‘N. could philosophize about love, but could not himself love.’


‘A young man collected a million stamps, then lay on them and shot himself.’


Between these two random thoughts, squirrelled away into a notebook for use in a future play or a story, lies a whole Chekhovian world of tragedy and comedy, each tinged with the other. Hailed as the father of the modern short story and progenitor of the theatre of absurd, Chekhov is a perennially beloved author who, like the other great Russian writers, seems able to offer profound insight into our condition as human beings. Unlike most Russian writers, though, he also makes us laugh.


Dr. Chekhov packed an awful lot into his short life, which ended with his untimely death from tuberculosis at the age of 44. Born in 1860 into a hapless merchant’s family in a southern provincial town, he graduated as a doctor, and never intended to become a writer. From beginning to last, while he increasingly took his artistic gifts seriously, aware of his mortality, he could never quite take himself seriously, hence the deceptive insouciance with which he probes existential questions in his stories and plays.


In this seminar we will examine Chekhov’s career as a whole, drawing connections between his fiction and drama, and exploring the events of his extraordinary life, which included trips to Siberia and the Côte d’Azur, and the planting of many, many trees. We will also look in detail at his craftsmanship, and consider what it was about his technique which so excited the many writers who followed him.


Prepare by reading from the plays:<


Uncle Vanya (1899) [Penguin edition, tr. Peter Carson]


and from the stories:


The Huntsman (1885)
Gusev (1890)
Fish Love (1892)
The Student (1894)
The House with the Mezzanine (1896)
In the Cart (1897)
Gooseberries (1898)
The Lady with the Little Dog (1899)
The Bishop (1902)
[all available in About Love and Other Stories, Oxford World’s Classics]


If possible, read one or more of the stories in another translation, preferably by Constance Garnett, whose versions are accessible on the internet.


Further reading:

Plays, translated by Peter Carson (Penguin)

About Love and Other Stories, translated by Rosamund Bartlett (Oxford)

Lady with Lapdog and Other Stories, translated by David Magarshack (Penguin)

Anton Chekhov: A Life in Letters, translated by Rosamund Bartlett and Anthony Phillips (Penguin)


The Telegraph/How To Academy seminars celebrate the art of reading and the craft of criticism. In this unique series, we ask authors to stand before a page rather than a podium, to share a private passion rather than give a public performance – and we ask readers to roll up their sleeves and participate. In the course of a day, or a weekend, you will be guided in small groups through the historical and biographical context of the work and shown how to unlock its meanings, release its power, and absorb the quality of its strangeness. These intimate events will take place in a private room in the congenial surroundings of the Telegraph offices in Victoria.