Book Of A Lifetime: The Kiss And Other Stories, by Anton Chekhov

I found The Kiss and Other Stories in a secondhand bookshop. I read the title story and wondered why anyone would part with it. Embarrassment, the boredom of social life, disappointment, pointless accident: what Chekhov makes out of these snares, the heart-wringing atmosphere he lightly fashions, remains a revelation to me.

Is it life's fault or his characters' that they suffer so much? In "The Kiss" the officers of a reserve artillery brigade, stopping for the night, are invited to tea by the local landowner, a retired general. The invitation is a matter of form, the guests tired and awkward despite their admiration for the general's vivacious, "insincere but wonderfully disciplined" family. One officer, a shy, skinny staff-captain named Ryabovich, "short, stooping... with spectacles and lynx-like side whiskers", is particularly uncomfortable. He escapes to the billiard room, and gets lost. He finds himself in an unused room, and moments later, in the dark, a young woman enters and, thinking he is someone else, throws her "soft, sweet-smelling arms" around his neck and kisses him, before fleeing in confusion.

The effect of the kiss is profound. Life for Rya- bovich, as for many of us, is a freewheel: the episodes when it slips into gear unexpectedly are what we wait for. Ryabovich goes on feeling the tingle of the kiss "like peppermint drops" around his mouth; every night he visualises the girl who kissed him, and retains his joy at fate's accidental caress. A few pages later Chekhov writes a marvellous technical description of an artillery brigade on the move – to ordinary people an unintelligibly complicated sight, but to Ryabovich, "all this was very boring". He daydreams about the kiss, the girl.

Three months later, he is sent back to the village but there is no invitation from the general. He does not think this strange but goes for a walk and is struck by the purposelessness of everything. "And the whole world, the whole of life, struck Ryabovich as a meaningless, futile joke."

Cruelty and arbitrary tragedy appear in these stories too. But somehow little seems crueller than his disappointment and ennui. There is a tragic depth to Chekhov's conjuring of lives like Ryabovich's, lived on the surface, that first gave me an idea of how a metaphor could be told in the form of a story and render the world legible. It is fashionable to describe his stories as all middle, without beginning or end. But to me the virtue of this story is its completeness, its summoning of human feelings perfectly matched to the events that produce them. In a hundred years we'll all be happy, Chekhov was fond of saying ironically. Until then, we have "The Kiss" to tell us, with joyous accuracy, why we might not be.

Julian Evans's biography of Nor-man Lewis, 'Semi-Invisible Man', is published by Jonathan Cape

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk