Magazine article The Spectator

Hackwork of a Genius

Magazine article The Spectator

Hackwork of a Genius

Article excerpt

The Undiscovered Chekhov: Thirty-Eight New Stories - now there is a title to make one's mouth water. This is a book which all those who love literature will want to buy. Probably, most will be disappointed yet charmed and intrigued by this collection of comic sketches and vignettes.

The disappointment will hit readers who are expecting another `Lady with the Lapdog'. The Undiscovered Chekhov is no more (though no less) than the early hackwork of a future genius, writing as an impoverished medical student for various humorous magazines. He was proud of his hackish proficiency, telling one friend that he could write a story about anything, even snatching up the nearest object - an ashtray. He needed to: as soon as he entered university, Chekhov had become the main breadwinner in the family, supporting not just his sister and younger brothers but his parents and dissipated elder brothers too. He himself always spoke dismissively of these early money-earning efforts, both at the time `I've scratched off a mangy little sketch' and when later he lamented,

I was terribly corrupted by the fact that I was born, grew up, studied, and began to write in a milieu in which money played a shockingly large role.

He wrote to order, wrote for a market, and tailored his pieces for a severely circumscribed slot. The magazine Oskolki ('Splinters'), indeed, limited contributors to a rigidly enforced 100 lines -- which allows critics with the benefit of hindsight to murmur knowledgeably, `Superb training, of course.'

One wonders, though, whether as an unsuspecting magazine editor one would have spotted that these pieces were anything more than sharp, slick, professional contributions: surprising, certainly, very funny and very odd, but in a sharp, slick and professionally limited way. Naturally, one likes to imagine that one could have recognised the potential scope, as did his friend and patron Alexei Suvorin, the owner of the newspaper Novoye Vremya, to his eternal credit and our eternal gratitude. But would you have been equally discerning if you were a contemporary reader of this little vignette (so short that one can quote it in its entirety)?

It is a beautiful frosty day. Sunbeams play on every drop of snow. There is no wind, no cloud.

A couple is sitting on a bench on the boulevard.

'I love you,' he whispers.

Little pink cupids flush over her cheeks.

'I love you,' he continues. `When.i first set eyes upon you, I understood why Iam alive - I saw the aim of my life! It is either life with you - or absolute non-existence! Marya Ivanovna! My dearest! Yes or no? Marya! Marya Ivanovna . . . I love . . . my darling Marya . . . Please answer me, or I shall die! Yes or no?'

She raises her eyes and looks at him. She wants to say yes; she opens her mouth.

`Yuck!' she screams. On his snow-white collar, racing past each other, are two gigantic bugs . . . how disgusting!

I would have laughed, and turned the page.

With hindsight, of course, one can see some of the qualities that Chekhov made so distinctively his own. There is the comic but touching representation of romantic inarticulateness, stumbling, clich6-ridden, ridiculous yet expressive. There is the keen eye for oddities, for the unreconstructed corners of life (this is the author who liked to read out incongruous snippets from local newspapers): in this purely comic genre, the incongruity - bugs on the collar interrupting a proposal - is the only point; but in later stories inconsequential details, moments of disconcerting solidity impinging on the consciousness of the characters, suggest the refractoriness of a reality which resists human wishes and even needs. …

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