Sunday, December 24, 2017

`Can't Recall Your Patronymic'

“Chekhov’s publications in humor magazines initially came about for reasons that had nothing to do with the art of literature.”

If only more writers heeded Chekhov’s example. He famously started writing stories to pay his way through medical school and support his rather feckless father and his improvident family. The observation above comes from introductory text in Letters of Anton Chekhov (trans. Michael Henry Heim and Simon Karlinsky, 1973). Beginning in 1879 (the year he turned nineteen and started medical school in Moscow), Chekhov published sketches, parodies and broadly satirical tales, often under various pseudonyms, in the humor magazines of the day – Budil’nik (The Alarm Clock), Zritel’ (The Spectator), Strekoza (The Dragonfly). The writing is formulaic but deft. From the start, Chekhov understood the importance of brevity, pacing and capturing the vagaries of human nature. Karlinsky writes:

“. . . on December 24, 1879, he made his debut in print when Dragonfly published his short piece `Letter to a Learned Neighbor,’ a remarkably old-fashioned piece of writing that imitated the form and standard devices of Russian eighteenth-century satirical journals.”

The story is included in The Prank: The Best of Young Chekhov (trans. Maria Bloshteyn, New York Review Books, 2015), with illustrations by the writer’s brother, Nikolay. It is written in the form of a letter from Vasily Semi-Bulatov in the “Village of Eaten-Pancakes” to his neighbor Maxim (“can’t recall your patronymic . . . forgive me kindly!”), a scientist with the audacity to endorse Darwin’s ideas. The letter writer recalls one of Dickens’ mad, sycophantic monologists, proudly parading his ignorance. The style is overheated and grandiose, unlike Chekhov’s customary plainspoken voice:

“For if man, the ruler of the world, the smartest of all breathing creatures, descended from the stupid and ignorant ape, then he would have a tail and a beastly voice. If we had descended from apes, then in present times the Gypsies would be taking us around to various towns and we would be paying money to be exhibited to each other, dancing at the command of the Gypsy or sitting in a cage at the zoo. Are we covered with fur all over? Are we not wearing clothing, which the apes lack?”

Chekhov would write hundreds of such sketches, all the while learning his craft. He was still nearly a decade away from his early masterpieces, “The Steppe,” “A Dreary Story,” “Gusev.” Karlinsky notes of the early stories:

“The size limitations and requirements imposed by various humor magazines were particularly important in training Chekhov to rely on careful organization rather than on the traditional eventful plot for producing the impact he wanted.”

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