Chekhov hoped that his work would help people live more decently
Ernest Hemingway once said that “Chekhov wrote about 6 good stories.” Many titans of the form have disagreed, including Raymond Carver and Alice Munro.
But Hemingway’s words suggest a truth: Chekhov wrote seven- or eight hundred stories, and not all are good. And old and new collections abound.
I looked into a dozen or so and found that perhaps the best widely available collection for nonscholars is Lady with the Little Dog and Other Stories, 1896-1904: Penguin Classics (384 pp., $12, paperback), translated by Ronald Wilks, with an introduction Paul Debreczney. It gathers 11 stories that Chekhov wrote in the last decade of life, when he did much of his best work. The tales include such masterpieces as “The Bride,” “The Bishop” and “Lady With the Little Dog.”
These stories generally have uncomplicated plots, ageless themes and realistic characters living in Russia before the Bolshevik Revolution. In “The Bride” a young woman must choose between a fiancé she doesn’t love and a life of greater freedom than marriage would offer her. In “Lady With the Little Dog,” a married man and woman stumble into an affair while vacationing without their spouses at Yalta, then must live with the decision after returning home. And in “The Bishop” a dying clergyman realizes that his official role has isolated him from his mother and others he loved.
Chekhov said he hoped that by telling the truth, he would help people live “more decently,” as the translator Avrahm Yarmolinksy put it. That goal may have been a blue-sky goal. But it helps to explain why, 104 years after their author’s death, Chekhov’s best stories remain among the most admired ever written.
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.