Minor to the point of trivial, but also short, punchy, and well-stocked with images and sentences that send the shiver up the spine – now that I have begun, I cannot stop reading early Chekhov. I mentioned short. Short is key. Three, four five page stories, easy to fit into the day’s gaps.
In “Oysters,” a little boy is out in the cold with his father who, I fear, is begging. The sign on a restaurant says “Oysters” which are what exactly?
“They are eaten alive…” said my father. “They are in shells like tortoises, but… in two halves.”
The delicious smell instantly left off affecting me, and the illusion vanished… Now I understood it all!
“How nasty,” I whispered, “how nasty!”
So that’s what “oysters” meant! I imagined to myself a creature like a frog. A frog sitting in a shell, peeping out from it with big, glittering eyes, and moving its revolting jaws…… The children would all hide while the cook, frowning with an air of disgust, would take the creature by its claw, put it on a plate, and carry it into the dining-room. The grown-ups would take it and eat it, eat it alive with its eyes and its teeth, its legs! While it squeaked and tried to bite their lips. (The Cook’s Wedding & Other Stories, 60-1, tr. Garnett – the extra-long ellipses are mine, the rest hers, or perhaps Chekhov’s).
And this gets better – soon, the boy becomes so hungry that he has an oyster-eating hallucination. He “shudders,” they are “loathsome,” but he cannot stop crunching on them. In the climatic remaining page of the story, the boy is fed actual oysters, with ambiguous results.
I do not want to vouch for the world-classness of this story, but I hope the greatness of that little scene, of Chekhov’s, and the boy’s, imagination, is evident enough. Given how much text Chekhov was producing, and how quickly, it is shocking how good so many - any! - of these early stories are. Peter Constantine, in the introduction to The Undiscovered Chekhov, writes that Chekhov in 1886 “was twenty-six, and had already published over four hundred short stories and vignettes in popular magazines” – plus a novel and eight plays, six of which are lost. What a shame; The Clean-shaven Secretary with the Pistol sounds so promising.
Four hundred! If I am counting correctly, Constance Garnett’s 13 volume edition of Chekhov’s stories includes a mere 96 of them, 41 from 1882 through 1885, 55 from 1886 alone. I have been reading the early stories chronologically, kind of, but 1886 may do in that plan. What does 1887 look like? I’ll have to stop typing – I’ll need all of my fingers for this one.
49, yikes! Although 1887 gives me “The Kiss,” which seems to be the first Chekhov story that I think of as a truly great one, excepting perhaps the 1886 “Vanka,” the most pathetic story ever written. Then, to run through an entirely conventional “best of Chekhov” list:
1889 – “A Dreary Story”
1890 – “Gusev”
1891 – “The Duel”
1892 – “Ward No. 6”
1894 – “The Black Monk”
1896 – “My Life”
1897 – “Peasants”
1898 – “Gooseberries”
1899 – “The Lady with the Lap Dog”
1900 – “In the Ravine”
1902 – “The Bishop”
The four great plays are all late, too. Late being relative, since Chekhov was 44 when he died in 1904. Beginning in 1888, Chekhov begins to write fewer (9 titles in 1888, 3 in 1890) but longer, more complex stories. The sketches expand into novellas. I am having a fine time with the early stories, but Chekhov gets so much better. Readers new to Chekhov should not do what I am doing. Nor should less new readers, but I am having trouble stopping. I eat them like good fresh oysters, a dozen at a time.