The Comic Storiesby Anton Chekhov, Harvey Pitcher (Translator)
By 1888, when he was just twenty-eight, Chekhov had published a staggering 528 stories, about half of them comic. Unpretentious, lively, and inventive, these comic stories have long been affectionately regarded in Russia, but publishers in the West, overawed by the prevailing image of Chekhov as a melancholy genius, have resisted the down-to-earth humorist. This
By 1888, when he was just twenty-eight, Chekhov had published a staggering 528 stories, about half of them comic. Unpretentious, lively, and inventive, these comic stories have long been affectionately regarded in Russia, but publishers in the West, overawed by the prevailing image of Chekhov as a melancholy genius, have resisted the down-to-earth humorist. This collection is the first substantial volume in English devoted solely to the comic stories. The forty stories here reveal the full range of Chekhov’s comic mastery: simple sketches, almost like verbal cartoons; outrageous parodies and stories with a comic twist; satirical and subversive pieces that foreshadow the anti-authoritarian attitudes of his later work; and excursions into the absurd that hint of his later stage dialogue. In these early comic stories Chekhov found himself as an artist. Readers unfamiliar with them may miss the countless touches of humor in the later and more famous plays and stories. Tolstoy, who disliked Chekhov’s plays, was reduced to helpless fits of laughter by his comic stories. They have a sense of fun and infectious good humor.
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He Quarrelled with his Wife
`To hell with you! A chap comes home from the office as hungry as a horse and look at the rubbish he's offered! And if he dares say anything, we have floods of tears! I wish to God I'd never married!'
So saying, he banged his spoon down on his plate, jumped up and went out, slamming the door furiously behind him. She began sobbing, clasped her serviette to her face and also left the room. End of meal.
On reaching his study, he threw himself down on the sofa and buried his face in the cushion.
`What on earth possessed me to get married?' he thought. `If this is "family life", you can keep it! I'm no sooner married than I want to shoot myself!'
A quarter of an hour later soft footsteps were heard outside the door ...
`Oh yes, the usual pattern ... She insults me, behaves outrageously, and now she's out there wanting to make it up ... Well, blow that, I'd rather hang myself!'
The door opened with a faint squeak and did not close again. Someone had come into the room and approached the sofa with quiet timid footsteps.
`That's right! Beg my forgiveness, implore me, start sobbing ... A fat lot of good that'll do you! You won't get a word out of me and that's final ... Can't you see I'm asleep and don't want to talk?'
He buried his head deeper in the cushion and snored quietly. But men are as weak as women. It's easy to thaw them out and make themsweet again. Aware of a warm body behind him, he stubbornly shifted his position closer to the back of the sofa and twitched his leg.
`Oh yes, now we creep in and snuggle up to me and start fawning. Soon we'll start kissing my shoulder and kneeling in front of me. I can't stand these endearments! Still, I'll have to forgive her. It's bad for her to worry in her condition. I'll let her stew for an hour as a punishment and then forgive her.'
A profound sigh flew quietly right past his ear. Then a second and a third ... He felt the touch of a small hand on his shoulder.
`To hell with it, I'll forgive her this last time. I've tormented her long enough, poor thing! Especially as it was my fault! Making a fuss over nothing!'
`Let's call it a day, then, my little pet!' he said, stretching his arm out behind him and clasping a warm body.
Beside him lay his large dog Diana.
Notes from the Memoirs of a Man of Ideals
On the 10th of May I took twenty-eight days' leave, scrounged a hundred roubles on credit from our cashier and made up my mind that come what may I'd live `the good life', live it right up to the hilt, so that for the next ten years I'd be able to live on memories alone.
You do know, don't you, what is meant by `the good life' in the best sense of the term? It doesn't mean going to the operetta at a summer theatre, dining out and returning home tipsy in the early hours. It doesn't mean going to an exhibition, then on to the races and throwing your money about round the tote. No, if you want to live the good life, board a train and go to a place where the scent of lilac and bird cherry permeates the air, where lilies of the valley and butterfly orchids compete to caress your eye with their delicate whiteness and gleaming diamond-coloured dewdrops. That's where you'll understand what life is all about in the wide open spaces, beneath the blue vault of heaven, amidst the green woods and babbling brooks, in the society of birds and green beetles! Throw in two or three encounters with a wide-brimmed hat, darting eyes and a little white apron ... All these thoughts, I'm bound to say, were in my mind as I moved out to the country, holiday permit in my pocket and basking in the generosity of our cashier.
On the advice of a friend, I rented a datcha from Sofya Pavlovna Knigina. It consisted of a spare room in her own datcha, equipped with a table, furniture and other conveniences. Renting it couldn't have been simpler. On reaching Pererva and going to look for Knigina's datcha, I remember mounting a terrace and stopping in confusion. It was a nice, cosy, charming little terrace, but even nicer and cosier (if you'll pardon the expression) was the buxom young lady sitting at a table on the terrace drinking tea. She peered up at me and said:
`How can I help you?'
`Do forgive me,' I began. `I think I think I must be in the wrong place. I'm looking for Knigina's datcha ...'
