Vol. II: "On the Sea" and Other Stories, 1883—84 $23.95, 300 pp. ISBN: 1-894485-02-5 Jan. 2000 The first two volumes of an ambitious gathering (and new translation) of all the Russian master's early fiction—much of which appears here for the first time in English, having been deemed unworthy of preservation by Chekhov's previous translators. Editor Sirin's introduction pleads the case for resurrecting what are in many cases wan 'sketches" written for popular humor magazines, in the years when Chekhov (1860—1904) was starting his medical practice and assuming the burden of supporting his demanding family. Semifictional, possibly autobiographical vignettes ("Wedding American Style," "My Anniversary") and broad farces ("An Unhappy Visit") dominate the first volume's 32 inclusions. Nevertheless, several stand out: "He and She" skillfully lays bare the carefully managed hostility that binds a vain "European diva" to her smug husband; "For the Apples" offers an incisive satiric portrait of a malicious landowner, and "Two Scandals" efficiently delineates the vacillating relations of an inept soprano and the orchestra conductor who can neither tolerate nor forget her. Even the least substantial "stories" here uniformly display Chekhov's matchless gift for swiftly establishing setting, character, and often even conflict and theme in a few brief sentences. But this mastery is more muted in the second volume's 81 tales, many merely labored expansions of simple comic ideas gleaned, one infers, from both his professional and personal experiences and contemporary newspaper stories. Notable exceptions: "A Woman Without Prejudice," who charms and surprises the lover bearing a "terrible secret"; "The Swedish Match," a full-fledged detective story, and one of Chekhov's most unusual works; "A Mysterious Woman,— which partially anticipates the justly famous "The Lady with the Dog"; and the radiantly absurd and moving "Death of a Civil Servant"—the first of Chekhov's indisputable masterpieces. Sirin's third volume, promised for late 2000, will contain more of the better-known and more fully developed stories of Chekhov's tragically brief maturity. Still, even the juvenilia and ephemera of this writer constitute uniquely rewarding reading.
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