A Short Essay on “An Anonymous Story”

I got a free app to keep track of my reading. I don’t know, but I thought it might be helpful. It has a star rating system which I find absurd. Trying to co-operate, not my best thing, I decided the Bible and Shakespeare rated a 5 and anything else had to be no more than a 4.

Chekhov rates a 4. I’m reading the complete short stories of. I figured that the corpus of stories would inflect off each other and I would understand Chekhov’s mind better, which is worth understanding.

Totalism, the idea that you should read everything written by a master, is misunderstood. Reading globally is an aspiration. It’s not necessarily reachable.

Leaving aside my well-intentioned app, the best reaction to reading is to talk, or write, or think. And not necessarily about what you read, having confidence that your reading, if exemplary, will be reflected in your life organically.

I like Chekhov’s story called, An Anonymous Story, because it failed. And because it’s not one of the famous Chekhov stories like The Lady with the Dog, that everyone is supposed to read. Yes, I’ve read that one too. But every time I see a book called “The Best of Something”, I want to destroy it. Also, death to all people who give out awards. Make up your own mind, people! You should give no one authority over your mind except if you’re under 12.

The premise of this story annoyed me: A member of the “educated class”, this is Russia in the 1890’s, takes a job as a footman in the house of an influential citizen, because his employer’s father is a political enemy and, by infiltrating the household, he hopes to gain valuable information on the opposition.

This clumsy device does solve the educated narrator problem. The story is in first person and this explains how the narrator could tell a story as well as…Chekhov. Towards the denouement, the first-person character sheds his disguise and that is interesting, since he has more in common with his protagonist than was apparent earlier in the tale.

I was startled how Chekhov can caricature some of his characters, making it obvious that the reader is not supposed to like them. He doesn’t always do it but when he does he reminds me of Dickens, although in Dickens the moral judgment falls more heavily on the bad. It seemed like a very 19th century practice but (1890’s), it is 19th century. In Chekhov, the 20th century is so close you can taste it. Artists are never behind. It’s the public who are behind…always.

Zanaida Fyodorovna (I love Russian names and have even started to pronounce them correctly.) has left a miserable marriage and is living with Orlov, the man our footman is spying on. But the relationship with Orlov proves to be worse, and the footman watches with empathy as Zanaida is slowly crushed.

What doesn’t work: The long story is an abortive novel. It could have been extended another 300 pages and then it would have been a mediocre, melodramatic curiosity. But in its wanderings the story anticipates the angst and nihilism that is to come.

The generation of the 1890’s, which I couldn’t understand without him, was honored by having Chekhov as its storyteller. May we be so honored by our writers! It was a generation that was waiting for something to happen, whose more sensitive members recognized was hanging fire. In Chekhov’s stories, characters sometimes express the thought that later generations will have it better, that their paradoxes will be resolved. Reading the classics makes us like gods, because we know the answer to that enigma, since even their future generations, that they dream of, are past generations to us.