trickled down his cheeks, and he meditated on how he had attained everything in life that it was possible for a man in his position to attain; his faith was unsullied; and yet all was not clear to him; something was lacking, and he did not want to die. It seemed to him that he was leaving unfound the most important thing of all. Something of which he had dimly dreamed in the past, hopes that had thrilled his heart as a child, a schoolboy, and traveler in foreign lands, troubled him still.

Callow calls the tale “a parable of repressed love,” yet there is more to it than that Freudian interpretation might imply. It implicitly asks: What is life “about”? Most short stories are about a community of people. No matter how beautifully they evoke it, they stop there. “The Bishop” goes deeper. It may read like “a sustained anthem” to Chekhov’s death, but its song is not that of its author alone.

Saturday, 10 a.m. I still have only five of the stories I need. But if I read only “The Bishop,” I can stop right there with a profit. It would be a brilliant idea for any book club to read to read even two or three Chekhov stories instead of a novel at a meeting.

The quote from “The Bishop” comes from Russian Silhouettes: More Stories of Russian Life (Scribner’s, 1915), translated by Marian Fell. The full text of the Fell translation of the story appears here www.ibiblio.org/eldritch/ac/bishop.html.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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5 Comments »

  1. Your journey may tempt me to read “The Bishop.” Being lazy, I wonder (I haven’t looked) whether any of the other stories you need are in the public domain and might be posted on a Project Gutenberg or similar site.

    I see that you are fairly determined when seeking out books.

    Malcolm

    Comment by knightofswords — April 16, 2008 @ 12:08 pm | Reply

  2. Malcolm,
    Thanks for the reminder about Project Gutenberg, a great site that I don’t mention as often as I should.

    For visitors who are unfamiliar with Project Gutenberg: This is a site devoted to posting out-of-copyright classics and making them available free to the public. It often has classic works you can’t find elsewhere on the Web.

    One issue with Chekhov is that translations have their own copyrights. So if his stories are out of copyright in Russian or an early translation, they may still be subject to copyright in a newer translation.
    Jan

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — April 16, 2008 @ 12:40 pm | Reply

  3. Whew, just reading the journal of your Chekhov quest has worn me out. Thanks once again for a reminder of what must be included in my growing bedside mountain named “to be read”…

    It’s interesting to me how often authors and works come up that I realize I read while still too young to truly appreciate them. Often when picking them up again I understand that the first time around many of the complexities went right over my head.

    Everyone who reads or writes should come here daily for their “continuing education”!

    Comment by ggelliott — April 16, 2008 @ 1:07 pm | Reply

  4. I’ve had the same thought many times: I read some authors when I was too young to appreciate them (or appreciate them fully. In some ways, I’m glad I didn’t try “War and Peace” until I was in my 30s, because I’m not sure I’d have “gotten” it before then. Another part of me that thinks: So many years without this great novel …

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — April 16, 2008 @ 1:22 pm | Reply

  5. There’s nothing like that big sigh of afterglow as you finally shut the book and think, “and to think I might have lived my whole life and missed out on this!”

    Ah, so many books and only one lifetime. (Here, anyway.)

    Comment by ggelliott — April 16, 2008 @ 2:11 pm | Reply


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