Book Nook: Ward Six and other stories by Anton Checkov

Michael Bergin tells you why you should check out the short stories written by the man behind the Gun, Anton Checkov

What to read:

Arriving into the student centre on a windswept but unseasonably warm November morning (my god the climate is doomed), I rushed to Poolside for my regular cappuccino. However, on this occasion, upon looking up from the queue, I did not see the regular boring humdrum of student life that mills about in the foyer of the student centre. I didn’t even hear the ill-thought out hammerings of some bang average pianist on the oft-abused piano. Instead, when I looked up from the queue and stopped dreaming about my coffee, I was greeted by the sight of a bookshop.

And not just any bookshop. Temple Bar books had set up a temporary stand in the midst of the chaos, bringing with them an incredible array of works, modern classics and vintage masterpieces alike. And holy Moses, were the prices good. For less than a fiver you could have yourself a book of Baudelaire’s finest, or a beautifully pulpy 1960’s sci-fi romp. It gave the impression of a place where you wouldn’t be half surprised to find a signed copy of the Bible.

And so, coffee in hand, I made my way over to this stand, eager to join the Belfield literati. Now, notions are a serious issue in D4, and I will hold my hands up and say that I do, from time to time, play into this. So really, when perusing this collection, as with most people there, I found myself in search of something that would be sufficiently interesting, while also making me look like I knew what I was talking about when it came to literature. And that was when I saw it.

Sitting atop a pile of beaten and battered vintage editions of 20th century classics, was a well-worn, dusty copy of Anton Chekhov’s Ward Six and other stories. Now, I must come clean. I am most definitely a non-fiction person as opposed to a fiction person. You can keep your Harry Potter, I’ll have my biography of Napoleon, thank you very much. However, when it came to Chekhov, the name alone drew a wannabe card-carrying member of the literati straight in. Three quid, you say? Here’s a fiver, keep the change.

And so, rushing to the University Observer’s office (where the real magic happens), I sat in front of my computer, and dove into Chekhov’s first story in the collection, Ward Six.

Immediately, I was hooked.

Now, I’ve been here before. As somebody generally not disposed to fiction, I have been in the position where enthusiasm for a writer’s reputation will propel me through the first pages of their work, before the charm wears off, and I am left with an interminable slog to finish the book (I’m looking at you, Ocean Vuong). However, with Chekhov, an immediate connection was established.

Chekhov writes what he knows, and it couldn’t be further removed from the present day; backwater Tsarist Russia, a place where progress is sneered at, and a general sense of futility pervades. Actually, you know what, maybe it isn’t so different from modern day Dublin.

Chekhov’s characters, from the guardsman Nikita to the willfully ignorant Mikhail Avereyanich, are all fully developed, to such a degree that each character’s motivations never seem to be bizarre or irrational, quite an achievement in a story that often has irrationality at its heart.

Ward Six focuses on a mental asylum in rural Russia, in which five inmates, each with varying mental problems, are kept. They are jealously guarded by Nikita, a burly man with a preference for light labour, while the resident doctor, a frustrated middle aged man, generally abdicates his duties at the hospital.

In his search for intelligent conversation, however, the doctor’s stoic philosophy, which cannot be challenged by anyone in the village, is undermined during conversation with one of the inmates, whose impassioned argument against the privilege of stoics makes for enthralling reading. This conversation propels the doctor down a path of soul-searching, until his worldview comes into conflict with the world around him.

Genuinely, I cannot recommend this collection enough. Each story is presented with enormous insight and told with a humour and homeliness that makes for extremely pleasurable reading. Chekov’s style is so that, having him narrate feels more akin to receiving salacious town gossip than being pummelled with over-ripe prose.

Where to read it:

As a graduate, unfortunately, my access to my old favourite spot in the library has been rescinded. I would normally have gone to any of the window seats, and taken pleasure in ignoring my college duties to read a good book. The general atmosphere of fear and anxiety, particularly in the run up to Christmas, can be a tad overpowering at times, however.

Aside from this, if you’re a fan of reading in a bustling, but not necessarily crazy space, the UCD village centre stays open 24/7, allowing people to come and go as they please, and get a break from the house to get some reading done. Putting aside an hour a day to do nothing but pleasure read will honestly change your life.

Finally, there is the tried and trusted “read before you go to bed” model. This is definitely the best way I have found of regularising your reading habits, ensuring that a little bit gets done every day. In general, where to read a book is not as important as what you’re reading. If it’s a book that’s right up your alley, then I’m sure that practically anywhere comfy will suffice.