Longer Stories from the Last Decade includes eleven works written in roughly the last ten years of the writer's life: "Three Years,""The
Duel,""Ward No. 6,""The Black Monk,""An Anonymous Story,""A Woman's Kingdom,""The Wife'""In the Ravine,""Peasants,""The
Murder," and "My Life." As Shelby Foote writes, this volume of stories "calls attention to a broader and deeper talent than has generally
been recognized, either by critics or the reading public, down the years." Chekhov remains indispensable.
About the Author
Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) was a Russian author of plays and short stories. Although Chekhov became a physician and once considered medicine his primary career, he gained fame and esteem through writing, ultimately producing a number of well-known plays, including The Seagull and Uncle Vanya, and a large body of innovative short stories that influenced the evolution of the form.
Read an Excerpt
Excerpted from the Introduction, by Shelby Foote
Anton Chekhov had a writing life of just under twenty-five years--from 1880, when he turned twenty as a medical student in Moscow, to 1904, when he died of tuberculosis in a Black Forest sanitorium. Within this span, in addition to four plays admired worldwide as modern classics, he wrote perhaps five hundred "stories," long and short--ranging from newspaper squibs and fillers to near-Gatsby-length novellas--which set the pattern for the short story in the century whose beginning was all he saw before his forty-four years were up.
On its eve, in 1899, under pressure from his publisher and the unrelenting need for money to sustain his generosity, he began selecting from his so-far six books of stories--together with a clutch of fugitive pieces that had appeared in various periodicals all the way back to his youth--a Collected Works whose ten volumes were released in the course of the next two years. They contained 240 stories in all, and another 196 were added in ten supplementary volumes after his death. Of these 436 stories, Constance Garnett* translated 188, and I have chosen 123 for inclusion in these three Modern Library volumes: volume I, seventy "early" stories, from 1883 to 1888, his breakthrough year when he received the Pushkin Prize; volume II, forty-two "later" stories, 1888 to 1903, containing most of his best-known work; and finally volume III, eleven "Longer Stories of the Last Decade," which I believe calls attention to a broader and deeper talent than has generally been recognized, either by critics or the reading public, down the years. Aside from his one full-length novel, an early experimentaldetective story of limited literary worth, nearly all the omitted stories are quite brief ones out of his journalistic youth. By way of summation, then, these three volumes include barely one fourth of his fiction titles, but they do contain, by page count, about three fourths of his output in that category--including all fifty-five of the great stories of his final fifteen years. All are printed here in the order in which they were written.
Few major writers have had fewer detractors regarding either their person or their work. A rare detractive exception is Ernest Hemingway, who enjoyed turning bumptious in his spare time; and in one such, in his middle twenties, referred to Chekhov as "an amateur writer" who "wrote about six good stories." Six is rather a large figure in the category of goodness, but I would put the number closer to one hundred, and so would many grateful practitioners of the art of the short story. Raymond Carver, for example: "Chekhov's stories are as wonderful (and necessary) now as when they first appeared. They present, in an extraordinarily precise manner, an unparalleled account of human activity and behavior in his time; and so they are valid for all time. Anyone who reads literature, anyone who believes, as one must, in the transcendent power of art, sooner or later has to read Chekhov." Or Elizabeth Hardwick: "The short stories of Chekhov are an inexhaustible treasury of humanity and wisdom. The naturalness of their form and the luminous simplicity of their turning away from the forced conclusion defined a large part of the modern tradition in short fiction." Or Cynthia Ozick: "Each story, no matter how allusive or broken-off, is nevertheless exhaustive--like the curve of a shard that implies not simply the form of the pitcher entire, but also the thirsts of its shattered civilization." Or John Barth: "Dr. Chekhov is a superb anatomist of the human heart and an utter master of his literary means. The details of scene and behavior, the emotions registered--seldom bravura, typically muted and complex, often as surprising to the characters themselves as to the reader, but always right--move, astonish, and delight us, line after line, story after story, volume after volume." Or William Maxwell: "It seems to be part of the human condition that a wall of glass separates one life from another. For Chekhov it did not exist. . . The greatest of his stories are, no matter how many times reread, always an experience that strikes deep into the soul and produces an alteration there."
Little or none of this was the case at the start. "Oh, with what trash I began; my God, with what trash!" Chekhov declared later, looking back with amused dismay. Parodies, jokes, boutades, all limited to a thousand words by close-fisted editors, earned him the roubles needed to pay for his education and that of his two younger brothers and his sister, along with the support of two older brothers and his mother and bankrupt father. After half a dozen years of this, having received his license to practice medicine, he confessed to an established older novelist, who urged him to take his work seriously, that he had never spent more than a day on a story, and moreover had written them "the way reporters write notices of fires: mechanically, half-consciously, without caring a pin either about the reader or myself." Coincidentally, around this time, he combined a baleful definition with a hopeful prophecy: "The word newspaper-writer means, at the very least, a scoundrel. I am one of them; I work with them; I shake hands with them; I'm even told that I've begun to look like one. But I shan't die as one."
