Translated by Hugh Aplin
Reviewed by Karen Langley
Russian author Anton Chekhov, although possibly best known for his plays like The Cherry Orchard, is also the acknowledged master of the short story form. Although his life was tragically short (he died of TB in 1904, aged 44 ), he was a remarkably prolific writer, producing literally hundreds of works. Numerous collections have been released over the years, containing the compilers’ favourite stories, the ones they feel best represent him. However, Alma Classics have brought out an important new volume entitled In the Twilight, which is a fresh translation of that rarest of things – a collection put together by the author himself.
Chekhov was a doctor of medicine and practised as such. However, he was also an inveterate scribbler and his early stories were mainly humorous pieces published under a pseudonym to make money and help support his family. However, when he was 26 he reached a turning point in his life, when critical appreciation made him realise that he was capable of serious work; and despite his failing health, he turned to stories with more substance.
In the Twilight catches him at this point, at the cusp of the transition, and it’s a wonderful collection. Alongside such well-known tales as On The Road, Agafya and Misfortune, there are lesser-known stories like Dreams and In Court, which are just as powerful and a delight for the reader to discover.
It’s sometimes hard to pin down quite what makes Chekhov’s works regarded as the definitive short stories. The form itself is not as straightforward as it might seem – the author risks trying to pack too much in and smothering the tale, or not giving enough to the story and producing a thin, undernourished piece of literature. With Chekhov, there is never the risk of either of these states. His stories are perfectly-formed pieces of art which the reader comes out of feeling satisfied with having read something complete, even though in many ways they’re not.
Chekhov’s short stories drop us into action and events which are already taking place in many cases, and leave them at a point which is not necessarily the final ending of the tale. We get a snapshot, a short part of a person or group of people’s lives, but because of the skill of the author, this is enough to tell a complete story.
In the Twilight contains 15 works, and none is set in a large city. Instead, we get glimpses of people travelling, living in small towns, struggling to make a living and existing in the twilight margins of life. And Chekhov’s brilliance is in capturing the essence of people’s existence in just a short tale that brings them to life completely.
In the autumnal quiet, when a cold, stern mist from the earth lies upon your soul, when it stands like a prison wall before your eyes and bears testament to a man of the limitations of his will, it can be sweet to think about wide, fast rivers with free, steep banks, about impassable forests, boundless steppes. Slowly and calmly the imagination draws the little patch of a man stealing along an unpeopled, steep bank in the early morning, when the blush of dawn has yet to leave the sky; age-old, mast-like pines, towering in terraces on both sides of the torrent, gaze sternly at the free man and grumble gloomily; roots, huge rocks and prickly bushes bar his way, but he is strong in flesh and hale in spirit, he does not fear the pines, or the rocks, or his solitude, or the rolling echo that repeats his every step. (From “Dreams”)
My favourites were probably the classic On the Road, one of his earliest serious stories which tells of a random meeting while travelling, between a nobleman fallen on hard times and a noblewoman on the way to her family estates, and how they briefly connect to the point that the womanising man thinks he has almost the power to persuade her to leave her everyday life and follow him; Verochka, a sad little tale of missed love and how emotions can be misread and then change forever the way you see things; and A Nightmare, which in a short, intense few pages conveys the misery and difficulty of surviving in feudal Russia. But there are no duds here and whether relating the story of an unfaithful wife being accused of witchcraft, or a tale of the importance of the arrival of puppies in the lives of two children, Chekhov is always compelling reading. The stories are full of atmosphere, full of snow, wind, big landscapes, woods, storms and cottages; and always with the feeling of small human beings battling against circumstances.
Alma have produced a lovely little volume here, fluidly translated by Hugh Aplin with sensible and unobstrusive notes. As always, their books have extra material in the form of a picture section at the beginning, as well as a useful biography and additional information at the end. I found it fascinating being able to read a selection of Chekhov’s works as he had collected them and as he wanted them read, and I think that Alma are to be congratulated for bringing out this volume, allowing us to watch the early development of the world’s greatest writer of short stories.
Anton Chekhov, In the Twilight (Alma Classics: London, 2014). 9781782270591, 220pp, paperback.
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and is bewitched by the thought of twilight on the Russian steppe.