Friday, March 28, 2008

A Shout from Copenhagen: The Other Chekhov. Check it out!

The Other Chekhov: Check it out!

At least half a dozen people I know are reading a new, annotated collection of Anton Chekhov’s stories, edited by Okla Elliott and Kyle Minor – two awesome young literati – published in 2008 by an awesome young house known as New American Press ( The collection is entitled The Other Chekhov and consists of ten stories by Chekhov, all but three or four of which I have not read before.

Many of the stories are by the young Chekhov, whose pseudonym was Antosha Chekhonte, from the period prior to 1888, but there are also three from the 1890s. For those who may not know, Chekhov’s life was short – born in 1960, dead in 1904 – but his production long, hundreds of stories, plays, and other writings. And he is one of the masters, perhaps the father of the modern short story.

The ten stories in this collection are varied examples of the richness of Chekhov’s craft and his genius, which are by turns subversive, humanistic, sociological, terrifying, and scathingly humorous. I was pleased to see that none of the very early “twist” stories were included which, although Chekhov always amazes with his prose, conclude with a gimmick. (And why not? He was just earning a few extra roubles as a young medical student, by publishing his first pieces at the age of twenty.)

One of the two earliest pieces here, “In a Strange Land” (1882-5), in fact, could be used as a caricature of the contemporary western racist opening a door to foreigners and feeding them well while insulting them at the table – a little portrait of hell. Some of the shortest pieces – e.g., “The Huntsman” – remind one of Chekhov’s wonderful definition of very short fiction as reading which “feels rather like swallowing a glass of vodka.”

Others of the stories haunt by virtue of their unsentimental depiction of human suffering (“Misery,” 1886), the portrayal of the power of human passion suppressed (“The Witch,” 1886), dramatizations of solipsistic foolishness (“From the Diary of a Violent-Tempered Man” and “The Kiss,” both 1887).

While each story in this assembly is powerful and memorable, the two I found most haunting Dr Chekhov wrote later in his too short life – “Gusev” (1890) and “The Murder” (1895). “The Murder,” in a mere 40 pages (of large, eye-friendly type) achieves what most novelists would require two or three hundred pages even to begin to approach, the creation of a world both strange and familiar, at once real and surreal, and cause of great wonder. “Gusev,” for its part, does something I don’t believe I have ever seen done in language, at least not like that – a haunting, hallucinatory piece which portrays the grittiest of realism, but then...

Another distinguished feature of this collection is that each of its ten stories is introduced by a distinguished practitioner of the art of fiction and/or translation: Pinckney Benedict, Fred Chappell, Christopher Coake, Paul Crenshaw, Dorothy Gambrell, Steve Gillis, Michelle Herman, Jeff Parker, Benjamin Percy and David R. Slavitt. These introductions are by turns playful, esoteric, suggestive, illuminating – one even takes the form of a cartoon complement to the story it introduces. And they can be read before or after the story, as the reader wishes – a couple of the introducers request the readers to come back to the introduction after they have read the stories. Add to these ten introductory pleasures, the excellent, brief, knowledgeable introduction to the book itself by its two editors – Okla Elliott and Kyle Minor – and you have the makings of a literary feast.

A word about the translations: they are by Constance Garnett. Garnett-bashing seems to have become an international sport in recent years. But Constance Garnett was like a mighty human bridge, facilitating the passage of millions upon millions of readers into a world containing some of the greatest wonders of literary achievement – Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov… She was good enough for D. H. Lawrence, for James Joyce, for Katherine Mansfield, and she is certainly good enough for me.

Is there anything at all that I missed in this book? No – however, I would have loved it if Messrs. Elliott and Minor had included Dr Chekhov’s “The Black Monk.” But that’s a quibble. This book is a literary treasure. And for a real, literary review of it, read Walter Cummin’s piece which will appear in the Summer 2008 edition of Fairleigh Dickinson University’s international journal, The Literary Review.

Let me conclude by proclaiming that New American Press is a class act – this book has a beautifully designed cover, high quality paper well bound, reader-friendly typeface, no typos that I caught and, of course, the incomparable content – for the modest price of not quite sixteen bucks. You can’t hardly buy a bottle of decent vodka for that. Each of these stories is a generous dram of the real stuff, triple distilled, ten generous glasses of it. Messieurs et madames: Enivrez-vous! Inebriate yourselves on the words of the master!

Greetings from this ancient capital!
Thomas E. Kennedy

No comments: