Anton Chekhov, a lady, and her dog: “the casual telling of a nuclear experience in an ordinary life.”

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I’m working rather feverishly to finish writing against an important and non-negotiable deadline, and began two blog posts to you, Faithful Readers, but got strangely tangled up in my own words and couldn’t finish. Nevertheless I finally got a chance at last to read poet Dana Gioia‘s discussion of Anton Chekhov’s 1899 short story, “The Lady with the Pet Dog.” His thoughts about it are over at his website here. In the course of it, he writes, the hero (if you can call him that) “undergoes a strange and winding course of emotional and moral growth that few readers would expect.” Vladimir Nabokov called it “one of the greatest stories ever written.”

Dana begins with some background on Chekhov:

Anton Chekhov’s late stories mark a pivotal moment in European fiction–the point where nineteenth-century realist conventions of the short story begin their transformation into the modern form. The Russian master, therefore, straddles two traditions. On one side is the anti-Romantic realism of Maupassant with its sharp observation of external social detail and human behavior conveyed within a tightly drawn plot. On the other side is the modern psychological realism of early Joyce in which the action is mostly internal and expressed in an associative narrative built on epiphanic moments. Taking elements from both sides, Chekhov forged a powerful individual style that prefigures modernism without losing most of the traditional trappings of the form. If Maupassant excelled at creating credible narrative surprise, Chekhov had a genius for conveying the astonishing possibilities of human nature. His psychological insight was profound and dynamic. Joyce may have more exactly captured the texture of human consciousness, but no short story writer has better expressed its often invisible complexities.

Dana and friend.

It is an instructive irony that at the end of the twentieth century current short fiction seemingly owes more to Chekhov than to Joyce or any other high-modernist master. In 1987 when Daniel Halpern asked twenty-five of the noted writers featured in his collection, The Art of the Tale: An International Anthology of Short Stories 1945-1985 (New York: Viking, 1987), to name the most crucial influences on their own work, Chekhov’s name appeared more often than that of any other author. Ten writers–including Eudora Welty, Nadine Gordimer, and Raymond Carver–mentioned Chekhov. (James Joyce and Henry James tied for a distant second place with five votes each.) Chekhov’s preeminent position among contemporary writers is not accidental; no other author so greatly influenced the development of the modern short story. As the late Rufus Matthewson once observed, Chekhov fully articulated the dominant form of twentieth century short fiction: “the casual telling of a nuclear experience in an ordinary life, rendered with immediate and telling detail.” Chekhov was the first author to consciously explore and perfect this literary method in his vast output of short stories.

What do you know? I got this off without too much fuss. And I even found an image of a small yapping dog (you can read the story behind the painting here.) Read the Dana’s essay here.


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