Showing posts with label Short Stories. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Short Stories. Show all posts

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.

23 February 2014

McSweeney's 45 - Hitchcock and Bradbury Fistfight in Heaven [2013]

I read this because I subscribed recently to McSweeney's.  

It's a collection of short stories from separate collections edited by Malcolm Bradbury and Alfred Hitchcock in the 1950s, together with some new stories.  Some of the stories are by well-known authors such as The Sound Machine by Roald Dahl and In the Penal Colony by Franz Kafka and I had read these before.  

Of the new stories, these are the ones which stay with me:

Julian May's Dune Roller is great science fiction.  Very pulpy but also very evocative of the dunes alongside Lake Michigan.  

For all the Rude People by Jack Ritchie is a tremendous vigilante fantasy in which rudeness is punished by murder.  Really satisfying in a slightly shameful way.

Sorry, Wrong Number by Lucille Fletcher and Allan Ullman reads like a Patricia Highsmith story with the same atmospheric immorality and inevitable escalation of suspense.  This was the story in the collection that I enjoyed the most, and when I finished it I thought what a great movie it would make.

This collection made me realise that I don't read enough short stories (or indeed, science fiction); it also made me appreciate how difficult it is to write short stories.  

The book is beautifully-made, with an amazing cover by Tavis Coburn.  I am really pleased that I picked it up.