You cannot think short stories without thinking of Anton Chekhov. Every single one written by him is a little masterpiece and you need no recommendations or reviews to pick up, at random, any story. If I sound overly effusive it is because he is among my favourite writers of all time and I think his short stories were the first I ever read. Today I thought I’d share with you one of my favourite stories by Chekhov and a story about Chekhov.
A Chameleon by Anton Chekhov
Hryukin, the goldsmith is chasing a little puppy around the market square. When he finally catches up with the pup, he has every intention of exacting a fitting revenge from the terrified animal. As luck would have it, the police superintendent Otchumyelov happens to be passing by and stops at the crime scene to give the crowd the benefit of his judgement. It unfolds that Hryukin has been bitten by the puppy and wants justice. Obviously the puppy must pay for its aggression. Or not. It all depends on whether or not the pup belongs to General Zhigalov.
The Chameleon in the title refers to Otchumyelov who keeps changing his opinion of the puppy depending on whether or not it happens to belong to the General. Chekhov spins a witty tale that talks, ever so subtly, about Power and the human tendency to defer to it. There is a general impression that most of the Russian masters only write dark and depressing stories about the oppressed proletariat. Well, Chekov can do that too. But he is at his best when he drives home a point and gives you a laugh to go with it.
You can read A Chameleon online here.
Errand by Raymond Carver
I have long wanted to read Raymond Carver but never got around to it. So when I heard of this short story he had written about Chekhov, I figured it was the best place to start. Errand is a partly-fictional account of Chekhov’s final days. Chekhov died of tuberculosis at the age of 44 and Carver uses letters, memoirs’, journal entries and his imagination to recreate the start of the illness, the deterioration, the end and the hours immediately after. On the morning after his death, Chekhov’s wife Olga sends a young bellboy to fetch a mortician. That is the Errand.
This is hardly a twist in the tale sort of story. We know exactly how it ends. Yet it never loses its grip on the reader because it is written in such an engaging manner. There are some wonderful anecdotes scattered through this story like the time Tolstoy visited Chekov in hospital or Dr. Schwohrer ordering champagne for Chekhov while the latter lay on his deathbed. You would expect a story about a man’s illness and death to be grim and morbid, but strangely enough, it is neither. Carver manages to infuse it with humour and inspiration. If you like literary anecdotes, you will love this.