Review: “The Essential Tales of Chekhov” by Anton Chekhov

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From the introduction by Richard Ford:

Far from his stories’ ever sinking to typicality or being knowable by a scheme, Chekhov seems so committed to life’s multifariousness that the stories provoke in us the sensation Ford Madox Ford must have had in mind when he observed that the general effect of fiction “must be the effect life has on mankind”—by which I’ve always thought he meant that it be persuasively important, profuse, irreducible in its ambiguities, full of diverse pleasures, and always on the brink of being unknowable except that our ordering intelligence ardently urges us toward clarity. In Chekhov, there are no potted or predictable attitudes about anything: women, children, dogs, cats, the clergy, teachers, peasants, the military, businessmen, government officials, marriage, all Russia itself. And if anything can be termed “typical” it is that he insists we keep our notice close to life’s nuance, its intimate gestures and small moral annotations. “To be unloved and unhappy—how interesting that was,” sixteen-year-old Nadya Zelenin in “After the Theatre” thinks after seeing a performance of Eugene Onyegen. “There is something beautiful, touching, and poetical about it when one loves and the other is indifferent.”

You’ll have to forgive me for breaking from my usual review structure by not only leading with my selected excerpt, but also selecting said excerpt from the introduction rather than the stories themselves. In Ford’s introduction, particularly that paragraph, he sums up the literary importance of Chekhov far more beautifully than I ever could. This also allows me to explain why I appreciate Chekhov on an artistic level but get impatient with him as a reader with my own individual taste. I am old enough to wish more authors recognized that life is “irreducible in its ambiguities,” etc, which is something I try to do in my own work. But I am young enough to prefer authors who have opinions about things. And these are not, I believe, entirely incompatible. If I wanted nothing other than the true ambiguity of real life, I wouldn’t be reading fiction.

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