Author: Various Release Date: September 11, 2004 [EBook #13437]

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Title: Best Russian Short Stories
Author: Various
Release Date: September 11, 2004 [EBook #13437]

Last Updated: July 27, 2015

Language: English


Produced by David Starner, Keith M. Eckrich, and the Project Gutenberg

Online Distributed Proofreaders Team



Compiled and Edited by THOMAS SELTZER


THE CLOAK _N.V. Gogol_
THE SIGNAL _V.N. Garshin_
THE DARLING _A.P. Chekhov_
THE BET _A.P. Chekhov_
VANKA _A.P. Chekhov_
HIDE AND SEEK _F.K. Sologub_
DETHRONED _I.N. Potapenko_
THE SERVANT _S.T. Semyonov_
HER LOVER _M. Gorky_
LAZARUS _L.N. Andreyev_


Conceive the joy of a lover of nature who, leaving the art galleries,

wanders out among the trees and wild flowers and birds that the

pictures of the galleries have sentimentalised. It is some such joy

that the man who truly loves the noblest in letters feels when tasting

for the first time the simple delights of Russian literature. French

and English and German authors, too, occasionally, offer works of

lofty, simple naturalness; but the very keynote to the whole of

Russian literature is simplicity, naturalness, veraciousness.

Another essentially Russian trait is the quite unaffected conception

that the lowly are on a plane of equality with the so-called upper

classes. When the Englishman Dickens wrote with his profound pity and

understanding of the poor, there was yet a bit; of remoteness,

perhaps, even, a bit of caricature, in his treatment of them. He

showed their sufferings to the rest of the world with a "Behold how

the other half lives!" The Russian writes of the poor, as it were,

from within, as one of them, with no eye to theatrical effect upon the

well-to-do. There is no insistence upon peculiar virtues or vices. The

poor are portrayed just as they are, as human beings like the rest of

us. A democratic spirit is reflected, breathing a broad humanity, a

true universality, an unstudied generosity that proceed not from the

intellectual conviction that to understand all is to forgive all, but

from an instinctive feeling that no man has the right to set himself

up as a judge over another, that one can only observe and record.
In 1834 two short stories appeared, _The Queen of Spades_, by Pushkin,

and _The Cloak_, by Gogol. The first was a finishing-off of the old,

outgoing style of romanticism, the other was the beginning of the new,

the characteristically Russian style. We read Pushkin's _Queen of

Spades_, the first story in the volume, and the likelihood is we shall

enjoy it greatly. "But why is it Russian?" we ask. The answer is, "It

is not Russian." It might have been printed in an American magazine

over the name of John Brown. But, now, take the very next story in the

volume, _The Cloak_. "Ah," you exclaim, "a genuine Russian story,

Surely. You cannot palm it off on me over the name of Jones or Smith."

Why? Because _The Cloak_ for the first time strikes that truly Russian

note of deep sympathy with the disinherited. It is not yet wholly free

from artificiality, and so is not yet typical of the purely realistic

fiction that reached its perfected development in Turgenev and

Though Pushkin heads the list of those writers who made the literature

of their country world-famous, he was still a romanticist, in the

universal literary fashion of his day. However, he already gave strong

indication of the peculiarly Russian genius for naturalness or

realism, and was a true Russian in his simplicity of style. In no

sense an innovator, but taking the cue for his poetry from Byron and

for his prose from the romanticism current at that period, he was not

in advance of his age. He had a revolutionary streak in his nature, as

his _Ode to Liberty_ and other bits of verse and his intimacy with the

Decembrist rebels show. But his youthful fire soon died down, and he

found it possible to accommodate himself to the life of a Russian high

functionary and courtier under the severe despot Nicholas I, though,

to be sure, he always hated that life. For all his flirting with

revolutionarism, he never displayed great originality or depth of

thought. He was simply an extraordinarily gifted author, a perfect

versifier, a wondrous lyrist, and a delicious raconteur, endowed with

a grace, ease and power of expression that delighted even the exacting

artistic sense of Turgenev. To him aptly applies the dictum of

Socrates: "Not by wisdom do the poets write poetry, but by a sort of

genius and inspiration." I do not mean to convey that as a thinker

Pushkin is to be despised. Nevertheless, it is true that he would

occupy a lower position in literature did his reputation depend upon

his contributions to thought and not upon his value as an artist.
"We are all descended from Gogol's _Cloak_," said a Russian writer.

