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This is a marvelous collection of stories. Not all of them are “short” by any means and one, being about 120 pages long, is more like a novelette.
All are set in Russia, most in rural areas, seemingly in the early part of the 20th century at the latest. They give one a sense of everyday life. I found the collection to be fascinating and couldn’t wait to move from story to story.
Below I make just a few comments on each story.
This is a lovely story to begin the collection. It is just a single day, when a heavy, but short rainstorm hits this tiny village. Young Danika has gotten his arm caught in a tree. Even younger little Fyokla has raced to the village to find the kind Terenty, a cobbler. Despite the rain he hurries with Fyokla to free Danika. Then they walk and talk after the rain, and the children learn much from him about nature. Later that night the kind Terenty comes quietly into the barn where the orphans are sleeping and leaves them some bread for the morning. It’s a very touching human story.
Vzelkov, an architect, returns to his home village after being away some 18 years. He had divorced his wife and moved to a large city. He decided to see the lawyer, Ivan Nilolaich, who did the divorce. It turns out the lawyer had cheated her and only given her 10,000 of the 15,000 monies he sent after the judgment. He was rich and the lawyer didn’t mind cheating him and his wife. She is now dead, but another time the lawyer cheated her of money and he never even minds telling the architect. Vzelkov didn’t love his ex-wife but feels badly when he discovers she suffered a very tough life and he never checked up on her at all.
Kashtanka, the dog, takes a walk with her master, a carpenter. He gets drunk and she gets lost and is much later found by a kindly man who takes her home with him, feeds her well and she’s not so unhappy. The next day, however, she meets other animals in the house, a cat, a gander and a sow. Much to Kashtanka’s shock, the old man is teaching these animals various tricks, even how to stand and form a pyramid. Before long Kashtanka, renamed Auntie in this house, is put into the “act” and begins to learn the tricks.
Sometime later the gander is stepped on by a horse one day and dies. The man is upset, but substitutes Auntie/Kashtanka into the act. Eventually they perform, and at the performance, as chance would have it, it is the dog’s her former owner and his son who attend this performance. The original owner reclaims Kashtanka and she goes home with them.
No question, one of the strangest stories I’ve ever read!
The doctor’s son has just died. His wife is in a near faint with grief next to the dead child. The doorbell rings and the husband, a doctor, answers. A hysterical man tells the doctor that his wife’s had a heart attack and he must hurry to his house. The doctor explains he can’t; his child has just died and his wife needs him, and he too, is grief stricken.
The fellow is brutal in his pressure and so the doctor goes. But the wife is not dead, she faked a collapse to get her husband to leave the house, then she ran off with her lover. The guy is out of his mind with rage (more than grief) at his wife. The doctor is aghast at the insensitivity of this man to the doctor’s own situation and his son’s death. They argue bitterly but eventually the guy denounces the doctor and sends him off. For the rest of his life the doctor remembers this man as a disgusting human.
Chekhov is fascinated with the fact of what, on that night of tragedy; the doctor mainly remembers is the other man and his hatred, more so than his son’s death and wife’s grief.
The story takes place in a sort of hotel waiting room on a stormy snowy night. A middle aged man, Grigor and his daughter are waiting for a train. Soon a tiny young woman comes in. She is Sasha and actually, young as she is, runs an estate since her father and brother are completely incompetent.
During the evening Grigor, on sort of a long rant, tells her the story of his life. He claims, and well demonstrates his miserable ways and his history of woes. He can never do anything long or right, has been all over the world and is a constant failure.
She asks where he is going now and it is to run a coal mine that is operated by her own uncle, a man who is untrustworthy and whose mine is a fraud. But, no matter, since he is sort of a nihilist and doesn’t much care, he is going on anyway.
Part of his long story of his life includes a lengthy analysis of how women will follow a man no matter how horrible he is. She realizes that she is deeply attracted to this incompetent, unreliable and strange man and that, nonetheless, she would go with him in a minute were he to ask. But, he doesn’t, and when morning comes he and his daughter get on the train to go to the mine.
A young 9 year old boy is left alone one cold evening while his master, a shoemaker is out. The boy writes an impassioned letter to his grandfather, a poor man who is a night watchman, and couldn’t care for him, so he set the boy up as an apprentice with the shoemaker. Vanka pours out his heart to his grandfather in this letter. He hates it here in the city with the shoemaker. They treat him horribly, and he desperately wants to come home to his grandfather. He promises he will take care of him and be a perfect little boy, if only . . . However, he isn’t even sure how to address the letter, but he puts the name and at least the village, onto the letter and posts it.
In a very unlikely marriage, a young and upcoming doctor marries a very beautiful young woman who mainly hangs around with a crown of various sorts of artists. She acts, paints, plays music and such. Her husband has absolutely no interests at all in the arts. He is a serious scientist and has his work and research.
