In a 1981 essay, Raymond Carver described some of the quotations taped to the wall around his desk. One had “this fragment of a story by Chekhov: ‘… and suddenly everything became clear to him’”. For Carver, these words are “filled with wonder and possibility…

In a 1981 essay, Raymond Carver described some of the quotations taped to the wall around his desk. One had this fragment of a story by Chekhov: and suddenly everything became clear to him. For Carver, these words are filled with wonder and possibility. I love their simple clarity, and the hint of revelation thats implied. There is mystery, too. What has been unclear before? Why is it just now becoming clear? Whats happened? Most of all what now? The quote might not belong to Anton Chekhov at all (no one has ever found the story its from), but Carvers description of its effect, its ability to stage a revelation and in the same moment open a field of greater mystery, absolutely does.
Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonskys new translation of 52 Chekhov stories doesnt include many of his most famous works (their versions of those can be found in a collection from 2000, only available in the UK as an e-book). But walking the overgrown pathways of his less familiar stories can help give a fresh sense of why his storytelling has been so influential, and remains compelling in its own right.
Consider the last page of Neighbours, from 1892, in which Pyotr Mikhailych, a young man who already had all the makings of an old bachelor landowner, sits miserably beside a pond as the moon rises. He thinks he sees a man across the water, standing motionless. Remembering a story about a seminarian who was beaten to death nearby, he wonders if this is his ghost. But when he rides around the pond the figure turns out to be no more than a rotten post, the remnant of some old shed.
Pyotrs uncertainty is quickly resolved. But for us, reading Chekhovs often indeterminate, emotionally puzzling stories, the solution is not so simple. In the closing lines Pyotr reflects that he has never said or done what he really wanted to, and therefore the whole of life now looked to him as dark as this water in which the night sky was reflected and waterweeds were entangled. And it seemed to him that it could not be set right.
The extremity of Pyotrs realisation is a shock, a surprise ending of sorts, yet while these are usually enlisted to tie things up, here very little feels settled. Earlier in the story Pyotr visits the estate of his neighbour Vlasich, the divorcé his younger sister Zina is now living with. Neighbours might be relatively minor Chekhov (written just a couple of months after Ward No 6, one of his most famous stories), but Pyotrs visit to Vlasich shows him at his most skilful, conjuring a full spectrum of emotion from a stream of conversation thats now sludgy and mannered, now running fast with emotion and revelation, now drying up completely (The two were silent for a time and pretended to be listening to the rain).
The longer the characters talk, or dont talk, the more can be interpreted and the less clear everything becomes. Pyotr cannot talk to Zina the way he used to, perhaps because her liaison with Vlasich has sexualised her in his eyes. But is he jealous of Zina for finding love, which has eluded him, or jealous of Vlasich and in love with his sister? I dont even know for certain what I actually think, he despairs beside the pond.
Chekhov works to sustain this uncertainty and plunges us into it too. Revising the story, he deleted a line that seemed too definitive: I had gone to settle something, but not a single one of lifes questions can have a special solution; in each separate case you must say and do what you think that is the solution to all questions. Lines like this survived the red pen in other stories he wrote, but they never appear as conclusions. In my opinion, he told Ivan Bunin the first time the writers met, after one finishes a story one should cross out the beginning and the end. It is there that we writers lie most of all. The end of a Chekhov story is nearly always left ajar.
Chekhovs grandfather was a serf who purchased his freedom. His father was a shopkeeper in Taganrog, on the Sea of Azov, and a tyrant (the story Difficult People provides a damning portrait). His insolvency, coupled with Chekhovs early success as a writer of comic stories at the age of 20, having moved to Moscow to attend medical school, made the third son the familys breadwinner. Chekhov practised medicine alongside writing, saying that it significantly broadened the scope of my observations, and has enriched me with branches of knowledge whose true value for me as a writer can only be understood by someone who is a doctor himself.
Chekhov is hardly a writers writer, but it might be said that short story writers believe, correctly or not, that they alone understand his true value. Carver is one of many who have learned the lessons Chekhovs work teaches. On the cover of my copy of Carvers Elephant (1988) a review quote describes him as the American Chekhov. Errand, the last story in the book and the last Carver saw published in his lifetime, describes Chekhovs death. But the more important connection is his distinctively Chekhovian manner of dispersing meaning into apparently irrelevant details, and the pronounced open-endedness of his stories. Carver, however, was not the only American Chekhov: by the 1980s the appellation was threadbare with use. Addressing Cornell Universitys Chekhov Festival in 1976, John Cheever told his audience he was one of perhaps ten American writers who are known as the American Chekhov.
The description isnt unhelpful because its used carelessly, but because Chekhovs influence is so widespread: most short story writers are Chekhovians, whether they realise it or not. Playwrights, too: asked about his influences Tennessee Williams replied, Chekhov! As a dramatist? Chekhov! As a story writer? Chekhov! Keeping to the short story in English, early disciples included Katherine Mansfield, Sherwood Anderson and Ernest Hemingway, and from here his influence quickly ramifies: AE Coppard, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, Flannery OConnor, Bernard Malamud, John Cheever, Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Yiyun Li and Joyce Carol Oates, who rewrote him with her Lady with the Pet Dog. This is only a sampling.
