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