chekhov's humorous short stories

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  • ANTOSHA CHEKHONTE,ANTON PAVLOVICH CHEKHOV

    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