The stories in this collection of Chekhov’s work were translated by Nicolas Pasternak Slater, nephew of Boris Pasternak. I am new to his stories and I rarely read short story collections. It was Tony’s enthusiasm that led me to this particular collection. I don’t know the reasons for putting these particular stories together.
In a few of the stories, Burkin, a high school teacher and his friend a vet, Ivan Ivanich, are mentioned briefly as they talk about others who are the subjects of the stories. Some of them are very short and capture an odd thought. Here I’m thinking of “The Huntsman” that describes the interaction between a huntsman and his wife Pelageya when they meet in the countryside. They have never spent any time together and he claims that the Count got him drunk and married him off to this peasant for revenge. He denounces her, and exclaims, “I’m a free spirit, pampered, loose-living, and you’re a working woman, you go around in bark shoes, you live in the dirt and never straighten your back.” As he leaves, she looks lovingly after him, he returns to give her some money, and goes on his way.
In two of the stories characters are developed who send us a message. In “Man in a Box” the unpleasant teacher Belikov intimidates the school and even the whole village into fearfully following what only he regards as important rules. “It was the influence of Belikov and his sort, over the last ten or fifteen years, that’s made everybody in our town afraid of everything now.” In another story “Sergeant Prishibeyev,” the sergeant has been charged with insulting police and other village officials and he defends himself, saying “It’s not me what’s guilty but everyone else.” After he returned from the army, he felt obliged to break up any gathering of people in the village, including a wedding and a procession. He objects to any group activities and won’t even let people sing songs. He’s given a month’s detention, but on the way out of the courtroom he is unable to control the urge to disburse a group of peasants. It’s good to remember there’s always someone who wants to boss us all around.
I particularly liked “The Privy Councillor.” The story of a high official who comes to visit his widowed sister as he can no longer afford to go abroad for the summer is told by the widow’s son. The household is turned upside down and scrubbed clean for the impending visit. First to arrive was Piotr, the valet. “The sight of this Piotr, dressed far more splendidly than Pobedimsky [his tutor] or me, filled me with profound astonishment, which to tell the truth has remained with me to this day. Is it possible that such solid, dignified men, with intelligent, stern faces, can just be lackeys? What does it all mean?” What, indeed.
Anton Chekhov, The Beauties: Essential Stories, trans. Nicolas Pasternak Slater, Pushkin Press, 2018, 224 pages. This particular collection is not available in the UVa or public library. Available from Amazon.