The Beauties by Anton Chekhov

the beautiesPushkin Press have published a new edition of thirteen of Chekhov’s short stories, translated by Nicolas Pasternak Slater, and it makes for a fascinating read. The Beauties, the first in the collection, is perhaps typical of his style – a boy, out visiting with his uncle, is much taken with a beautiful young woman. Years later, he sees another woman, quite different but just as beautiful. And that is pretty much it. But it is the observation, the sense of yearning for an ideal, which sets the story apart: ‘It was a moth-like beauty – the beauty that goes so well with a waltz, or darting across a garden, or with laughter and merriment, and which has no business with serious thoughts, sorrow or repose.’ But, as later stories suggest, such beauty only remains free of ‘serious thoughts’ or ‘sorrow’ if it remains purely something observed. The men who dally with beauty further along in the collection rarely find peace or resolution. In The Lady with the Little Dog, a married man, Gurov, pursues the beautiful Anna Sergeyvna cold-heartedly to begin, but slowly realises that he now cannot live without her. Most of the relationships here are inherently complex and, as another character says elsewhere, ‘we Russians adorn our love with these fateful questions.’

Marriage, based upon love or otherwise, is perhaps the most obvious thread in the collection, but there are two stories which stood out for me and which are more about isolation and solitary existences. In The Bet, a lawyer undertakes a challenge from a banker to live in solitary confinement for 15 years. If he can manage it, the banker will pay him handsomely. The effect of solitude on the lawyer is fascinating. It is perhaps the most ‘complete’ of all the narratives, and therefore perhaps the most conventional, but perfect for the form.

The final story, The Kiss, is perhaps the most moving. A young officer, painfully ‘shy, round-shouldered and colourless’, is kissed by an anonymous young woman in the dark. Chekhov examines the poignant effect this has on his young officer, who feels that ‘something good and warm had entered his life.’

Chekhov plays with the form of the short story, often denying his reader a neat ending, but showing love, and the adoration of beauty, in all its messy complexity. For this, and for his perceptive capturing of foolishness when in love, this is a very satisfying collection to those coming to Chekhov for the first time, and should hopefully prove a welcome addition to the reading piles of those who already know his work.

My thanks to Netgalley and Steerforth Press for providing a copy for review.

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