In the waiting room of the ballet school where my middle son was in class Saturday morning, I read early Chekhov from Love and Other Stories, in the fusty old Garnett translation. The stories date from his twenties, when he wrote comic sketches for newspapers with names like Oskolki (Splinters) and Novoye vremya (New Time). Chekhov was a medical student and his family’s chief breadwinner. He wrote prolifically and with enviable facility – 262 pieces for Oskolki, 29 for Novoye vremya. This is not the Chekhov we revere and think we know, the author of “My Life,” “Gusev” and “Ward No. 6,” but signals of his imminence are everywhere.
“A Work of Art” (1886) is amusing and obliquely sexy, an exercise in the comedy of human futility, but readers savoring guilty pleasures will be reminded of O. Henry. From the same year, “A Story Without an End” is a Gothic tale of attempted suicide and an actor’s inability to stopping acting and merely live. It features a writer as its self-conscious narrator, and toys with metafictional gimmicks, but concludes in the tones of the mature Chekhov. The narrator asks, “How will it end?” – Vassilyev’s life and the story we’re reading -- and he answers with the final paragraph:
“Vassilyev, whistling and straightening his tie, walks off into the drawing-room, and I look after him, and feel vexed. For some reason I regret his past sufferings, I regret all that I felt myself on that man’s account on that terrible night. It is as though I had lost something….”
Even through the clunky though endearing medium of Garnett’s translation, we recognize “Chekhov,” his inveterate mingling of comic and doleful without verbal ostentation. A flashy style would seem ephemeral and distract from the stripped-down goings-on, for these stories are as economical as silent comedies. I like some rich, meaty, attention-getting styles, but in Chekhov the bareness and reticence suit the material. Irving Feldman puts the matter of style like this in “Fragment” (from The Life and Letters, 1994):
“The language isn’t saved by style
but by a tale worth telling.
Not, then, to purify the old words
but to bring new speech into
the lexicon of the tribe,
to tell, for example, how they
received their names -- the gods –
who die in every generation
--the world ends—
and are revived under new vocables
as yet unknown to us
and in other, still unguessable shapes
--that must be the world renewed, the new world.
Or even to tell--if we can tell
no more than this -- how they came to die
and lost their names and their allure, were husks
hardly able to hold our whispers,
even this allows us a kind
of communion, a beginning of sorts,
a way to keep feeling alive.”