I am tagging this as a did not finish, although I did, in fact, finish two short stories (and barely started a third). I DNF’d the story collection, though. Meaning, I don’t seem to be a Chekhov fan. It’s funny when things turn out that way: when I turn out not to like an author who is Classic, or in this case, revered as one of the best short story writers of all time (I can’t remember where I’ve heard this, but I have. More than once. sigh). But it does happen.
I listened to The Black Monk and Gooseberries. It was remarkable to me how much these stories reminded me of Tolstoy (who, if you recall, I also did not like). I don’t know if it’s Russian writers with shared characteristics, or that they both evoke the same world and that’s what bothers me. At any rate, the Russian society on the estate felt very much like the same background, transferred from Anna Karenina to Chekhov’s short stories.
In The Black Monk, our protagonist visits the estate where he was raised family-like by non-relations. The father figure encourages him to marry the daughter of the estate (so, the sister figure?), and he does. At a party somebody shares the legend of the black monk, who is imaginary but shows up… sometimes, some places. Our protagonist sees the black monk, talks with him, and uses their conversations as fodder for his own writing (oh yes, he is a writer by profession). He gets caught talking to himself (as it seems – he’s talking with his imaginary black monk) and “treated” for his “illness,” which frustrates him. He and the wife split up. The end. This is a story in which nothing much happens, and the black monk bits I found uninteresting. Is this minimalism as a stylistic statement, or something? Is it not what’s there, but what isn’t there? (Like action, personality, conflict?) This is a well-regarded piece of literature, but it passed me right by.
In Gooseberries, a few friends gather and sit around and tell a story: the brother of one of these men, having grown up in the country but found work as a bureaucrat in a city, dreams about retiring to the country. He will have a farm, or something like it; and he will have gooseberry bushes. In time he accomplishes this: he has a country estate, and gooseberry bushes. The brother (who is telling the story, to his friends) visits, and is served gooseberries. The country-aspiring brother praises them highly, but they are in fact bitter. I assume this is the grand symbolic conflict of the story that is meant to impress me, but again I found it banal. Oh, there is some social commentary on the fact that this bureaucrat-brother now professes to be a nobleman and high-handedly distributes buckets of vodka to the peasants on special occasions, pretending grandeur. But again, this is a story in which nothing happens, and I am bored. So I stopped listening.
In many literary cases, we praise the understated. I’m thinking of Cheever’s short story, The Swimmer, and Hemingway’s, Hills Like White Elephants. The under-context of these stories remains pretty well hidden, but they are praised as masterpieces. (I enjoyed both, for the record.) In Hemingway’s story, nothing really happens; but it is still thought-provoking and oh, so emotionally evocative. In Cheever’s, a little more happens; nothing is said about what Cheever really wants to say; but it still works. I wonder if there’s something hidden in The Black Monk that, if explained to me, would make it so much more enjoyable? I suspect not.
Funnily enough, this audiobook I picked up right after The Gunslinger is read by the same narrator, George Guidall. That was an interesting experiment in the different voices and moods a good narrator can evoke. When I thought to notice, I could tell – obviously – that the same man read the two books; but it never would have occurred to me mid-story, because he does a fine job of bringing to life two such different worlds. The fantastic, dramatic made-up world of King’s fantasy series couldn’t be more different than Chekhov’s staid, frustrated Russian society, and Guidall did well by each, so none of my criticism falls on him. I was annoyed by the characters Guidall read; but I think he read them as they were written.