And it’s back to Russia again, with Hesperus’s other Chekhov novella, once more translated by Hugh Aplin. As always with their books, it’s beautifully produced with a foreword by William Fiennes and introduction and helpful notes by Aplin.

3 years

“Three Years” is a short work, under 100 pages, telling the story of three years in the life of Laptev and his family, his marriage to Yulia and the changes that follow. The book begins with Alexei Laptev visiting his sister Nina in the country. She is ill with cancer, and lives in a strange menage with her two daughters, while her husband lives with his second family and children elsewhere, visiting now and again when there is a crisis! Laptev is unexpectedly in love with Yulia, daughter of a strange and ineffective local doctor, and although she does not love him, she agrees to marry him after he abruptly finds the courage to declare his feelings.

Laptev is aware Yulia does not care for him and so in many ways the union is ill-fated from the start. The couple move back to his home in Moscow where we meet his brother Fyodor, his bullying father, plus a large collection of friends and employees. There is also his ex-lover, Polina, a strange, spiky independent woman whom Laptev feels he might have been better off marrying. A series of incidents, some dramatic and some trivial take place, and Chekhov explores Laptev’s past a little and speculates on his future. The book ends with Yulia developing a love for her husband, whereas his ardour has cooled, and  with Laptev in philosophical mood waiting to see what life will bring him. As his brother-in-law predicts:

“Yes, everything under the sun comes to an end… You’ll fall in love and you’ll suffer, you’ll fall out of love and you’ll be deceived, because there isn’t a woman that wouldn’t deceive you, you’ll suffer, fall into despair and you yourself will deceive. But the time will come, when all of this will be just a memory and  you’ll reason coldly and consider it utterly trivial…”

If this all sounds a little unspecific – well, the book is just that! As the excellent introduction points out, Chekhov initially intended to write a big, sweeping Russian novel and certainly there are enough characters and material in basic form to have been expanded into something of Tolstoyan length. However, Chekhov never managed that and what remains is something of a hybrid. The story is neither one thing or another: too wide in scope for a short story or even, really, a novella, but not developed enough to be a proper novel. Too many of the characters are underdeveloped sketches more than living and breathing people, and too many important events are told off-camera in a few lines (the deaths of Yulia’s daughter and niece being one striking example). In the hands of a novelist used to larger-scale narratives the material could have been turned into an involving story with an excellent set of characters, but here we don’t even get any real sense of who they are and why they are even in the novel.

This ends up being frustrating, because I kept thinking about what could have been. There is an underlying theme of madness and cruelty within Laptev’s family; his father is a sadistic bully, who has dominated and beaten his children and his workforce over the years, so that they have all been warped by it. Laptev himself is ineffectual and his brother descends into madness, while his sister’s unfortunate marriage and the results of her childhood abuse finish her off. But I found myself thinking that it needed a Dostoevsky to do justice to the people and events here and it could have been so much more. I actually wondered what point Chekhov was trying to make and what the novella was really about – at the core of it is the love story of Laptev and Yulia, but even this is not strong enough to sustain events.

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Looking at the introduction and foreword, I sense that I’m not the only one who has had this response to the book. Chekhov never completed a really long work and is tempting to conclude that, however brilliant he is with the short story and play format, he didn’t have the capacity for the epic. He certainly is capable of the novella form, as I found “The Story of a Nobody” much more coherent, and I intend to try “The Shooting Party” also, which I think may be Chekhov’s longest work. But the effect of “Three Years” is a little like seeing a miniaturist attempting a mural. It’s not a book I hated, far from it – this being Chekhov, there is some beautiful writing of course, and certain scenes, vignettes, images stand out strongly; perhaps that thought actually crystallises my feelings about the novella, that it was more a sequence of events than a whole, coherent work. A lost opportunity.