Short story collections undoubtedly reign supreme as the most optimal reading material for the beach. They don’t require the mental commitment that a full-length novel does, they allow for a sense of accomplishment every time you finish one in the collection, and, perhaps more importantly, they provide breaks at precisely the right moment when you need more alcohol. If you’re planning an upcoming vacation, consider taking along J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories, David Updike’s Old Girlfriends, or Lady with the Little Dog & Other Stories by Anton Chekhov. It is no coincidence that all three have several beach-themed stories, which I take as proof of the validity of my argument.
It is in the latter collection that you will find “The Lady with the Little Dog,” a story so remarkable that fellow Russian heavyweight Vladimir Nabokov called it “one of the greatest stories ever written.” I shamelessly board this bandwagon and add merely that “The Lady with the Little Dog” is the most perfect short story for the summer (Nabokov does not appear to have evaluated art using this metric).
It is 1899. Summer is in full swing in Yalta, the glamorous resort town for the glamorous Russian aristocracy. The Black Sea and the sun converge and collectively shine so bright that they blind. Gurov, our main character, lazily stares beyond the horizon in search of something. Of what? He hardly knows himself. This is how “The Lady with the Little Dog” marvelously opens up, immediately creating a drunken feeling of infinite, if somewhat ominous, possibilities. Isn’t that what summer is all about?
Gurov is a terrible human being: a lying, cheating, misogynistic — but charming! — philander. He’s an Ocean’s Eleven-era George Clooney without a soul. When he hears of a pretty little thing, newly-arrived in Yalta, he considers, “If she is here alone without a husband or friends, it wouldn’t be amiss to make her acquaintance.”
I love this guy.
The pretty little thing, the titular lady with the dog, is Anna Sergeyevna, a young Cruel Intentions-era Reese Witherspoon to Gurov’s winning Clooney. She is recently married, but like all 19th-century literary Russian aristocrats, unhappily so. What happens next is predictable: two strangers at different points in their lives, an encounter in an exotic locale, an inevitable, tempestuous affair. If it sounds derivative, it’s because every star- crossed lovers’ tale you know from 20th-century film and literature is an imitation of Chekhov’s original.
But what Chekhov does in “The Lady with the Little Dog” is extraordinary. He makes you root for the terrible human being. In spite of your better judgement, you long for Gurov to charm the girl, to seduce her, and, perhaps, to break her heart. When Anna confides in Gurov her agonies and unfulfilled dreams, he observes that “there’s something pathetic about her, anyway,” and you laugh hysterically. You feel sorry for Anna, but you decide that if she’s stupid enough to fall for this charming fraud, then she deserves to be swindled. Or maybe you are a moral person, and you don’t feel that way at all.
In any case, you will be as seduced by “The Lady with the Little Dog” as Anna is enamored with the monstrous Gurov. In the characters’ forbidden love affair, Chekhov evokes the spirit of summer: oppressive but liberating, exhausting but exciting, stultifying but intoxicating. Gurov’s life is an eternal summer, and in the summer, every day is a “thirsty day” when one does “not know what to do with oneself.” In the summer, one is particularly susceptible to the wonderful things that surround. For me, it is snorkeling along a coral reef in the middle of the Caribbean Sea; for Gurov, it is sitting next to a beautiful young woman in the dawn of light, with dew on the grass.
I think Gurov wins.
I will not spoil the entire story, but precisely when you think you know how it will all come crashing down, Chekhov surprises. If you rooted for Gurov in the beginning, by the end you’re praying that he gets his happily ever after. But Chekhov has something special planned for Gurov and Anna and the reader. Abruptly, dizzying, the story ends, leaving one gasping for air, unprepared for the solemnity of autumn — much less for the emptiness of winter.
Chekhov makes you long for summer, with all of its intensity, with all of its oppressiveness. He makes you long for a time, in Yalta or elsewhere, when the sun and the sea meet before you, when life overflows with possibilities. As “The Lady with the Little Dog” comes to a close — perhaps disappointingly, perhaps perfectly — even those who dislike the summer months will be left aching, just a little, for a few more drowsily sweltering days.