We are never told how they ever got together or why she decided to marry him, but once she does, she throws herself into her artistic crowd, having them often to their home and entertaining them. Her husband wants nothing to do with these gatherings, but adores his wife and prepares meals for all her friends and such, but never comes into the parties themselves.
Even when they get a country place where she spends months at a time, the doctor comes out now and again to visit and never complains.
Finally she has an affair with a rather disagreeable painter, but he isn’t at all faithful, and after a while he tires of her. Her feelings are hurt yet she chases wildly after the painter. Eventually her husband comes down with a fatal disease due to his research, and only as he is dying, and she has resolved herself to what a great man he is, does she come to her senses. Nonetheless, things have gone too far and he dies.
This is a deeply touching and sad story. The doctor is so kind and understanding, perhaps even beyond belief, and she is such a thoughtless and selfish person one is hard pressed to take their marriage seriously. Nonetheless, Chekhov seems to me to pull it off and it has the ring of truth – sad truth, but truth nonetheless.
An old cab driver’s son has died. He is in deep grief and desperately needs to talk about the death of his son. Three different patrons in his cab don’t respond to him at all when he tries to tell them of his son. In pain, loneliness and near despair he finally just related the whole story of his son to his horse. This is a sad and touching, very dark tale.
Pyotr, normally a non-drinker, has a few drinks and comes home feeling the need for yet another drink, so he steals into the landlady’s kitchen for one more drink. However, by morning he knows he is seriously ill and has to deal with this health emergency. Pyotr freaks out and wakes up the maid, a very crabby lady. She is furious with him for having drunk some of her paraffin and doesn’t care at all what happens to him. In fear and desperation he hurries out, in the middle of the night seeking medical help, but can’t wake any doctor so he goes to a druggist. The druggist is angry that he woke him and did not bother to wake any of the doctors, and so he won’t help. Pyotr goes home to die.
However, he just falls asleep at home and wakes in the morning, fully recovered. When the maid finds out she is furious, but not at Pyotr. Rather she is outraged that she has been cheated and sold inferior paraffin! Delightful twist.
Painter Andre Kovrin narrates this tale which begins with a visit to his old friend. Egor Semenych. Andre is a well-known scholar, but his failing nerves have led him back to his rural home. Egor oversees an important orchard and lives which his devoted daughter, Tania.
As the visit lengthens it is clear that Tania is utterly infatuated with Andre, but he is struggling with his inner life and is visited by a spirit of some sort, the black monk of the title. At some level he knows or strongly suspects that the black monk is not real, but only in his head. However, the monk himself reassures Andre:
“I exist in your imagination, and your imagination is part of nature, consequently I exist in nature too.”
Andre does think well of himself, imagining that he is indeed a leading scholar and destined for even greater things. Yet, his health, especially his mental grip is loosening and he is worried. Again the monk reassures him:
“Overstrain, excitement, ecstasy, all that distinguishes the prophets, the poets, the martyrs for ideas, from ordinary people, is opposed to the animal side of man’s nature, that is, to physical health.
Eventually he decides to marry Tania, but after some time the black monk dominates his mind and Tania convinces him he’s mad and needs a cure. Things don’t go well, and the professor shifts the blame onto Tania:
“Why, why do you make me have this cure? . . . All this will make an idiot of me. I went mad, I had the mania of greatness, but for all that I was gay, healthy and even happy. . . I saw hallucinations in what way did that interfere with anybody?”
After a few years, no longer with Tania, he suffers from the same disease that killed his mother and he dies, believing in his greatness.
This story seems a pattern to me of other things I’ve read of Chekhov. He tells stories, but not in the normal sense of a beginning, a complication and a resolution. This story definitely has its beginning and complication, but the ending is not so much a resolution as simply an endpoint. Gripping, fascinating, but very different from most story tellers.
A group of soldiers are passing through an area and are invited to a local count’s home for dinner. It turns out he also happens to have a large family gathering at the same time, but felt obliged to invite the officers anyway.
One of the officers is Riabovich who is terribly shy. He sort of drifts at the edges of the party, but ends up getting lost in the large house and while trying to find his way back to the main group he goes through a very dark room. A young woman, whom he can’t really see, mistakes his for someone she has arranged to meet there, and hurries to him and kisses him. This has never happened to him before and he is simply consumed with this accidental kiss. The woman, realizing her mistake, races away and he has no idea who she is.
For weeks he can think of nothing else but the kiss, and he imagines all sorts of situations in which he is the one she wanted to kiss or could be in the future and other such dreams.
It is many weeks before they get back into “civilization” again and pass another such house of the rich, but finally he comes to term with “the kiss” and realizes it was just like a lucky dream and has no future.
