Stolen Samovars and Bitter Gooseberries

This is my review of The Lady with the Little Dog and Other Stories (RED) (Penguin Red) by Anton Chekhov.

Chekhov's two hundred or more short stories can now be downloaded free of charge, so this selection of thirteen of them needs some rationale for the choices made. Although the notes at the end are interesting, say as regards the extent to which Chekhov's writing was constrained by the censors who cut out large tracts, I would have liked more background explanation of how the details of his life and his personality affected his writing.

Assisted by Ronald Wilks' excellent translations, the stories flow along and are very easy to read. I was struck by Chekhov's evident love for the countryside, his frequent flashes of humour, his rich cast of characters including many vivid little pen portraits, and his complex attitudes towards the peasants: he is repelled by their ignorance and boorishness, but realises that some of this is the fault of the wealthy people, like himself, who have deprived them of opportunities. A recurrent theme is for people to be dissatisfied with their lot, stultified by the boredom of provincial life and very indecisive about making changes, in particular embarking on a long-term relationship. I wanted to know to what extent these attitudes were Chekhov's own.

The rambling structure of many of these stories surprised me, together with their length, and inclusion of chapters! I can see why "The Lady with the Little Dog" is so famous since it analyses the narrator Gurov's inner thoughts so well. "And only now, when his hair had turned grey, had he genuinely, truly fallen in love – for the first time in his life."

My favourite story was "My Life", almost a novella at ninety pages, which seems to me to encapsulate everything to be found in all the other stories as regards human relationships and the flaws in Russian society. In what is subtitled "A Provincial's Story", the narrator actually makes some decisions – to give up his middle class heritage, and work with his hands, and to marry the young woman to whom he feels attracted. Inevitably, his actions bring some sorrow, and the story ends on a philosophical rather than positive, and poignant note.

I like the farcical wit of "Man in a Case" – the "solitary type…like hermit crabs or snails….always seeking safety in their shells… because the real world irritated and frightened him and kept him in a constant state of nerves." At times, as in "Peasants", Chekhov's sense of the ludicrous seems to go overboard. Other stories like "In the Ravine" seemed to me to be too "baggy" and lacking focus, in need of a good edit.

Perhaps I can only take these stories in small doses, but I am pleased to have discovered Chekhov as a short story writer and will definitely seek out more on the net from time to time.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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