Chekhov's Humorous Short Stories

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    The great Russ ian d r ama t i s t and master of the shortstory Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (1860-1904) wrote hisy o u t h f u l stories under the p l a y f u l pseudonyms "Prosaicpoet", "Man without spleen", and , most o f t en , "AntoshaChekhonte". The stories i n c l u d e d in this vo lume werewrit ten by Chekhov-Chekhonte at the beg inn ing of hisl i t e r a ry career, in the mid-eight ies .

    He was the son of a petty t r a d e r f rom the towrn ofTaganrog in the south of Russia . His f a t h e r wanted himto become a t r ade r too. In his free time the grammarschool s tudent Antosha would have to stand beh ind thecounter and count out change.

    But as a youngster Chekhov f e l t d rawn to qui te ad i f f e r e n t wor ld . He tr ied to get to see all the premieresin the theatre. The pa in t ed backdrop seemed more real tohim than the b lue sky i t se l f . A great event in the younglad 's l i f e was the visi t to Taganrog of the Maly Theatref rom Moscow. He was an avid reader . He would stayup late into the night devour ing F l aube r t and Tolstoy,re l i sh ing the prose of Lermontov.

    When he f in ished school, Chekhov, on his parents 'advice, entered the med ica l f a c u l t y of Moscow Univer-sity. However, his love of l i t e r a tu re was rekindled in himwith new force and he f e l t an urgent need to write. Asa f i r s t - y e a r s tudent Chekhov made his debut in p r in t .The j o u r n a l Strekoza ( D r a g o n f l y ) pub l i shed his twoshort humorous stories. These were fo l lowed by manymore.

    At this time the l i te rary scene was dominated bypopular j o u r n a l s . They only d i f f e r e d in name: Oskolki(Fragments ) , Zritel (Observer ) , Strekoza, Budilnik(Alarm Clock) . They were not concerned with seriousthemes and conf ined themselves to the occasional barb .Through their pages f i l e d a procession of matrons andsociety ladies, d im-wi t ted coquettes and their card-p lay ing husbands .

    But it was f rom the pages of these trashy j o u r n a l stha t a great new t a l e n t entered Russian le t tersAntonChekhov.

    He was an amazingly energetic writer. His storieswere pr inted in dozens of jou rna l s and newspapers. Inone year alone, 1883, he wrote more than a hundredshort stories. This was an average of a story every threeand a ha l f days. And a l l this while in the four th year of ad i f f i c u l t medical degree! No wonder tha t Chekhov, as hehimself claimed, had to be able to write his stories in asingle s i t t ing.

    How did he f i n d his subject mat te r? He was con-vinced that one only had to take a close look at l i f e a roundone to uncover whole treasure stores of i n v a l u a b l e ma-terial . The story Surgery, for example, was taken byChekhov f rom his own medical practice, and rea l - l i f e sit-uations which he witnessed are described in the storiesBurbot and Plotter.

    One day the famous a n i m a l trainer Durov told himabout his dog Kashtanka . Chekhov wrote a story aboutthis, and the story of the ginger dog which looked like afox has for ever entered the annals of Russ ian l i tera ture .Chekhov's Kashtanka is read time and again by adu l t sand chi ldren al ike, with u n d i m i n i s h i n g pleasure.

    The writer Vlad imi r Korolenko remembered a con-versation he had with Chekhov:

    '"Do you know', Chekhov asked, 'how I write myshort stories?.. Like this. '

    "He looked round the table, picked up the f i r s t th inghis eye lit uponin this case an ash- t rayplaced it be-fore me and said:" 'If you like, tomorrow I ' l l show you a story.... Ent i t ledThe Ash-tray.'

    "And his eyes sparkled gaily. Vague ideas, images,adventures about this ash-tray were a l ready germina-ting in his mind , not yet invested with any form but al-ready f i l l e d with the spir i t of humour. . . ."

    But his l i te rary activities did not mean easy moneyfor Chekhov. The jou rna l s made very s t i f f conditions:the stories had to be very short, no more than two orthree pages. At f i r s t this restriction caused the youngwriter un to ld agonies. But with time he mastered the artof the short story, and would repeat with conviction:"Brevity is the sister of talent".

    The subscribers to Oskolki and Budilnik read Che-khov's stories and fe l t tha t whi le at f i r s t they seemedlike the usual run of humorous stories, there was some-thing d i f f e ren t about them. The other authors ' stories

  • 2nd edition

    Russian Readerwith Explanatoryin Englishand a Russian-EnglishVocabulary

    R U S S K Y Y A Z Y KP U B L I S H E R SMOSCOW1989

    NotesK i i u r a /Una M T C H i i H e K O M M e n r a p H e Mna au r j i i u - i cKOM H3bii

  • were mere anecdotes, but a story by Chekhov gavethem food for thought. The new writer Antosha Che-khonte raised questions that were relevant and s ignif i -cant.

    Take for example the min ia tu re Death of a Clerk.Death is always a cause of sadness, but Chekhov makesthe reader smile at the u n u s u a l na tu re of the s i tuat ion:his hero, a jun io r o f f i c i a l , dies of f r igh t when the generalshouts at h im. Chekhov celebrated the h u m a n qual i t iesof p r ide , sel f -confidence, the sense of one's own worth.

    Read c a r e f u l l y the l i t t l e episode entitled Chameleon.A chameleon is a reptile which can change its colour toblend in with its surroundings . The word "chameleon"in Russian is f r e q u e n t l y used in a f igura t ive sense, witha negative connotation. It describes a person who easilychanges his opinions, sympathies and views for petty,mercenary reasons. Chekhov shows the ugliness of a per-son who f a w n s to his superiors and treats everyone elsel ike dirt .

