Translated by Maria Bloshteyn
Reviewed by Karen Langley
The art of the short story is a difficult one, and many authors never attain the dizzy heights of a tale told well, encapsulating a character and events in a limited number of pages and really communicating with the author. Russian writer Anton Chekhov is widely regarded as a master of the form and I reviewed the collection “In The Twilight”. This excellent anthology stood out, because it was one compiled by the author himself, and a new book from NYRB, “The Prank” has provided us with another Chekhov-selected collection.
What’s unusual about this one, however, is that it focuses on the early work of the author; in his younger days he wrote short, satirical and snappy pieces under a variety of pseudonyms for popular newspapers, whilst holding down his day job as a doctor, as he needed to support an extended family. However, editors started to recognise his talent and in a bid to be taken seriously as a writer, Chekhov compiled this collection of his works in 1882 at the age of just 22. He hoped to get it published and to launch himself on a wider literary career, but things did not go quite as planned. The book fell foul of the censors (there was quite a repressive backlash from the regime following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881), and never saw the light of day.
Chekhov of course went on to great renown, not only as a consummate short story writer, but also as a dramatist, packing a tremendous amount of work into his relatively short life. The early stories are often dismissed as simply jobbing work, light pieces written to earn a living, so for many Anglophone readers this will be the first chance to encounter what might be called the author’s juvenilia (and indeed some of the stories are available in English here for the first time.)
The book in itself is a lovely object; expertly translated, introduced and annotated by Maria Bloshteyn, it also features some excellent line illustrations by Chekhov’s elder brother, Nikolay. There are 12 stories featured, ranging from the satirical (and rather sad) “Artist’s Wives” which makes fun of a variety of ‘creative’ types and the stresses and strains through which they put their long-suffering spouses; “A Confession, or Olya, Zhenya, Zoya”, a witty epistolary tale of a man who simply cannot make up his mind to settle down; and “Before the Wedding”, which lambasts the Russian way of marriage. This latter is a particularly pertinent story, as the status of women in Russia was very low at the time, as can be seen in any number of works of literature, and they were often married off to much older men where they were little more than slaves; beating and domestic violence was the norm. More liberal Russians were starting to find this state of affairs unacceptable and there is a very famous painting by Pukirev, known as “Misalliance” or “The Unequal Marriage” which captures this well; it’s also an element in Chekhov’s “The Shooting Party”, his only full-length novel which was another early piece, published in 1884.
There are plenty of lighter moments in the collection, however: “Flying Islands by Jules Verne” sends up the fervour of Russians for that author’s work; “1,001 Passions, or, A Dreadful Night” parodies Victor Hugo; and the target in all of these works is the bad habits and negative characteristics that Chekhov sees in Russian life.
The later Chekhov we’re used to produced perfectly formed vignettes, snapshots of a life where we’re dropped into the action or events already underway and get a glimpse of the characters’ lives. The stories always had a point to make and expertly conveyed the difficulty of living in Russia with its castes, structures and rituals. These earlier works have the same targets and the same criticisms to convey, but Chekhov goes about it in a different way, using humour to get his point across – and the stories are very funny! And like the best satire, there is always a serious intend and a specific target.
You know, however, ma chere, that this world is no place for art. Vast and bountiful as the earth is, there is no place on earth for a writer. The writer remains an orphan, an outcast, a scapegoat, a helpless infant. I divide all of mankind into two camps: writers and enviers. The former write, while the latter, racked with envy, scheme and play all sorts of dirty tricks on them. I have died many deaths and I will die many more because of the envy of these enviers. They’ve ruined my life. Calling themselves editors and publishers, they’ve positioned themselves at the helm of the literary world, where they do everything they can to drown us writers. A pox on them!
Chekhov had indeed suffered at the hands of editors and publishers, having to self-censor many of his stories in an effort to get them into print. However, there are often points in the stories where there are hints of the prose to come, when Chekhov lapses into a vivid piece of description and brings alive the Russian 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 gray 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. In the blackthorn shrubs, an oriole began to sing. Above the servants’ kitchen, starlings and hoopoes raised a fuss. The complimentary morning concert had begun.
Chekhov is a writer whose best-known works carry elements of social critique; these are softened, perhaps, into a critique of life itself. These early pieces, a selection that Chekhov himself thought were his best, show the author as a more playful character, lapsing into slapstick and taking plenty of swipes at the society around him.
“The Prank” is a funny, clever, thought-provoking and very enjoyable read, enlivened by the wonderful illustrations and excellent presentation; and it certainly whets the appetite for more of Chekhov’s early work.
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and dreams of troikas.
Anton Chekhov, The Prank: The Best of Young Chekhov (NYRB: New York, 2015). 9781590178362, 114pp, paperback.