cover image Comic Stories

Comic Stories

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov. Ivan R. Dee Publisher, $14.95 (226pp) ISBN 978-1-56663-242-3

Anton Chekhov began writing comic sketches for newspapers when he was in school, continuing this practice for years to help support his family. Many of those short comic works were humorous variations on what became his most memorable, serious themes. Pitcher has dipped into the hundreds of Chekhov's short pieces to select the 40 stories included here, most of them written in the 1880s (and some translated into English for the first time). They run the gamut from the unexpectedly jaunty to prototypes of the darker ""comic-absurd"" elements often considered characteristic of Chekhov. ""He Quarreled with His Wife,"" written in 1884, features a man who mistakes his dog's affectionate embrace for his wife's touch. Some of the sketches have a similarly jokey feel, but most are more potent. Many take their satiric cues from Gogol, as in ""The Exclamation Mark,"" which concerns a civil servant who is accused of not understanding punctuation and develops a paranoid fantasy in which everyday objects transform into malevolent exclamation marks; or ""The Death of a Civil Servant,"" which reworks a theme from ""The Overcoat."" More generally attuned to Gogol's example is Chekhov's usual choice of subject: the ""little man"" compromised by his immersion in the social ranking system; the classic juxtaposition of the ignoble with the socially elevated. But Chekhov's originality and fresh comic timing emerges clearly as well. Pitcher closes the collection with two of Chekhov's better-known, later stories, ""The Darling"" and ""Encased,"" connecting these tragicomic tales with Chekhov's humorous forms. It is in part this volume's comprehensive and intelligent structure that allows the reader to better explore this exuberant side of the Russian master. (Apr.)