Consisting of only five very short stories, A Russian Affair is a mere sampling of what Chekhov has to offer – a bite-size taster of his mastery of the short story form – but it is this enjoyable glimpse of his work that draws you in with its exploration of the emotional complexities of love. Not happy-ending fairy tale love, but the love that really exists in the world: usually unequally felt, sometimes obsessive, impulsive, and often inexplicable. As a classic Russian writer, Chekhov can intimidate but he is surprisingly accessible, and I feel I must say at the start: Don’t be scared of Chekhov. I say that because I think that a lot of people view the great Russian writers as hard-going, long-winded and inaccessible. Chekhov is certainly none of these things, and this collection provides an insight into Chekhov’s terse, economical writing style, which I have grown to love, perhaps the reluctant way.
Chekhov has an uncanny and incomparable ability: virtually nothing happens in many of his stories, yet as you end each story you are aware that somewhere in your reading, something deep and wonderful about human character has been revealed. Chekhov has often been described as being unsurpassed in describing the Russian character, but I find his descriptions of people, their insecurities and their relationships, to be universal.
In “About Love,” two friends who were caught in a storm while out walking have sought shelter in a third friend’s country home. They stayed the night and at lunch the next day their host, Alehin, tells them a story about his lost love. It seems that when he was young, he worked closely with Luganovitch, the vice-president of the circuit court, and became close friends with Luganovitch and his beautiful wife Anna Alexyevna.
Alehin, wracked as he was by mundane concerns and practical ethics, failed to “seize the day,” and, thus, lost his one opportunity for a fulfilling love. However, Chekhov the diagnostician refuses to give us any easy generalizations about the nature of love. Alehin ponders its essence, but sets the question aside. “What seems to fit one instance doesn’t fit a dozen others,” the lonely landowner concludes. “It’s best to interpret each instance separately in my view, without trying to generalize. We must isolate each individual case, as doctors say.” His case is particularly poignant.
I could go on to write an essay about the social context, how perfect the positioning of the illustrations are, and the panoply of themes, giving many more examples of rich turns of phrases, sharp descriptions of an idle class, and impassioned words about social justice, but I would be giving away too much. But if you read short stories for the action, the color, the drama, the conflict, you will find little of it here. All you will find is quiet and penetrating insight into the human character and psyche.
The stories are all self-contained, and Chekhov’s sense of mood and characters overrides his need to provide a predictable plot. Each story exhibits a different type of love: unrequited love, obsessive love, forbidden loves, loves that could have been. Most fascinating to me is the way Chekhov has written the stories so we can see the motivations of all the various lovers. Some of them really want security, an interest to distract them from their meaningless lives, or just sex. In so many cases, what we would like to call love is just avarice. However the stories are not bleak. There are moments when true concern for others breaks through the characters’ innately selfish natures. I love Chekhov because his stories feel real, his characters aren’t just characters. They are human, with all of our vices, and our slim redeeming virtues.
If there is any fault to this collection, it is that it is too short. For its size, it is jam-packed with artistic merit, and is an excellent addition to any reader of short stories, and a solid introduction not only to Chekhov but also to the art of the short story form.