Big Two-Hearted River by Ernest Hemmingway (1925)

HemmingwayOf the stories that Hemmingway wrote up to and including ‘The Winner Take Nothing’ collection of 1933, I think ‘Big Two-Hearted River’ in his first collection, ‘In Our Time’, is the stand-out best. There are other good ones, especially in his second collection ‘Men Without Women’, such as ‘Che Ti Dice La Patria?’, ‘An Alpine Idyll’, ‘Ten Indians’ and ‘In Another Country’; but I don’t think anything ever comes close to his earlier Nick Adam stories where it’s all about the wilderness. I find it hard to care about the low-life / criminal world that Hemmingway fleetingly inhabits, or the bullfighting world he is more enamoured of, but his love of the North American Wilderness informs his prose with a love that makes it great.

In ‘Big Two-Hearted River’ the reader is wholly submerged in the character and in the wilderness: the two are one thing, and instead of trying to unwind them, the reader truly understands how Nick is at one with nature. Nature and character both are kind of reinvented by Hemmingway, leaving the reader feel like they know them anew and know them better. The rest of Hemmingway can come close to this, but, as a reader, I cannot care as much as I do with ‘Big Two-Hearted River’.


Big Two-Hearted River by Ernest Hemmingway (1925)


Utility 9/10
Plausibility 10/10
Credibility 10/10
Depth 9/10
Subtlety 10/10
Engagement 9/10
Cogency / Structure / Coherence 9/10
Affective / Empathy / Evocative 9/10
Novelty / Surprise / Fun 9/10
Defamiliarisation 9/10
Total/100 93/100










“Nothing is clear in this world” – ‘The Lady with the Dog’ by Anton Chekhov (1899)

chekhov3I don’t think there is a more perfect story. If that’s the case, if this is the “best”, why? What makes it the best?

Chekhov’s style, in its deftness and precision; in his ability to sustain that soft, sad note, to haunt the reader, to sing to the reader, to softly steer the reader, so that the reader may well feel like they themselves are surging forward, themselves finding the ending that is at once inevitable and unforeseen; is peerless. The richness and purity of the prose, gives it the power to take the reader anywhere, but also to the only possible ending: writing doesn’t come any more convincing.

Then there’s the matter of utility: does this piece of writing make us better in some way, improve the world, enhance our understanding of it, communicate some meaning in a better way, or just achieve something objective? Affect reality as opposed to merely reflecting it? ‘The Lady with the Dog’ does all of this: the reader is left with a fuller sense of the reality of others, the difficulties as well as the richness of life. Surely this little story is more of a shot in the arm than most shots in the arm.

As well as being overwhelmingly plausibile, Chekhov has the credibility that comes from not dropping a note/stich – this is a moment of clarity extended over every sentence. Also, the art of the story is both obvious and subtle: this is a beautifully crafted piece of art. The emotional depth of the fictional world is peerless, its subtlety magical, the reader’s engagement masterful, so that the whole piece’s cogency is inescapable. How could anyone read this story and not empathise with both protagonists? Thereby becoming a larger person? But is there the novelty / surprise / fun? The least bit of devilment? I do think that there us a unique angle on the human condition in this story, if only in the types of characters he chooses, the levels of sympathy he artfully nurtures in the reader, and in the way this is such a powerful response to Tolstoy’s Anna, as well as a host of other novels that deal with infidelity as well as fidelity – with every aspect of love. Defamiliarisation is of love itself. Enough about love, one may think? One may think what one likes. However, one cannot feel as one chooses.


An informative review…

“After they have slept together for the first time, Dmitri Dmitrich Gurov and Anna Sergeyevria von Diderits, the hero and heroine of Anton Chekhov’s story “The Lady with the Dog” (1899), drive out at dawn to a village near Yalta called Oreanda, where they sit on a bench near a church and look down on the sea. “Yalta was hardly visible through the morning mist; white clouds stood motionless on the mountain-tops,” Chekhov writes at the start of the famous passage that continues:

 “The leaves did not stir on the trees, grasshoppers chirruped, and the monotonous hollow sound of the sea rising up from below, spoke of the peace, of the eternal sleep awaiting us. So it must have sounded when there was no Yalta, no Oreanda here; so it sounds now, and it will sound as indifferently and monotonously when we are all no more. And in this constancy, in this complete indifference to the life and death of each of us, there lies hid, perhaps, a pledge of our eternal salvation, of the unceasing movement of life upon earth, of unceasing progress towards perfection. Sitting beside a young woman who in the dawn seemed so lovely, soothed and spellbound in these magical surroundings – the sea, mountains, clouds, the open sky – Gurov thought how in reality everything is beautiful in this world when one reflects: everything except what we think or do ourselves when we forget our human dignity and the higher aims of our existence.”

