Saturday, November 03, 2007

Review of Ward No. 6 and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov

I don't like reviewing short story collections, because I never quite know how to do it. I've got a few in the (unposted) archive where I wrote a paragraph or two for each entry, and other attempts where I reviewed the collection itself. Neither approach really seems adequate. In the present case, I don't know why these particular stories were collected for "Barnes and Noble Classics," whether they are comprehensive or exemplary, but they do hold together pretty well, making the decision a little easier this time. And as long as I'm complaining, I'm not a big fan of reading translated works either, because I never can tell who to credit for the success (or the failure) of the language. This volume worked out fortuitiously well in this regard too. Constance Garnett translated my copy of Crime and Punishment as well as this book, as well as much of the Russian literature of her time, and my distaste for Dostoyevsky's arrogant blather doesn't seem to be her fault. Because Chekhov's fiction is great.

Any critique of Chekhov must begin by noting his penchant for honest, objective bits, short stories as literary photography. There's not much plot in most of 'em, but they still work as complete thoughts of context or of character. It's damned interesting as far as technique goes, because this accurate pen doesn't spend a lot of time inside the heads of the characters, not looking much through their eyes. He's no sensualist, but he describes a lot of what the senses perceive. He's not one for massaging circuitous internal motivations, but he describes clearly what characters think, much of which could be called complex. With all the present-day authors going for so many levels of cognitive masturbation, Chekhov's style is downright refreshing. It makes me want to read his plays.

I picked up this collection on Kevin Fournier's recommendation (who's next, as it happens), looking for something to illuminate the life and times of Russia--and Europe in general--at the turn of the century. I couldn't have found a better choice. If you're looking to, you can follow the arc as they move through time. You can see technology develop for one thing (there are no telephones in his earlier pieces, nor factories), but stylistically, he becomes more like himself over the twenty years or so of publications. His earlier pieces have more subjective points of view, and some look to have been chosen for their challenge, almost as if the author were showing off how unusually could he frame it. (The three-year-old "Grisha" was the most egregious, and also the best.) Still, I like his later, more subtle, vignettes. It's not a bad way to approach literature. A structured plot is probably teh biggest difference between literature and reality, and it's impressive to see the fiction succeed without it. I think I'd have been happier not knowing that was Chekhov's personal mission, but then most art contains a lot of hidden effort.

I grew up knowing Soviet Russia, and it's unusual to see the country as an open, cosmopolitan, religious place, as opposed to some cynical, soulless, wintry hellhole. Chekhov's Russia seemed very European in culture, a little more austere, a little more sparse. One thing that struck me was the nineteenth-century Russian's sense of spectacle. It's hard for me to imagine the church finery as a draw, as the foremost cultural touchstone in the provinces, and it's still a viable professional path in his stories. For all his objectivity, Chekhov has, I think like his two famous contemporaries, morality hanging heavily over him, and what ironies he constructs hinge on this mix of honesty and chaste, deep-rooted Christian ethics. When I read Tolstoy, I thought he read like an American novelist, and I got a little of that same sense from Chekhov too, daring honesty fighting Puritan restraint. It fits.

All of the short stories were very good, but my favorite ones went a little deeper than a photograph. The best stories retained a little bit of extra structure, either something resembling a plot resolution, or an obvious irony, or showcased the most entertaining conflict. The title story was great for that last bit, about a doctor's relationship with a man in his asylum. The Princess was the closest he came to preaching, but it's a wonderful rant. The conflicts in The Witch and The Dependents were hilarious and bittersweet. Rothschild's Fiddle is as close as he gets to a plot and a moral, but it's quite touching.

No comments: