Anton Chekhov is the utility infielder of Russian literary heroes. No one remembers him as simply one of the greatest writers of all time, even though he was. Instead, theater people remember him as one of the world’s greatest playwrights, short fiction lovers remember him as the first master of the modern short story, and fans of literary nonfiction remember him as an innovative early practitioner of the craft.
The more you learn about Chekhov, the more clearly he emerges as a delightful character. In his short life he wrote more than 4,500 letters to family, friends, lovers, and editors, in which he cheerfully reported his adventures, encouraged his correspondents in their own affairs, and always, always begged them to write back.
In person, he was always quick with a joke. He could not talk earnestly for long without stopping to make fun of himself. Vladimir Korolenko recalled that Chekhov once explained his method for writing stories by grabbing the nearest object, which happened to be an ashtray. “If you wish,” he told his friend, “by tomorrow I will write a short story. Its title will be An Ashtray.” His “eyes shone with joy,” Korolenko wrote. “It seemed that the ashtray had already created images, ideas, and a chain of adventures in his mind.” “Chekhov loved the absurd,” the translator Robert Payne wrote. “He loved all the splendor and inanities of the human condition.”
But perhaps the most surprising and delightful fact about Chekhov is that before he was any of these things — brilliant playwright, fiction writer, journalist, correspondent, and bon vivant — he was a comedy writer.
Starting in 1880, when he was only 20, Chekhov wrote more than 500 comic stories, spoofs, and vignettes for Moscow’s popular weekly magazines. The names of those publications — The Dragonfly, The Alarm Clock, The Spectator — suggest their quirky sensibilities. Only after his story “The Huntsman” came to the attention of Dmitry Grigorovich, who wrote to tell Chekhov to knock off the funny stuff and pay his talent more respect, did Chekhov slow down begin to turn out the classic stories for which he is remembered. Until then, he was a one-man “Shouts and Murmurs” column.
A number of Chekhov’s early comic stories are available in translation. Several are collected in Forty Stories, including my favorite, “Death of a Government Clerk,” an homage to Gogol in which the downfall of a lowly bureaucrat is precipitated by the sneeze he suffers during a night at the opera. The hilarious “Fish Love” — a sad tale of the unrequited love of, yes, a carp — can be found in About Love and Other Stories, mysteriously tucked between the revered classics “Gusev” and “The Black Monk.”
More recently, Peter Constantine gathered 43 early Chekhov pieces in The Undiscovered Chekhov, including such oddities as “Sarah Bernhardt Comes to Town,” in which the actress’s fictional visit to an unnamed town is reported through a series of satirical telegrams and letters, and “A Hypnotic Seance,” a playful story about a volunteer from the audience who is duped not once but twice at a hypnotist’s performance.
And then there is the Early Chekhov Translation Project, an online collaboration that hopes to produce, in English, the first comprehensive collection of Chekhov’s earliest written work.
The Prank: The Best of Young Chekhov is the latest arrival on the scene. It collects the stories Chekhov presented to Russian censors in 1882 as his prospective literary debut. Sadly, the censors blocked the project and the book was never published, not even in Russia. In an absurdity Chekhov would have appreciated, his literary debut has arrived one hundred and thirty-three years late, in English instead of Russian, long after his reputation has been well established.
As Maria Bloshteyn notes in her excellent translator’s introduction, the stories in The Prank are well written and carefully crafted. The collection is, as she writes, “a time capsule of the moods and reading tastes of the Russian public at the time” and “a record of Chekhov as an imaginative and ambitious young writer.”
It is also, like any treasure trove recovered from the past, something of a mixed bag. The two comic stories that kick off the collection, “Artists’ Wives,” a satire of Moscow’s young artistic class, and “Papa,” in which a father pressures his 15 year-old son’s instructor to promote him to the fourth grade, are more charming than they are funny. It might be that their humor is too specific to its time and place, or that, as Bob Blaisdell suggested in his review, Chekhov’s wordplay doesn’t completely translate into English. For whatever reason, they read as if Chekhov is trying too hard.
On the other hand, “Flying Islands, by Jules Verne,” a satire of the 19th Century adventure writer, is wonderful. It concerns a team of scientists who travel to outer space to examine a cloud of spots hovering mysteriously near the moon (it doesn’t occur to them that their telescope might be out of focus). Chekhov’s send-up of Verne’s tropes (“The Mysterious Stranger!” “Trouble in the Sky!”) both revels in and makes great fun of 19th Century steampunk adventure tales.
Chekhov experimented with a variety of literary forms, and so not all of the stories in The Prank are comedies. “Chase Two Rabbits, Catch None” is a well-turned parable. The sharply drawn “A Sinner from Toledo” reads like a parable but is, in fact, a brilliant study of the devious psychology of superstition. “The Temperaments,” “A Confession,” and “A Letter to a Learned Neighbor” are all clever, insightful character studies.
Finally, there are stories that foreshadow Chekhov’s greatest literary achievements. “St. Peter’s Day” is a delightful tale about a doctor who agrees, against his better judgment, to join a bumbling hunting party. What follows is a chaotic and entrancing adventure. After bagging a few birds, missing or only wounding others, spilling their gunpowder, and almost accidentally shooting the doctor, the party decamps to a field to get drunk. The doctor, who keeps lagging farther behind (perhaps to avoid getting shot), eventually finds himself completely lost. Like Chekhov’s best stories, it brings the mystery, truth, and beauty of ordinary experience magically to life.
“In the Train Car” shows off Chekhov’s gift for rendering vivid, striking scenes. As “mail train number such-and-such” speeds from one absurdly named station to the next, Chekhov perfectly describes a bustling scene of pickpockets, fare beaters, sleeping soldiers, and short-tempered conductors. The story is low on plot but still riveting. Its playful irony, perfectly orchestrated mood, and unmistakably real characters magically transport the deep mystery of human experience to the page.
The real joy in The Prank is not the comedy in Chekhov’s stories —let’s be honest: he may have been Anton Chekhov, but he was still no Gary Shteyngart — but in the light the collection shines on Chekhov’s talent. Every story showcases his keen eye, lively wit, and gifted insight into human nature. Chekhov knew what makes people tick. He understood our stubborn unwillingness to comprehend each other and ourselves, and he knew how to make his readers smile. The way to read The Prank is to imagine Chekhov as he was writing it — reveling in his natural talent, laughing as the jokes came to him, and dreaming he was destined for even greater things.