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The young Chekhov: a comedian in spite of himself

The Prank: the Best of Young Chekhov reveals how Anton Chekhov developed from jobbing hack to master of the short story.

There are, at the very least, three Anton Chekhovs: the doctor, the playwright and the short-story writer. In each field, great achievements sprang from undistinguished beginnings. Chekhov was an average medical student, yet he had numerous triumphs as a doctor, including manning the village clinic when a cholera epidemic struck the area around his estate and his 1890 journey to investigate the prison island of Sakhalin: an ambitious humanitarian mission to make the realities of Siberia manifest to the Russian people. As a playwright, he faltered initially, failing to find anyone willing to produce the turgid melodrama Platonov. Ivanov proved his dramatic talent but The Wood Demon, staged two years later, was savaged and half a decade elapsed before he wrote another play. His final four, however, persist as centrepieces of world theatre.

As a prose writer, too, the young Chekhov gave little indication that, within a decade, he would produce work that came to define the modern short story. “The Kiss”, “A Dreary Story”, “Gusev”, “About Love”, “The Lady with the Dog”, “The Bishop” – these are some of the greatest stories ever written about disappointment, death, long­ing, passion and loneliness. Yet before Chekhov became a master of atmosphere and psychology, he was a different kind of writer: a newspaperman dashing off copy to feed the booming culture of weekly comic magazines in St Petersburg and Moscow. Small enough to operate largely beneath the censors’ attention, magazines such as the Spectator, Dragonfly and Alarm Clock rewarded topicality, brevity, irreverence and the ability to produce work at speed.

Chekhov obliged. When, in 1886, he received a letter of praise from Dmitry Grigorovich, an elder statesman of Russian letters, he replied, “In the course of the five years that I have been knocking about from one newspaper office to another . . . I don’t remember a single story over which I have spent more than 24 hours.” He was exaggerating but not greatly. By the spring of 1888, he had amassed an unbelievable 528 stories.

This fecundity began in the late 1870s, when Chekhov began submitting his work through contacts established by his eldest brother, Alexander. Insolvency had forced Chekhov’s parents and his five siblings to flee to Moscow from their home in Taganrog, on the Sea of Azov, leaving Anton alone to complete his schooling and settle his family’s affairs. He joined them in Moscow in 1879 and had two pieces accepted by the St Petersburg weekly Dragonfly in 1880. He was 20. In the next two years, on top of his student workload, he published more than 60 pieces in St Petersburg and Moscow magazines under a variety of names. It is his selection of these, made in 1882 for a book that never appeared because of tightened censorship after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, which appears in The Prank.

The book’s translator, Maria Bloshteyn, spiritedly argues in her introduction: “The same problems, themes, characters and behaviours occupy Chekhov at the end of his literary career as they do at its earliest beginnings.” But she isn’t able to provide many supporting examples, as in truth these stories offer few of the pleasures found in Chekhov’s mature work. They are, however, entertaining and often very funny, especially when the humour tends towards the absurd as opposed to the broad (“comic” names such as Ivan Ivanovichichichich or Save-Yourselves-If-You-Can train station give an idea of just how broad Chekhov can get). Two literary parodies feature, one mocking Jules Verne (“Here follows an extremely lengthy and extremely dull description of the observatory, which the translator has decided to omit in order to save time and space”) and the other – one of two stories making their English-language debut – the simile-heavy, Gothic style of Victor Hugo:

A sky as dark as typographer’s ink. It was as dark outside as it is inside a hat pulled down low. A dark night – like a day shut up in a nutshell. Cloaks wrapped tight, we set off, the wind gusting, chilling us to the bone. Rain and snow – those two sodden brothers – battered our faces with terrible force.

This is fun stuff and decently put to­gether: the joke-to-line ratio of “Artists’ Wives” would impress the writers’ room of a US sitcom. But these are mostly throwaway pieces. The exception is “St Peter’s Day”, an account of an amusingly calamitous hunting trip that is something more than pure knockabout. For one thing, we get a first glimpse of Chekhov’s skill (inherited from Turgenev) for evoking landscape:

The stars grew pale and misty. Voices rang out here and there. Acrid blue-grey smoke billowed from the village chimneys . . . The drowsy sexton climbed into the grey belfry and rang the bell for Matins. Snoring issued from the night watchman lying sprawled under a tree. The finches woke up and started a ruckus, flying from one side of the garden to the other, breaking out with their tiresome, insufferable chirping. In the blackthorn shrubs, an oriole began to sing. Above the servants’ kitchen, starlings and hoopoes raised a fuss.

Here, Chekhov the author holds up the by turns comedic and tragic events of the day (an old man is abandoned in the countryside, probably to die, a foreshadowing of the servant shut up in the house at the end of The Cherry Orchard) for our entertainment but a distance is maintained between himself and the story. One of the main advances that Chekhov subsequently made as a writer was to dissolve this distance entirely. Consider this passage from the late story “In the Ravine”, describing two peasants returning to their home village:

On the opposite slope one could see rye – stacked up, or in sheaves here and there, as if scattered by a storm, or in just-cut rows; the oats, too, were ripe and gleamed in the sun now, like mother-of-pearl. It was harvest time. Today was a feast day, tomorrow, a Saturday, they had to gather the rye and get the hay in, then Sunday was a feast day again; every day distant thunder rumbled; the weather was sultry, it felt like rain, and, looking at the fields now, each one hoped that God would grant them to finish the harvest in time, and was merry, and joyful, and uneasy at heart.

As an authorial presence Chekhov is almost completely gone. He “absents himself”, in V S Pritchett’s description. He no longer presents his characters but inhabits them. The young Chekhov’s work is all surface. As his ability grew, he packed more and more meaning into the depths beneath that surface, creating stories that, to paraphrase one of Italo Calvino’s 14 definitions of a classic, have never exhausted all they have to say to their readers.

