Best of the Web

Chris Power on Anton Chekhov

In the latest issue of the New Statesman, Chris Power assesses the legacy of Anton Chekhov and the writer’s extraordinary influence on the contemporary short story:

[W. Somerset Maugham] devoted an inordinate amount of the preface for his own collected stories to simultaneously praising and burying Chekhov. Maugham cannot take his tendency towards the oblique: “If you try to tell one of his stories,” he complains, “you will find that there is nothing to tell.” Doubtless Chekhov “would have written stories with an ingenious, original and striking plot if he had been able to think of them. It was not in his temperament. Like all good writers he made a merit of his limitations.”

The truth is that Chekhov’s approach was essentially lyrical, and he was never interested in the things Maugham says he fails to achieve. As DS Mirsky noted in his 1926 History of Russian Literature, when reading Chekhov “it is not interest in the development [of the story] that the reader feels, but ‘infection’ by the poet’s mood”.

This mood is often one of inertia. This is particularly true of the mature period, which began in 1888 when Chekhov stopped writing weekly comic stories and began publishing in the so-called “thick journals”, which afforded him greater time and space. At the end of ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’, ‘Fear’, ‘Big Volodya and Little Volodya’, and numerous others, the characters return more or less to wherever they were when the story began — minus some of their illusions — or poised at the lip of an uncertain future.

For the translator Michael Henry Heim, the fact that in these stories “things peter out or go on as they have before” — that they stop, rather than conclude — “does not mean that nothing has happened; it means that nothing — or, rather, less than the characters may have hoped for — has changed”.