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26 August 2020updated 28 Aug 2020 5:47pm

How Chekhov invented the modern short story

The Russian writer's tales of stasis, uncertainty and irresolution determined the path of 20th-century fiction.   

By Chris Power

In a 1981 essay, Raymond Carver described some of the quotations taped to the wall around his desk. One had “this fragment of a story by Chekhov: ‘… and suddenly everything became clear to him’”. For Carver, these words are “filled with wonder and possibility. I love their simple clarity, and the hint of revelation that’s implied. There is mystery, too. What has been unclear before? Why is it just now becoming clear? What’s happened? Most of all – what now?” The quote might not belong to Anton Chekhov at all (no one has ever found the story it’s from), but Carver’s description of its effect, its ability to stage a revelation and in the same moment open a field of greater mystery, absolutely does.

Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s new translation of 52 Chekhov stories doesn’t include many of his most famous works (their versions of those can be found in a collection from 2000, only available in the UK as an e-book). But walking the overgrown pathways of his less familiar stories can help give a fresh sense of why his storytelling has been so influential, and remains compelling in its own right.

Consider the last page of “Neighbours”, from 1892, in which Pyotr Mikhailych, a young man who “already had all the makings of an old bachelor landowner”, sits miserably beside a pond as the moon rises. He thinks he sees a man across the water, standing motionless. Remembering a story about a seminarian who was beaten to death nearby, he wonders if this is his ghost. But when he rides around the pond the figure turns out to be no more than a rotten post, the remnant of some old shed.

Pyotr’s uncertainty is quickly resolved. But for us, reading Chekhov’s often indeterminate, emotionally puzzling stories, the solution is not so simple. In the closing lines Pyotr reflects that he has never said or done what he really wanted to, “and therefore the whole of life now looked to him as dark as this water in which the night sky was reflected and waterweeds were entangled. And it seemed to him that it could not be set right.”

The extremity of Pyotr’s realisation is a shock, a surprise ending of sorts, yet while these are usually enlisted to tie things up, here very little feels settled. Earlier in the story Pyotr visits the estate of his neighbour Vlasich, the divorcé his younger sister Zina is now living with. “Neighbours” might be relatively minor Chekhov (written just a couple of months after “Ward No 6”, one of his most famous stories), but Pyotr’s visit to Vlasich shows him at his most skilful, conjuring a full spectrum of emotion from a stream of conversation that’s now sludgy and mannered, now running fast with emotion and revelation, now drying up completely (“The two were silent for a time and pretended to be listening to the rain”).

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The longer the characters talk, or don’t talk, the more can be interpreted and the less clear everything becomes. Pyotr cannot talk to Zina the way he used to, perhaps because her liaison with Vlasich has sexualised her in his eyes. But is he jealous of Zina for finding love, which has eluded him, or jealous of Vlasich and in love with his sister? “I don’t even know for certain what I actually think,” he despairs beside the pond.

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Chekhov works to sustain this uncertainty and plunges us into it too. Revising the story, he deleted a line that seemed too definitive: “I had gone to settle something, but not a single one of life’s questions can have a special solution; in each separate case you must say and do what you think – that is the solution to all questions.” Lines like this survived the red pen in other stories he wrote, but they never appear as conclusions. “In my opinion,” he told Ivan Bunin the first time the writers met, “after one finishes a story one should cross out the beginning and the end. It is there that we writers lie most of all.” The end of a Chekhov story is nearly always left ajar.

Chekhov’s grandfather was a serf who purchased his freedom. His father was a shopkeeper in Taganrog, on the Sea of Azov, and a tyrant (the story “Difficult People” provides a damning portrait). His insolvency, coupled with Chekhov’s early success as a writer of comic stories at the age of 20, having moved to Moscow to attend medical school, made the third son the family’s breadwinner. Chekhov practised medicine alongside writing, saying that it “significantly broadened the scope of my observations, and has enriched me with branches of knowledge whose true value for me as a writer can only be understood by someone who is a doctor himself”.

Chekhov is hardly a writer’s writer, but it might be said that short story writers believe, correctly or not, that they alone understand his true value. Carver is one of many who have learned the lessons Chekhov’s work teaches. On the cover of my copy of Carver’s Elephant (1988) a review quote describes him as “the American Chekhov”. “Errand”, the last story in the book and the last Carver saw published in his lifetime, describes Chekhov’s death. But the more important connection is his distinctively Chekhovian manner of dispersing meaning into apparently irrelevant details, and the pronounced open-endedness of his stories. Carver, however, was not the only American Chekhov: by the 1980s the appellation was threadbare with use. Addressing Cornell University’s Chekhov Festival in 1976, John Cheever told his audience he was “one of perhaps ten American writers who are known as the American Chekhov”.

