Over the weekend I read Chekhov’s only novel, The Shooting Party, which was originally published in 1885. What a strange and delightful combination of early police fiction with Chekhov’s incredible talent for description and emotional representation. The novel is also a piece of clever metafiction, in that it is about a writer reading and commenting on another writer’s manuscript. The story is quite melodramatic, but in an enjoyable way. I couldn’t stop turning the pages.

The basic story begins with a dashing young man barging his way into a literary newspaper, asking that his manuscript be accepted for publication. He specifies that what he’s written is a true story. The editor (who is a wonderfully sarcastic creature with the initials A.C.) tells him he’s very busy and won’t get back to him for three months. Some months later, the editor takes the story out and reads it. He can’t put it down.

The actual crime story is quite familiar – think ruined innocence, general debauchery, class conflict – and centers on a love quadrangle between a young woodcutter’s daughter, an investigating magistrate, an out-of-luck gentleman and a Count. Each of these men fall in love with the young girl, each have their way with her in one way or another, and eventually she ends up ruined and (to add injury to insult) murdered.

Something I enjoyed immensely in The Shooting Party is the narrative layering between the editor A.C., who annotates the manuscript while he reads, and Kamyshev, the author and main protagonist of The Shooting Party. As A.C. comments on Kamyshev’s character and his writing style, the reader gets to chuckle a bit at Chekhov’s pseudo-modesty as well as get an in-depth look at how Chekhov envisions character creation.

The editor’s commentary also gives the story away repeatedly, which didn’t bother me in the least, but I do wonder how his readers in 1885 responded to this technique. Especially because the introduction to my edition of The Shooting Party tells me that Chekhov wrote the novel as a sort of parody of the extravagant, sensational police thrillers which were all the rage at the time. Apparently, Chekhov couldn’t stand how badly these stories were written, and how horrific their characters were. So in that sense, Kamyshev is both a parody of the tasteless writer AND the reprehensible main character.

There aren’t many good, intelligent, kind-hearted people in The Shooting Party, except perhaps the local doctor (another wink from Chekhov, perhaps, since this was his day job) and another unfortunate young woman. The rest are mostly a bunch of alcoholic swindlers and moral reprobates. Which made for many colorful scenes. There were also some purely comic characters. Of these, I particularly liked Kamyshev’s manservant, Polikarp, who is reading The Count of Monte Cristo throughout the story and verbally abuses his employer whenever possible.

As I’ve made pretty clear here, much of the novel is fun or sensational, although I think there were some serious elements. The women, for example, are neither comic nor wicked. They are all mostly tragic. Especially the woodcutter’s daughter, Olga. What happens to her is quite her fault really (not the murder, but her gradual descent into depravity) in the sense that she sells herself readily. She’s beautiful, but horribly vain. And she’s a social climber, although not at all skilled at climbing. So she makes one mistake after another. She’s a pathetic figure with a tragic end.

All in all, a great weekend read!