If you have never heard of Antosha Chekhonte, the brilliant parodist who published sharp, persistently hilarious sketches in Russian humor magazines (like The Alarm Clock and Dragonfly) during the late 1870s and early 1880s — well, you’re forgiven. Chekhonte, if you didn’t guess right away, was actually the young Anton Chekhov, and his first book of writings, The Prank, has never been published. Thankfully, this mess will be corrected this July when the New York Review of Books releases the slim book — a collection that Chekhov meant to usher his breakthrough into wider literary fame — for the first time in more than 130 years.
The sketches, parodies, and short fictions comprising The Prank may startle readers familiar with the later Chekhov. Always a writer, like Kafka, whose stealthy humor evades his own fans, the older Chekhov was morally suitable enough even for a large Victorian audience; indeed, as translator Maria Bloshteyn points out in the introduction, the “Chekhov craze replaced [an] earlier Dostoevsky cult” in England. The younger Chekhov is irreverent, even zany, though he had to shear the book of content that would offend the zealous, nefarious censor, V.A. Federov. Instead of taking aim at religious orthodoxy, the young doctor finds other outlets, as in the case of the never-before-published “Artists’ Wives,” a story that joyfully mocks bohemian men (and the way they treat their wiser wives). Here is the “violoncellist and flutist Ferdinand Lay,” mocked as the Portuguese Offenbach:
It was difficult to understand at first what and how he was singing. Only by his red sweaty face, and by the impression he was making upon everyone’s ears, was it possible to guess that he was singing terrifying, agonizingly, and furiously. It was clear that he was both singing and suffering. He was keeping time with his right foot and his fist, raising both the foot and the arm high as he did so, and constantly knocking the sheet music off the stand. He was stretching out his neck, squinting, twisting his mouth, punching himself in the stomach…
Why didn’t Chekhov publish the book? Well, he tried. In the introduction, Bloshteyn speculates that The Prank was simply too novel. The censor rejected it, Chekhov wrote to the author N.A. Leikin, because its best stories “uproot the foundations” — presumably of everything sacred in Russian society. And when Chekhov did not at first succeed at getting The Prank past the censor, he did not try again.
As a short (and inexpensive) collection, The Prank is frankly indispensable for readers of Chekhov, or Russian literature, or comedic literature, or parody, or any and all literature. Not only does it provide readers with new starting point from which to ascertain the subtractive development of Chekhov’s style — he is, again, one of the great literary artists of concision and pithy observation — it also features stories that an English audience has never encountered, including “Artists’ Wives” and “1001 Passions or a Dreadful Night” (a “timid” yet brilliant “imitation” of Victor Hugo). More importantly, the book is hilarious, almost on the level of Gogol — and that is not something I offer lightly.
And, as Bloshteyn also points out, it shows that Chekhov began his career with the same concerns he ended it with. The same thing that can lightly annoy a reader of Chekhov — are his preoccupations really so stable and universal? — turns out to be true. To make her point, Bloshteyn cites (with wisdom) a humorous and affecting episode from the end of Chekhov’s life:
Where Dostoevsky would be passionately questioning, and Tolstoy passionately lecturing, Chekhov is dispassionately, almost clinically, observing and describing, allow his readers to reach their own conclusion. Shortly before his death, Chekhov wrote with wry humor to his wife, Olga Knipper-Chekhov: “You ask, what is life? This is the same as asking: ‘What is a carrot? A carrot is a carrot and nothing more is known about it.’
Update: The date of the book’s release has been changed to reflect new information from the publisher.