The twist in the tale? They're boring

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The Independent Culture

Of all the masterpieces of Russian literature, why does the foreigner's choice alight so often on Chekhov's short stories? In my day, The Lady with the Little Dog, My Life and others used to be, and may still be, staple set texts for Russian A-level and for university exams. They crossed my exam horizon three times; I disliked them every time.

Of all the masterpieces of Russian literature, why does the foreigner's choice alight so often on Chekhov's short stories? In my day, The Lady with the Little Dog, My Life and others used to be, and may still be, staple set texts for Russian A-level and for university exams. They crossed my exam horizon three times; I disliked them every time.

They are, of course, ideal exam material. They are a manageable length, the language is fairly simple - deceptively so - and, true to the short-story genre, they generally have a twist in the tale. Now, maybe exams have poisoned Chekhov for me forever. But that is not always so. With Thomas Hardy, I hated the set-book, Under the Greenwood Tree - another of these school-friendly texts. But I refused to believe that all of Hardy was so unappealing, started on the "real" novels - Return of the Native, Jude the Obscure etc - and the poetry, and never looked back.

Chekhov in general, and the short stories in particular, still defeat me. One challenge is the extent to which his stories and plays are intended to be satirical. Certainly, characters are treated with satire or irony, but the satire is not carried into the story or situation as a whole. Another difficulty is the juxtaposition of the comic and tragic, described as "laughter through tears" and branded quintessentially Russian.

It is too easy a defence of my non-appreciation of Chekhov to argue that only Russians can understand it; after all, plenty of non-Russians are avowed fans and cite the universal foibles of Chekhov's characters as a reason. I don't share this view either. But I have made peace with some of the plays - The Seagull, The Cherry Orchard (as acute social comment on a Russia in the throes of upheaval). For me, much of the rest simply does not hang together.

I just wonder, though, whether I might not find "the lady with the little dog" simpering down the boardwalk at Yalta a more accessible character now that Russia is fast acquiring a new bourgeoisie. In Soviet times it was hard to draw any connection between real life and the world in Chekhov's writing. Perhaps it is time to open the stories again - and imagine what Chekhov might do with the "new" Russian who, on being told the price of a Cartier watch, says he was actually looking for something more expensive.

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