Short stories don’t always taste sweet. Strangely—given their brevity—they tend to tax my self-discipline. But lately, a steady diet of short stories has helped me feel stable; and better able to cope in the face of ongoing crises, public and private.
Back in February, I discovered Anton Chekhov as a writer of short stories. Theater-averse, I had—up to then—avoided Chekhov: a figure I perceived as playwright first. But apparently, outside of the United States he is as well known for his short stories as he is for his plays. I set myself the task of reading two story collections simultaneously: the 1994 Everyman edition of The Chekhov Omnibus, translated from the Russian by the extraordinary Constance Garnett; and Bantam’s 2000 edition of Stories, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. While some overlap does exist between the selections in these two volumes, the content differs enough to justify reading both. The Omnibus includes some novella-length stories, for example, which Pevear and Volokhonsky have translated, but chosen to publish separately. Their selection of Stories focuses, instead, on works which are truly short.
Written by a practicing medical doctor during the latter half of the nineteenth century, I found little not to love about the short stories of Anton Chekhov. Oddly—for someone I had previously considered just a playwright—this author now stands out in my mind as a master of landscape description; and some of the meteorological events with which he peppers his pages are among the most spectacular I have read. At times, his storms are transformational: both driving and, at the same time, reflecting the internal metamorphoses of the characters who experience them. In the very first novella-length story translated by Constance Garnett, for example, a young boy takes a trip across an expanse of steppe, in the back of an open wagon. The storm he survives is unforgettable; and at the end of the story, the boy realizes that his life will never be the same.
I read these stories around the time that journalists at This American Life released a timely episode titled “Low Hum of Menace.” Invisible threats loomed; and tensions were just starting to build. My personal life was changing as well, and the obstacles I faced felt insurmountable. Alongside stunning landscapes and atmospheric disturbances, Chekhov presents human anxieties triggered—more often than not—by desperate financial, emotional, and mortal situations. Read one at a time, each story serves its own unique inoculative function. But compounded one upon the other, the cumulative impact threatens defenses. Late at night—unable to stomach any more Chekhov—I took to consoling myself with bite-sized, surreptitious doses of Jhumpa Lahiri:
After the Chekhov, reading Lahiri’s first collection of stories Interpreter of Maladies—published by Houghton Mifflin in 1999—felt a bit like sucking on fruit-flavored gum drops: the ones dipped in sugar crystals. And yet, the characters in these stories are also laden with anxieties. But, these are obedient anxieties. Anxieties with boundaries. Anxieties that manage to park—before curfew—inside city limits. Characters suffer; but at times provocation is so negligible, and the concomitant suffering so idiosyncratic, that blows shatter into effervescence. I am thinking particularly, here, of a story called “Mrs. Sen’s” about a boy on the cusp of latchkey independence, outgrowing his babysitter.
Of course, not all of these stories are meant to be funny. Even those that are manage to also feel poignant and sad. But Lahiri’s touch is light; and her voice is calm. I was comforted by these stories; and, when I reached the end of the volume, found myself mourning the fact that it was not twice as long.
After finishing Interpreter of Maladies—and just before leaving Kansas—I met a new friend:
Edith Wharton accompanied me on the strangest flight of my life: on a plane with just eight passengers. Together, we watched the sun set over the Pacific. I’m linking a photo of Edith Wharton herself—rather than an image of her Collected Stories 1891-1910—since my hardbound Library of America edition, dated 2001, is slipcased rather than jacketed.
This first volume of Wharton’s stories, representing her early output, is nine hundred pages long. Unlike Lahiri, Edith Wharton did not seduce, soothe, and summarily abandon me. Instead, she lingered by my side for nearly two full months; and continues to promise more in a second volume. Reading her felt just as comforting as reading Lahiri; although the stories tasted drier and required more savoring, as in the case of an orchid oolong or, perhaps, a fragrant mushroom.
Many if not most of these stories are set in New York City: connecting me in a positive way with a place which has been on everyone’s mind. Of course, Wharton’s New York and the New York of the present day are fundamentally different places. And—given the life of incredible privilege into which she was born—Wharton’s New York and the New York of the vast majority of her contemporaries were probably also different places. But rather than hold this against her, I’m choosing to view the circumstances of her life as fortunate both for her, and for readers; and as something which—in a perfect world—all writers, and all citizens of New York, would be able to share.
Within the stories, money—or, the lack thereof—is omnipresent as a motivating factor. It drives the characters’ actions as well as attitudes, and to Wharton’s credit often enough this is due to genuine need, as opposed to greed. However: unlike in Chekhov, the characters nearly always find relief. Coupled with the humor of the predicaments they create, and of the bizarre terrain they navigate, this makes for escapist reading as—in real time—savings accounts are drained; options crumble; and collective means disintegrate.
Wharton’s tone remains consistent throughout these stories. After awhile, dipping my way in and out of the volume started to remind me of picking up a conversation, even after a lapse of years, with my oldest and best friend. And at times, absorbing this author’s formidable psychological insight felt like acquiring a superpower. A magical secret in: a window on understanding people, and the complex but rational relationships between them. So bolstering. So reassuring.