A Night in the Cemetery
by Anton Chekhov
Reviewed by Evan Hanczor
How does one review Chekhov? First, mention the plays, stories, and letters. Discuss the shadow cast upon the modern literary and theatrical world. Continue to do so. However, when reviewing his earliest stories, the ones before the greatness, perhaps one needn't.
The collection, A Night in the Cemetery and Other Stories of Crime and Suspense, is the first English translation of many of the stories included. Selected by Peter Sekirin, a writer with many translation credits to his name, particularly of the great Russian authors, the stories are drawn from Chekhov's earliest writings of humorous crime-and-suspense stories for Russian periodicals and newspapers. Along with a smattering of salvaged letters from the early 1880s, these small pieces give a sharp look into the mind of the young doctor and writer.
This is the most appealing aspect of the collection. The chance to see Chekhov as a young (and mortal) writer working his way through the basics of composing a story is both interesting and hopeful. It is easy to forget that writers like Chekhov, now so glorified, were, at some point, scratching away in less than full mastery of their talents. Chekhov was studying medicine at the time he began to publish these stories in small magazines in Moscow, and continued writing to supplement the paltry income he saw from his career as a doctor. His medical knowledge creeps up regularly, but most visible is his eye for detail, no doubt honed by the classroom and his constant encounters with patients. Sekirin notes in the preface that Chekhov began accompanying police investigators to crime scenes, signs of which can be see in a few stories in the collection, such as "Drama at the Hunt" and "The Swedish Match". Similar tidbits from Chekhov's life seem to curl their way into these early writings.
One way in which Chekhov's development is visible along the course of these stories is in the increasingly pronounced presence of his developing worldview, as he focuses his eye on the quirks of society and the individuals from whom it is composed. Two stories early in the collection, "Willow" and "A Thief", were originally published in the humorous Russian journal Splinters in 1883. Chekhov references these stories in an early letter to the editor of that periodical, defending their relative seriousness, compared to the type of writing the journal usually published. Upon a first reading, these pieces immediately stand out as examples of Chekhov's story-crafting talent, eye for important details, and ear for the surrounding sounds of the world. They also showcase a fledgling desire to write more than humorous, pun-filled fictions, and to explore weightier subjects that, as a maturing young man, Chekhov was shifting his focus towards.
One of the great pleasures of art is in understanding the artist's intent, and this collection would help anyone develop a greater understanding of Chekhov's. Stories of, as the dust jacket touts, the death of a young playwright at the hands of an editor who hates bad writing (simply, and aptly, titled "Drama"), are clever and pleasurable reads. Playing counterpoint to these are darker pieces in which grief is the price of hypocrisy and greed, as in "A Crime: A Double Murder Case". It is this type of diversity that marks Chekhov as a great writer, and his ability to explore the spectrum of human experience is on display even in his earliest works. While some of the pieces are fairly staight-forward, only slightly interesting affairs, there are encounters with stories of real, dare I say Chekhovian, weight, wit, and observation. They make this collection worthwhile.
EVAN HANCZOR is a recent graduate of Tulane University in New Orleans. He is currently writing and working as a chef in Connecticut.