Stories by Anton Chekhov, translated by Constance Garnett

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Stories by Anton Chekhov, translated by Constance Garnett (1998). Dir. Duncan Minshull. Perf. Alistair McGowan. BBC Radio 4 Extra, 9-13 Feb. 2015. BBCiPlayer to 15 Mar. 2015.

I reviewed the first two of this five-part Book at Bedtime series in 2010 - "An Incident" and "A Play." At that time I was interested in the author's search for a naturalistic form of expression, as he covers a range of emotion ranging from satire to tragedy, comedy to bathos. I commended Alistair McGowan for his readings, as he adopted a deadpan form of expression, allowing the author's words to speak for themselves rather than trying to be consciously funny. The review can be accessed at

Listening to the complete series for the first time, I was struck by the way Chekhov uses the presence tense to tell the stories, giving them a sense of immediacy as well as underlining the ironies inherent in the plots. We know precisely what will happen when the dog Nero encounters the kittens in "An Incident," but the children are blissfully ignorant. Likewise in "Bad Weather," we know full well what the husband has been doing on his five-day "working break" in the city, even though his wife and daughter believe otherwise. Chekhov's use of tense puts us in a privileged position, sharing with the author an enjoyment at the characters' foibles (or should it be myopia).

Yet we should not assume that we are in any way "better" than Chekhov's characters. In "The Old House," he tells a poignant tale of tale of decay and loneliness reminiscent of his great plays: the characters try to compensate for their personal sufferings by turning to drink. Inevitably that offers no real solution - people's troubles remain once they have sobered up. Likewise in "Ivan Matveyitch" he focuses on the turbulent relationship between a writer and his secretary - even though the secretary is both inefficient and self-interested (causing the writer untold strain), neither of them want to break the working relationship. To do so would be to expose both of them to the pain of loneliness, which is something they cannot contemplate. The story retains a comic tone, but Chekhov reveals the pain underneath.

The stories are little gems of human observation. We empathize with the characters because we've been there ourselves - shared the children's pain as they discover their kittens no longer exist; shared the writer's exasperation as he listens to the outpourings of a talentless woman; and understood the importance of human contact, even if it is confined to a mercurial working relationship. They are the sort of tales that can be listened to again and again, as proved through my own aural experiences.