When Anton Chekhov was in his early twenties, he had already amassed a large amount of work — over sixty stories over the course of a couple of years. At the age of twenty-two, he and his older brother Nikolai put together a book, which Chekhov (the one who gets to claim the last name forevermore) called The Prank, in which Chekhov placed what he thought were the best twelve stories he’d written, to be accompanied by Nikolai’s illustrations. Though these stories had already been published in various outlets as standalone pieces, something about the collection drew the ire of the censors. The book was prepped but never printed. Never, that is, until now, 130 years later, and only in English translation. Thanks to the fine folks at NYRB Classics and to the fine translating skills of Maria Bloshteyn, we can finally read these stories (several of which have never been available in English) and see the book Chekhov intended to use to forge his literary breakthrough (thankfully, he still managed).
The Prank completely disarmed me. I’m a fan of Chekhov, and I have my idea of who he was and what he was about. However, that idea come from reading only a dozen or so of his most famous short stories and having only seen a couple of his plays — that is to say, my idea of the great writer is mostly inherited: his work is concise, observant, often sad with soft tickle of humor. I’m delighted to have my conception of the artist — a conception so clearly deficient — enhanced (though not proven incorrect) to include the kind of whimsy and silliness on display in The Prank. Silliness of the first order, I should say, as it is usually employed to skewer the subjects in these books (I admit, and am not ashamed, that I thought of Monty Python quite often while reading The Prank).
As stated above, the book contains twelve stories spread across just over 100 pages.
- Artist’s Wives
- 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
- 1,001 Passions, or, a Dreadful Night
They go down quickly (which is nice, because they’re also re-readable), especially since this edition thankfully includes Nikolai’s illustrations. These illustrations should not be downplayed: besides showcasing the artistic skill of the young Nikolai, whose sad life (alcohol, the street) was not to last the decade, are part of the book’s charm and whimsy.
These two young artists lacked reverence for the institutions of their day (institutions we’ll find quite familiar even here and now), and it seems the primary failure of all of these institutions is their reliance on humans, who are at best always fallible but who also rarely escape a deep sense of self-aggrandizement. For example, in “Artist’s Wives,” we go to a residence in which many different artists — an author, a singer, a composer, a sculptor, etc. — benefit from the generous, and apparently tasteless, patron. The artists are ridiculous — “a young novelist, very famous (only to himself), showing signs of great promise (only to himself)” — and are also unfortunately married; that is to say, it’s unfortunate for their wives. These wives recognize that their husbands are essentially egotistical failures, but many push that down, taking upon themselves extreme sacrifices to ensure their husbands are free to focus on their art. Not that their husbands would expect less.
So the first story pokes fun at “artists,” and it is notable that these artists are, for the most part, not Russian. The boarding house is in Lisbon, Portugal, and the story presents itself as “translated . . . from the Portuguese.” But Chekhov structured this series of stories so that they’d creep up on and poke those closest to home. We get a father who, because he simply cannot bear undue hubbub in his home, goes to a school to convince a teacher to elevate his mediocre child. A bunch of men, from various strata of the Russian professional class, fumble around the hunting grounds on St. Peter’s Day. Men continue to bumble throughout, imposing their stupidity not only on the arts but also on the sciences and, perhaps most damning of all to this book’s fate, the government.
This is, obviously, an important book for fans of Chekhov, who should gobble it up as it showcases an important historical chapter in the life of one of the most influential writers ever. That said, it is no mere curiosity. Chekhov, I hope I’ve suggested at least, was a brilliant writer even at this young stage. Had he written nothing else, this would still be a book for lovers of literature in general.
Over at Goodreads there is a reading group devoted to NYRB Classics (see here). There I maintain a page that keeps track of what’s coming from NYRB Classics, and each and every book NYRB Classics has ever published has its own thread. Besides the wealth of information about the great publisher’s work, the group also selects a monthly group read. August’s book is The Prank. We’d love it if you came and joined in. You can find the page devoted to discussing The Prank here. It’ll be well worth the time!