Everyman’s Library specializes in scholarly and attractive little editions of non-American fiction (see Library of America for the Americans). The Complete Short Novels contains the five Chekhov works of fiction which are just a little too long to be short stories. They were written between 1888 and 1896. The Steppe, which is the earliest and least sophisticated, is a masterpiece; the others are even more masterpieceful – as extraordinary as any fiction I’ve read. The psychological acuity and the vividness of imagination are like Tolstoy (who could have imagined a field and told you the position of each individual blade of grass).
The plots are simple; Chekhov is in his characters – particularly in the more unusual points of view. It’s hard for a man to write women well (one of the best successes in contemporary fiction is Take a Girl Like You, by Kingsley Amis). The bathhouse scene in The Duel in which Chekhov narrates from a feminine point of view is remarkable. More remarkable still is one of the final scenes in My Life, when the husband (protagonist and narrator, and in many respects Chekhov) realizes his wife is falling out of love with him – he praises a dress she likes in a magazine, trying to draw her out, and a tear from her eye drops on the picture.
Narrating successfully and unsentimentally from a child’s point of view is nearly impossible, unless you’re Wordsworth, and that puts Chekhov’s first story in a special category: The Steppe induces the same vaguely uncomfortable, wandering sensation of Kafka’s Amerika, where whenever the protagonist begins to settle into a rhythm and a particular group, he is whisked away to something else and is a stranger again. And though there is no element of what we’d conventionally consider surreal, the story is remarkable for its dreamlike quality. A similar sense of lack of control (which the reader experiences along with the narrator) is in Story of an Unknown Man, which is dated some years after The Steppe but which Chekhov began at the same time. The narrator is a nobleman posing as a servant who carts his boss’s castoff ex-mistress to Italy, where she has the ex-boss’s child and then dies. It sounds ridiculous in summary and distressingly true when you read the story.
Three Years is distinguished especially for being the only story without a sad ending. (The others are not tragic – just sad; the reader is always left thinking what might have been, or what can never be.) Three Years takes the reverse course, though cautiously. Chekhov liked women when they behaved reliably, which in his view they never did, and so he puts a question mark at the end of the story: his wife may finally be falling in love with him. Or with someone else… (See John Donne’s poem “Goe and catche a falling starre”.)
These stories leave nothing to be desired.
Characterial veracity: 10/10
Overall Goodness Rating (OGR) : 10/10
The Complete Short Novels, by Anton Chekhov. Everyman’s Library, 2004, 600 pages.