The description isn’t unhelpful because it’s used carelessly, but because Chekhov’s influence is so widespread: most short story writers are Chekhovians, whether they realise it or not. Playwrights, too: asked about his influences Tennessee Williams replied, “Chekhov! As a dramatist? Chekhov! As a story writer? Chekhov!” Keeping to the short story in English, early disciples included Katherine Mansfield, Sherwood Anderson and Ernest Hemingway, and from here his influence quickly ramifies: AE Coppard, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Bernard Malamud, John Cheever, Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Yiyun Li and Joyce Carol Oates, who rewrote him with her “Lady with the Pet Dog”. This is only a sampling.

All these writers have learned from what Elizabeth Bowen, another disciple, called the “inchoate or nebulous” quality of Chekhov’s stories. In 1937 she wrote that he “opened up for the writer tracts of emotional landscape; he made subjectivity edit and rule experience and pull art, obliquely, its way”. It is as if he made a more finely graduated colour wheel available to the writers who followed him, summoning into being what Conrad Aiken called, in a 1921 essay, “a range of states of consciousness which is perhaps unparalleled”. Mood, Aiken suggests, was both Chekhov’s method and effect. If his characters seem unmemorable next to those of, say, Tolstoy, “it is because so often our view of them was never permitted for a moment to be external – we saw them only as infinitely fine and truthful sequences of mood”.

This wasn’t enough for Somerset Maugham, who 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”. It’s an important distinction. The stasis Chekhov’s stories so often describe (“My life had become boring again, like it had been before,” as the landscape painter N remarks at the end of “The House with the Mezzanine”) isn’t heightened in the manner of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, but emotionally mimetic. Where change does occur it doesn’t provide completion, but only reveals a new set of problems; in a letter of 1888 Chekhov said it wasn’t an author’s job to give answers, but formulate the right questions.

Guy de Maupassant is the only genuine rival to Chekhov in terms of shaping the modern short story. Although Chekhov borrowed from Maupassant – a debt he nods to in The Seagull – they were very different writers, and the difference is starkest in how they approach endings. Maupassant favoured ones that snap shut: the payload that the story’s mechanism delivers. Impressive, often ingenious, but cold and cynical; a story that closes as smartly as a joke can render hollow whatever life it has called into being.

By contrast, Chekhov’s method allows his stories to become part of the continuum of a reader’s day: less memorable in their specifics, but more persistent in effect. Their ragged edges possess an uncanny ability to knit themselves into our memories as things felt, as ongoing “sequences of mood”. “I want the story to exist somewhere so that in a way it’s still happening,” Alice Munro has said, “or happening over and over again. I don’t want it to be shut up in the book and put away – oh well, that’s what happened.” Chekhov would agree with every word of this.

Meaning is provisional in even the most apparently self-explanatory of Chekhov’s stories. “The Student”, from 1895, was Chekhov’s own favourite. It describes Ivan, a seminarian, walking home after a cold spring afternoon’s shooting. He stops beside the fire of two peasant women, a mother and daughter. The fire reminds him of the gospel story of Peter denying Jesus. He tells it, the old woman begins to cry, and a tense expression comes to her daughter’s face as though she is stifling pain.

The story ends with Ivan analysing what just happened. He decides the women’s reactions prove their connection to the story of Peter, which inspires a realisation regarding the interconnectedness of past and present, “an unbroken chain of events, which flowed from one into another”. Most analyses of the story take this at face value, despite Chekhov’s atheism, but doing so ignores his tendencies to a remarkable degree.

For one thing, setting is never accidental in Chekhov – his landscapes, for example, filled with “mournfully drooping willows”, “malicious” storms and “disgusting” rains, are consistently anthropomorphic – and when Ivan interprets the women’s reactions the fire flickers in the darkness some way behind him, and they are no longer visible. Just as they are physically obscured, perhaps the truth behind their reactions is also beyond his ability to see. We have been told, seemingly incidentally, that the daughter, a widow, was beaten by her husband. Perhaps Ivan’s mention of the beating of Jesus brought back her own pain. Her mother’s tears might not be spurred by faith, but by shame for giving her daughter to such a man. “The Student” is a story about storytelling, after all, and it is in the nature of Chekhov’s stories to be profoundly unstable.

Critical consensus says Ivan’s revelation is genuine. This is understandable; Bunin reports that Chekhov thought “The Student” contradicted those critics who called him “gloomy”. But regardless of his intent, it is notable that even in such a brief story his impulse for ambiguity and irresolution should result in the availability of more than one reading. “Everything on this earth,” Chekhov wrote in a letter of 1887, “is relative and inexact,” and this apprehension permeates his work. As the farmer Alekhin comments in “About Love”, before telling a story of unspoken words and unresolved feeling, “We decent Russian people entertain a partiality for these questions that remain without answers.” 

Fifty-Two Stories
By Anton Chekhov
Penguin Classics, 508pp, £25

Chris Power is the author of “Mothers” (Faber & Faber)

This article appears in the 26 Aug 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Covid