The Prank: The Best of Young Chekhov (New York Review Books Classics)
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An NYRB Classics Original
The Prank is Chekhov’s own selection of the best of his early work, the first book he put together and the first book he hoped to publish. Assembled in 1882, with illustrations by Nikolay Chekhov, the book was then presented to the censor for approval—which was denied. Now, more than a hundred and thirty years later, The Prank appears here for the first time in any language.
At the start of his twenties, when he was still in medical school, Anton Chekhov was also busily setting himself up as a prolific and popular writer. Appearing in a wide range of periodicals, his shrewd, stinging, funny stories and sketches turned a mocking eye on the mating rituals and money-grubbing habits of the middle classes, the pretensions of aspiring artists and writers, bureaucratic corruption, drunken clowning, provincial ignorance, petty cruelty—on Russian life, in short. Chekhov was already developing his distinctive ear for spoken language, its opacities and evasions, the clichés we shelter behind and the clichés that betray us. The lively stories in The Prank feature both the themes and the characteristic tone that make Chekhov among the most influential and beloved of modern writers.
lofty—whatever their name is . . . In short, I’ll be a professor. I’m an honest man, Olya Maximovna. I’m not rich, but—I need a woman beside me who, by her presence”—embarrassed Olya lowered her sweet eyes; her sweet pinkie began to tremble—“who, by her presence . . . Olya! Look at the sky! See how clear and pure it is! My life is just as pure and boundless!” No sooner had my tongue extricated itself from this nonsense than Olya looked up, yanked her hand away, and clapped. Several geese and
fates are stamped with doom!”* Allow me, ma chère, to wish you the very best! I press your hand and I send my regards to Paul. I hear that he is a good husband and father. Praise be unto him! It’s a shame that he drinks like a fish, though (don’t take that as a reproach, ma chère!). Good health to you, ma chère, and good cheer. I remain your most faithful servant, MAKAR BALDASTOV * These are all opera singers who were famous in Russia at the time. *Faust (1859) is an opera written by
most wonderful and wisest woman. He hears her out in silence, his head tilted to the side, and he takes it as his holy duty to kiss her pudgy, sweaty hands that smell of pickle brine. He maintains a busy correspondence with uncles, aunts, his godmother, and childhood friends. He doesn’t read newspapers. On the sly, he reads Debay and Jozin.* When the plague broke out in Vetlianka,† he fasted and took communion five times. He suffers from watery eyes and nightmares. He is not particularly
sleep on the floor in the kitchen on ragged bedding crawling with bedbugs and cockroaches). Chekhov’s last play, The Cherry Orchard (1904), closes with the same heartbreaking figure of the old man abandoned to die that first appeared in “St. Peter’s Day.” In The Prank, as in his later works, Chekhov records life’s quirks without moralizing commentary, leaving the reader to reach his own conclusions, the very quality that sets him apart from his great predecessors. Where Dostoyevsky is
performed for Count Barabanta-Alimonda. I don’t know whether it’s enough, though. Could you . . . could you lend us a bit of money for that tin compress?” “Lead compress, donna.” “We’ll pay you back soon.” “I can’t, donna. I spent the last of my money on three reams of paper.” “Goodbye, then!” “ !” said Zinzaga and bowed. The wife of the actor-to-be of the royal theaters had turned away from Zinzaga to be immediately replaced by the resident of suite 101, the wife of the singer, cellist,