Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Anton Chekhov's First Lines

I'm currently reading a bunch of short stories by Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), the great Russian writer and playwright. Chekhov is widely credited with having invented the modern short story (whatever that means but I'm willing to bet it has to do with his way of revealing inner truths rather than merely relating incidents). Two things always immediately strike me whenever I read a few of Chekhov's stories in a row:

1. He was unendingly imaginative; he broke every rule and used every trick and nothing anyone's done since Chekhov is new in terms of formal invention. Chekhov wrote not only traditional stories with beginnings, middles and endings, but he wrote stories in the form of dialogue, stories in the form of newspaper articles, stories written in third-person plural, stories in the form of letters, stories in the form of loosely-connected aphorisms, stories that shifted time sequences, stories from the point of view of animals, stories in the form of fairy tales, stories that covered five minutes or five generations...as I say, he did it all over a hundred years ago. Anyone looking for inspiration in terms of form would do a lot worse than looking at Chekhov.

2. His first sentences were really good. Although he occasionally begins with setting, Chekhov tends to start with a gesture of great propulsive power; he instantly puts objects into motion and the reader wants to know where they'll fall. He comes right out and meets the reader with energy. Here are some of his first sentences:

It was twelve o'clock at night when a young man called Mitya Kuldarov, disheveled and blazing with excitement, burst into his parents' apartment and ran wildly all through the rooms.

Just a few days ago I invited Yulia Vassilyevna, the governess of my children, to come to my study.

A few days ago K., a man of considerable local importance, rich and well connected, shot himself in the town of T.

On a beautiful night the no less beautiful government clerk Ivan Dmitrich Cheryakov sat in the second row of the stalls watching "Les Cloches de Corneville" through opera glasses.

A few days ago we attended the funeral of the beautiful young wife of our postmaster, Sladkopertsov.

In the provincial hospital the patients were received by the medical orderly Kuryatin in the absence of the doctor, who had gone away to get married.

"Gentlemen, the wind is rising and it is growing dark."

Ilya Sergeich Peplov and his wife Cleopatra Petrovna stood outside the door, listening closely.

It was already dark, and would soon be night.

Old Semyon, nicknamed Smarty, and a young Tartar whom nobody knew by name, were sitting by a bonfire near the river; the other three ferrymen were inside the hut.

At first the weather was fine and it was very quiet.

After the wedding not even a light lunch was served.

At half past eight in the morning they drove out of town.

The thing about many first sentences from Chekhov is that there is a great feeling of having been dropped into the middle of something, of the story beginning in medias res. Something has just happened, or is about to happen, or is in fact happening right now. There's also ambiguity, with "they drove out of town" or a suicide (why?) or the wind rising (where are we? Who are the 'gentlemen?') or some other mystery being presented right away. So Chekhov immediately takes us by the hand and begins running forward and we glimpse things to either side and ask, "What's that? Who's that?" and Chekhov says, "I'll tell you...in a moment. Just follow me."

I'm willing to posit that one of the many reasons James Joyces' Finnegans Wake begins in the middle of a sentence is because he was attempting this sort of kinetic, "we're already on our way" beginning. It's like jumping a train, to begin reading a story that's written this way. Hold your breath and leap.

I look at the stories of Donald Barthelme or Lydia Davis or Anne Beattie or Raymond Carver and I see a lot of opening gambits like these and I always think of Chekhov. Henry James, born two decades before Chekhov and living a decade beyond him, was more from the "setting and weather" school of opening lines, with a few exceptions like The Aspern Papers: "I had taken Mrs. Prest into my confidence; in truth without her I would have made but little advance, for the fruitful idea of the whole business dropped from her friendly lips." That's got a mystery but--with James' typical fussiness and complexity of sentence structure--it lacks the immediacy of a Chekhov opening.

I'm not sure how Chekhov arrived at his active, kinetic beginnings. Even Nikolai Gogol, sixty years older than Chekhov and a master storyteller, started most of his stories with a "now let me tell you about so-and-so living in such-and-such." Oh, sometimes he'll kick off with something cryptic ("A terrible thing happened to this story.") and certainly his tales move quickly from the real to the absurd (The Nose and The Overcoat are two excellent examples), but in general Gogol began a few steps away from his subject and walked the reader toward it a few sentences at a time.

