cover image The Prank: The Best of Young Chekhov

The Prank: The Best of Young Chekhov

Anton Chekhov, trans. from the Russian by Maria Bloshteyn. New York Review Books, $14.95 trade paper (140p) ISBN 978-1-59017-836-2

Chekhov selected the 12 stories gathered here for publication in what he intended to be his first collection in 1882, but the book was suppressed by censors. Now NYRB has printed the stories, together with illustrations by Chekhov’s brother Nikolay, in one of the most oddly fascinating documents to emerge from the publisher’s extraordinary catalogue. It is a rare peek into the tastes of the 19th-century Russian public and the juvenilia of a canonized writer. The stories themselves are light comedies, almost farcically inane, bearing none of the adult Chekhov’s delicacy or mastery of character. “Artists’ Wives” is a domestic cartoon about a self-absorbed writer and his long-suffering wife; “Papa” concerns a confrontation between an overzealous parent and his child’s teacher; “A Confession” lists the romantic mishaps of a hapless writer; and “A Sinner from Toledo” is a comedy about a husband forced to give up his wife to witch hunters. The book also includes parodies of Jules Verne and Victor Hugo. There are decent stories, such as “St. Peter’s Day,” about a drunken hunting party, and appealing experiments, such as “A Letter to a Learned Man.” But the real value of this volume is in seeing what offended the tsarist censors, and in the slightly morbid thrill of catching a genius in embryo. These occasionally funny stories should be required reading for any young writer looking for encouragement. Thankfully, Chekhov outgrew these harmless sketches—all mercifully shorter than your average workshop submission. (May)