10 June 2014

Lady with Lapdog and other stories by Anton Chekhov [1899]

This is a collection of short stories by an author that many people consider to be the master of this form.  

I last read Chekhov's stories when I was at school but I think my experience 20 years later was very different. There is an overwhelming and pervasive mood of melancholy hanging over these stories. I read them in English - there is no way I could read a Russian story for pleasure - but my recollection is that this mood is intensified when you read them in Russian. 

The standout piece in this collection is Ward 6 [1892]. It's a very dark long short story about how a director of a mental asylum transforms from being nominally in charge of the asylum to being committed as a patient. This is not just melancholy, it is a bleak nightmare. The point is that no-one can be in charge of the asylum: the institution itself shapes and devours those who come into contact with it. Ward 6 reads strikingly like Kafka, but predates Kafka by about 30 years, which is noteworthy when you consider how original Kafka's vision seems to us today. 
I think that this is the fundamental point I never appreciated 20 years ago - namely, what a modern author Chekhov is. The questions raised by Ward 6 about authenticity, truth and guilt are existential questions of the post-Great War era. What is also interesting is that the environment in which these questions are posed feels pre-modern. 19th century Russia seems foreign and distant in a way that 19th century France does not in Zola's novels, for example. 
I have been trying to work out why this should be since I read the stories a few weeks ago, and I think the answer is that Russia is not and has never been a European country and Europeans fool themselves to think that this might or could be the case. Even though Chekhov's bourgeois women wear similar clothes to their counterparts in Paris, there seems something asiatic or even oriental about the way they behave which makes them sit uneasily in the context of 19th century European literature.

I am really grateful that reading these stories made me think about Russia and Russian-ness. There is a broader point to be made here about Russia's relationship with the rest of the world and in particular with modern institutions such as democracy or the EU, but I have certainly not read widely enough to elucidate it. 

One final point is that certain really clever people like to point out what a funny author Chekhov is. I still don't see this - at no point did I even smirk during these stories. If anything, there were pretty depressing, which means I will be rationing my future consumption.

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