    Chekhov's stories sparkle with good humour andsmiles. How can one help laughing at the hapless l ia r inthe story He Oversalted It, or the hero of Horsy Name,the blockheaded general who has more f a i t h in somequack healer than in a proper doctor? But Chekhov wasany th ing but i n d i s c r i m i n a t i n g in his choice of victims.He never laughed at the dispossessed, at people whowere themselves the vict ims of misfor tune . He merciless-ly r id icu led Philistines, l i a r s and fools.

    Chekhov's na r ra t ive is bu i l t on contrasts. The mainthemes encountered in his early stories are the contrastsbetween the appearance and real i ty of l i f e , between itspoetry and prose, between people and their rank . A goodexample in this respect is the story The Fat and the Thin.Two childhood f r i e n d s meet by chance. From their con-versation it t ranspires that while one has only achievedthe rank of collegiate assessor the other has climbed toone of the top rungs of the civi l service ladder , with therank of pr ivy counc i l lo r , a real brass hat . And at oncetheir old f r i endsh ip completely evaporates for the thinman. Rank is more impor tan t than its holdersuch isthe thin man's view of things.

    Gradua l ly Chekhov's gentle humour gave way to asharper i rony, a b i t ing satire. The writer observed withincreasing anxiety the way l i f e in autocratic Russia cre-ated a fe r t i l e breeding ground for s tupid and brazen com-

    placency, brash arrogance and w i l l i n g se rv i l i t y andsycophancy.

    Thus, Chekhov's pen t ransformed the humorousminia ture , previously regarded as an in fe r io r genre,into a pa r t of accepted l i t e ra tu re , l i t e ra ture wi th a ca-pital L.

    The gay surface of m a n y of Chekhov's stories con-ceals a subst ra tum of sadness. Humour and satire areinterspersed with d r a m a and even tragedy. Chekhovwrote of the loneliness .of the "little" man lost in the bigcity, of the way i n d u s t r y developed and the ra i lwaysgrew, while the people l anguished in backwardness andignorance. He writes with bitterness of a count ry boy,n ine-year -o ld Vanka Zhukov (Vanka), who is appren-ticed to a Moscow cobbler. Permanent ly cold and h u n -gry, he compla ins about his l i f e in a letter to his g r a n d f a -ther and for the address puts on the envelope: "To grand-dad in the country . Kons tan t in Makarych".

    Chekhov strove to draw his reader into the creativeprocess. He wrote in such a way that the reader wouldhimself compose a mental picture f rom the separate de-tails he supplies. "For example," he argued to his broth-er Alexander , "you w i l l get a moonli t n ight if you writethat a piece of broken glass ly ing on the dam wal l glintedl ike a bright star and the d a r k shadow of a dog orwolf rolled by,..."

    Chekhov grew as a wri ter wi th r emarkab le rap id i ty .His progression f rom debutant to ma tu re master seemedto take no t ime at a l l . In the spr ing of 1886 the wri terDmitr i Grigorovich, a close acqua in tance of Dostoevskyand Turgenev, wrote a letter to h im. He en thus ia s t i ca l lygreeted Chekhov as a person of great ta lent , and urgedhim to be more demand ing and to gather his strengthfor the creation of "true works of art". This letter dis-turbed and moved Chekhov, who was not accustomed tohear ing words of praise. He replied to Grigorovich: "IfI have a g i f t worthy of respect, then I confess that h i th-erto I f a i l ed to respect it. I f e l t t h a t I had such a gi f t , butI was used to regarding it as negligible.. . ."

    The next year, 1887, saw the appearance of a book ofChekhov's stories In the Twilight, the f i r s t book to whichhe put his proper name in f u l l . Chekhov received thePushkin Prize f rom the Academy of Sciences for thisp u b l i c a t i o n . Korsh's theatre in Moscow staged his p layIvanov. Chekhov had achieved fame.

  • But he was not one to rest on his laurels . New heroesappeared in his work and new themes were explored byhis pen. He no longer sought to make his reader laugh.He wrote more and more about man 's awakening froma spi r i tua l lethargy, about his growing aspirat ion to-wards justice and happiness. Such masterpieces of the1890's as Ward No. 6, House with a Mezzanine, Ladywith a Dog, lack any par t icular intrigue, have a m i n i m u mof superf ic ia l entertainment, but look deeply into theinner world of his characters, examining their oppositionto the routine of the Philistine world they live in.

    Chekhov's plays Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sistersare akin to these stories, with their attention concen-trated on the characters' endeavour to break free of thedreary roundabout of their repetitious, empty lives. TheSeagull was a sensational success when it was performedby the Art Theatre in Moscow, produced by Stanis-

    lavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko. The seagull becamethe symbol of the Art Theatre, one of the best companiesin the country.

    Chekhov's l i f e in art was as dazzling as it was brief .He f i n a l l y succumbed to tuberculosis on July 3, 1904,a few months before the outbreak of the f i rs t Russianrevolution. His last writings increasingly adumbratedthe radiant f u t u r e of his country. "Hail, new life!" heproclaims in his last p lay , The Cherry Orchard.

    Lev Tolstoy, a writer normal ly very spar ing ofpraise, declared of Chekhov:

    "His language is remarkable. The moment I startedto read I was ut ter ly gripped by this language". It isour hope that this f i rs t encounter with Chekhov in hisnative tongue wil l delight and impress you too.

    A. Chernyshov

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