Sunday, 6 May 2018

Review: 'The Beauties: Essential Stories' by Anton Chekhov, trans. Nicholas Pasternak Slater

Over the years I have developed a bit of a soft spot for Russian Literature. It started with seeing the opera Onegin, then reading Pushkin's Onegin, before moving on to Bulgakov's The Master & Margarita, which immediately became one of my favourite books. I battled by way through War & Piece for Tolstoy's sake and have now finally found my way to Anton Chekhov. It took longer than it should have, but it was definitely worth the wait. Thanks to Pushkin Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 20/02/2018
Publisher: Pushkin Press
Without doubt one of the greatest observers of human nature in all its messy complexity, Chekhov's short stories are exquisite masterpieces in miniature. His work ranged from the light-hearted comic tales of his early years to some of the most achingly profound stories ever composed, and this variety of tone and temper is collected in this essential new collection.  

Chekhov wrote stories throughout his writing career, and this selection has been chosen from amongst his life's work, including many of his greatest works, alongside unfamiliar discoveries, all newly translated. From the masterpiece of minimalism 'The Beauties', to the beloved classic 'The Lady with the Little Dog', and from 'Rothschild's Fiddle' to bitterly funny 'A Living Chronicle', the stories collected here are the essential collection of Chekhov's greatest tales.
I had never read Chekhov before but he is one of those giants you can't help but know off if you have any interest in literature or drama. I actually mainly knew Chekhov for the latter, his plays which I also hadn't read and his influence on the plays that came after. The principle of 'Chekhov's gun' was, in fact, the only real thing I knew about his writing style and it was that very thing that made me curious to read his fiction, rather than his plays, first. In a play, where you have less time and space, less means to bring meaning across, it is important to make sure every thing that happens or exists on stage matters. To paraphrase the man himself, if you put a loaded rifle on stage, make sure it goes off at some point in the play. But is the same true for fiction? How do you translate that principle to prose? I guess short stories suit themselves well to this principle since you only have limited space, but before going into The Beauties I was still worried that what I would find would be sparse and to the point. Shame on me for not trusting more in the author who has been dubbed the greatest short story writer of all times.

 I have loved short stories for a long time, because I feel that in a way they show more personality than many books do. A short story only has so many pages, which means the author only has so many words at their disposal to entertain you. Maybe they take an absurd concept and elevate it to something magical. Maybe they bowl you over with how beautifully written they are. I didn't know what to expect from Chekhov, whether it would be the absurd or the beautiful. What amazed me about all the stories in The Beauties was how varied they were, yet how real each of them felt. For example, 'A Day in the Country' in which two homeless orphans and a drunk cobbler wander around the countryside, seeing and noticing. The language in this story is beautiful and the final sentence almost had me in tears. Meanwhile 'A Blunder' is genuinely hilarious and made me laugh out loud in a Shanghai Starbucks. 'The Man in a Box' had me feeling slightly odd, while 'Grief' and 'The Kiss' are very different but equally upsetting explorations of love, hope, and desperation. The Beauties holds so many different stories and yet they all come together to paint a portrait of 1800s Russia where beauty exists but also heartbreak, where love exists but hardly ever lasts, where people do the best with what they have.

Anton Chekhov's writing needs no praise from me, but I will give it anyway. In The Beauties the stories range from the most basic tales to the most absurd premises, and yet Chekhov makes each of them work. Take the eponymous 'The Beauties' which is utterly minimalist and has no actual plot that one would recognize. Nothing happens, twice, and yet the story leaves behind a sense of mystery, makes one think on the joy and sadness of beauty. Chekhov managed to get to the very essence of humanity with just a few words, highlighting exactly the moments in life that make us feel something without adorning them unnecessarily. But this doesn't mean Chekhov doesn't play with language. Below is perhaps my favourite quote from the collection, it's taken from 'The Bet':
He read like a man afloat on the sea, surrounded by the wreckage of his ship, trying to save his life by desperately clutching first to one fragment and then another.'
Throughout his stories, whether they require quiet observation, a sense of humour, a touch of tragedy or a breath of the uncanny, Chekhov seems to know exactly what is needed. Nicholas Pasternak Slater does a beautiful job at translating these short stories, retaining both their freshness and their gravitas, elevating the ridiculous as well as the tragic.

I give this collection...

5 Universes!

The Beauties is the perfect proof as to why Chekhov is called the greatest short story writer ever. His stories are so well-balanced, saying exactly what it is they want to say, surprising the reader but also enchanting them. I'd recommend this to anyone with an interest in either Russian Literature or short stories.

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