Looking quickly through The Complete Short Stories of Mark Twain, I find a lot of "Now I'll sit down here and tell you the tale of such-and-such" beginnings. Leaping forward in time a century to J.D. Salinger's Nine Stories I am now in the land of Chekhov-inspired fiction. Uncle Wiggly In Connecticut begins: "It was almost three o'clock when Mary Jane finally found Eloise's house." Ah, something has been happening, with the "finally" and the "almost three o'clock." We almost feel Mary Jane's relief and her exasperation with Eloise.

This post is not a claim that you should start your stories with some kind of energetic or mysterious first sentence. I don't hold much with the idea that the first sentence is all-important. Anyone who picks up a short story and won't read past the first sentence is, frankly, an idiot (if the first sentence is well-written and grammatically correct and all the usual minimal standards and is not a monstrous cliche). I write this only because I've been reading Chekhov and I noticed that his stories often start with a big pull into the action and I wanted to say something about that. This big pull into the action isn't the only lesson to be learned from Chekhov, and really I urge everyone--no matter what genre you write in--to read a dozen stories from Chekhov in the next month. They aren't long or prosy or complex and they have tremendously concentrated inspirational power. Even a casual association with Anton Chekhov's writings will have a positive effect on your own writing.


  1. I love Chekhov's short stories. He is my favorite writer.
    I agree with you on that first line comment of the short stories, by the way. I don't see why the first sentence should be the hook.

  2. Wow, I've never even heard of him, but those first sentences are fabulous! You feel the energy, he leaves you curious and thirsty for more. I tend to avoid short stories. I don't know why. I guess because, ever since I was young, I've always chosen the fattest book on the shelf so that the story lasts as long as possible. I never want a good story to end. But I'd like to read Chekhov, thanks!

  3. I haven't read Chekhov before but I think I will now. Thanks!

  4. Love Chekhov! One of my favorite writers. Seriously he's in the top five. Great post.

  5. Julia: I don't see why a short story needs a hook at all. I think it just needs to start seeming like it's going somewhere. And then actually go somewhere, of course.

    April: Everyone needs to read Chekhov! There is so much to learn from him, and there are different lessons in the early stories than there are from the later ones (he wrote something like 1,000 stories over 24 or so years). I like the way his first lines are often sort of unbalanced, with a single word or image askew which demands to be set right. Sometimes he puts the world back into balance. In his best stories, of course, he doesn't.

    Cynthia: I advise getting a collection of 30 or 40 stories that span his whole career, so you can get a good view of just how broad his ideas were and which era of his you might like best. The later stories are very different from the early ones (they're longer and more intimate and more concerned with adult themes).

  6. S.P.: Anton is my favorite writer today! Next week it might be Alfred Jarrey, but I doubt it. I'm always hoping to be so blown away by whatever book I'm reading that I want to read no other writer ever again. There are lots of books that make me feel that way (but not nearly enough).

  7. Scott, I love how you put it: not a hook but something that seems like it's going somewhere.

    One of my favorite first lines is not hookish at all, but it made me want to keep reading:

    "Master was a little crazy; he had spent too many years reading books overseas, talking to himself in his office, did not always return greetings, and had too much hair."

    (from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun)

    It's the linking of "crazy" and books overseas--knowing that the book is about Nigeria's struggle for independence. The rest is delightful detail.

  8. j.a.: "had too much hair" is what would make me want to keep reading. That kind of surprising, almost out of place detail really makes me happy.

  9. That "too much hair" is fantastic.

    I once sat down and typed out one of Chekhov's short stories. What I learned was that the structure of the sentences also had a certain movement and momentum behind them. It made me much more aware of using that as a tool. (Of course, this is in translation, so I can't say for sure that it was Chekhov who created that momentum.)

  10. Domey: That's a good point about translations, since every translation is essentially a paraphrase. And some translations of Chekhov are better than others. I recommend, for those of you starting out with Mr Anton, 40 Stories translated by Robert Payne. My Russian is very beginner's conversational ("Where's the nearest bus?" sort of stuff) so I can't say if Payne's translation is more-or-less accurate in the sense that it captures the spirit of the original, but I can say the prose is lovely.

  11. Scott: yes, I said I agree with you on the hook comment.I think Anton Chekhov's stories are thought-provoking and his characters are fascinating.

  12. I think Chekhov is a master, if not The Master. I've only read one story which left me perplexed about his skills and that was The Peasants. The rest are to enjoyed and studied again and again.

  13. Chekov is the master of in media res. His play are full of sparkling dialogue.


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