Three Years by Anton Chekhov
When it was first published in 1895 Chekhov's Three Years was described simply as a rasskaz, a short story, the genre he was most distinguished in and is certainly most famous for. Chekhov himself described it as a povest, a long story, (cf Turgenev's First Love). Novella might be better, in the sense that Three Years feels like it is reaching for the scope of a novel but falls somewhat short. Chekhov, as translator Hugh Aplin's informative introduction makes clear, had the idea to write a big Russian novel (as the Hesperus blurb puts it: "Three Years is Anton Chekhov’s heartfelt attempt to create a 'novel of Moscow life'"). But, as a skilled miniaturist, Chekhov was no novelist and his heart, actually, does not entirely seem to have been in it. Three Years is, without doubt, the work of a master but a master not doing his best work! Chekhov seems to have got bored - or overwhelmed - by the potentially overbearing grandiosity of a big work and so pares down scenes, races through the narrative and leaves the reader, I felt, a little frustrated: we are told neither enough about a scene or certain characters for substantial subplots to develop (the warehouse scenes have the potential for a full-blooded Dickensian - or Zolaesque - treatment) nor are we allowed merely to rely on a gesture or devastating word.
By virtue of the lack of characterisation inevitable to a short piece readers tend to assume for the characters a fully fledged three-dimensionality that never, actually, needs to be fully established in the text: in a short piece the reader does a substantial amount of work. As the narrative lengthens, paradoxically, a certain part of the reader's work diminishes and it is the writer who is called to forge a living reality for his/her characters by writing in such scenes that show the reader the character's past, or a number of conflict situations, that round the characters out and make them believable rather than remaining merely as cyphers. Three Years, mostly, comes across as the edited highlights (highlights itself is ironic: Chekhov is so much the master of the lowkey) of a potentially much greater piece that Chekhov got bored in creating for us. I think he must have known that he didn't need the 90 pages (and this is ninety very tightly packed pages) to say what he had said before (and would say after) in his perfectly formed short stories (which we will review nearer the centenary of his death in June). Janet Malcolm makes the same point about the book of non-fiction Anton Pavlovich wrote on the awful prison conditions at The Island of Sakhalin: she says, "Chekhov could not achieve in three hundred pages what he achieved in a four-page passage at the end of his story The Murder (1895)".
Not withstanding all that I still really, really liked my first Chekhov! The story of Laptev, away from his native Moscow, in a provincial town, caring for Nina Fyodorovna, his dying sister, who falls instantly and rather ridiculously in love with Yulia Sergeyevna, the daughter of the doctor looking after her. Yulia feels nothing for Laptev but, afraid she may be left on the shelf, and concerned not to slight a good man, she convinces herself it would be a terrible thing to refuse his rushed, unromantic proposal. There follows three years of mostly miserable marriage. This seemed to me splendidly Russian, totally lacking in histrionics, devoid of pomposity or preaching - if a story were to be a time of day this would be late afternoon on a cold, autumn day, dusk falling, the night not quite yet here, the day dying away but still, just, lighting the empty streets. All of Chekhov's characters are wonderfully flawed - hence human - and in no way does he seem to feel the need to heroicise them or offer excuse for their behaviour. Chekhov's stories, Malcolm argues, are marked by sometimes rather improbable epiphanies (changes in direction that Malcolm thinks further justifies the readings of such critics as Jackson and Mihailovic who have drawn attention to the deeper religious symbolism in Chekhov's fiction). Indeed, Yulia's realisation, at the end of Three Years that she does, in fact, love Laptev is quiet, almost inevitable, lowkey and deeply moving. Laptev's muted, shrugged response is itself both sad and rings totally true: the recognition in Yulia of her love for Laptev is not of the same register as the passion that so unsettled him at the start of their marriage. He has, over time, come to terms with a passion-free marriage; Yulia's contentment is not a signal, finally, for the establishment or victory of passionate love but rather a pastel-shaded, apt, sensible and equable rapprochement.