I think this story is a testament to Chekhov’s marvelous writing. The situation is fairly hard to believe. This guy stumbles into a dark room trying to find his way back to the party in this huge mansion and all of a sudden this woman races up and kisses him, but, immediately recognizing her error, she hurries off, probably both embarrassed and not wanting to be identified. He has no illusions. He KNOWS this was a huge mistake she made. Yet for months to come this event dominates Riabovich’s life. He goes over it in his mind hundreds of times, thinks about how to even return to this house to try to find out who it was and on and on. It’s completely absurd; a much-ado-about-nothing. But Chekhov’s marvelous manner of telling it makes it believable, and that’s almost unbelievable to me!
Several men have been sent to Siberia for some crime or other. One is a total cynic and welcomes his imprisonment, seeing himself as actually free, since no one can tell him what to do and he has virtually no responsibilities. He lives, in this very limited sense, freely.
The others around him dream of going “back” to wherever they came from, dreaming also of lovers and families and a “future.” But the cynic constantly criticizes them as missing the point of life, which is, on his view, to want nothing, need nothing and thus to be free.
A young boy gives a doctor a very beautiful but quite risqué statue. It is given in lieu of money for services the doctor gave. The boy tells him it is one of a pair, but they only have the one. The doctor reluctantly accepts it, but just can’t display it because of its nature, so he gives it to a friend, who gives it to a friend who does the same again, and finally the last recipient sells it back to the mother of the boy who gave it to the doctor. The boy, thinking he now has the second of the pair, returns it to the doctor! It is a delightful and funny tale.
Two peasant soldiers are returning a prisoner to his prison from which he has escaped. The prisoner doesn’t even know his own name. However, he dreams of being sent off to Siberia where he would learn to farm and live a lovely peasant life among the people. However, the soldiers point out his dream is hopeless; he can’t even walk the few miles back to prison. He’d never make it to Siberia. The man falls silent, his dream shattered.
Anna Akimovna has inherited her father’s factory. She has 1800 workers and has full control of the whole business and finances. Wages are low, however, seemingly within range of the standard of the time and place.
We follow the relatively unhappy and meaningless life she leads. She is rich, has her responsibilities for the many workers and business itself, yet she knows almost nothing about the business and relies on the key men her father had put in positions of control. She is young, single and has no intentions of marrying.
She grew up relatively poor and her father began as a worker, but eventually saved and built up this business along with his brother. Anna phantasies about marrying a simple working man but knows that is only a wild and crazy dream.
The story does not so much “end” as it just peters out. Chekhov describes her situation, sad as it is, in significant detail, then just walks away from it. There was no resolution, but it was a fascinating and gripping read.
Young Misha is dying. The doctor is at the home and trying to console the disconcerted mother. However, he wants to speak to her about something else, but can’t. Finally, after trying for hours he gets up his courage and asks her if the boy is actually his own child. Olga tells him yes.
But the doctor doesn’t believe it. He knows that she has told three men, himself and two other wealthy men, that they are the father and all three give her support. He denounces her in the night of her desperate suffering, convinced in his own self-serving dishonesty that he isn’t the father.
This is a sad and ironic story, but well told.
Nikolay Bieliayev, a rich Petersburg landlord is visiting the home of Olga Ivanovna with who he has had a long affair. She is out but her 8 year-old son, Aliosha is there. In a conversation the two are having he mentions his father and the surprised Nikolay asks if he actually sees him. After a long resistance and promises of absolute confidence, Aliosha tells how one of the servants sneaks him and his sister out once a week to meet their father, whom they love very much.
Nikolay further wheedles out of Aliosha, again on promises of secrecy, that his father actually blames the breakup of the family fully on Nikolay. He is outraged at this and the minute Aliosha’s mother returns he blabs it all to her, not caring an iota about his solemn promise to Aliosha.
The boy is devastated at this first experience of adult deception. And this reader was also disgusted by Nikolay!!
This is a touching and sad story. We follow a family in a remote village. Grigory Petrov, a self-made businessman out of a working class background, has risen well. He has several small businesses and is wealthy. He has two sons, Anisim who is a detective in a near-by town, and the weak and sickly Stephan who is married to the marvelous Aksinya, who is not only active in Grigory’s businesses, but runs a good deal of the show.
However, much to her dismay, Grigory does “cut corners” on some legal issues. She tries to get him to go “full straight” since they are doing well, but he’s too used to business as usual.
Grigory is a widower and eventually marries Varvar Vkleyevo from a near-by village and she brings many good things to the manor house. She is efficient and extremely generous. She does a lot of charity and has a great spirit of life. Things perk up around the manor.
