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Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. Anton Chekhov

April 3, 2010

When I started writing I found short stories mostly unsatisfactory and felt they were probably not for me. That changed when  I began to read Chekhov.

He is the writer who changed my mind about the form and what it can do and how much it can encompass. He is still, arguably, THE short story writer.

This is hardly surprising as he was a master of the form and produced over 400 stories in his lifetime (though many of them are rarely anthologised as they were very short pieces written for newspapers and magazines). He wrote about peasants and princesses, men and women, old and young – his vision of Russia in his time was all-encompassing. He had a gift for atmosphere and characterisation, for empathy and social critique.

He is the sort of writer who inspires other writers up to this day. Katherine Mansfield imitated his story ‘Sleepy,’ Virginia Woolf noted her admiration of ‘Gusev’, the entirety of ‘Dubliners’ would not have been possible without his stories of stunted ordinary lives. Raymond Carver’s last book of poetry, ‘A New Path to the Waterfall’, includes experiments in turning passages from Chekhov’s stories into found prose poetry. Carver was, of course, ‘the American Chekhov’, and loved his work passionately.

How to describe the Chekhov experience? Hmm – it’s difficult to say what it is that is so special. His style in Russian is apparently not extraordinary, so he was no stylist. But he is undeniably unique and special – I have felt emotions reading Chekhov I have never felt reading any other writer.

Of course there are the big classics like ‘The Lady with Lap Dog’, ‘Ward No. 6,’  and ‘The Duel’, but here is a list of  ten of my favourite stories (though they change all the time) which is a mixture of other classics with some possibly-less celebrated works -

1. The Steppe – His first longer story, a great child’s eyes view of a journey.

2. The Beauties - An early lyrical story that has the wispy quality of a travelogue.

3. With Friends – A story that he suppressed from one of his collections because he was aware it was an easily-identifiable precursor of ‘The Cherry Orchard.’ Strangely, I have never liked his plays – possibly because they are so difficult to get right in performance – and much prefer this story to the eventual play.

4. The Grasshopper – This story is mischievously funny. Naturally, all doctors in Chekhov’s stories are heroic and this is no exception. He takes a few volleys at flighty artistic types but the story is playful for the most part and not as sober and moral as his pot-shots against Bohemian pretension might seem.

5. In the Ravine – One of his rawest stories with a very shocking ending. Aksinya is one of the most unaccountably ruthless characters in all the stories and I found this story devastating. Chekhov is famous for his sympathy for his characters but that doesn’t preclude extremely harsh treatment as in this case and in ‘Ward No. 6.’

6. A Doctor’s Visit - Another dark story that takes us into the heart of ‘industrial darkness with another doctor ‘hero’. As with many of Chekov’s stories, this one has a distinctive, compelling atmosphere.

7. My Life – A darkly comic novella. A wonderfully cynical first-person narrator. Although he could be overtly political as in ‘An Anonymous Story’, Chekov was often considered one of the less politicised and polemical writers of his generation. This story is an interesting satire and has a very modern feel to it.

8. Rothschild’s Fiddle – A story with a wonderful poetry to its plotting. This isn’t a typically Chekhovian thing as he is famously inconsequential, but it works brilliantly here.

9. At Home – A beautiful lyrical story that again feels very modern.

10.The New Villa – An unassuming late story – it is not one of the very famous stories but it has the wonderful economy and sense of purpose that a master can bring to the form.

For the record, Chekhov claimed that ‘The Student’ was his favourite out of all of his stories. This may seem surprising as it is a very small uneventful story. It is a quiet, lyrical piece – so possibly he was proud of it’s simplicity.  It has a beautiful second sentence -‘The thrushes were calling, and in the swamps close by something alive droned pitifully with a sound like blowing into an empty bottle.’

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