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Book Review

Gems From a Master Short-Story Artist

LONGER STORIES FROM THE LAST DECADE, by Anton Chekhov, Modern Library

$24.95, 611 pages


You do not review a newly issued volume of stories by Chekhov so much as revel in it. You revel, as ever, in the beauty, the humanity, the compassion, the scope, the subtlety and the durability of this man and his storytelling: Chekhov, who died in 1904, remains as modern--or, more accurately, as timeless--a writer as we have ever had.

With "Longer Stories From the Last Decade," the Modern Library completes its trilogy of the Chekhov inventory, 123 stories selected and elegantly presented by Shelby Foote and translated by Constance Garnett. The treasures of this new collection--11 stories fundamental to the Chekhov canon--include "Ward Number Six," "An Anonymous Story," "My Life" and "In the Ravine."

By grouping the late longer stories together, Foote has addressed one lingering question that has clung to Chekhov's body of work, during his life and afterward, and that is his failure to write a novel (except in his youth, a misguided and hardly typical piece of detective fiction).


Chekhov himself more than once expressed disappointment with his inability to produce a sustained narrative. Yet when read together, these longer stories feel profoundly sustained: They vibrate with amplitude, ambition, nuance, complexity and contradiction, depicting human beings at essential moments of transformation or understanding in their lives. All of these are qualities we associate with the novel.

It is equally valid, in any event, to declare the issue irrelevant. No matter how brief, a good Chekhov story (and there are many average ones, written early on, often for money) delivers a mysteriously shimmering compactness, not of plot so much as of understanding. Chekhov sees to the bottom of people, of places, of things, and in this seeing, there is depth, there is roundness, there is a powerful antidote to the consummate loneliness of being human and of being alive. There is literature of the most consoling and enlightening kind.

When people talk about Chekhov, they talk about him personally, as though he were a friend. An ideal friend, it should be added: Chekhov is nondidactic and nonjudgmental; he is moral without being preachy; he is insightful but never showy; he grasps the difficulty of love; he is modest, witty, plain-spoken and forthright; he sets the human standard for empathy. In "An Anonymous Story," when the narrator speaks of "the tact, the delicacy which are so essential when you have to do with a fellow creature's soul," he might easily be speaking of that which is essential in Chekhov himself.

It has been observed that Chekhov felt he "had to be open to the nature of his characters, listening, absorbing, intuiting, weighing, before he gave them the lineaments of fictive existence. He owed them their own truth. And in return they told him what language he needed to speak."

This language is the incarnation of pliability, neutrality and spaciousness. What a fine thing, to be open to so many human behaviors, so many states of mind and feeling! What an accomplishment it is to aim, as Chekhov did, to "depict life truthfully," as he wrote in a letter to the poet and critic Alexei Pleshcheyev, and to show "to what extent this life deviates from the norm. The norm is not known to me, just as it is not known to any one of us."


"I look upon tags and labels as prejudices," Chekhov wrote in another letter to Pleshcheyev, offering a statement, often quoted, that comes as close as he ever came to a credo. "My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and the most absolute freedom imaginable--freedom from violence and lies no matter what form [they]--take. Such is the program I would adhere to if I were a major artist."

Chekhov wrote this letter before he had turned 30. Fourteen years later he died of tuberculosis. He had been a major artist all his life, though it took some time for him to follow the plans he had envisioned for himself. As readers and as human beings, we are infinitely lucky that he did.

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