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"Slow down, write less, and concentrate on literary quality"
on 5 March 2007
"Slow down, write less, and concentrate on literary quality" is the advice a contemporary critic gave to Chekhov after the publication of one of his first short stories. He had certainly heeded this advice by the last years of his life, when the stories in this collection were written. These are compact, meditative stories in which mood, tone and emotion are highlighted, rather than traditional event-driven plots.
I bought the book because I liked the cover - an impressionist painting with a hint of expressionism. A very good choice which sums up the mood of the short tales in this volume. Most of them have no plot, beyond the trivial, normal concerns of the lives of ordinary people (falling in love, marriage, adultery, work, ambition etc) - Chekhov prefers to distort the significance of the external world and focus on the emotions of the characters involved: normally to the point of futility at the failure of life, the world, to conform to the perspective of the main character or narrator, or indeed any of the characters.
More often than not this conflict is worked out through the clash of Russian provincial life with the personal ambitions, the deepest wants of a particular character - e.g. to be a great actor or musician, to be free of petty corruption, to love freely. None of the dilemmas are resolved, although Chekhov hints at partial solutions, but always with the suggestion that these will simply lead to more problems. This is presumably why so many of the stories involve adultery (as a possibility or in fact) - unhappy people seeking answers in more meaningful relationships create more problems for themselves (psychological, emotional, imaginary, real) which in turn cast doubt on the meaning of the relationship.
Another area Chekhov likes to use is work and the Russian class system - petty bureaucrats, landowners, writers and artists, engineers, transport workers and peasants make numerous appearances. Chekhov exploits their way of life, values, concerns, habits and hypocrisies to examine, suggest, blur and tamper with the realist vision. Unlike Tolstoy, for instance, there is little Romantic depiction of the peasantry: stories like Peasants and My Life portray them as brutal, drunken, rapacious and stupid. However, Chekhov is much more critical of the petty mores, corruption, snobbery and empty-headed romanticism of the middle classes.
Chekhov's prose is cool, controlled and gentle - a superb stylist who paints bright and colourful pictures which both bring alive 19th century Russian life and provide a rich array of types and images for his allusive technique. There is none of the rambling bombast that can be characteristic of late 19th century writing. The stories are generally slow-paced and (purposely) repetitious - as befits a writer concerned to unpick the innermost thoughts and reflections of his characters, their struggle to come to terms with the personal significance of events and facts about the world, their frustrations as they fight to resolve the clashes between their own vision and the life of the village, town, nation or world in which they live.
A very enjoyable and enriching book - certainly an author/playwright I shall return to.