Chekhov’s Prank

Chekhov started writing around 1880 to support his family while studying medicine and produced “more than 500 comic stories, spoofs, and vignettes for Moscow’s popular weekly magazines” in the 1880s. Some of them can be found in The Prank, the collection Chekhov himself compiled (and his brother Nikolai illustrated) in 1882, which was never published in the author’s lifetime but, translated by Maria Bloshteyn, appeared in the NYRB Classics series in 2015.

As Bob Blaisdell remarks,

At 19, Chekhov had the pluck of a determined writer, and he figured out how to get the format right while being funny, and how to dash off stories in a wink in order to earn enough to move his struggling family out of the red-light district… It’s fun to see him zipping and quipping in these earliest stories, most of which are unfamiliar to English readers.

Some of Chekhov’s early, “lighter,” super-short stories are probably better known to Russian readers than, say, his depressing tales from peasant life. It’s obvious from some of these early tours de force than Chekhov was a great, probably ruthless observer and was unusually mature for his age. But he was also good at purely literary exercises, such as The Flying Isles, a Laputean parody of Jules Verne:

John Lund was a Scot by birth. He had not received an education anywhere, had never studied anything, yet knew everything. He belonged to the ranks of those happy types who attain the knowledge of all that is beautiful and great with their own mind… The Drilling-Through of the Moon with a Colossal Bore was the subject of Mr. Lund’s speech.

This great man of science is unforgettable.

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