IT'S TRUE THAT CHEKHOV, gathering his work for collected editions, essentially renounced these stories by excluding all of them. But when he was 22 and trying to get The Prank (Шалость) okayed by the Moscow censor in 1882, he was mighty proud of them. By the time he submitted the book, he had published several dozen stories and skits in Moscow and Petersburg humor magazines. These dozen, with two of the best on either end, he selected and ordered, and his brother Nikolay, only two years older but already a well-known artist, contributed the spirited and risqué illustrations.
Anton was the third son, but even at 19 he was his family’s savior, arriving in Moscow from Taganrog, their hometown on the Black Sea, to join his parents and younger siblings. (While his father fled creditors, Anton had stayed behind to finish school and to tutor and earn money.) His two older brothers, talented and careless, prey to drink, couldn’t stay out of their own ways. When the censors nixed the volume twice, Chekhov gave up on it; he was already publishing in bigger humor magazines. While in medical school for five years, attending classes and clinics more regularly than most students, Chekhov wrote and published several hundred short stories and skits, supporting the entire family and eventually making his parents quite comfortable.
No doubt, when the New York Review of Books introduces its publication of this title, its pages it will include, as the original book did not, the staged photograph of Anton and Nikolay, with Anton standing and looking over the seated and studiously working Nikolay’s shoulder.
In those years, says a biographer, Chekhov’s “voice was a low baritone with a soft timbre; his contemporaries remembered especially when he was excited in a conversation, his brown eyes lit up, shone, and flashed, and on his lips twinkled a quick smile.” He was as handsome as Keanu Reeves (and, by my account, 245 times as talented).
There are few letters from those days, but he was quite himself: quick and funny, highly juiced. The excited 20-year-old, having begun to make his way in the world, tells a friend, “Move to Moscow!!! I terribly love Moscow. Whoever gets used to her will not leave her. I will forever be a Moscovite … Come!!! Everything’s cheap. Buy trousers for 10 kopecks!” Who among the pantless wouldn’t come running?
One editor who occasionally published Chekhov from 1880 to 1882 posted a note to Chekhov in the magazine’s contributors’ box (this was how freelancers heard whether their pieces were accepted or not!): “You are withering without having flowered.” The British biographer Ronald Hingley doesn’t blame the editor, however, and takes no delight in these stories:
How far Chekhov was from discovering an identity in 1880 is symbolized by the signatures to his ten short publications of that year, all in Strekoza [Dragonfly]. These have seven different pseudonyms distributed among them. Mostly variations on the Christian name “Anton” and the jocular school nickname “Chekhonte,” they include the combination “Antosha Chekhonte,” his best-known pen name.
Hingley begrudges Chekhov the pen names, but Chekhov, his identity firmly in place, thought them amusing, and so can we.
Not that Hingley or anybody else knew or cared about The Prank until the scholar M. P. Gromov found it in 1967 in an archive at the pre-Soviet Moscow censorship office. Gromov points out that Chekhov “told no one anything about his first book and never wrote about it, and its fate was left secret from even those very close to him — his sister, his wife and brothers.” Gromov was able to compare the drafts from the magazines and the manuscript, and noted that, “for the book, Chekhov reworked, strengthened, corrected and polished the stories.”