I’ve slipped back into Russian reading mode, as I wanted to explore Chekhov’s longer works a little more, having had mixed reactions to my two other recent reads. I think “The Shooting Party” might be his longest work, but it’s not often talked about compared with his short stories. I picked up a Penguin Classics version, nicely translated by Ronald Wilks, and dipped in!


The book begins with an editor (AC) receiving a visitor who wants to leave him a manuscript to read. The editor is reluctant, but finds his visitor an honest-seeming, handsome man and so takes the manuscript and after a couple of months picks it up to read – and finds he cannot put it down! It is the core story of the “The Shooting Party”, which the visitor, a country magistrate, has subtitled “From the Memoirs of an Investigating Magistrate”. He informs the editor that it is based on true events, but the name he gives himself as teller of the tale is different from the one which he uses to announce himself in person. Already we can sense we are in the presence of an unreliable narrator.

The story is set in a small provincial town. Zinovyev is a young magistrate, and spends his life swinging from one extreme to another: at times, he does nothing but work diligently, leading a quiet life; but when his friend, the dissolute Count Karneyev, visits his local crumbling estate, Zinovyev is instantly drawn into a world of debauchery – drinking, orgying with gypsies and even assaulting local people. At the beginning of our tale, the Count has returned, bringing a strange and taciturn Pole with him, and the two friends begin an instant round of bad behaviour. During the Count’s stay, they encounter the heroine of the story, Olga. She is the young and beautiful daughter of a drunken forester and both the Count and Zinovyev are instantly captivated, as is the Estate Manager Urbenin.

The three men pursue Olga in their different ways, but she shocks them all by announcing she will marry Urbenin, and does so. However, on her wedding day she reveals that she loves Zinovyev and in fact instantly becomes his lover. Passions continue to rise and fall, and then Olga runs off to live with the Count. Things continue to deteriorate until a shocking attempt is made on Olga’s life – the central puzzle of this story – but who was responsible? All the various mysteries are revealed by the end of the tale, but I won’t say too much about the plot strands so as to avoid spoilers.

“The air was saturated with the exhalations of vernal greenery and caressed my healthy lungs with its softness. I breathed it in, and as I surveyed the open prospect with my enraptured eyes, I sensed the presence of spring, of youth – and it seemed that those young birches, the grass by the wayside and the incessantly humming cockchafers were sharing my feelings.

‘But why is it back there, in the world,’ I reflected, ‘that men herd themselves together in wretched, cramped hovels, confine themselves to narrow, constricting ideals, while there’s such freedom and scope for life and thought here? Why don’t they come out here?’

And my imagination that had waxed so poetic had no desire to encumber itself with thoughts of winter and earning a living – those two afflictions that drive poets into cold, prosaic St. Petersburg and filthy Moscow, where they pay fees for poetry, but provide no inspiration.”

“The Shooting Party” is often touted as no more than an early detective novel, and therefore unusual because it is a Russian one. However, it seemed to me a lot more than that and I feel it’s rather unjustly neglected. Certainly, it’s not often listed among Chekhov’s major works but it has many merits.

For a start, the writing is lovely, particularly some of the descriptions of nature and the countryside. The reader really gets a feel for the location, and nature itself seems to be taking quite a part in the plot!

“It was a fine day in August. The sun shone with all the warmth of summer, the blue sky fondly beckoned one into the distance, but there was already a feeling of autumn in the air. Leaves that had come to the end of their lives were turning gold in the green foliage of the pensive forest, while the darkening fields had a wistful, melancholic look.

Presentiments of inescapable, oppressive autumn took hold of us too and it was not difficult to foresee that things would very soon come to a head. At some time the thunder had to rumble and the rain start pouring to freshen the humid air! It is usually close and sultry before a thunderstorm, when dark, leaden clouds approach, but we were already being stifled morally: this was evident in everything – in our movements, our smiles, in whatever we said.”

The characterisation is excellent too, and the various players in this drama are wonderfully portrayed: the dissolute Count, the stolid Urbenin, the local dignitaries, Zinovyev himself. Olga is intriguing, because despite being the ostensible heroine, she is not really a very sympathetic character. Capricious, self-centre and vain, her main interests seem to be dresses and status. She is foolish and coquettish and I could not even take seriously her protestations that she loved Zinovyev, because despite giving herself to him, her desire for marriage to a Count, status and dresses seemed stronger than that love.

Although this book was written in Chekhov’s early years, perhaps intended as a pot-boiler to earn a quick rouble, it does address some serious issues. The status of women in Russia was very low at the time, as can be seen in any number of works of literature, and they were often married off to much older men where they were little more than slaves; beating and domestic violence was the norm. More liberal Russians were starting to find this state of affairs unacceptable and there is a very famous painting by Pukirev, referred to in the notes, known as “Misalliance” or “The Unequal Marriage” which sums this up.


So despite Olga’s character flaws, we can sympathise with her desire to escape from poverty and servitude, and just wish she had made better choices. Interestingly, despite our narrator’s contempt for her affairs, she married the first man who offered her a formal union and so obviously neither he nor the Count were prepared to commit to Olga but simply wanted to seduce her. As he is an unreliable narrator, she may not be as fickle as she is portrayed.

Another astonishing element to this book is how explicit the content is. The Count and Zinovyev are smacking their lips (metaphorically) at various points at the thought of new girls (presumably virgins) and there is plenty of booze and orgying with the gypsies. Zinovyev carries Olga off and has his way with her before her husband, and there is much general debauchery going on. Compared with what was happening in Victorian literature at the time, this is quite an eye-opener!

The format of a novel within a novel is effective, and also allows AC to present himself in the role of narrator and even detective! I’m not going to say too much about the solution, but personally I found it so obvious that I was actually expecting another twist that did not come! AC flags it up quite early and any seasoned crime novel reader should guess quite early on. Nevertheless, at the time of writing, the identity of the murderer was probably quite shocking. Interestingly, Chekhov has his narrator self state at the end of the book “There is no villain” but equally it seems there is no hero in this story. Our flawed, unreliable narrator ends up being quite a different character from that presented at the start of the novel, and the character development is well handled.

Chekhov himself somewhat disowned this early work, but I think it deserves better treatment. The writing is excellent, the plotting and characterisation vivid, and it’s a very readable, clever book. Although Chekhov focused very much on shorter works, on the evidence of this novel he certainly was able to put together a coherent, longer work that’s a very satisfying read! Despite its flaws, this is a complex and intriguing book with some startlingly beautiful descriptions of the Russian landscape and some wonderfully memorable characters. It’s a shame that AC never took his excursion into detective fiction any further (apart from the odd short story) as if this volume is anything to judge by, further works could have been very readable!