All these writers have learned from what Elizabeth Bowen, another disciple, called the inchoate or nebulous quality of Chekhovs stories. In 1937 she wrote that he opened up for the writer tracts of emotional landscape; he made subjectivity edit and rule experience and pull art, obliquely, its way. It is as if he made a more finely graduated colour wheel available to the writers who followed him, summoning into being what Conrad Aiken called, in a 1921 essay, a range of states of consciousness which is perhaps unparalleled. Mood, Aiken suggests, was both Chekhovs method and effect. If his characters seem unmemorable next to those of, say, Tolstoy, it is because so often our view of them was never permitted for a moment to be external we saw them only as infinitely fine and truthful sequences of mood.
This wasnt enough for Somerset Maugham, who devoted an inordinate amount of the preface for his own collected stories to simultaneously praising and burying Chekhov. Maugham cannot take his tendency towards the oblique: If you try to tell one of his stories, he complains, you will find that there is nothing to tell. Doubtless Chekhov would have written stories with an ingenious, original and striking plot if he had been able to think of them. It was not in his temperament. Like all good writers he made a merit of his limitations.
The truth is that Chekhovs approach was essentially lyrical, and he was never interested in the things Maugham says he fails to achieve. As DS Mirsky noted in his 1926 History of Russian Literature, when reading Chekhov it is not interest in the development [of the story] that the reader feels, but infection by the poets mood.
This mood is often one of inertia. This is particularly true of the mature period, which began in 1888 when Chekhov stopped writing weekly comic stories and began publishing in the so-called thick journals, which afforded him greater time and space. At the end of The Lady with the Little Dog, Fear, Big Volodya and Little Volodya, and numerous others, the characters return more or less to wherever they were when the story began minus some of their illusions or poised at the lip of an uncertain future.
For the translator Michael Henry Heim, the fact that in these stories things peter out or go on as they have before that they stop, rather than conclude does not mean that nothing has happened; it means that nothing or, rather, less than the characters may have hoped for has changed. Its an important distinction. The stasis Chekhovs stories so often describe (My life had become boring again, like it had been before, as the landscape painter N remarks at the end of The House with the Mezzanine) isnt heightened in the manner of Samuel Becketts Waiting for Godot, but emotionally mimetic. Where change does occur it doesnt provide completion, but only reveals a new set of problems; in a letter of 1888 Chekhov said it wasnt an authors job to give answers, but formulate the right questions.
Guy de Maupassant is the only genuine rival to Chekhov in terms of shaping the modern short story. Although Chekhov borrowed from Maupassant a debt he nods to in The Seagull they were very different writers, and the difference is starkest in how they approach endings. Maupassant favoured ones that snap shut: the payload that the storys mechanism delivers. Impressive, often ingenious, but cold and cynical; a story that closes as smartly as a joke can render hollow whatever life it has called into being.
By contrast, Chekhovs method allows his stories to become part of the continuum of a readers day: less memorable in their specifics, but more persistent in effect. Their ragged edges possess an uncanny ability to knit themselves into our memories as things felt, as ongoing sequences of mood. I want the story to exist somewhere so that in a way its still happening, Alice Munro has said, or happening over and over again. I dont want it to be shut up in the book and put away oh well, thats what happened. Chekhov would agree with every word of this.
Meaning is provisional in even the most apparently self-explanatory of Chekhovs stories. The Student, from 1895, was Chekhovs own favourite. It describes Ivan, a seminarian, walking home after a cold spring afternoons shooting. He stops beside the fire of two peasant women, a mother and daughter. The fire reminds him of the gospel story of Peter denying Jesus. He tells it, the old woman begins to cry, and a tense expression comes to her daughters face as though she is stifling pain.
The story ends with Ivan analysing what just happened. He decides the womens reactions prove their connection to the story of Peter, which inspires a realisation regarding the interconnectedness of past and present, an unbroken chain of events, which flowed from one into another. Most analyses of the story take this at face value, despite Chekhovs atheism, but doing so ignores his tendencies to a remarkable degree.
For one thing, setting is never accidental in Chekhov his landscapes, for example, filled with mournfully drooping willows, malicious storms and disgusting rains, are consistently anthropomorphic and when Ivan interprets the womens reactions the fire flickers in the darkness some way behind him, and they are no longer visible. Just as they are physically obscured, perhaps the truth behind their reactions is also beyond his ability to see. We have been told, seemingly incidentally, that the daughter, a widow, was beaten by her husband. Perhaps Ivans mention of the beating of Jesus brought back her own pain. Her mothers tears might not be spurred by faith, but by shame for giving her daughter to such a man. The Student is a story about storytelling, after all, and it is in the nature of Chekhovs stories to be profoundly unstable.
Critical consensus says Ivans revelation is genuine. This is understandable; Bunin reports that Chekhov thought The Student contradicted those critics who called him gloomy. But regardless of his intent, it is notable that even in such a brief story his impulse for ambiguity and irresolution should result in the availability of more than one reading. Everything on this earth, Chekhov wrote in a letter of 1887, is relative and inexact, and this apprehension permeates his work. As the farmer Alekhin comments in About Love, before telling a story of unspoken words and unresolved feeling, We decent Russian people entertain a partiality for these questions that remain without answers. 
Fifty-Two StoriesBy Anton ChekhovPenguin Classics, 508pp, £25
Chris Power is the author of Mothers (Faber & Faber)