The Prank, which includes the illustrations that Nikolai (“Kolia”) Chekhov drew to accompany his younger brother’s stories (Kolia died in 1889 of tuberculosis, the same disease that later ended Anton’s life at the age of 44), offers plenty of enjoyment, certainly enough for it to be surprising that Chekhov, compiling the first edition of his collected works at the turn of the century, excluded from it everything he wrote in the period 1880-82. He must have felt, by then, that those stories were the work of another Chekhov altogether.

The Prank: The Best of Young Chekhov by Anton Chekhov, translated by Maria Bloshteyn, is published by NYRB Classics (168pp, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the Left

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Why Prince wanted to make his listeners feel inadequate

Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals.

Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, by Ben Greenman
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £17.99

During his mid-Eighties imperial phase, stretching from the eruption of “When Doves Cry” to the corruption of “Alphabet St”, Prince was a global object of desire: hyper-talented, cool, funny and charming. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to have him or be him. Have him or be him, covetousness or envy – those two reactions are more than a little negative. And more than a little negative is how I felt about both Prince and Ben Greenman when I got to the end of Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, a book as cumbersome as its title. Published a year after his death, it didn’t make me hate Prince as much as Blake Bailey’s monumental takedown Cheever: a Life made me despise John Cheever, but it came close.

The Prince we meet in anecdotes and legal depositions from both before and after his imperial phase is cranky, petty-minded and grasping. This may be because Greenman, who contributes to the New Yorker and has assisted George Clinton and Brian Wilson with their memoirs, is a much more entertaining writer when ripping Prince to bits than when attempting to build a shrine from his mortal remains. Here Greenman is, in flat-footed praise mode yet inadvertently dissing his subject: “From Stevie Wonder, he took mastery. From David Bowie, he took mystery. All of these influences were ingested and digested until Prince, nourished, went about making something new.” Follow that metaphor through and Prince’s “something new” can only be faecal.

But here is Greenman criticising the fall-from-grace album Graffiti Bridge. “The only thing holding back these epics from unconditional greatness is their poor aerodynamics,” he writes. “They’re like ­giant whiteboards filled with flow charts and equations: diagrams of how to make a Prince song work at top speed without actually working at top speed.” That simile, of subsonic flying whiteboards, is ridiculous but accurate – and captures something of what Prince is like when he is his diagrammatic rather than his funky self.

There are great insights here. Some are offhand, such as, “What is Purple Rain, the movie, but an argument for collaboration?” Others are more laboured but worthwhile as mini-obituaries: “Prince was a flamboyant star with a penchant for intellectual ­exploration, but he was also a sly comedian, a critic of existing soul music stereotypes, and a massive egomaniac.”

Elsewhere, the prose is pretentious, bathetic and nonsensical in equal measure. Of Prince’s alter ego Camille, ­Greenman writes, “This pitch-shifted version of Prince hovered between male and female and, in the process, cracked open previously conventional issues of power, sexuality, ego and
id.” Clearly, Prince/Camille had no issue with the superego – or, at least, didn’t feel the need to hover and in the process crack it.

By the end, I felt that this book was a fitting monument to Prince: glib and unsatisfying. When I listen to his music, I feel that something is being taken from me rather than given. At best, I end a song such as “Kiss” feeling disburdened, floating, freer; at worst, I feel hungry, swizzed, abused. And I think this is deliberate. Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals. Making them feel inadequate was the whole point.

There is a clip of him performing Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” with three members of the band. Each time the chorus comes up and everyone in the room sings, “I-i am everyday people,” you can see Prince struggling to join in, because he’s thinking, “You may be, but I’m not.”

I don’t doubt that the latter-day Prince could be a magnificent performer. The fewer musicians he had with him, the better he got. Fans left his concerts feeling that they’d been at the greatest gig in their life, but Prince was the inventor of the after-show after-show. For super-fans, there was always another gig at a smaller, more obscure venue, starting at three or five o’clock in the morning. Just when it looked like he could give no more, it turned out – wearyingly – that he was inexhaustible. There was always more of the same. More 15-minute funk jams. More cheeky covers intended to prove that Prince was a more talented musician than the songs’ composers, because he could insert a half-diminished seventh chord where they’d strummed E minor. Worst of all, there were more and more muso excursions into 1970s fusion. It’s a fundamental question: if Prince was such a great musician, why did he play such God-awful jazz?

In the end, as a fan who had adored every­thing he did up to Lovesexy, I became angry with him and stopped listening. So did Greenman: “When I started working on this book, I promised myself that I would listen only to Prince’s music. I had enough to last me months. But about six weeks in, the Prince-only diet started to feel claustrophobic and maybe even a little ghoulish . . .” What Greenman found, I think, is that in Prince’s musical world the space gets perpetually smaller, because ultimately all the singer wants you to concentrate on is his self-aggrandisement. It’s fitting that Prince kept his unreleased recordings in “the vault” – a place for miserly hoarding of surplus value.

The ghoulishness of the Prince diet is that it gives no proper nourishment. It’s there in the lyrics to one of his offhand masterpieces: “Starfish and coffee/Maple syrup and jam/Butterscotch clouds, a tangerine/And a side order of ham”. This isn’t soul food. You’ll be hungry an hour later.

Greenman’s most revealing footnote – about himself and about his subject – concerns another creepy, slave-driving manufacturer of confectionery. “The movie side of Warner Bros had [in the early 1990s] just acquired the rights to remake Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory . . . Prince, I thought, would be perfect for the part . . . I wrote a long letter to Warner making the case but was too shy to send it.”

In this book, that long letter is finally delivered. Prince was a perfect Wonka. 

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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