Book Of A Lifetime: Lady with a Lapdog, By Anton Chekhov

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When I was about 30, I discovered Chekhov. A bit late in the day, admittedly, but I'd gone with a friend to see The Seagull and we were so blown away that we resolved to read everything he had ever written. We went on a kind of Chekhov binge, swapping books, recommending stories, even reading collections of his "amusing" (totally unamusing actually) pieces for papers and magazines that he wrote when he was young.

It was a fascinating exercise because it made me realise that you could write complete crap when you were young, but, if you worked hard enough at it, eventually there was a chance that you could write something as brilliant as the story which, to me, is the best story in the entire world: "Lady with a Lapdog".

I must have read this at least 20 times. And whenever I re-read it, my first desire, at the end, is simply to go back to the beginning and start all over again. It's about a jaded married man, something of a serial seducer, who finds himself alone during the season at Yalta. He picks up Anna, a very young also-married woman – her husband is back at home – who has a small Pomeranian dog. They start the usual affair – but this time something out of the ordinary happens. He falls in love.

Every good story should involve the characters changing in some way – and in "Lady with a Lapdog", Gurov, the hero, changes completely. And Chekhov doesn't make it a happily-ever-after story. He leaves the whole thing open-ended and yet, and here's the odd thing, it doesn't feel unsatisfactory at all, like so many books that end on a question. Gurov's complete change is the story.

It was this story that taught me, partly, how to write, and how to write as sparely as possible. Gurov's wife was "a tall, black-browed woman, erect, dignified, austere, and, as she liked to describe herself, a 'thinking person'". We know exactly what she was like. Before the love affair, Gurov regards women as "the lower breed" and finds the lace trimming on the negligées of his easy conquests "like the scales of a snake".

When he glimpses Anna's husband, whom she has described to him as a "flunkey", he notices that "the gleaming insignia of some scientific society which he wore in his buttonhole looked like the number of a waiter's coat."

These minute, concise descriptions speak volumes. And that is what I love about Chekhov's writing and this story in particular. It teaches a writer that the less he writes about emotion the better. Forget the gnashing of teeth, the tears gushing forth, the beating of the breast. A great writer simply prepares the soil, plants the seed, often just by mentioning a look or a single word, and the reader's own, and spontaneous emotion will burst into being.

Virginia Ironside's 'The Virginia Monologues: 20 reasons why growing old is great' is published by Fig Tree

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