The Exclamation Mark by Anton Chekhov

In The Exclamation Mark, Hesperus Press has collected stories written during a short period in Anton Chekhov’s life, from 1885 to 1886. Lynne Truss’s foreword notes how helpful this approach can be when dealing with a prolific short story writer, and I definitely agree. I am down with semi-random “collected works” when I don’t particularly care, but for a writer like Chekhov I would rather come at it like this, to start.*

And The Exclamation Mark has been one of the best short-story-collection-reading experiences I can remember. “I loved every second of it.” Shut up, I really did. From “The Exclamation Mark” on, I was putty in Chekhov’s hands. Haunted by an exclamation mark! There is definitely something Gogolian there. Not all the stories are so clearly Gogolian, but the darkness mixed with the humor gives them such an affinity.** Nabokov called Chekhov’s books “sad books for humorous people; that is, only a reader with a sense of humor can really appreciate their sadness.” The sadness, for example, of Collegiate Secretary Efim Fomich Perekladin on realizing he’s never needed to express feelings in official papers but can finally use his exclamation points on a Christmas card for his boss. Or the sadness of Andrey Andreyich, the faithful man in “The Requiem” who can’t stop calling his dead daughter a whore because he thinks it makes his request for prayers sound more holy.

The saddest here is perhaps “Grief,” another story about a man who has lost his child:

If you were to open up Iona’s chest and pour all the grief out of it, you would probably flood the entire planet, yet it is not visible. It has managed to squeeze into such a minute receptacle that you would not be able to see it in brightest daylight.

Or is the saddest the fact that in the revised version of “A Little Joke,” instead of the happy couple getting together, they part forever? I didn’t like that change one bit, because I’ve been relying on Chekhov’s special way of ending things. So many of these have a quick wrap-up, not one that changes everything but one that really ends the stories, caps them off just right. It’s hard to give examples, considering each ending is matched so well to its sketch, and that’s the whole point. What can the following mean without having just read of Grisha’s day out with his nanny:

And Grisha, bursting with the impressions of the new life he has only just experienced for the first time, receives from his Mama a spoonful of castor oil.

Not much, I don’t think, but it’s perfect where it is. There’s no lingering or trailing off, not to say these are “snappy” either. Just very good very short stories. My favorite kind.

*Is this my start with Chekhov? Yes, although I did read Uncle Vanya in high school. My only real memory of it, however, is one of my classmates exclaiming when she finally realized that Vanya was a man. No, the “uncle” part was not a tipoff.
**Another affinity is food. There is some good food writing here, including some of the best I have ever read in the form of “Bliny.”

7 comments to The Exclamation Mark by Anton Chekhov

  • Just ordered this one. I love Chekhov and that quote from Grief is wonderful.

    Are you enjoyoing the Nabokov Lectures on Russian Literature?

  • nicole

    I am loving them. I was surprised at their accessibility, but as he was writing for an audience unfamiliar with Russian lit it feels quite appropriate.

    Glad you liked the “Grief” quote; I really did too!

  • Well, I’ll get the Lectures on Russian Literature as well…I really loved his Lectures on Literature. I wish I could have listened to the lectures when he gave them, what a treat.

  • I absolutely need to get over my ridiculous fear of the Russians. “Sad books for humorous people” is a description that very much appeals to me.

  • nicole

    I was afraid too; don’t be. It’s totally not worth it.

  • The problem, though, with having heard his lectures is that you would also have to be tested and graded on them. I prefer to be able to just read them.

    I had, long ago, a prof who took Nabokov’s classes. He said he remembers an extra credit question about what various characters had for breakfast in Vol. II, Ch. 11 of Mansfield Park (answer here).

  • I agree completely with your point about collected works, esp. wrt Chekhov. I have two Chekhov volumes. One is a Portable volume, which is packed with all kinds of stuff, stories, plays, letters, early stuff, late stuff… and, I hate reading it. But then I got the Peasants collection edited by Edmund Wilson and reissued by NYRB, and I found it to be a much more manageable way to approach this prolific writer.