Reviewed by P.P.O. Kane
The Kiss and Other Stories
By Anton Chekhov
Translated by Hugh Aplin
Alma Classics, 2016, ISBN: 9781847494191
These classic stories have been cast in wonderfully fresh translations by Hugh Aplin. To start with, let me say that it is an attractive package overall: seven stories, an account of Chekhov’s life and his works (the plays as well as the books), a fair few photographs of Chekhov and family, and a select secondary bibliography (to which should be added Rosamund Bartlett’s outstanding biographical work Chekhov: Scenes from a Life).
They are extraordinary these stories, not least because of their endings: Chekhov’s people (his characters are flesh and blood) are never free from harm; we fear for their safety as we take our leave of them. Take, for example, the title story, ‘The Kiss’, where an army officer is haunted by an unexpected kiss from a peasant serving girl. He had never received such an intense expression of passion in his life before; but he comes to realise that the kiss was not meant for him. It was a case of mistaken identity. A door opened briefly on someone else’s life, a life whose joys he will never known, and his own life seems all of a sudden unbearable. As we leave him, he is stricken.
Undoubtedly the best known story here is ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’ and it is certainly one of Chekhov’s best. Gurev and Anna meet in Yalta, each game for a holiday romance or a small affair, something sweet and simple. But in time their liaison grows into something that shatters both their carefully constructed lives. Apropos Aplin’s translation, I very much like this unassuming sentence: ‘They talked about how close it was after the hot day.’ (Here Gurev and Anna are walking along the coast after having dined at adjacent tables in a garden restaurant.) Naturally ‘close’ carries the modern meaning of ‘humid’ – however, it is especially apt in that it conveys also their growing intimacy and an accompanying sense of unease: a flush of empathy, a swoon of loss of control. And at the end, once again, neither Gurev nor Anna is safe. Both will face upheaval in the years to come.
The pronounced sense of unease as you take your leave arises, I think, because these people are as precarious in their humanity as you or I, never mind the myriad uncertainties of the world around them. About Gurev, for example, we know that he is a banker who owns two houses and that he once held youthful dreams, which he had abandoned. There is a pull of romance and reality in his life (as in ours), for he must sometimes think of his lost dreams (as we do), and we don’t know which will ultimately triumph. Will he come to abandon Anna too in the end?
Two stories, ‘Ward Six’ and ‘The Black Monk’, explore the theme of mental illness, Chekhov (who was a practising doctor, of course) making the point that mental illness, uninvited, can befall anyone. Another story, ‘Peasants’, works as an ethnographic study almost, one worthy of Geertz, and especially enjoyable here is Fyokla’s delight in malice. For her, life will be hard, always. Her peasant malice finds an echo in the respectable Lida, who sets out to scupper her sister Zhenya’s romance with a young artist in the story ‘The House with a Mezzanine’. Lida despises the young man for not being as socially committed as she.
It was a delight to revisit Chekhov through these crisp, newly minted translations. For a newcomer to his work, this book will serve as an ideal introduction to a classic writer and a wholly admirable man.
About the reviewer: P.P.O. Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org He blogs at: