Friday, September 9, 2011

Smelling of sherry and ham - rummaging around in early Chekhov

Those late stories of Nikolai Leskov led me to paw through my thirteen volumes of Constance Garnett’s translations of Anton Chekhov, aided by the chronology at the end of Volume 13.  What was the young newcomer Chekhov doing, more or less, while the veteran Leskov was publishing “The Pearl Necklace”?  I was not looking for genius or sublimity, just high-end Russian magazine fiction, Chekhov in 1883.

“Joy” is the second-earliest story Garnett includes.  A young man bursts in on his parents at midnight, thrilled at his new fame – “now all Russia knows of me!”  His parents are skeptical, but here’s the proof, the newspaper article:  “an intoxicated condition… slipped and fell… taken to the police station.”  Now he has to show the  article to more people.  “Mitya put on his cap with its cockade and, joyful and triumphant, ran into the street.”  The End.

Well that wasn’t much.  Just a joke, I guess, a wry observation.  Three pages, and these Garnett books have pleasingly generous margins and type.  It took me longer to write three sentences about it than to read it.  Let’s try another, something with a little more heft.

“A Daughter of Albion,” published six months after “Joy” – this one features a man and woman fishing together, “a large stout man, with a very big head,” and “a tall thin Englishwoman, with prominent eyes like a crab’s, and a big bird-like nose more like a hook than a nose.”  I feel we are already getting somewhere with those unlikely crab eyes, and in fact this six pager has a number of juicy tidbits, slant adjectives, odd bits of dialogue.  Somehow, the stout man ends up completely nude.  “The Englishwoman twitched her brows and blinked…  A haughty disdainful smile passed over her yellow face.”  Those ellipses are Chekhov’s, or at least Garnett’s.  This is not exactly “Ward No. 6,” but it’s progress.

Everyone knows “Ward No. 6,” yes?  Heartbreaking, just crushing.  But that’s later, 1892, and more like 80 pages long.  Back to 1883.

Let’s see, how about “Fat and Thin.”  Old friends, one fat and one thin, accidentally meet at a train station.  The fat man “smelt of sherry and fleur d’orange,” the thin man of “ham and coffee grounds.”  This is again only three pages, but Chekhov can spend his time telling me how his characters smell.  Good.  The thin man is jolly and natural until he learns that his portly friend outranks him.  Then he “wore an expression of such reverence, sugariness, and mawkishness respectfulness that the privy councilor was sickened.”  So this story is like “Joy,” one incident, one tiny insight not into the depths of the human soul but into its smaller, shallower crevices.

I have actually read a short book of Chekhov duds, a collection of his earliest publications, The Undiscovered Chekhov (1998), translated by Peter Constantine.  Now those pieces, some barely a page long, are slight.  But even those I read with some interest, as Chekhov emerges, sentence by sentence, from the ordinary writing of his time.

These are fun.  Why don’t I write about Chekhov more?


  1. Every time I read a work by Chekhov, I tell myself I have to read more soon. I hope to read "The Cherry Orchard" next week-maybe "Ward 6" by year end-I really enjoyed your post as always.

  2. Why don't you write about Chekhov more?

    Early Chekhov can be pretty slight stuff, yeah. One thing I really like about the 13-volume Garnett collection (which I'm currently reading all the way through in a bout of temporary madness) is that the stories aren't presented in chronological order. I don't know if I'd read all of the early stories otherwise. It's only because of, say, "The Two Volodyas" that I'll read "In the Graveyard."

    Even so, I reverse my self to claim that you can see the bones of good stories in the early work; Chekhov just needed time to figure out what to do with those bones, how to develop a whole story out of his observations.

    ~scott bailey

  3. mel, thanks. I gotta say, "The Cherry Orchard" and "Ward No. 6" are in a whole 'nother universe compared to these early sketches.

    I may spend more time messing with Chekhov - Scott's blog is a model - there's no reason to choke too much down at once, and there's no particularly useful path. Chronological, by collection, at random. I may write about this next week, actually.

    I think I have read about half of the Garnett set. I guess more, because I have read some Chekhov in other editions. I don't know. And then Garnett has less than half of Chekhov's stories! She did a good job of sorting - I don't remember ever reading a piece that was a waste of time, unlike in that Undiscovered Chekhov book.

    Garnett's creative ordering of Chekhov is kind of an interesting subject in its own right.