I’ve been meaning to read some stories by Anton Chekhov for a while but haven’t actually got round to doing anything about it until now. Part of the problem is that although Chekhov was extremely prolific the number of collections available often include pretty much the same stories. I’m also a bit unsure which ones I’ve previously read, especially when the translations have different titles. This isn’t really a problem though as it’s been quite a while since I read any of his stories, so I’m unlikely to be able to remember much about them.
I noticed The Exclamation Mark (Hesperus Classics, 2008) in my local library so decided to read it as a start to my Chekhov reading for 2015. It consists of twenty-one stories, all published between December 1885 and June 1886, as well as a later version of one of the stories. For the record here is the total listing:
The Exclamation Mark (A Christmas Story); New Year Martyrs; Competition; A Failure; On the Telephone; Kids; Grief; Conversation Between a Drunkard and a Sober Devil; The Requiem; Bliny; A Little Joke; In Springtime; A Nightmare; The Rook; Grisha; On Easter Night; A Tale; The Literary Table of Ranks; Romance With Double Bass; Superfluous People; A Little Joke (1899 revised version).
I wasn’t sure what to expect with this collection from his early period as I’d only previously read stories from his later period. A quick look at the first story, when I was in the library, suggested that they were short frivolous pieces and some of them are just that; some of the ‘stories’ are little more than one page comedy sketches that were written for a comic weekly called Oskolki but there are also some surprisingly mature stories in this collection as well.
In the introduction, Rosamund Bartlett mentions that this period was significant for Chekhov as he received a letter from a fellow writer, Dmitry Grigorovich, urging him to concentrate on more serious writing. However, the comic works are still quite amusing. For example, we have the title story The Exclamation Mark (A Christmas Story) in which a civil servant goes to bed feeling insulted after a young work colleague declares that he doesn’t know how to use exclamation marks properly; in New Year Martyrs we get the amusing account of another official Sinkleteyev who has collapsed in the street after making his rounds on New Year’s Day drinking the health of friends, family members and colleagues; my favourite is the farcical Romance With Double Bass in which a double bass player, Smychkov, goes for a swim on a warm summer’s day, meets a beautiful girl asleep whilst fishing, decides to play a prank on her which misfires. He then notices that someone has stolen his clothes. The girl also has her clothes stolen and, well, they meet up naked under a bridge, he offers to hide her in his instrument case and then promptly loses her and believes that he’s inadvertently killed her…it’s all very silly but funny nonetheless. I enjoyed The Kids as well; it’s a five-page story that is just about a group of children alone playing cards whilst waiting for their mother to return home from a christening.
There are also two versions of the story, A Little Joke; the original version was published in 1886 and the revised version is from 1899. It’s a simple and repetitive tale where the narrator encourages his reluctant fiancee to go tobogganing; when he does convince her he says in a low voice, ‘I love you, Nadya!’ but Nadya is unsure whether to believe her ears under the noise of the wind and the toboggan runners. Her fear of tobogganing is overcome by her desire to hear the narrator declare his love to her. The early story has an optimistic ending whilst the later version is less so. It’s interesting seeing the two different versions and although there is nothing wrong with the original version I feel that the later version is better.
One of the longer stories is On Easter Night which didn’t seem to go anywhere but I was more impressed with A Nightmare which centres around a businessman Kunin and the impoverished local priest Father Smirnov. Not much happens but Kunin, who is initially contemptuous of Smirnov, begins to feel compassion for the young priest.
In summary: this book contains a good variety of early stories by Chekhov. I just have to decide which one to read next. I’m not sure at the moment whether to concentrate on some of Chekhov’s longer works such as The Shooting Party (Penguin), The Story of a Nobody (Alma Classics), whether to stick to the standard Penguin & OUP collections, or whether to try some of the newer collections of stories such as In the Twilight (Alma Classics) and The Prank (NYRB); ideally I’d like to read all of them.