Anton Chekhov's subtle portrayals of complex, morally ambiguous characters set an example writers are following to this day.
"He's the uncontestable father of the modern short story" Chris Power The Guardian, 30 October 2007
This is the first in a regular series of blogs that propose to offer a (very) partial survey of the short story, each post dealing with a single author who did or is doing something special with the form. In the interests of full disclosure I should point out that when I say "partial" I mean both "incomplete" and "biased", and I hope I'll get to hear dissenting opinions from you folks.
My determination to avoid a straightforward recitation of recognised greats notwithstanding, first up is Anton Chekhov. I couldn't justify starting with anyone else because for me he's the uncontestable father of the modern short story, both by dint of bridging 19th-century realism and 20th-century experimentation and because his stories are some of the best that have ever been written. Plus, spit in a bookshop and chances are you'll hit something marked by his influence. Unless you're in the coffee bar.
Despite the panegyric, it's fair to say that Chekhov started as a hack, albeit a talented one, knocking out short comic stories and doggerel for newspapers at a furious rate - around 500 pieces in eight years - mostly under the pseudonym Antosha Chekonte. Some of these appeared in his first collection, Motley Tales (1886), which he wanted to give the immeasurably better title Buy This Book or I'll Smash Your Face In. By the late 1880s his craftmanship and ambition had evolved significantly, with his long story The Steppe (1888) becoming the first of his works to be published in one of Russia's serious literary journals.
While The Steppe still bears strong traces of Gogol and Tolstoy's influence, by the time of its writing most of the key elements of what's meant by the term "Chekhovian" were in place, not least his revolutionary approach to the details with which his stories are littered. Certain readers at the time were discomfited by these welters of seemingly arbitrary information that led nowhere. That they didn't lead nowhere, that in fact these stories changed the way in which a story asked to be read, is one of Chekhov's greatest achievements. The consternation was at least partly due to the sheer accessibility of his writing: there is perhaps no other body of work in which the border between reading an opening line and becoming immersed is so slight. But this accessibility doesn't denote uncomplicated intentions.
This is supported by Chekhov's attitude towards character, especially following his 1890 journey to the penal colony of Sakhalin Island where the savage cruelty he witnessed made a deep impression. After this doers of good and evil continue to appear in his stories, but never as saints or monsters. Instead, Chekhov's characters and stories, particularly throughout the 1890s and up to his death from consumption in 1904, can be defined by their very lack of definition, their unwillingness to simplify the complexities of personality.
With the notable exception of Ward No 6, a ferociously pessimistic satire wherein a mental ward comes to stand for the Russian state and in which he adopts the style of a Dostoyevskyian intrusive narrator, Chekhov contrives to be an utterly selfless author: what's noticed is what his characters would notice, and in the manner they'd notice it. His 1890 story Gusev, in which the third-person narration takes on aspects of the eponymous soldier's way of viewing the world, is a particularly good example of this trait.
It's largely for this reason that Chekhov is a supremely unquotable writer (at least in the space afforded here): his stories are discrete totalities, entirely defined by subject and context. Their styles conform to character and event, rather than character and event conforming to a single style.
Other innovations include moments of epiphany (an evolution from Maupassant, although it's Joyce who gave the technique a name and thus is often proclaimed as its pioneer), his shifting deployments of irony, and experiments with stream of consciousness (such as in the startling conclusion of Ward No 6). Finally, and most impressively of all, by rejecting Tolstoy's idea of the author as a guide directing his readers towards salvation Chekhov became the author laureate of not knowing, which in his case means the absolute opposite of not caring.
His stories are so often ambiguous because they don't trap a portion of life and analyze it to make a point. Instead they observe and recount, entirely unafraid of open-endedness, and in the process provide little in the way of answers, but a vast store of wisdom.