Anisim returns home when he is 28 and he is in some serious trouble. He’s been involved in some illegal business but the family knows nothing much about it. They do realize he needs help and they decide it would be good for him to have a wife, if for the sake of appearances if nothing else. They select the very shy young and attractive Lipa from a near-by village. She is extremely poor and her mother comes with her to the manor house.
Eventually the decent business and small empire is brought down by Anisim’s activities which includes passing counterfeit money. In a desperate attempt to save some of their wealth before Anisim goes to jail and the estate is libel, his father turns over the deed to a major property to his new infant son. The boy’s mother, Lipa, knows nothing about business and doesn’t understand how this infant is all of a sudden at the center of a huge family dispute since Aksinya, the other daughter-in-law, is outraged that this thief and lout has been given this huge part of the estate via his son.
In a period of near madness and furor over it, she takes it out on the infant, throwing boiling water on the child who dies later that same day.
The family’s situation has been virtually destroyed, but at the end Anisim is completely non-fazed by his role in the family’s fall, and Aksinya has taking over what business is left, trying to rebuild what they had before while the now dazed and incompetent father of the family just wanders around the manor house.
The story is very complex in all the financial dealings, but well written and very sad.
A young inexperienced teenage girl has just returned from the theatre having seen Yevgeny Oniegen. She sits in her room and imagines love affairs with an officer and young student whom she knows. At first she is unhappy with herself in comparison with them and sees herself as inferior and of no interest to them. However, soon she puts that negativity aside and begins to look forward to the romances to come in the summer.
Young Pashka is 7 years old and ill. His mother brings him to the city to a clinic. The doctor, at first very crude and rough, believes he needs to be institutionalized to be treated. The boy is terrified, so the doctor changes him manner and is very friendly trying to make the boy feel better. He succeeds, and the boy is entered and his mother leaves.
But during the night a man in a near-by bed dies and the boy becomes terrified running away from the hospital, but is simply lost and doesn’t know the way home. This reader just assumed that the boy was soon discovered and returned to the hospital.
29 year old scholar, Ogniov has spent some months in a rural area doing research for a technical book. He is often at the home of an older scholar, Kuznetzov and his 21 year old daughter, Vera. Ogniov is so utterly lost in his scholarly pursuits that he is unaware that Vera has fallen in love with him.
When it is time for him to return to the big city and write his book she finally gets the courage and tells him of her love and that she would make him a wonderful wife. He is embarrassed and has no idea how to deal with the situation. He stumbles and makes her feel very unwanted. He deeply regrets his ineptitude in this area of love, but returns to his lodging and packs his bags to return to the city.
This is by far the longest story in the collection, about 120 pages. It covers only a few days in the lives of the main characters and very little happens. Nonetheless, it is beautifully written and the detail of the story is extraordinary.
We open when two men, Ivan Ivanitch and Father Christopher are going to a town to sell their wool. Ivan’s sister asks him to take her 9 year old son, Egor (Egorooshka) to the town and to her old friend she hasn’t seen for years. She wants her son to live with her friend and to go to the school there to become a scholar.
The two men take the boy and set off in a wagon. The bulk of the story is the trip itself. It is a very long and difficult trip across the steppe. About mid-way through the two men, in a rush to find the key wool buyer, leave the boy to ride with a slower moving train of wagons and they rush off to make their sale.
The boy has good and bad experiences with the strangers, but learns a lot. The men in the wagon train have had hard lives and I was especially taken with Chekhov’s overall description of their view of life:
“A Russian loves to reminisce but dislikes the act of living.”
This may well be true of many other folks than just the Russians!
Eventually Egor does get reunited with his uncle and the priest, and is taken to his mother’s friend where, after a very very brief visit and arranging the boy’s stay, the two men leave.
Along the way Chekhov gives the reader a detailed view of what life would have been like on the steppes, a very difficult life indeed. A beautifully written story.
Yakov Ivanov is a very poor man, a coffin-maker in a tiny village where few people die. He also has a fiddle and is a wonderful player. He makes some extra money playing in a local orchestra that is made up mainly of Jewish players. Yakov dislikes Jews very much, and always, next to him in the orchestra is the flute player, Rothschild. Him Yakov dislikes more than the others.
Eventually Yakov’s wife of some 40 years gets ill and dies, and Yakov comes to realize how poorly he has treated her his whole life and how poorly he treats everyone, including himself. He soon becomes ill and is dying when Rothschild shows up to tell him he is needed for an upcoming concert. Yakov is very rude to him and effectively runs him off, but tells him that he is sick and dying and not to bother him.
He does die. However, on his death bed he has been thinking of his life and how he himself ruined it. Shocking everyone in the village he leaves his precious violin to Rothschild who gives up the flute and becomes famous with Yakov’s violin.Bob Corbett email@example.com
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