The Prank: Chekhov

Leave it to New York Review Books to present The Prank: the Best of Young Chekhov, in its first ever English translation. This collection of 12 stories shows early Chekhov still maturing, still seeking his style. In the introduction, translator Maria Bloshteyn explains that in 1882, Chekhov “decided to gather together what he deemed to be the best of these early exuberant stories between a single cover,” but thanks to the censor Federov, the stories were not published. Following the assassination of Alexander II the year before in 1881, came a “massive political clampdown,” and while these humourous stories seem mild, there’s enough criticism of Russian society here for the stories to fall short of the censor’s approval. Two of the stories are parodies of Jules Verne and Victor Hugo, and as Maria Bloshteyn points out, the stories are a “critique of the triumphal follies of Russian imperialism.”

the prankHere’s a list of the contents:

  • Artists’ Wives
  • Papa
  • St Peter’s Day
  • Chase Two Rabbits, Catch None
  • A Confession, or Olya, Zhenya, Zoya
  • A Sinner from Toledo
  • The Temperaments
  • Flying Islands by Jules Verne
  • Before the Wedding
  • A Letter to a Learned neighbor
  • In the Train Car
  • 1001 Passions, or, a Dreadful Night

If there’s a general theme to be found here in most of the stories, then that theme would be Russians Behaving Badly in their personal relationships. Artists Wives (Translated … from the Portuguese) is set in Lisbon’s Hotel of the Venomous Swan and it’s clear to see that this farcical story isn’t really supposed to be about the Portuguese but instead parodies Russian bohemians. We see the domestic lives of various artists who live in the same hotel. These artists–a painter, a writer, a sculptor and a musician may be suffering for their art, but their wives are suffering a great deal more. Here’s the painter Francesco Butronza trying to persuade his poor German wife, Carolina to pose in the nude “for the sake of art.”

“I clean his brushes, his palettes, his rags. I soil my dresses against his painting, I give lessons so that I can  feed him, I sew costumes for him, I put up with the small of hemp oil, I model for him days on end, I do everything, but …naked. Naked? I can’t!!!”

“I’ll divorce you, you red-haired she-harpy! shouted Butronza.

“But where am I to go?” gasped Carolina. “Give me enough money to get to Berlin, from where you’ve taken me, and then divorce me!”

“Fine, I’ll just finish Susanna and I’ll send you right back to that Prussia of yours, the land of cockroaches, spoiled sausage, and roundworm!” shouted Butronza

Papa has no small degree of domestic farce with the wife of the family seeking to talk to her husband about their son’s grades. The maid who’s been sitting on the husband’s lap, must spring off and hide behind the curtains. This may be a 19th c story, but when it comes to parenting, some things apparently never change, so we see parents (including a father with a comb-over) stressing about their son’s success in school.

A Confession, or Olya, Zhenya, Zoya is the story of a man who failed to find lasting love in his life, and St Peter’s Day contains scenes of cruelty towards animals so once I hit that, I dropped the story.

Chase After Two Rabbits, Catch None is a story of domestic strife with Major Shchelkobokov, married to a much younger woman asking for marital advice from his “valet, hairdresser and floor scrubber” Panteley. A Sinner from Toledo is another story of twisted marital relations.

The Prank shows a different Chekhov than most of us are familiar with. In some of these stories, I saw shades of the zaniness of Gogol. Translator Maria Bloshteyn explains that “anthologies of humorous stories were selling well at the time” Chekhov wrote the stories in this collection, so he was writing to sell, and he was writing for a definite audience. Readers intimidated by 19th century Russian literature need not fear–these energetic, funny stories are very accessible and are written to entertain. For Chekhov fans, the book is well worth catching but they cannot compare to The Duel, for example. This is a young Chekhov before he matured into the incredible writer whose legacy grants him a firm place on the list of the greatest Russian writers.

Review copy

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15 Comments

Filed under Chekhov, Fiction

15 responses to “The Prank: Chekhov

  1. Jonathan

    When I read this volume I wondered to myself whether I would have recognised that a (young) Chekhov was the writer. I don’t think I would have guessed he was the author in a million years. But I think I would still have liked the stories, they’re still quite amusing.

    St Peter’s Day is one of the best of the collection. The illustrations, by his brother, were great as well.

  2. Can’t abide the animal stuff and I am still trying to erase the image created in Saturday Night at the Greyhound. The story reminded me of The Rules of the Game (Renoir). Couldn’t get through that either.
    I wouldn’t have identified the author as Chekhov either.

  3. By the “zaniness of Gogol”, are you referring to stories such as The Nose?

    I’ve only read Chekhov at his darkest (Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orchard), so this promises to be as refreshing as reading The Nose after Dead Souls.

  4. What a lovely-looking book. I like that silly side of Chekhov that comes out sometimes in the plays but rarely in the later stories. If they really were written because “humorous stories were selling well” then it shows an entrepreneurial side to him that I hadn’t suspected.

  5. Always interesting reading juvenilia (OK, maybe not the accurate term, but ‘apprenticeship’ or eary writing) of great authors, to see how they are developing. I like the sound of this as a counterpoint to later Chekhov. These type of satirical stories were also selling well in Romania at the time and playwright and short-story writer Caragiale elevated it into an art form. Unlike Chekhov, he never went to the darkness beyond the humour, though.

  6. I keep forgetting Chekhov started his career as a writer of comic/satirical sketches. These stories sound like an interesting contrast to his later work – rather different to the ‘In the Twilight’ collection I read earlier this year.

  7. Jacqui and Marina: Reading these was a bit like watching an old Bogart film before the studios knew what roles to cast him in.

  8. Not for me. Thanks for the warning about the animals. I really had enough of that last year. I was luckier this year or more careful in my choices.

  9. One of the greatest reading experiences I had was when I immersed myself in a multi volume set of the complete short stories of Chekhov when in college. I remember that the range and consistency of his stories left me breathless. It was a long time ago and I’ve recently bought a few collections and must see if I still find them as mind-blowing. Thanks for the push this has given me.

  10. I didn’t know Chekhov had written such stories. They remind me of the collection of short stories by Ferenc Karinthy that I read earlier this year.

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