For a number of reasons, my reading lately has tended away from fiction. Where I used to breeze through a new novel at least every month, now I’m struggling to finish the ones I start. I’m too easily distracted by all the new poetry and nonfiction that I want to read instead. But one fiction author who’s managed to hold my attention all this time is Anton Chekhov. Partly because his works are short, so they don’t take much time away from my other books, and partly because I find he and I are similar in some ways (not many, but some), I’ve gotten more from him than I have from any other fiction writer in a while. It wasn’t until recently, though, that I discovered one of his most famous stories, “The Beauties.” It’s very short, so you have time to read it here and then come back. Or you can listen to this reading that Philip Pullman recorded for the Guardian Short Story Podcast. He’s a good narrator.
One complaint that readers sometimes have with Chekhov is that “nothing happens” in his stories. In this case, I have to admit that they’re right: a boy meets a beautiful girl. He does not speak to or spend time with the girl, just admires her and then leaves. Years later, he sees another girl who is also very beautiful. He admires her for a few seconds and then leaves. The end. In some of Chekhov’s later stories, he seems to be less interested in crafting intricate plots and more interested in creating a mood: showing us who the characters are and what events in their lives mean by recreating their emotional state in the reader. “The Lady with the Dog,” with its famously abrupt ending, does this, and so does “The Beauties.” Here, the story is not about anything the protagonist does but rather about what happens to and around him. It’s about an encounter with a kind of beauty that is so far beyond ordinary life that it seems permanently out of reach. It comes for the hero and he always just misses it.
And because he’s in this constant state of expectation, it seems fitting that we should spend practically the whole story anticipating drama that never comes. Several times, Chekhov teases the reader with possible plots, none of which ever come to fruition. I thought the narrator would at least speak to Masha—he does not. I thought the girl at the train station was Masha, that the hero was finally getting his second chance with her and was going to do something about it—but it wasn’t her. I thought he was going to try to make something happen with the new girl—he doesn’t. Even in non-speaking side characters like the telegraphist and the guard at the rail station, there’s the potential for drama, but only suggestions, never actual facts. Chekhov hints at a whole tragic history behind the face of the guard, one that “wore a look of tenderness and of the deepest sadness, as though in that girl he saw happiness, his own youth, soberness, purity, wife, children ….” But, whatever that history is, we’ll never know it. Finally, we come to the end and to what I think is one of the most striking passages in the story:
The station no longer screened off the sunset, the plain lay open before us, but the sun had already set and the smoke lay in black clouds over the green, velvety young corn. It was melancholy in the spring air, and in the darkening sky, and in the railway carriage.
The hero expected to see the sun setting, but instead he see’s a lit sky and the sun gone. A hint of what had been there but is there no longer. Here, the feeling that pervades the whole story of having just missed something spectacular is encapsulated in only two sentences. It’s a perfect ending.
So though this is a story where “nothing happens,” it’s also a story draws you deep into the character, his mind and his emotions. It’s poetic and empathetic to a degree that I have rarely seen matched by any other writer. It reminds me of one of the main reasons why I keep coming back to Chekhov: not just because he understands people and their inner lives so well but also because he is able to transfer that knowledge to his readers in such palpable ways. In a short time, he’s become one of the writers I look up to most.