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28 September 2015updated 30 Sep 2015 9:43am

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.

By Chris Power

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:

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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)

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This article appears in the 23 Sep 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the Left