by Travis Richardson
On June 19 I finished a project I had started a year and five months earlier: to read every Anton Chekhov short story translated by Constance Garnett. These were the first English translated stories of Chekhov (and several other famed Russian writers), and they are also in the public domain. I wanted to read the complete works of a writer I admire. I usually read novels (and all other works) in a scattergun approach: reading only one or two works of an author because I want to get a taste of everything out there. Often this includes reading a random book in a series because it was the first I picked up by that author. I don’t think this approach is bad, and it plays into my overall mind frame of being a generalist instead of a specialist. Of course it should be noted that specialists often make more money and get more respect because they eventually become experts in their field. I feel like I know just enough for cocktail conversations and trouble.
With Chekhov Shorts, I also wanted to see if I could put myself on a schedule and timeline to read a complete body of work as well as record critical thoughts about it. I’m pretty bad at reviewing things that I read. It’s not that I don’t want to recommend what I read, it’s just that it takes time and focus, which are often hard to find on the best days. Also, criticizing somebody’s hard work, especially if I’m disappointed, makes me feel uncomfortable. Egos are fragile in the creative world. Most, if not all, of my Amazon reviews are high, because it’s not easy for me to come down hard on somebody. That being said, if I’m given a pre-published work for commentary, I will be tough on it to make sure it is in the best shape possible.
It was easier reviewing Anton Chekhov’s stories since he has been dead for over 100 years. If I didn’t like one work, he has several other stories that are excellent. In reading all 201 stories, I found a few weren’t very good, generating an indifferent shrug. Most were solid, expertly crafted tales with strong emotional impact. But a handful transcended good, rising to the level of amazing works of art. Chekhov’s prodigious volume of work is even more amazing (I believe he wrote over 700 stories along with several groundbreaking plays) when you consider that he died at 44 while being a physician who actively treated patients and never charged the poor.
Even more amazingly, he became a writer out of circumstance. His father fled creditors, leaving his mother and siblings penniless. While putting himself through through school, he wrote satirical stories to support his family. It doesn’t take much to look at his life and wonder what have I done.
Reading Chekhov, chronologically from #1 – 201 was such a treat. I got to see the evolution of the a writer. His stories went from mocking Russians to feeling empathy for them. That being said, he could definitely expose the ugly power of the wealthy or the mob mentality of the peasant class. Each story offered a new insight into humanity. He wrote from the point of view of selfish men as well as magnanimous men; empowered women who manipulate men and impoverished, powerless women who are at the whims of men. He had stories from a consumptive, idealistic revolutionary, a banker who engages in a extreme bet, a spoiled youth who will not learn, and heartbreaking works about impoverished and abused children. There were comic stories about the clergy accidentally enticing his brethren into sin, a clueless princess, and drunken lawyers mistaking the wrong house. He had extreme perspectives including one from a baby and another from a dog. (And all of these examples are the tip of the iceberg.) Chekhov was a man trying to figure all of it out.
As his writing progressed, so did the length of some of his stories. He wrote a few novella length stories like The Steppe, The Duel, and My Life, but he never wrote a full novel. And I don’t think he needed to write a novel. He had enough content and character compressed into his short stories.
I was happy to have kicked off the project with my old college buddy Dr. Steve Steffensen. If it was not for him, this project would have never gone anywhere. Steve built the website and helped keep me accountable. He wrote over 100 reviews all while working a stressful job in DC and being a dutiful father to two wonderful kids. My sister, Ronda Endress, created the awesome Chekhov Shorts logo. (She creates book covers too.)
Often Chekhov Shorts seemed like a passion project that few knew about. But then a few months ago, students from an English school in Azerbaijan contacted me. They had been reading a few Chekhov stories and they offered their analysis on them. Another reader, Karl, wanted to know where the 201st review was since he had read all of the stories. This prompted me to finish the final review that I had been putting off for a while.
Now that it is done, I have a few more harebrained ideas I want to pull, but I hope to organize the website better so people can find stories easier and see how each one was ranked.
Do you have any huge projects you’d like to tackle?
Travis Richardson has been a finalist for the Macavity short story award in 2014 and 2015 as well as the Anthony short story award in 2014. His novella LOST IN CLOVER was listed in Spinetingler Magazine’s Best Crime Fiction of 2012. He has published stories in crime fiction publications such as Thuglit, Shotgun Honey, Flash Fiction Offensive, and All Due Respect. He edits the Sisters-In-Crime Los Angeles newsletter Ransom Notes, reviews Anton Chekhov short stories at http://www.chekhovshorts.com, and sometimes shoots a short movie. His latest novella, KEEPING THE RECORD, concerns a disgraced baseball player who will do anything to keep his tainted home run record. www.tsrichardson.com