Here's a treat for any Chekhov lover: a collection of 38 previously untranslated stories by the Russian master. Even better, these stories date back to the 1880s, when the author was still in his 20s and at his most prolific. That he wrote at all is something of a miracle--unlike other great Russian authors of his time (Dostoevski, Pushkin, Tolstoy, to name a few), Anton Chekhov was not a member of the nobility. The son of a bankrupt grocer, he entered medical school and became, at the same time, the breadwinner for his impoverished family by cranking out stories for magazines. His revolutionary approach to literature was apparent from the get-go. In "Sarah Bernhardt Comes to Town," for example, Chekhov uses a string of telegrams instead of a conventional narrative to tell his story. ("Telegram: Have been drinking to Sarah's health all week! Enchanting! She actually dies standing up! Our actors can't touch the Parisians!") Even more unusual for 19th-century literature is the apparent lack of a plot. The telegrams are simply a collection of reactions to a single performance, from an usher ("Let in four. Fourteen rubles. Let in five. Fifteen r. Let in three and one madame. Fifteen rubles") to a doctor ("Last night I saw S.B. Her chest--paralytic and flat. Skeletal and muscular structure--unsatisfactory") to various members of the audience ("Darling! When it comes to Sarah Bernhardt, as the saying goes: you can dip a frog in honey but it doesn't mean I'll eat it").
All the qualities the more mature Chekhov is known for in his later works are apparent in these early stories: unconventional narratives, tremendous wit, psychological perspicacity, and above all that peculiarly modern interest in why human beings behave the way they do. Translator Peter Constantine's introduction gives readers both a good overview of Chekhov's life and a literary context for appreciating the stories collected here, but it is Chekhov himself whose remarkable brilliance will keep readers coming back for more. --Alix Wilber
From Publishers Weekly
Unearthed by translator Constantine (Six Early Stories, by Thomas Mann) from the archives of the New York Public Library, these humorous tales, sketches and vignettes written by Chekhov in his 20s stand in the same relation to the later stories as his one-act "vaudevilles" do to his major plays. Appearing in Moscow and St. Petersburg magazines under such pen names as "Antosha" and "A man without a spleen," they display the overflowing energy of a young man exploring sundry genresAsatires, sentimental portraits, domestic comedy, impressions of the commonplaceAto amuse and to earn money. While the shorter sketches are near-anonymous hackwork, some of the later, longer stories reveal Chekhovian elements, such as a querulous elderly couple "hissing and growling at each other" while their daughter's engagement is being decided ("A Serious Step"). An ailing tutor trying to get a prescription discovers he hasn't enough money ("At the Pharmacy"), and a physician brooding over his colleagues can't assume an appropriate facial expression ("Intrigues"). Throughout, readers can see Chekhov training his eye for character and sharpening his ear for dialogue, as well as reveling in a surprisingly boisterous sense of fun. Sometimes the youthful humor explodes into a carnival atmosphere, as in a community's reaction to a tour by Sarah Bernhardt ("Sarah Bernhardt Comes to Town"). These early stories, some of which have appeared recently in Harper's and the New Yorker, deliver the lightest of literary entertainment, with a glimmer of potential brilliance. (Nov.) FYI: Another Chekhov collection is noted below.
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