And Dostoyevsky's novel, _Poor People_, which appeared ten years

later, is, in a way, merely an extension of Gogol's shorter tale. In

Dostoyevsky, indeed, the passion for the common people and the

all-embracing, all-penetrating pity for suffering humanity reach their

climax. He was a profound psychologist and delved deeply into the

human soul, especially in its abnormal and diseased aspects. Between

scenes of heart-rending, abject poverty, injustice, and wrong, and the

torments of mental pathology, he managed almost to exhaust the whole

range of human woe. And he analysed this misery with an intensity of

feeling and a painstaking regard for the most harrowing details that

are quite upsetting to normally constituted nerves. Yet all the

horrors must be forgiven him because of the motive inspiring them--an

overpowering love and the desire to induce an equal love in others. It

is not horror for horror's sake, not a literary _tour de force_, as in

Poe, but horror for a high purpose, for purification through

suffering, which was one of the articles of Dostoyevsky's faith.
Following as a corollary from the love and pity for mankind that make

a leading element in Russian literature, is a passionate search for

the means of improving the lot of humanity, a fervent attachment to

social ideas and ideals. A Russian author is more ardently devoted to

a cause than an American short-story writer to a plot. This, in turn,

is but a reflection of the spirit of the Russian people, especially of

the intellectuals. The Russians take literature perhaps more seriously

than any other nation. To them books are not a mere diversion. They

demand that fiction and poetry be a true mirror of life and be of

service to life. A Russian author, to achieve the highest recognition,

must be a thinker also. He need not necessarily be a finished artist.

Everything is subordinated to two main requirements--humanitarian

ideals and fidelity to life. This is the secret of the marvellous

simplicity of Russian-literary art. Before the supreme function of

literature, the Russian writer stands awed and humbled. He knows he

cannot cover up poverty of thought, poverty of spirit and lack of

sincerity by rhetorical tricks or verbal cleverness. And if he

possesses the two essential requirements, the simplest language will

These qualities are exemplified at their best by Turgenev and Tolstoy.

They both had a strong social consciousness; they both grappled with

the problems of human welfare; they were both artists in the larger

sense, that is, in their truthful representation of life, Turgenev was

an artist also in the narrower sense--in a keen appreciation Of form.

Thoroughly Occidental in his tastes, he sought the regeneration of

Russia in radical progress along the lines of European democracy.

Tolstoy, on the other hand, sought the salvation of mankind in a

return to the primitive life and primitive Christian religion.
The very first work of importance by Turgenev, _A Sportsman's

Sketches_, dealt with the question of serfdom, and it wielded

tremendous influence in bringing about its abolition. Almost every

succeeding book of his, from _Rudin_ through _Fathers and Sons_ to

_Virgin Soil_, presented vivid pictures of contemporary Russian

society, with its problems, the clash of ideas between the old and the

new generations, and the struggles, the aspirations and the thoughts

that engrossed the advanced youth of Russia; so that his collected

works form a remarkable literary record of the successive movements of

Russian society in a period of preparation, fraught with epochal

significance, which culminated in the overthrow of Czarism and the

inauguration of a new and true democracy, marking the beginning,

perhaps, of a radical transformation the world over.
"The greatest writer of Russia." That is Turgenev's estimate of

Tolstoy. "A second Shakespeare!" was Flaubert's enthusiastic outburst.

The Frenchman's comparison is not wholly illuminating. The one point

of resemblance between the two authors is simply in the tremendous

magnitude of their genius. Each is a Colossus. Each creates a whole

world of characters, from kings and princes and ladies to servants and

maids and peasants. But how vastly divergent the angle of approach!

Anna Karenina may have all the subtle womanly charm of an Olivia or a

Portia, but how different her trials. Shakespeare could not have

treated Anna's problems at all. Anna could not have appeared in his

pages except as a sinning Gertrude, the mother of Hamlet. Shakespeare

had all the prejudices of his age. He accepted the world as it is with

its absurd moralities, its conventions and institutions and social

classes. A gravedigger is naturally inferior to a lord, and if he is

to be presented at all, he must come on as a clown. The people are

always a mob, the rabble. Tolstoy, is the revolutionist, the

iconoclast. He has the completest independence of mind. He utterly

refuses to accept established opinions just because they are

established. He probes into the right and wrong of things. His is a

broad, generous universal democracy, his is a comprehensive sympathy,

his an absolute incapacity to evaluate human beings according to

station, rank or profession, or any standard but that of spiritual

worth. In all this he was a complete contrast to Shakespeare. Each of

the two men was like a creature of a higher world, possessed of

supernatural endowments. Their omniscience of all things human, their

insight into the hiddenmost springs of men's actions appear

miraculous. But Shakespeare makes the impression of detachment from

his works. The works do not reveal the man; while in Tolstoy the

greatness of the man blends with the greatness of the genius. Tolstoy

was no mere oracle uttering profundities he wot not of. As the social,

religious and moral tracts that he wrote in the latter period of his

life are instinct with a literary beauty of which he never could

divest himself, and which gave an artistic value even to his sermons,

so his earlier novels show a profound concern for the welfare of

society, a broad, humanitarian spirit, a bigness of soul that included

prince and pauper alike.

