Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The 306 Greatest Books #146 - The Stories of Anton Chekhov

The next up on my reading of the 306 greatest books is The Stories of Anton Chekhov, a short story collection by ... Anton Chekhov (duh). This book can be found on Zane's Top 10 Book List


This was a weird one for several reasons. I did a previous reading of some "Selected" short stories for the Norwegian Book List prior, however this Zane's Top 10 Book List only listed the book as "The Stories of Anton Chekhov" (of which I am reading the original Zane’s Top 10 List on this site). When searching on Amazon though, there is no book entitled "The Stories of Anton Chekhov". There is one listed as that on Amazon, however the book title itself reads "Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov". So I took the listing on Zane’s Top 10 book list to mean all of Anton Chekhov's short story work. Well that became a chore in and of itself to find. My initial reading of Selected Stories by Anton Chekhov had a lot of his short story works but not anywhere near all of them. That is when I stumbled upon the Modern Library versions pictured above (of course needing to purchase on the hard cover editions for my personal collection). The first two are what I delved into only later to find out there was a third volume. On top of that, this doesn't even include ALL of Chekhov's work. But it does account for 75% of his work (by page count according to the editor, Shelby Foote). The funny thing is that the previous Selected Works book that I read doesn't have many stories that cross over between the two series. So that being said, I've read most of Chekhov’s short story works and I am happy to call it “mission accomplished”. 

So what did I think of his works? Well that depends on what he was writing about and when in his career he wrote them. The benefit of the Modern Library layout, is that they are presented in chronological order, so that the reader can get a feeling for his writing as he progressed through his career. His initial style was very weird. It often felt like an Edgar Allen Poe work, just without the twist ending, all the while I'm waiting for the proverbial axe to drop. It never does. The story just ... ends. Well ... ok then. His later stories are where he really starts to shine. Easily his best work is The Bet. I had a friend ask me if I had read a certain story of his, with him citing it as his best. However, I couldn’t recall which one as I was going through them. Well when I finished that story, I knew exactly which story he was referring to. Of all Chekhov’s short stories, The Bet is the one with the most story-like plot. Most of Chekhov’s stories describe everyday Russian life. Which is great and all but often it results in a profoundly dull read. The Bet goes above and beyond that. If Chekhov had continued more in that vein of writing, I think he would be viewed much differently in modern day society. 

Overall, I feel his longer stories in the third volume are probably overall his best. With the longer format Chekhov has the room to breath and really flesh out his characters and his stories. My favorite of these was probably The Wife, but in general most of these were his better works. I think that if one was to read Chekhov they would benefit greatly by picking and choosing a select few. Most of his works feel overly long and suffer from what many Russian works do, the multiple names of characters. Characters will often have three different names that are used interchangeably and never really give a clear indication of who is who. But if a reader limits themselves to only the very best of his works, they could get some good reading out of it.

And one last thing: "Chekhov's Gun". Chekhov's Gun is a famous saying by Chekhov that basically if you place a gun on the wall in one scene then make sure it is used later on. So I read and I read trying to find where this comes up. And ... it doesn't. I looked it up and actually this saying comes from a letter that Chekhov had written. It means that everything in the short story should have importance and not be something that is a throw away. And although I believe Chekhov used this methodology, he could have probably used it better in many instances. I felt a lot of his stories contained extraneous material, although he was an astoundingly good scene setter. So overall, not my favorite work on this list, but I’ve read far worse. 

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