Saturday, May 2, 2009


In an article in the New York Times on the occasion of J. D. Salinger’s 90th birthday, I came across the following statement about Salinger’s contributions to fiction. “Nine Stories ... made Mr. Salinger a darling of the critics as well, for the way it dismantled the traditional architecture of the short story and replaced it with one in which a story could turn on a tiny shift of mood or tone.”

I think that’s a true description of Salinger’s stories, but Salinger was not the first to write this type of story, which turns on a change in perception or tone rather than on a big plot twist. As an astute reader of this blog
pointed out, it’s Chekhov who was the pioneer of this type of story.

I recently finished Ward No. 6 and Other Stories, a collection by Anton Chekhov (1860-1904). The 23 stories in this collection are arranged in chronological order, and I found that they get better over time, going from fairly short, relatively trivial sketches to longer, very moving stories, sad, funny, brutal, tender, and true. As Nabokov says, Chekhov's works are "sad books for humorous people." Here are six stories I particularly liked:

The Kiss—A shy officer, mistakenly embraced and kissed at a party, is filled with romantic dreams and excitement but later comes to recognize his own foolishness and feel that his life is meager and impoverished.

Neighbours—A man’s family is thrown into disarray when his sister moves in with a married man, so he goes to confront them, though with no clear sense of purpose; afterwards, he feels that his visit has only thrown things into greater confusion, and feels, moreover, that his entire life has been much the same: “he came to the conclusion he had never said or acted upon what he really thought, and other people had repaid him in the same way. And so the whole of life seemed to him as dark as this water in which the night sky was reflected and water-weeds grew in a tangle.”

The Student—A young divinity student tells the story of Peter’s betrayal of Christ to two widows around a fire and, based on their reactions, becomes filled with a sense that life is beautiful and full of meaning.

A Doctor’s Visit—To attend to the illness of the heiress, a doctor goes to a factory, where he reflects upon the inhumanity of the system of which the factory is a part, and which seems to be at the heart of the the heiress’s illness.

Gooseberries—Taking shelter from a rainstorm in an acquaintance’s home, a man tells a story about his brother, who achieved his dreams of a country life through avarice and has made the brother believe that such happiness is sinful, compared with the widespread misery of the world.

The Lady with the Dog—A philanderer has an affair in a resort town with a young woman whom he considers naïve and pathetic, but afterward neither can forget the other; they find themselves tied together by an inconvenient but real love.

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