I spent the day with Chekhov

Last Saturday I spent the day with Chekhov. I don’t know how many of you notice what I’m reading on the sidebar, but it seemed to me that I’d been reading this small old-fashioned-looking book–A Doctor’s Visit: Short Stories–for quite a long time. I started it before I left for Colorado on September 5th but read none of it while I was gone because I was busy reading manuscripts.

On the “what i’m reading now” Page (on which, as of today, I will add the day I start the book), I was surprised to read what I’d written about this collection, “I’ve read a little Chekhov here and there, but I want to spend some time with these stories–really get to know them.”  That’s what Saturday felt like, when I decided to “buckle down,” as my mother would say, and finish these stories.

In his forty-four years, Anton Chekhov wrote over 200 stories (as well as plays). This particular volume, with an introduction by Tobias Wolff, was recommended by my adviser David Jauss. You will find “Neighbors,” “A Gentleman Friend,” “The Bishop,” “A Doctor’s Visit,” “Gusev,” The Lady with the Pet Dog,” “Gooseberries,” and “About Love” as well as five different translators, among its nineteen stories.

In “The Legacy of Anton Chekhov: What it Means to say ‘Chekhovian’ & Why his Stories still Serve as a Blueprint for the Stories we Write Now,” (The Writer’s Chronicle, Vol. 42 No. 3, 24-34) Rick Reiken writes:

The simple answer to this question is that Chekhov, a practicing physician and playwright, more or less invented what we in the U.S. have come to understand as the conventions of character-driven literary short fiction.

On Saturday, not only did I finish the collection but I also wrote a rough draft of my essay for my next packet. I knew I wanted to write on some aspect of these stories, but I struggled a bit with which one. In the end I chose to write about the preponderance of words telling rather than showing emotion. I reread. I circled words. I compiled lists.

While counting terms in “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” I had to restart a number of times. One of its passages articulates so beautifully the difference between the various lives we live that I would get lost in it every time and forget to scan for telling emotional terms (none in it, as it turns out):

He had two lives: an open one, seen and known by all who needed to know it, full of conventional truth and conventional falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life that went on in secret. And through some strange, perhaps accidental combination of circumstances, everything that was essential to him, everything about which he felt sincerely and did not deceive himself, everything that constituted the core of his life was going on concealed from others; while all that was false, the shell of which he hid to cover the truth–his work at the bank, for instance…–all that went on in the open. Judging others by himself, he did not believe what he saw, and always fancied that every man led his real, most interesting life under cover of secrecy as under cover of night.

On Sunday when I was reading Francine Prose’s review of Yiyun Li’s new collection, I ran into Chekhov again:

…Nabakov’s description of Chekhov’s narrative style: “The story is told in the most natural way possible…the way one person relates to another the most important things in his life, slowly and yet without a break, in a slightly subdued voice.” As with reading Chekhov, one is struck by how profoundly important the lives of ordinary people are made to seem, and by what a sizable chunk of existence–an entire life or several lives–has been compressed into a few pages.

Chekhov. Highly recommend.

10 thoughts on “I spent the day with Chekhov

  1. Yes, Chekhov, Chekhov, Chekhov. Thank you for bringing him to my remembrance again. (He’s on my Goodreads list in all his glory.)

    I think I shall spend the next 10-20 years of my life reading & rereading Chekhov, Joyce & Proust & Hemingway & so many other Greats. And only then will I feel qualified to actually write. Until then, I dabble…

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  2. i picked up or re-picked up Chekhov AFTER the repeated mentions by John Gardner in “Moral Fiction” which for me is the Bible for my writings.

    this was lovely to read. will share on twitter with others tomorrow.

    i love this blog!

    ~annie

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    • Thanks, Annie! I was reading John Gardner yesterday–The Art of Fiction. Now I’m going to pull Moral Fiction off the shelf and see what he has to say about Chekhov. Thanks for your comment.

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  3. Pingback: the next writer in the series: october 1, 2014 | catching days

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