Karl Miller

  • The Oxford Chekov. Vol. IV: Stories 1888-1889 edited by Ronald Hingley
    Oxford, 287 pp, £14.00, July 1980, ISBN 0 19 211389 5

Volume IV of the ‘Oxford Chekhov’ has all the fiction published between March 1888 and 1 January 1889, and it brings to an end Ronald Hingley’s nine-volume annotated translation of the plays and of a proportion, six volumes’ worth, of the stories. Mr Hingley has been taxed with the ‘layman’s’ question as to whether all the stories of this great writer were to be made available in English: he points out that most of the copious early fiction was written ‘for money’ and to suit the ‘numerous humorous magazines of the period’, and that the early work, from 1880, for all that it contains ‘not a few minor masterpieces’, has therefore been excluded. The case for treating Chekhov as one of the few acknowledged masters whose minor masterpieces, not to speak of his potboilers and shavings, laundry lists and every last word, need not be bothered with is hardly unanswerable: but it would probably carry weight even at the best of times for publishers, and it is unlikely to curtail the welcome extended to the ‘Oxford Chekhov’. The lay reader is bound to take pleasure in the present translations, though there are occasional infelicities, and the usual yokel difficulties with peasant vernacular. The editor explains how he has been helped by the Soviet Complete Collection of the Works and Letters in 30 Volumes, in which we can take for granted plenty of stomach for the numerous humorous early pieces. This edition started to appear in 1974 – too late for use in relation to previous instalments of the ‘Oxford Chekhov’, which were able, however, to draw on the 20-volume Moscow edition of 1944–51. Debts to these editions are not specified in the notes and appendices, both of which are brief; the latter largely consist of Chekhov’s own comments, as a rule disparaging, on particular stories.

Literary figures among his friends were of the opinion that he should cease to be rapid and copious and commercial, and at the age of 28, in 1888, he began a long story destined for the ‘Thick Journals’ read by the intelligentsia, and wrote it ‘slowly, as gourmets eat snipe’, fearing that ‘my first pancake’ might prove a ‘dumpling’. ‘The pancake’ in question is the first story in Volume IV, ‘The Steppe’. Mr Hingley believes, though not wholeheartedly and not wholly convincingly either, that Chekhov’s ‘notable promotion’ to the Thick Journals meant that this year was ‘the most important turning-point in his life’. He was a lightweight no longer. One might object that important turning-points lay ahead, such as his visit to the penal colony of Sakhalin, and that he had already turned into a playwright. But it is certainly true that the best three stories in the present volume – the best in my judgment, but not in that of the editor – were all published in Thick Journals, while the least successful – two tales which deal with lust for gold and with fantastic wagers, and which were put out to St Petersburg newspapers – have the air of potboilers from the past, and of a reliance on the folk repertoire. The three outstanding stories are the first and the last, entitled ‘Lights’, and ‘The Party’.

‘The Party’ is about a pregnant country gentlewoman, Olga, an heiress and university graduate who, in the course of a hard day’s entertainment of the local worthies, grows sensitive about her dowry and feels a mounting aversion towards her handsome husband, whose failings are vividly evoked: his anti-feminism and other reactionary views, covering a crisis of confidence, his philanderings, his magistrate’s posturings, the awful back of his neck. A wise old husband I know used to say: ‘Never have things out.’ Olga takes a different view:

    She decided to find her husband at once and have it out with him. It was downright disgusting, the way he attracted strange women, seeking their admiration as if it were the elixir of life. It was unfair and dishonourable of him to bestow on others what rightly belonged to her, his wife, and to hide his heart and conscience from her only to reveal them to the first pretty face. What harm had she done him? What had she done wrong?

As the day wears on and the hospitality wears thin, a feverish, phantasmagoric darkness falls. Anxiety and hostility deepen, before we know it, into the drama of a miscarriage. The story ends with a stillborn child, and an awareness of her love for her husband. There is a tension in the story between the sense that Olga’s grievances, which eventually grate on the (male) reader, may owe something to her physical condition and the sense that she could well, though ill, have her husband’s number. Not many would finish the story thinking that its author was against higher education for women on the grounds that it turned them into viragos. At the same time, the story offers no opinion one way or the other on any of the vexed questions to which it refers, and which had come to the fore in the more liberal Russia of Alexander II. In the manner that we call Chekhovian, it floats. And it may appear that its buoyancy owes a good deal to the handling of the illness which it recounts.

With Chekhov, we are in the era where the word ‘nerves’ can mean something, can mean everything. Illness – with its viragos, vertigos, hallucinations and hysterias, its grievances, insights and intense perceptions – is both a theme and a precondition, not only of this story, but of half of the eight in the volume. ‘A Nervous Breakdown’ and ‘An Awkward Affair’ have the kind of interest in illness which assigns them to the ‘clinical’ vein traditionally distinguished in his work – what you might expect a doctor like Chekhov to supply, as it were. But his interest in the perceptions of the ill is more than medical. In these eight stories we discover that their perceptions are like those of the drowsy, the lonely, the young, the distressed, that feeling and suffering, strength of feeling and bodily weakness, are potently related. In other words, we discover that Chekhov is a romantic writer.

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