I have a confession to make: before I moved to Moscow I had never read a book by a Russian author. I’d read plenty of classics in the English language – Shakespeare, Jane Austen, the Brontes, (although while I’m confessing, I’ll be honest and admit that I’ve never read a book by Charles Dickens either). So when I decided that I couldn’t possibly live in Moscow without reading some Russian literature, I had a bit of difficulty knowing where to start. On the basis that I had once been to see a production of Chekov’s Ivanov at the theatre, I figured I’d go with him.
About Love and Other Stories is a collection of 17 of Chekov’s stories translated by Rosamund Bartlett, and, as the name suggests, the majority of them are about love in some form. Actually they are about love in many forms – the love of parents and children, unrequited love, lost love, marital affairs – there is even a comic story about a fish who falls in love with a girl and becomes suicidal.
Chekov himself was an interesting character. He was born in 1860 and his father was a serf but turned his hand to business following the emancipation in 1861. Chekov was sent to school and then on to University to become a doctor and, while studying, he started submitting short stories to gain some income. His stories quickly gained him fame and fortune making him the first major Russian writer to come from the penny press rather than the more highbrow literary journals. Despite being wealthy enough to own an estate outside Moscow, Chekov continued to practice as a doctor, often treating local peasants for free.
Given Chekov’s medical background, it doesn’t come as much surprise to find that illness and death feature considerably in his writing. It is grimly realistic too, in particular, in his tale of a ship’s infirmary in Gusev, and a desperately sad description of extreme mental illness in The Black Monk. But, morbidity aside, there are two things about Chekov’s stories that stood out for me. Firstly, I found myself wondering what happened next on a number of occasions – which is surely the mark of a good writer as he had me hooked enough to care what might happen to his characters. And secondly the stories work because the characters, whether Bishops or peasants, ring true. There are brilliantly comic characters (my favourite being The Man In A Case – who even has a case to keep his umbrella in) and characters that touch the soul – the contrasting characters of Yefimya and her husband made At Christmas Time one of the most heart-wrenching stories I have ever read.
I’m glad I picked this as my first foray into Russian literature, Rosamund Bartlett has done a fine job of choosing stories by Chekov that demonstrate his ability to write convincingly on a whole range of subjects, and more importantly stir a whole range of emotions. I’d definitely be interested in more of Chekov’s work, so if you know of any English-language versions of his plays coming soon to Moscow, do let me know!