 “…Gurov, after parting with Anna at the end of the summer and returning to his loveless marriage in Moscow, finds that he can’t get her out of his mind, travels to the provincial town where she lives with the husband she doesn’t love, and is now clandestinely meeting with her in a hotel in Moscow, to which she comes every month or so, telling her husband she is seeing a specialist. One snowy morning, on his way to the hotel, Gurov reflects on his situation:

“He had two lives: one, open, seen and known by all who cared to know, full of relative truth and of relative falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life running its course in secret. And through some strange, perhaps accidental, conjunction of circumstances, everything that was essential, of interest and of value to him, everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people; and all that was false in him, the sheath in which he hid himself to conceal the truth – such, for instance, as his work in the bank, his discussions at the club… his presence with his wife at anniversary festivities – all that was open. And he judged of others by himself, not believing in what he saw, and always believing that every man had his real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy and under the cover of night.”

“…”The Lady with the Dog” is said to be Chekhov’s riposte to Anna Karenina, his defence of illicit love against Tolstoy’s harsh (if ambivalent) condemnation of it. But Chekhov’s Anna (if this is what it is) bears no real resemblance to Tolstoy’s; comparing the two only draws attention to the differences between Chekhov’s realism and Tolstoy’s. Gurov is no Vronsky and Anna von Diderits is no Anna Karenina. Neither of the Chekhov characters has the particularity, the vivid lifelikeness of the Tolstoy lovers. They are indistinct, more like figures in an allegory than like characters in a novel.

“Nor is Chekhov concerned, as Tolstoy is, with adultery as a social phenomenon. His story has a close, hermetic atmosphere. No one knows of the affair, or suspects its existence. It is as if it were taking place in a sealed box made of dark glass that the lovers can see out of, but no one can see into. The story enacts what the passage about Gurov’s double life states. It can be read as an allegory of interiority. The beauty of Gurov and Anna’s secret love – and of interior life – is precisely its hiddenness. Chekhov often said that he hated lies more than anything. “The Lady with the Dog” plays with the paradox that a lie – a husband deceiving a wife or a wife deceiving a husband – can be the fulcrum of truth of feeling, a vehicle of authenticity.

“But the story’s most interesting and complicated paradox lies in the inversion of the inner-outer formula by which imaginative literature is perforce propelled. Even as Gurov hugs his secret to himself, we know all about it. If privacy is life’s most precious possession, it is fiction’s least considered one.

“A fictional character is a being who has no privacy, who stands before the reader with his “real, most interesting life” nakedly exposed. We never see people in life as clearly as we see the people in novels, stories and plays; there is a veil between ourselves and even our closest intimates, blurring us to each other. We know things about Gurov and Anna – especially about Gurov, since the story is told from his point of view – that they don’t know about each other, and feel no discomfort in our voyeurism. We consider it our due as readers.

It does not occur to us that the privacy rights we are so nervously anxious to safeguard for ourselves should be extended to fictional characters. But, interestingly, it does seem to occur to Chekhov. If he cannot draw the mantle of reticence over his characters that he draws over himself – and still call himself a fiction writer – he can stop short of fully exercising his fiction writer’s privilege of omniscience. He can hold back, he can leave his characters a little blurred, their motives a little mysterious.

 “In 1888, 11 years before “The Lady with the Dog”, he responded to a letter from the writer Ivan Shcheglov, criticising another story, “Lights”, which had not been well received: “A psychologist should not pretend to understand what he does not understand. Moreover, a psychologist should not convey the impression that he understands what no one understands. We shall not play the charlatan, and we will declare frankly that nothing is clear in this world. Only fools and charlatans understand everything.”


The Lady with the Dog by Anton Chekhov (1899)


Utility 10  
Plausibility 10  
Credibility 10  
Depth 10  
Subtlety 10  
Engagement 10  
Cogency / Structure / Coherence 10  
Affective / Empathy / Evocative 10  
Novelty / Surprise / Fun 10  
Defamiliarisation 10  
Total/100 100  









About Truth, About Freedom & About Love – Anton Chekhov 1898


This is Chekhov at his peak – the year before he wrote ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’.

‘About Freedom’ (also known as ‘Gooseberries’) is probably the best of these three stories, as well as the best known; ‘About Truth’ (also known as ‘A Hard Case’, ‘The Encased Man’, ‘The Man in the Shell’) is probably as good; and ‘About Love’ (also known as ‘Concerning Love’) is just as moving, just as sad, just as profound. Yet they clearly form a sequence and Chekhov had intended for them to be published together as one volume – of which, in English, there appears to be no sign. Which is a great shame.

If there could be one criticism of these stories it would be that they are a shade too “tell-y”: Chekhov is pointedly conferring his wisdom on us, in a very direct way. But, in this instance, the reader should not look a gift horse in the mouth: what would make this reader wince if it had been read elsewhere, shines here with the brilliance of divine revelation. Fiction does tell us stuff; sometimes it makes a point of it.

