Thursday, April 19, 2007

book of books - Selected Stories

As promised here is the review of the Anton Chekhov short story collection. Most of these stories were short in terms of word count but deep in terms of content and issues raised and it is because he can leave you pondering over a tale for days that he rightly is held up as a master of the short story art form.

The introduction to this collection makes the point that most of the time Chekhov was only aiming to portray characters and wanted the reader to make up their own mind about their morals and motivation. As a result you get a style that is non judgemental and more challenging because you are called onto think a great deal more as a reader – the decisions haven’t been made for you.

There are some great example of that approach at work:

In the Ravine
A merchant, who screws his customers has two sons, on deaf and one who lives away. The wife of the deaf son works with her father-in-law running the business and has started to pick up his ruthlessness. Suddenly the eldest son reappears and hands out some money to his family and then under their advice gets married to a quiet girl. The money turns out to be fraudulent and the son is sent to Siberia for six years. The trial starts to unhinge the old man, a process that is completed after the dominant daughter-in-law starts to take over. On her way to becoming a ruthless business woman she kills the child of her timid sister-in-law and virtually turns her father-in-law out of the house. A final scene has the frail and beaten old man being handed food by his timid daughter-in-law reducing him to the ranks of the peasantry and reminding everyone of how the mighty can fall.

The Robbers
A doctor is caught in a snow storm and seeks refuge in a den of thieves and not only has his horse stolen but all of his medicines and he has a run in with the girl living in the inn for his trouble. A year and a half later he is out of work and starts to ponder the freedom of the thieves and ends up wondering why he didn’t become one himself and as he gets closer to desperation reveals he has stolen already and plans to do so again.

The Beggar
A man takes pity on a beggar and tells him that if he is prepared to work then he will give him a chance. After cutting wood for months the man is given the chance to get an office job, which he seizes. Months pass and he is spotted at the theatre but he says to his saviour that the cook is the real hero because she cut all the wood but it was watching her that made him reform his ways. A powerful little twist that makes you think about charity and what the motivation really is behind giving it.

Is the collection well written?
What Chekhov proves is that length is not the crucial factor it is the characterisation and in this case the involvement of the reader. It is almost as if he is telling you a story to see your reaction. Rather than waiting for you to agree with him there is a sense that you could take sides and they could be different depending on the time in your life when you are reading the stories and your moral stance.

Should the collection be read?
Well worth reading because on a practical level they are far from taxing but in terms of being rewarded there is a glow that last long after the light has burnt out with these stories. It also proves that a writer is capable of various different styles with humour, thriller and morality tale all being part of Chekhov’s armoury.

Version read – Wordsworth Classics

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