Chekhov’s psychological studies are always too acute to be tendentious. In “The Name-Day Party” (1888), a pregnant woman miscarries her longed-for baby after a long day of dull politicking, insincere, wasteful social rituals and marital jealousy. After their loss, the husband asks with desperate sincerity, “Why didn’t we take care of our baby?” His question comes too late for their child, but perhaps not for their marriage. In the best of these stories, personal grief meets social tragedy to achieve catharsis; occasionally, to offer hope.
By contrast, Chekhov’s method allows his stories to become part of the continuum of a reader’s day: less memorable in their specifics, but more persistent in effect. Their ragged edges possess an uncanny ability to knit themselves into our memories as things felt, as ongoing “sequences of mood”. “I want the story to exist somewhere so that in a way it’s still happening,” Alice Munro has said, “or happening over and over again. I don’t want it to be shut up in the book and put away – oh well, that’s what happened.” Chekhov would agree with every word of this.
The consensus among scholars is that the period from 1888 until 1904, when Chekhov died, contains the vast majority of his brilliant, mature stories. Only the last 15 out of these 52 stories fall into this category. This means that if you’re looking for an introduction to Chekhov’s stories that reflects his particular genius then this is not the best choice... And then there is the matter of translation. Translators are trapped in a double-bind; they have to be both accomplished linguists and good writers. For all readers who are not fluent in Russian, the linguistic capabilities have to be taken on trust, but, as for the “good writer” aspect, you can rely on your ear. And it has to be said that Pevear and Volokhonsky’s English often sounds odd and curiously dissonant.