“There is no happiness and there ought not to be; but if there is a meaning and an object in life, that meaning and object is not our happiness, it is something greater and more divine.” AC


About Truth, About Freedom & About Love – Anton Chekhov 1898


Utility 10  
Plausibility 10  
Credibility 10  
Depth 10  
Subtlety 10  
Engagement 10  
Cogency / Structure / Coherence 10 The frames in each of these stories are perfect.
Affective / Empathy / Evocative 10  
Novelty / Surprise / Fun 10  
Defamiliarisation 10  
Total/100 100  









Blue Boy by Kevin Canty

a blue boySo how does a run of the mill (oft-feted) modern short story compare with Chekhov? If one is to be utterly crass about it, and score it also out of one hundred, using a woefully inadequate score card, as indeed one is obliged to do as well as loath to do, if scoring is one’s game…


Blue Boy by Kevin Canty


Utility 5 Yeah – there’s a kind of use to this
Plausibility 6 “In an instant Kenny oved from inside to outside, a camera zooming out too fast…” – I feel that the psychology at the centre of the piece is more than a little creeking
Credibility 6 “scattered streaks of fool’s gold” is poorly judged – as are other moments  – “…her eyes which were soft and dangerous”
Depth 7 “The wind was shaking the tops of the trees, showing both the pale undersides of the leaves and the deep green, glossy tops, casting scattered shadows at the edge of the concrete deck.” – so there is writing that makes you pause…
Subtlety 6 Hmmmm – This reader feels manipulated, told to think or feel this or that, and they don’t enjoy this kind of being manipulated: “…her eyes which were soft and dangerous”
Engagement 6 I’m kind of engaged. Worried at times.
Cogency / Structure / Coherence 6 It has a shape. A kind of momentum.
Affective / Empathy / Evocative 6 “The waiting was killing him…” – it’s hard to be such a protagonist, hard to care
Novelty / Surprise / Fun 5 Not much – nothing new about this
Defamiliarisation 6 “the day felt stillborn, hot and sluggish” … “watch the morning sun crawl across the deck” – some of the language, like the story itself, is a little stale – the world we’re offered in this is more than a little flat – it’s certainly not the real world presented to us as though new
Total/100 59 The score of a “good story”? It was ok I think. Certainly, no Hemmingway classic, no Cather (who doesn’t even make the list below), no Nabokov (who also doesn’t feature), nor half so much fun as the most pedestrian of Bartheleme (who does) or Coover (who doesn’t) stories


…when it comes to short stories can Americans hold a match to Maupassant, Kafka, Joyce or Chekhov? Asks:


“…when asked to consider my favourite short stories…


“Distilling this to my ten favourites has not been an easy task, and the result is by no means definitive. I decided to narrow the field to works published in the twentieth century, which is why I’ve not included The Turn of the Screw (which, with an 1898 publication date, missed by a hair). Neither Edith Wharton nor O. Henry made the cut, which is as shocking to me as it will no doubt be for many readers. But such is the nature of lists, and it is a dirty business.


“So here, in no particular order, are my ten favourite American short stories of the twentieth century:



  1. Flannery O’Connor, A Good Man is Hard to Find


  1. Ernest Hemingway, Hills Like White Elephants


  1. Patricia Highsmith, The Terrapin


  1. Joyce Carol Oates, Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?


  1. Richard Yates, Oh, Joseph, I’m So Tired


  1. Donald Barthelme, Me and Miss Mandible


  1. Eudora Welty, Ladies in Spring


  1. Kevin Canty, Blue Boy


  1. Robert Olen Butler, Mr. Green


  1. Lorrie Moore, How to Become a Writer”











Have a Look at Yourselves!

“All I wanted to say honestly to people: ‘Have a look at yourselves and see how bad and dreary your lives are!’ The important thing is that people should realize that, for when they do, they will most certainly create another and better life for themselves. I will not live to see it, but I know that it will be quite different, quite unlike our present life.’

chekhov 2

I can’t help thinking that Chekhov would have been deeply disappointed with the way things are a century and a half later.

He got things wrong: humanity’s exposure to hundreds of years of great literature seems to have achieved precious little. That being said, no one more than Chekhov have pushed this purpose of literature – this particular view of literature’s utility.

People may point to the likes of Dickens, and compare him to someone like Proust, in terms of a simplistic view of the utility of literature: literature should be ‘political’, be crusading, be shouting about social ills and individual flaws, painting utopias or frightening us with dystopias; as though the likes of Jane Austen didn’t teach us more than Dickens ever did: about ourselves and the way we live. What does Middlemarch do to the world that Brave New World doesn’t? A supremely odd question.

