Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Lady With the Little Dog and Other Stories, by Anton Chekov

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Chekov’s short stories are funny, pessimistic, and ultimately very realistic.

Many years ago I remember trying to read Chekov’s short stories and not enjoying them particularly. Having finished this collection of later short stories, I think I now know why. Chekov’s stories have no strong plots or structure; they just seem to run along in their own way. You feel like you’ve been dropped into the chaos of someone’s life and left to swim through the choppy waters of their contradictory emotions. The style comes close to stream of consciousness. No wonder Virginia Woolf was such a fan of Chekov. It’s all very much the stuff of real life.

The title story, “The Lady with the Little Dog”, reminded me of the films of Woody Allen (I think he was inspired by Chekov too). It’s about a man and a woman who, unhappily married and seeking some excitement, embark on an affair. It’s extraordinary for its emotional realism. The man lies to himself, thinking that an affair will be all lightness and playfulness, but the reality is such an affair can only end badly. Both parties lie to themselves, thinking they can create a heaven on earth, but that’s just a fantasy. Reality is quite different.

Other stories examine family relationships, Russia’s peasants and life’s hardships. Despite a lot of the gloominess and pessimism of the stories, Chekov can also be quite funny. There’s one story where two men discuss the history of a colleague, one who was so neurotic that he made his life more miserable than it needed to be. Chekov is such a  sharp observer of human nature, of our changeable and indecisive natures, that he can capture every mad turn we take in our brains with amazing accuracy. His themes seem to be that too much choice can be a bad thing, and ultimately we don’t really know what we want anyway. 

The only real parallel in recent contemporary fiction to Chekov would be American short story writer John Cheever (1912-1982). Interestingly, both excelled at the short story (Cheever’s novels aren’t nearly as successful). It’s as though these intense inspections of the human heart can’t survive a longer treatment. The Lady with the Little Dog and Other Stories is a brilliant collection from a Russian master. I enjoyed him much better twenty years later, the second time around.

The Lady With the Little Dog and Other Stories, by Anton Chekov. Published by Penguin. ISBN: 9780140447873 RRP: $9.95

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