He didn't, of course, though in the process of transition that followed close on the heels of his confession, he underrated what he had gained from those half-dozen years of comic-writer apprenticeship. For one thing, the elderly novelist had noted his "feeling for the plastic," and, for another, the stipulated compression had encouraged him to develop what William Trevor later called "the art of the glimpse," a start-to-finish major component of his style. Moreover, there were, among those various humoristic bits and pieces, such things as "A Daughter of Albion," "The Fish," and "The Huntsman," which had drawn the elderly novelist's attention and admiration. And now there followed, with the help of Maupassant's Norman and Parisian tales and Turgenev's Sportsman's Sketches, such things as "Anyuta," "Agafya," "The Chorus Girl," and "Vanka." Those came out in 1886. By then he had moved on to the so-called "thick journals," which paid better and, above all, gave him room to stretch his talent. The following year he produced a solid fifty stories, and "The Steppe"--at forty thousand words, the longest of his stories, called by Pritchett "a superb and sustained prose poem"--appeared in early 1888, followed by "Lights," which also broke new ground. By way of an upshot, he won the Pushkin Prize that year, along with the admiration of his fellow Russian writers, who two years before had mostly seen him, as he himself did, as a bits-and-pieces hack. He was clearly on his way.
That "way" has been marveled and wondered at by critics ever since, perhaps most successfully by his compatriot Vladimir Nabokov, who contrived to lift him to the skies by bringing him down to earth: "Chekhov managed to convey an impression of artistic beauty far surpassing that of writers who thought they knew what rich, beautiful prose was. He did it by keeping all his words in the same dim light of the same exact tint of gray, a tint between the color of an old fence and that of a low cloud. The variety of his moods, the flicker of his charming wit, the deeply artistic economy of characterization, the vivid detail, and the fade-out of human life--all peculiar Chekhovian features--are enhanced by being suffused and surrounded by a faintly iridescent verbal haziness." In simpler words Nabokov also defined a specific many Chekhov readers felt the force of down the years: "Things for him were funny and sad at the same time, but you would not see their sadness if you did not see their fun, because both were linked up." Chekhov himself pointed out something along this line, carried over from his early days, in advice to a fellow writer: "When you want to touch a reader's heart, try to be colder. It gives their grief, as it were, a background against which it stands out in greater relief." In much the same vein, he declared at another time: "Patients in a fever do not want food, but they do want something, and that vague craving they express as 'longing for something sour.' I want something sour."
For the most part, though, he kept his opinions and judgments to himself--especially in his fiction, where, as he said, he aimed not at solutions to problems but rather at their correct presentation. Walker Percy, a fellow physician-writer, called him a diagnostician, and in his choice of subjects for delineation he was guided by what Susan Sontag defined as "perfect moral pitch." As a result, there were those who, in the absence of didactic comments and summations in his work, accused him of having no philosophy of life. His friend Maxim Gorky found the charge absurd and such readers deaf and blind. "Often our ears can catch in his stories the melancholy but severe and deserved reproach that men do not know how to live. But at the same time, his sympathy with all men glows even brighter." Chekhov himself met the charge head-on, along with others by critics who fine-tooth-combed his work in search of "convictions," whether political or religious: "I am afraid of those who look for a tendency between the lines and insist on seeing me as necessarily a liberal or a conservative. I am not a liberal, not a conservative, not a gradualist, not a monk, not an indifferentist. I should like to be a free artist and nothing more, and I regret that God has not given me the power to be one. . . . I regard trademarks and labels as prejudicial. My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and absolute freedom--freedom from force and falsehood."
His overriding subject was the Russia of his time and the failure of men of goodwill to find contentment, or even peace, from having exercised that goodwill all their lives. "We Russians of the educated class have a partiality for questions that remain unanswered," he observed. He later added: "To an educated Russian his past is always beautiful, his present a state of calamity." He seemed always to have to ponder things, turning them over and over in his mind, as if in search not of an answer but of a new phrasing of the question. Once while abroad he was asked to write "an international story" set in the region, and he replied that he couldn't do it until he got back home, if at all. "I can write only from memory," he explained; "I never write directly from life. The subject must pass through the sieve of my memory, so that only what is important or typical remains, as on a filter."
He had a habit of expressing himself obliquely, as when he said of his portrait by an artist whose work he did not admire, "It smells of horseradish." And though he could be insightful--forty-odd years before the Holocaust, in the wake of the Dreyfus affair, he wrote to a friend a definition of anti-Semitism as "a fuel that reeks of the slaughterhouse"--he still could not abide the strained delivery of a "message" in a story or a novel. After reading Uncle Tom's Cabin, for example, he experienced "an unpleasant sensation which mortals feel after eating too many raisins or currants." He liked to be precise in a general way, as when he described "the genial expression of a man who has just said goodbye to his relatives and has had a good drink at parting." It is important in this depiction that the people are relatives and that the drink was a good one.
What People are Saying About This
'Chekhovian.' It's clear that this adjective had to be invented for the new voice Chekhov's genius breathed into the worldelusive, inconclusive, flickering; nuanced through an underlying disquiet, though never morbid or disgruntled; unerringly intuitive, catching out of the air vibration, glittering motes, faint turnings of the heart, tendrils thinner than hair, drift. But Chekhov's art is more than merely Chekhovian. It is dedicated to explicit and definitive portraiture and the muscular trajectory of whole lives. Each story, however allusive or brokenoff, is never the less exhaustivelike the curve of a shard that implies not simply the form of the picture entire, but also the thirst of its shattered civilization.