Excerpt: 'Why We Love Chekhov'Novelist Richard Ford wrote the introduction to The Tales of Chekhov. "Read these wonderful stories," Ford tells us, "for pleasure, first, and do not read them fast. The more you linger, the more you reread, the more you'll experience and feel addressed by this great genius...."
To twentieth-century writers, of course, [Chekhov's] presence has affected all of our assumptions about what's a fit subject for imaginative writing; about which moments in life are too crucial or precious to relegate to conventional language; about how stories should begin, and the variety of ways a writer may choose to end them; and importantly about how final life is, and therefore how tenacious must be our representations of it.
More than anything else, though, it is Chekhov's great sufficiency that moves us and makes us admire; our reader's awareness that story to story, degree by degree around the sphere of observable human existence, Chekhov's measure is perfect. Given the subjects, the characters, the actions he brings into play, we routinely feel that everything of importance is always there in Chekhov. And our imaginations are for that reason ignited to know exactly what that great sufficiency is a reply to; what is the underlying urgency such that almost any story of Chekhov's can cause us to feel, either joyfully or pitifully, confirmed in life? As adults, we usually like what makes us want to know more, and are flattered by an assertive authority which makes us trust and then provides good counsel. It is indeed as though Chekhov knew us.
Finally, the stories found here are never difficult but often demanding; always dense but never turgid; sometimes dour, but rarely hopeless. Yet occasionally, reading through the great body of Chekhov's stories (220 plus), I have experienced secret relief when a story, here or there, seemed somehow lesser, was possibly tossed off in a way that allows me to imagine this most humane of writers in a new light – as a man agreeably unburdened by some demonic masterpiece-only obsession, a man I could've known, as a writer indeed willing to take us unblinkingly into the musing consciousness of kittens (!) and offer us assurance that nothing very important goes on there:
The kitten lay awake thinking. Of what? ... The soul of another is darkness, and a cat's soul more than most ... Fate has destined him to be the terror of cellars, store-rooms and corn bins, and had it not been for education... we will not anticipate, however. ("Who Was to Blame")
And so, no more anticipation. Just read these wonderful stories for pleasure, first, and do not read them fast. The more you linger, the more you reread, the more you'll experience and feel addressed by this great genius who, surprisingly, in spite of distance and time, shared a world we know and saw as his great privilege the chance to redeem it with language.
Excerpted with permission from "Introduction: Why We Like Chekhov" copyright (c) 1998 by Richard Ford, which appears in Volume 1 of Ecco's 2006 edition of Tales of Chekhov.