Is this extravagant praise? Then let me echo William Dean Howells: "I

know very well that I do not speak of Tolstoy's books in measured

terms; I cannot."
The Russian writers so far considered have made valuable contributions

to the short story; but, with the exception of Pushkin, whose

reputation rests chiefly upon his poetry, their best work, generally,

was in the field of the long novel. It was the novel that gave Russian

literature its pre-eminence. It could not have been otherwise, since

Russia is young as a literary nation, and did not come of age until

the period at which the novel was almost the only form of literature

that counted. If, therefore, Russia was to gain distinction in the

world of letters, it could be only through the novel. Of the measure

of her success there is perhaps no better testimony than the words of

Matthew Arnold, a critic certainly not given to overstatement. "The

Russian novel," he wrote in 1887, "has now the vogue, and deserves to

have it... The Russian novelist is master of a spell to which the

secret of human nature--both what is external and internal, gesture

and manner no less than thought and feeling--willingly make themselves

known... In that form of imaginative literature, which in our day is

the most popular and the most possible, the Russians at the present

moment seem to me to hold the field."

With the strict censorship imposed on Russian writers, many of them

who might perhaps have contented themselves with expressing their

opinions in essays, were driven to conceal their meaning under the

guise of satire or allegory; which gave rise to a peculiar genre of

literature, a sort of editorial or essay done into fiction, in which

the satirist Saltykov, a contemporary of Turgenev and Dostoyevsky, who

wrote under the pseudonym of Shchedrin, achieved the greatest success

and popularity.

It was not however, until the concluding quarter of the last century

that writers like Korolenko and Garshin arose, who devoted themselves

chiefly to the cultivation of the short story. With Anton Chekhov the

short story assumed a position of importance alongside the larger

works of the great Russian masters. Gorky and Andreyev made the short

story do the same service for the active revolutionary period in the

last decade of the nineteenth century down to its temporary defeat in

1906 that Turgenev rendered in his series of larger novels for the

period of preparation. But very different was the voice of Gorky, the

man sprung from the people, the embodiment of all the accumulated

wrath and indignation of centuries of social wrong and oppression,

from the gentlemanly tones of the cultured artist Turgenev. Like a

mighty hammer his blows fell upon the decaying fabric of the old

society. His was no longer a feeble, despairing protest. With the

strength and confidence of victory he made onslaught upon onslaught on

the old institutions until they shook and almost tumbled. And when

reaction celebrated its short-lived triumph and gloom settled again

upon his country and most of his co-fighters withdrew from the battle

in despair, some returning to the old-time Russian mood of

hopelessness, passivity and apathy, and some even backsliding into

wild orgies of literary debauchery, Gorky never wavered, never lost

his faith and hope, never for a moment was untrue to his principles.

Now, with the revolution victorious, he has come into his right, one

of the most respected, beloved and picturesque figures in the Russian

Kuprin, the most facile and talented short-story writer next to

Chekhov, has, on the whole, kept well to the best literary traditions

of Russia, though he has frequently wandered off to extravagant sex

themes, for which he seems to display as great a fondness as

Artzybashev. Semyonov is a unique character in Russian literature, a

peasant who had scarcely mastered the most elementary mechanics of

writing when he penned his first story. But that story pleased

Tolstoy, who befriended and encouraged him. His tales deal altogether

with peasant life in country and city, and have a lifelikeness, an

artlessness, a simplicity striking even in a Russian author.

There is a small group of writers detached from the main current of

Russian literature who worship at the shrine of beauty and mysticism.

Of these Sologub has attained the highest reputation.
Rich as Russia has become in the short story, Anton Chekhov still

stands out as the supreme master, one of the greatest short-story

writers of the world. He was born in Taganarok, in the Ukraine, in

1860, the son of a peasant serf who succeeded in buying his freedom.

Anton Chekhov studied medicine, but devoted himself largely to

writing, in which, he acknowledged, his scientific training was of

great service. Though he lived only forty-four years, dying of

tuberculosis in 1904, his collected works consist of sixteen

fair-sized volumes of short stories, and several dramas besides. A few

volumes of his works have already appeared in English translation.

