THE COMMONLY ACCEPTED distinction between Chekhov's "mature" period (beginning with "The Steppe," in 1888) and the writing of his immaturity is convenient but misleading: the "immature" Chekhov wrote more than a dozen stories that belong with his best work. The Constance Garnett translation in 13 volumes, published between 1916 and 1922, contains 147 stories from the early period, but is long out of print. In this new collection it is the intention of the translators to offer a larger and more representative selection of Chekhov's early stories than has ever been available in one volume. It amounts to an appendage to the Oxford Chekhov, a new nine-volume translation by Ronald Hingley, with notes and scholarly appendices, of the plays and of the 60 stories that were written between March 1888 and the end of Chekhov's life, in 1904. The first volumes were published at 39 shillings. They came out over a period of 16 years, and the final volume was published at s14--an indication of the crisis that has overtaken English publishing. There is no American edition.
Chekhov began contributing jokes and anecdotes to the comic magazines and newspapers at the age of 17. He was 20 when his first fiction was accepted, and during the next eight years, under various pseudonyms he published 528 stories. With an energy that is almost beyond comprehension, he also turned out a mass of writing that included literary parodies, comic calendars, questionnaires, innumerable sketches, theater reviews, occasional journalism, a novel (of no literary merit), and several plays. He was writing for money: he was the sole support of his considerable family, and he was putting himself through medical school. The present translators have placed at the beginning of their introduction a passage from a letter, written in 1883, when Chekhov was 23 years old: "I write under the most atrocious conditions. . . . the offspring of a visiting kinsman is screaming in the next room, in another room Father is reading aloud The Sealed Angel to Mother . . . Someone has just wound up the musical box and it's playing La Belle H,elMene . . . I'd like to clear off to the country, but it's already one in the morning. . . . My bed's taken up by the visiting relation, who keeps coming over to me and engaging me in medical conversation. 'My daughter must have colic, that's why she's screaming. . .' I have the great misfortune to be a medic, so every man-jack feels duty bound to 'talk medicine' with me. And when they've had enough of talking medicine, they start on literature. . . ."
The Early Stories contains five stories from the years 1883, 1884, and 1885, 12 stories from 1886, six from 1887, and two from 1888. The earliest stories are all humorous or satirical. They tend to be short--two to four pages. The humor is broad. For example, a coffin merchant is up to his neck in debt and his stock is about to be seized by the bailiffs. On Christmas Eve his son-in- law hides the coffins in the rooms of various friends without telling them he is going to do this. One by one they come home, light a match, see the coffin, and think their end has come.
Of the stories from 1885, two are remarkable. "Sergeant Prishibeyev" is about a wonderful eccentric busybody with a suggestion of Big Brother about him. In "The Huntsman" the sensibility that we recognize as Chekhovian is already apparent. A peasant girl, married off to a handsome flaxen-haired hunter in a drunken jest and immediately cast off by him, encounters him on a road by the edge of a wood. They walk along in silence for about 20 paces and then she, looking up into his face, says, "I've been waiting and waiting--I've worn my eyes out looking for you to come," and he says, "To do what?" Because of his skill with a gun, he has been delegated to supply game for the master's table. The gentry have taken him up and it has gone to his head. He is dressed in their cast-off clothes. He would like her to understand once and for all that he cannot be expected to put his hand to plow or live in the village, in poverty and grime. She gazes at him with a kind of foolish happiness while he pours cold water on her hopes. When he moves on, she stands looking after him:
"Pale and still, she stands there like a statue, and her eyes devour every stride he takes. But now the red of his shirt merges with the dark of his trousers, his strides become invisible, his dog cannot be distinguished from his boots. Only his little cap can be seen, then . . . Suddenly Yegor turns off sharply to the right into the scrub and his cap disappears among the green.
" 'Goodbye, Yegor Vlasych!' whispers Pelageya, and rises on tiptoe to try and catch a last glimpse of his little white cap."
In a letter to his brother Alexander, Chekhov wrote: "Details are . . . the thing in the sphere of psychology. God preserve us from generalities."
Of the 1886 stories, seven are very good, and so are three of the stories from 1887. The 1888 story "Let Me Sleep," about a dreadfully overworked and underslept slavey who, in order to be delivered from the baby's crying, smothers it with a pillow, is familiar from other collections, and is, of course, a masterpiece.
Partly, I suspect, because the translators were working within a restricted space--the book is only 200 pages long--and partly because of their decision, which strikes me as unfortunate, that the selection should be representative, there are quite a number of stories that range from not very good to so-so, and half a dozen really fine stories from this period--"Volodya," "On the Road," "An Upheaval," "A Nightmare," "Enemies," and "Agafya"--have been excluded. The translation is, in general, excellent.
DDD It is a dubious habit of publishers to offer as a new translation or a new volume of short stories something that has, in fact, been around for some time. Isaiah Berlin's translation of Turgenev's beautiful novella First Love was first published in London in 1950. It is also listed in the American Books in Print as a paperback published by Penguin in 1978. If you don't insist on having a new translation, it is in every way satisfactory, and this latest edition a handsome little book besides.
The ability to create a heroine used to be part of the stock-in-trade of the novelist. It is in part a recognition of and a delight in the feminine temperament--the unexplained, the unpredictable, the willful, the loving and tender--and in part sensual. "The silver sound of her voice ran through me with a sort of sweet shiver," the adolescent narrator of First Love says, of Zinaida Alexandrovna, the entrancing young woman who has just moved into the house next door. She is a shameless flirt, surrounded by admirers, but not averse to one more. Having prevailed upon the boy to hold her skein of yarn while she winds it into a ball, she admonishes him, "Listen . . . You don't know me yet. I am very strange. I wish to be told the truth always. You are sixteen, I hear, and I am twenty-one. You see, I am much older than you. That is why you must always tell me the truth . . . and do what I tell you. . . . Look at me . . . Why don't you look at me?" He cannot look at her because he has fallen head over heels in love with her, taking the susceptible reader with him. When he doesn't tell her the truth, it is only because he is tongue-tied. He never lies to her, and he does exactly what she tells him to do, even if it means jumping from a high wall and knocking the wind out of him. Her feelings for him are utterly affectionate but in no way match the passion of his feelings for her. They are separated by the difference in their age and by the fact her own passion is directed elsewhere. This is Turgenev's home ground, and nobody ever wrote better of the innocent, uncalculatihg heart overwhelmed for the first time by the emotion of love.
A Fire at Sea, written when Turgenev was dying of cancer of the spine, is a brief account of an incident in his youth that dogged him all his life. According to the St. Petersburg gossips, during a shipwreck off the Baltic coast Turgenev, then 19, tried to push the women and children aside in order to get into a lifeboat and cried "Save me! save me! I am the only son of my mother." In his own extremely vivid account of the disaster, his behavior is not craven but merely human. There is no reason to put this piece of writing with First Love beyond making a short book a few pages longer.