Anton Chekhov shrugged off plot and focused down on his characters.
The Essential Tales of Chekhov
Edited and with an Introduction by Richard Ford; translated by Constance Garnett; The Ecco Press, 1998; 337 pages; $27.50.
Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), physician, playwright, and author of some 220-plus short stories, was born in Taganrog, Ukraine. He is considered one of the fathers of the modern short story, the progenitor of the moody, impressionistic, and twilit stories that used to evanesce, two to an issue, off the pages of the New Yorker. Chekhov shrugged off plot and focused down on the talk and touch and glance between and among his characters. There’s an adjective, Chekhovian, that means, I think, to say that we almost always disappoint one another, that love is a tule fog that burns off by noon. Joan Didion in Slouching Towards Bethlehem uses the adjective: “California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.”
Pulitzer prize-winning novelist and short-story writer Richard Ford already has lived ten years longer than did the tubercular Chekhov. Ford has used his years well: five novels, many memorable short stories, a marriage now past its silver anniversary, a passel of good hunting dogs. In his introduction to the Chekhov stories, Ford confesses, in what seems a particularly disarming Chekhovian moment, that until he began “the long and happy passage of reading all of Anton Chekhov’s short stories for the purpose of selecting the 20 that follow, I had read very little of Chekhov.” Ford goes on to note that this seems a “terrible thing for a storywriter to admit, and doubly worse for one whose own stories have been so thoroughly influenced by Chekhov through my relations with other writers who had been influenced by him directly: Sherwood Anderson, Isaac Babel, Hemingway, Cheever, Welty, Carver.”
Over several weeks’ time, I read the 20 stories Ford had chosen from Chekhov’s approximately 220. I found the familiar favorites from anthologies, stories like “The Lady with the Dog” that I’d read enough times over enough years that to read about the illicit amours of Gurov and Anna was also to remember having read, and when and where. I read stories I’d read once or twice (“Gooseberries”) and then stories whose titles were unfamiliar.
I telephoned Ford at his home in New Orleans and asked how he happened to take up this project. Ford said that he took on the work of selecting stories at the suggestion of Daniel Halpern, Ecco Press’s editor and publisher. “We’ve been friends for a long time and I’ve always written a little bit of this and a little bit of that for him. He thought it was the right mix. I thought, ‘Well, I have never read all of Chekhov, much less much of Chekhov,’ so I decided that I’d take this on as a big reading project.”
I said that it seemed to me that one reads many books when one’s young, but that one really has not read very deeply into these books, and that often one never goes back to the book. One says to oneself, “Oh, I already read that.’.’
Ford added, “Somebody else has read the book and talked about it and somebody else has read the book and been influenced by it, and you get it passed on to you that way, too.”
Ford said, about the stories, “I read them all, pretty much in a spate. When 1 got to the end, thank God I had made notes, because I couldn’t remember anything I’d read. It just got to me, those 230 stories. I had made a system where I could refind the ones I like the best. When anyone asks me questions about them, first of all, you misremember, in ignorance. If I could ever penetrate any one story, 1 remember it very well, and it’s very vivid to me in many of its particulars, but there was an odd double-mindedness of not remembering them very well, almost kind of remembering them as if they had a hue to them, rather than a grain. But I can get into the graininesses of them somewhat because I’ve answered a few questions about several of them now.”
Both Chekhov and William Carlos Williams were physicians. Chekhov in his stories and Williams in poems very quickly create a sense of intimacy, in part through descriptions of bodies. Did Ford think this grew out of their work as doctors?
“Everyone who really knows a lot about Chekhov said it had a lot to do with his being a doctor, and moreover not just a doctor, but, what’s more, a forensic doctor. Chekhov did a lot of autopsies and a couple of the stories are about doing autopsies and being around dead people. He had a great deal of experience in eviscerating people and looking at their lights and their particulars, and I think it had a lot of do with how and what he wrote. And, too, what a sense of humanity permeated his stories! He had seen the worst of men and yet he cared the most. They are very compassionate stories. Even people that you know he doesn’t like and you wouldn’t like if you knew them, he is compassionate towards. There’s no sense he’s using characters badly or dining out on them or having them for fun. Even in a funny story, there’s always a sense of trying to understand the character.”
I said that Chekhov’s compassion toward his characters certainly shaped “Gooseberries,” a story that I noted I found heartbreaking in its sadnesses.
“‘Gooseberries,’” said Ford, “is not one of my favorites. I wouldn’t have even put it in if I hadn’t known it was one of everybody’s favorite stories. It’s everybody’s favorite but mine. I don’t even think I understand it. I’ve read it about 25 times and I never find it heartbreaking. It’s an interesting story and all of those three men who congregate in that farmhouse are all people whom you wouldn’t very much like. But he manages to get into the graininess of each of those characters. Still, 1 never could cotton to this story very much, and don’t know why. Maybe it’s just over my head.”
Ford and I talked, then, about this business of “understanding” a story. I said that not infrequently when I like a poem or story a great deal, I do not seem to “understand.” My response, I said, was simply to want to kiss the page.
“I know that feeling,” said Ford, “and I also do feel that at times. There’s a story in this book that I love so deeply, ‘The Anonymous Story.’ It’s just such a good story. You think, ‘How, how, how, is it possible a story can be this good?’ But, it is.”
I asked about the translation, which is by Constance Garnett, an English woman who translated many Russian classics.
“Everybody I’ve ever talked to who knows about translation takes a snooty attitude towards it. One of the things it may not do, it may not try very hard to replicate the Russian. A Russian scholar at Princeton, he and I were giving a little talk. He said, ‘1 will read this passage to you, because if you read Miss Garnett you’ll never have any sense of the Russian at all.’ But I suspect what she did was just try to render it into English, I am guessing, without trying to puzzle much about how she could make English represent the longeurs, the subtleties, that a Russian would have.”
I said that I hadn’t heard the word “longeurs” in a long time. I said it was such a nice word.
“It is a nice word. It’s onomatopoetic, too. But Russian sentences are long and Russian digressions are long. It isn’t just the names. The whole sense of expressiveness is quite effusive, and I don’t think Miss Garnett cared much about trying to render that effusiveness.”
I said that I thought Mr. Ford a good choice for choosing and commenting upon these stories, in part because of the rural landscape of so many of the stories, a landscape similar to some of Mr. Ford’s stories.
Ford said that he was much taken by Chekhov’s landscapes but that he deliberately didn’t write about it in his essay that is the foreword to the book. “The way in which place comes into play in literature is made more of than I am comfortable with by some American critics. There are stories of mine that are set in Montana that have been talked about as if the story itself had grown out of the landscape, as if the dramatics of the story were matched to the spareness of the landscape. Which, I think, is simply rubbish.”
I said that I didn’t think people thought that way when they’re writing.
“Nor do I. Nor do I think that that is it really anything intentional in a piece of work. So that most of the ways that I hear people talk about landscape is a way that I am uncomfortable with. So I just thought, ‘Well, I don’t know what I think about Chekhov writing about the steppes or writing about places he grew up, down in the southern part of Russia. I’ve never been there myself and I saw no reason getting involved in that. I always think that the setting of a story is pretty well arbitrarily determined by the writer; there’s nothing organic about it.”
A story can start, I said, with a place you’ve never been that you see in your mind’s eye.
“Or,” said Ford, “it can be a place that just has a name that you like. That’s happened for me many times; But it has almost nothing to do with an organic sense of how the gist of the story plays into it. It all seems like bunk to me. So I just avoided it.”