A welcome gathering of the great storywriter’s atypical longer works, newly translated by the industrious pair who have previously offered fresh versions of Tolstoy, Gogol, and Dostoevsky.
Pevear’s incisive introduction notes the author’s recurring theme of “human insubstantiality” and makes the invaluable point that “The quality of Chekhov’s attention is akin to prayer.” These virtues appear in embryonic form in “The Steppe” (1888), about a nine-year-old boy who’s transported by carriage across Ukraine to boarding-school, educated (as it were) during his journey by encounters with characters who embody a broad spectrum of Russian life. It’s a plotless and episodic masterpiece, enlivened by acute observation, vivid sensory descriptions of climate and landscape, and a compassionate fascination with the variety and vagaries of human imperfection and possibility. Both 1891’s “The Duel” (a jaded egotist and a narrowly focused scientist lock horns and discover through their confrontation the follies of their preconceptions) and “The Story of an Unknown Man” (1892), a curious analysis of the changing psyche of a spy and potential assassin, are less fully achieved. But the emotional odyssey undertaken by Laptev, the hero of “Three Years” (1895), subtly links his romantic attraction to two very different women with the ordeal of his family and class, a mercantile society that fears an apocalyptic future and clings possessively to rapidly vanishing standards and ideals. Even better is “My Life” (1896), a thoughtful rebuke to Tolstoy’s self-righteous doctrine of redemption through physical labor and material sacrifice. But it’s more than this, since it includes a carefully measured dramatization of its well-meaning narrator’s break with his wealthy family’s insularity and pride, of his failed marriage to a woman unsympathetic to his (quite genuine) ideals, and of his paradoxical growth in wisdom and serenity. It’s one of Chekhov’s most openly autobiographical—and greatest—works.
A heartening confirmation of the matchless skill and humanity of one of the true masters.