So what did Chekhov’s fiction actually achieve? In the sense of changing things, in the way he proposes here: nothing. Life is no other. Certainly no better. Unless one counts the improvement brought about by fluoridisation, universal literacy, and sewage systems, we are as badly off as the peasants on the steppe, the merchants and petty officials in the towns, and the most ignorant of the minor gentry and the most arrogant of the grand ladies of Saint Petersburg.   

So if we are just about as ignorant, stubborn, fearful and otherwise flawed as those people with whom Chekhov would have been familiar, and about whom he chooses to write; can we argue that he achieved absolutely nothing?

A Tragic Actor, In a Strange Land & Oh! The Public by Anton Chekhov (1883-1885)
Utility 9 “All I wanted to say honestly to people: ‘Have a look at yourselves and see how bad and dreary your lives are!’”
Plausibility 9  
Credibility 9  
Depth 8  
Subtlety 8  
Engagement 8  
Cogency / Structure / Coherence 8  
Affective / Empathy / Evocative 8  
Novelty / Surprise / Fun 8  
Defamiliarisation 8  
Total/100 83 Early Chekhov is good. Assured, not quite masterful. Getting into his stride – his crowning achievement of Gooseberries (1898) & The Lady with the Little Dog (1899) – though both far more ambitious and lengthier stories (so don’t really bear a fair comparison) – is yet a few years away.









The Steppe by Anton Chekhov (1888)

steppeSo not a short story. But not a novel either. This novella is a narrative that beautifully drifts with the thoughts of various characters, especially young Egorushka, on a profoundly evocative journey across the steppe. If Chekhov is the master of Short Stories – a title to which he surely has some claim – then how does this tale measure up?

The Steppe by Anton Chekhov (1888)

Utility 8 This piece of writing certainly does make us better, it does improve the world, it does enhance our understanding of it, communicating some meaning in a better way: the profound empathy it generates with the young Egorushka, from whose point of view we experience most of the journey, and whose feelings – his anxiety, his level of understanding, his confusion, his fears, hopes and frustrations, move us and take hold of us. The theme of this work is a little fuzzy – there’s no hard and sharp moral – it’s about being one particular person in one particular place at one particular time: an existentialist theme (existence precedes essence / what it means to be human) which I would argue pervades all of the great literature of the last few centuries.
Plausibility 10 It’s utterly convincing.


Credibility 10 It’s hard not to believe in the man at the controls: the writing has complete credibility. The judgement of the Chekhov is on display with each word, with everything that is included, as well as everything that’s left out: flawless.
Depth 10 The emotional richness, as well as the richness of the fictional world, leave nothing to be desired. Are there layers of meaning? Well, in the sense that Chekhov doesn’t shout anything at you, dictates nothing, but softly suggest an infinite world, makes the depth of this story a joy. The ambiguity of this account isn’t any less profound than that of our everyday experience.
Subtlety 9 The absence of a punchline is, in this story, the sheer presence of the building up, the layering, the momentum – and as with life – it’s a momentum with the least definite of directions.
Engagement 9 How do you make a journey engaging? The destination and its nature is always a pull, but in this story it doesn’t drag the reader. The reader doesn’t want to arrive. The narrative’s drive, is a function of its beauty, its depth and the joy the reader takes in it.
Cogency / Structure / Coherence 9 Well, it’s a journey. Though with an uncertain ending, a series of curious meanderings, and indeterminate in every meaningful way, Chekhov shows us the true cogency of a real journey.
Affective / Empathy / Evocative 9 A distinctly human ride? Most definitely.
Novelty / Surprise / Fun 9 Thought-provoking? Challenging assumptions? Wrong-footing the reader? All the fun and devilment is in the creation of the childish, feverish and mind-fogged, nonsensical, naïve, intuitive, dreamlike point of view of Egorushka.
Defamiliarisation 9 Does one see the world a little differently afterwards? Does Chekhov, in this story,  make us see ourselves, the world, other people, language, fiction itself, or anything at all, anew? Yes. You feel once more for your younger self, having been enchanted by the account Chekhov has given us of young Egorushka. The journey across the steppe is one we all have taken.
Total/100 92/100  

A Wagner Matinee by Willa Cather (1905)

Wagner Matinee

A Wagner Matinee by Willa Cather (1905) – another from The Troll Garden – short and as near a perfect thing as a story can be. The choice of the first person narrator – who “understands” at the story’s end – but doesn’t understand, not really, not as much as the reader is only beginning to: what exceptional judgment by the author.


Utility 9  
Plausibility 9  
Credibility 10  
Depth 9  
Subtlety 9  
Engagement 9  
Cogency / Structure / Coherence 9  
Affective / Empathy / Evocative 9  
Novelty / Surprise / Fun 9  
Defamiliarisation 8  
Total/100 90