The Exclamation Mark – Anton Chekhov (19th August-6th September)

This collection is a recent translation of stories written by Chekhov in a six month period early in his career between the end of December 1885 and the end of Jun 1886. The stories are presented in chronological order and clearly show the rapid development of his short fiction writing during this time. What is most striking though is how contemporary many of the stories in this collection feel, despite describing Russian society and customs of well over a century ago. Chekhov’s timeless themes coupled with Rosamund Bartlett’s superlative translation help make this collection of early writings feel as fresh as the day they were penned.

Most surprising to me while reading this collection was the large number of humorous tales within. Stories like New Years Matyrs, A Failure and Conversation Between a Drunkard and a Sober Devil have a deeply funny vein running through them, quite out of character if you believe Chekhov miserablist reputation as a realist. Another feature of this collection that helped make it feel fresh and contemporary was the large number of flash fiction within. Some of the stories would easily feel at home in the #fridayflash weekly lists. There are also flashes of magical realism in the pages of Romance with a Double Bass and the title story, The Exclamation Mark, which I reviewed in detail way back.

My favourite Chekhov story, Grief, (the title usually translated as Misery) is included, a beautiful and haunting description of a man’s grief over the recent loss of his son. The main character, Iona Potapov drives his cab through the dark streets desperate to talk with someone, anyone, about the death of his son, his fellow man sparing him only indifference and scorn in equal measure rather than a kind ear. Perhaps it is my having two sons that helps me empathise with this man’s plight but I feel that explanation would take away from the clear and exact prose with which Chekhov unfolds this simple, powerful tale. Everyone should read this story, preferably in this translation; Bartlett has, in my opinion, provided the best possible English version of this great story and I will be checking out her other collections of Chekhov’s stories.

I have liked Chekhov since discovering him in my twenties. Now, having seen just how quickly his mastery of the short form developed, I am in awe of what he managed to achieve in such a short time. By the time this collection’s final story was published he still had yet to produce his greatest works. I cannot recommend this collection highly enough. If you like Chekhov you need this book. If you’ve never read any it’s a great place to start.