“The river ran on, no one knew where or why, just as it had in May; from a small stream it flowed into a large river, from the river to the sea, then rose in vapor and returned in rain; and perhaps the very same water he had seen in May was again flowing before his eyes … For what purpose? Why?” – ‘The Kiss’, Anton Chekhov’s Selected Stories
Since receiving Dostoyevsky’s The Devils (sometimes referred to as The Possessed) a few summers ago, I have hoped for the opportunity to read more Russian literature. At last a window of time presented itself and I basked in the beauty of Chekhov’s prose. Although he penned most of his work in the final two decades of the 19th century, I found Chekhov’s profound insight and humour to be timeless.
The Selected Stories, published by Signet in 1960 and excellently translated by Ann Dunnigan, are in chronological order and permit the reader to observe Chekhov’s development as a short story writer. The opening narratives in the collection are brief, pithy and often concerned with a specific humorous incident. ‘The Confession’, published in 1883, for example, is about its narrator’s promotion and the way people treat him differently once he has risen in the company’s ranks.
The later stories in the collection are longer and more elaborate, though the structure remains, in essence, the same as that of his early work. Particular favourites included ‘Agafya’, ‘The Kiss’, ‘Three Years’ and ‘Peasants’. Chekhov’s style is spartan and to the point, and his humorous tone pervades every narrative. However, while the laughs are light-hearted they also serve as a means of emphasising serious issues concerning contemporary Russian society.
While in the midst of reading Chekhov’s stories during the grey days of early spring, I visited Yeti, a café in central Brussels. There I devoured a delicious late lunch of pizza made with a naan bread base and topped with saffron yoghurt, roasted aubergines and red cabbage. It was a life-affirming meal of sorts and improved my mood instantly. Chekhov’s stories are brilliant and Yeti is lovely. Explore both, individually or combined.