“People only laugh at what's funny or what they don't understand. Take your choice.”
The writer at age twenty-six is already a shrewd judge of human folly, though his observation is not definitive. People laugh at terrible things no one judges conventionally funny, including pain, humiliation and death. Thus, we laugh at Falstaff, Uncle Toby, Buster Keaton and Beckett (“Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that . . .”). The writer, Anton Chekhov, was already a mordantly funny writer on the way to becoming a profound one. But here, in March 1886, he is writing to his older brother Nikolai, a painter and drunk who as a child showed great artistic promise. Go here to view Nikolai’s portrait of Anton, who addresses his letter to “Dear Zabelin.” The editors of Letters of Anton Chekhov (trans. Michael Henry Heim and Simon Karlinsky, 1973) identify Zabelin as “the name of the Zvenigorod town drunk.” In his nuanced letter, Chekhov is alternately harsh, jovial, encouraging and archly funny. He tells Nikolay “you are no riddle to me” and
“. . . and it is also true that you can be wildly ridiculous. You're nothing but an ordinary mortal, and we mortals are enigmatic only when we're stupid, and we're ridiculous forty-eight weeks of the year. Isn't that so?”
In the Chekhov family soap opera we can already discern the outline of “A Boring Story” (1889). Chekhov lists eight qualities of “well-bred” people, including: “They respect the individual and are therefore always indulgent, gentle, polite and compliant. They do not throw a tantrum over a hammer or a lost eraser.” What Chekhov describes is the opposite of the alcoholic personality, with its touchiness, self-pity, resentment and all-around self-obsession. The drunk, dedicated to getting his way, forever sabotages his strivings and blames it all on others. Anton’s mingled scolding and pleading at the conclusion of his letter will be familiar to anyone who has lived with an alcoholic:
“Trips back and forth to Yakimanka Street [where the Chekhov family lived] won’t help. You’ve got to drop your old way of life and make a clean break. Come home. Smash your vodka bottle, lie down on the couch and pick up a book. You might even give Turgenev a try. You’ve never read him.
“You must swallow your pride. You’re no longer a child. You’ll be thirty soon. It’s high time!
“I'm waiting . . . We’re all waiting . . .”
Nikolai was dead three years later of tuberculosis aggravated by alcoholism, at age thirty-one. The same disease would kill his little brother at age forty-four.