Critics, among them Tolstoy, have often compared Chekhov to

Maupassant. I find it hard to discover the resemblance. Maupassant

holds a supreme position as a short-story writer; so does Chekhov. But

there, it seems to me, the likeness ends.

The chill wind that blows from the atmosphere created by the

Frenchman's objective artistry is by the Russian commingled with the

warm breath of a great human sympathy. Maupassant never tells where

his sympathies lie, and you don't know; you only guess. Chekhov does

not tell you where his sympathies lie, either, but you know all the

same; you don't have to guess. And yet Chekhov is as objective as

Maupassant. In the chronicling of facts, conditions, and situations,

in the reproduction of characters, he is scrupulously true, hard, and

inexorable. But without obtruding his personality, he somehow manages

to let you know that he is always present, always at hand. If you

laugh, he is there to laugh with you; if you cry, he is there to shed

a tear with you; if you are horrified, he is horrified, too. It is a

subtle art by which he contrives to make one feel the nearness of

himself for all his objectiveness, so subtle that it defies analysis.

And yet it constitutes one of the great charms of his tales.
Chekhov's works show an astounding resourcefulness and versatility.

There is no monotony, no repetition. Neither in incident nor in

character are any two stories alike. The range of Chekhov's knowledge

of men and things seems to be unlimited, and he is extravagant in the

use of it. Some great idea which many a writer would consider

sufficient to expand into a whole novel he disposes of in a story of a

few pages. Take, for example, _Vanka_, apparently but a mere episode

in the childhood of a nine-year-old boy; while it is really the

tragedy of a whole life in its tempting glimpses into a past

environment and ominous forebodings of the future--all contracted into

the space of four or five pages. Chekhov is lavish with his

inventiveness. Apparently, it cost him no effort to invent.

I have used the word inventiveness for lack of a better name. It

expresses but lamely the peculiar faculty that distinguishes Chekhov.

Chekhov does not really invent. He reveals. He reveals things that no

author before him has revealed. It is as though he possessed a special

organ which enabled him to see, hear and feel things of which we other

mortals did not even dream the existence. Yet when he lays them bare

we know that they are not fictitious, not invented, but as real as the

ordinary familiar facts of life. This faculty of his playing on all

conceivable objects, all conceivable emotions, no matter how

microscopic, endows them with life and a soul. By virtue of this power

_The Steppe_, an uneventful record of peasants travelling day after

day through flat, monotonous fields, becomes instinct with dramatic

interest, and its 125 pages seem all too short. And by virtue of the

same attribute we follow with breathless suspense the minute

description of the declining days of a great scientist, who feels his

physical and mental faculties gradually ebbing away. _A Tiresome

Story_, Chekhov calls it; and so it would be without the vitality

conjured into it by the magic touch of this strange genius.

Divination is perhaps a better term than invention. Chekhov divines

the most secret impulses of the soul, scents out what is buried in the

subconscious, and brings it up to the surface. Most writers are

specialists. They know certain strata of society, and when they

venture beyond, their step becomes uncertain. Chekhov's material is

only delimited by humanity. He is equally at home everywhere. The

peasant, the labourer, the merchant, the priest, the professional man,

the scholar, the military officer, and the government functionary,

Gentile or Jew, man, woman, or child--Chekhov is intimate with all of

them. His characters are sharply defined individuals, not types. In

almost all his stories, however short, the men and women and children

who play a part in them come out as clear, distinct personalities.

Ariadne is as vivid a character as Lilly, the heroine of Sudermann's

_Song of Songs_; yet _Ariadne_ is but a single story in a volume of

stories. Who that has read _The Darling_ can ever forget her--the

woman who had no separate existence of her own, but thought the

thoughts, felt the feelings, and spoke the words of the men she loved?

And when there was no man to love any more, she was utterly crushed

until she found a child to take care of and to love; and then she sank

her personality in the boy as she had sunk it before in her husbands

and lover, became a mere reflection of him, and was happy again.
In the compilation of this volume I have been guided by the desire to

give the largest possible representation to the prominent authors of

the Russian short story, and to present specimens characteristic of

each. At the same time the element of interest has been kept in mind;

and in a few instances, as in the case of Korolenko, the selection of

the story was made with a view to its intrinsic merit and striking

qualities rather than as typifying the writer's art. It was, of

course, impossible in the space of one book to exhaust all that is

best. But to my knowledge, the present volume is the most

comprehensive anthology of the Russian short story in the English

language, and gives a fair notion of the achievement in that field.

All who enjoy good reading, I have no reason to doubt, will get

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