`I am Knigina ... How can I help you?'
I was taken aback ... I was used to thinking of the landladies of apartments or datchas as rheumaticky old individuals smelling of stale coffee grounds, but here `angels and ministers of grace defend us,' as Hamlet says here sat this wonderful, splendid, astonishing, captivating individual. I stammered out an explanation of what I wanted.
`How delightful! Do sit down! Your friend wrote to me. Would you like some tea? Cream or lemon?'
There is a certain kind of female (most frequently blonde) with whom you feel quite at home, like old friends, in no more than a couple of minutes. Sofya Pavlovna was just such a one. After the first glass of tea I already knew that she was unmarried and living on the interest from capital, and that she was expecting a visit from her aunt; and I knew the reasons that had prompted her to let one of her rooms. To begin with, 120 roubles was a lot for one person to pay, and then being alone was a bit scary: a thief might break in during the night, or some crazy peasant stumble in during the day! And it was perfectly proper for a single lady or gentleman to occupy the corner room.
`Still, I prefer men!' sighed the landlady, licking jam off a spoon. `They're less bother and I feel safer ...'
In a word, within an hour or so Sofya Pavlovna and I had become friends.
`Oh!' I suddenly thought as I said goodbye. `We've talked about everything except the most important thing of all. How much should I pay you? I shall only be with you for twenty-eight days ... I'd like a meal, of course ... and tea, and so on.'
`Do we have to talk about that? Pay me what you can ... I'm not letting the room for money, but just ... for the company ... Is 25 roubles all right?'
Naturally, I agreed, and so my datcha life began. The interesting thing about datcha life is that each day and each night is like the one before yet this very monotony is so delightful, and what days and nights they are! Reader, I'm in raptures, allow me to embrace you! In the morning I'd wake up without a single thought of work and drink tea with cream. At 11 I'd go in to wish my landlady good morning and join her in drinking coffee with rich warmed-up cream on top. Between coffee and dinner we'd chat. At two dinner, and what a dinner! Imagine you're feeling as hungry as a horse, you sit down at table, knock back a large glass of blackcurrant vodka and follow it with hot salted beef and horse-radish. Then imagine cold kvass soup or green shchi with sour cream etc., etc. After dinner a quiet lie-down, reading a novel, and having to jump up every other minute, as my landlady keeps appearing by my door, saying `don't move, don't move!' Then a bathe. In the evening until well into the night a walk with Sofya Pavlovna. Imagine yourself at eventide, when everything is asleep except the nightingale and a heron crying from time to time, when the sound of a distant train barely reaches you on the faintly stirring breeze imagine walking in the woods or along the railway embankment with a buxom little blonde, who hugs herself coquettishly in the cool evening air and every so often turns her pale moonlit face towards you ... Terrific!
Within a week that event occurred which the reader has long been anticipating and which no decent story can do without ... I was unable to resist ... Sofya Pavlovna listened to my declarations indifferently, almost coldly, as if she had long been anticipating them, and merely pouted sweetly, as if to say:
`I don't know why you're making such a fuss about it!'
Those twenty-eight days flashed past in a second. When my leave expired, feeling miserable and dissatisfied, I had to say goodbye to the datcha and to Sonya. As I packed my suitcase, my landlady was sitting on the sofa wiping her eyes. Almost in tears myself, I comforted her and promised to come and see her at the datcha on my days off and to visit her during the winter in Moscow.
`Oh!' I suddenly thought, `when are we going to settle up, dear heart? How much do I owe you?'
`Later, later ...' said the object of my affections, sobbing.
`Why later? Never mix business and pleasure, as the saying goes, and besides I'd hate to feel I was living at your expense. Don't make things difficult, Sonya ... How much?'
`It's ... a trifling sum,' said my landlady, sobbing and opening a table drawer. `You could always pay me later.'
Sonya rummaged in the drawer, pulled out a piece of paper and handed it to me.
`Is this the bill?' I asked. `Splendid, absolutely splendid ... (I put on my glasses) we'll settle up and that'll be fine... (I glanced through the bill.) Grand total ... Hang on, what's this? Grand total ... But this can't be right, Sonya! It says "212 roubles 44 kopecks". That's not my bill.'
`It's yours, Doodie! You check!'
`But why is it so much? Board and lodging 25 roubles, agreed ... Use of servant 3 roubles, well, yes, I agree to that ...'
`I don't understand, Doodie,' my landlady said slowly, looking at me in astonishment with her tear-filled eyes. `Surely you believe me? Count it up if you don't! You drank blackcurrant vodka ... I could hardly give you vodka for dinner at that price! You had cream with your tea and coffee ... then there were strawberries, cucumbers, cherries ... As for coffee, you hadn't said you wanted any, but drank it every day! Still, they're such trifling items that I can knock off 12 roubles if you wish. Let's just say 200.'
`But there's an item here for 75 roubles without any details ... What's that for?'
`What's that for? Well, I ask you!'
I looked at her pretty little face. It had such an open, sincere and astonished expression that my tongue couldn't utter a single word. I gave Sonya a hundred roubles and a promissory note for another hundred, humped my suitcase on to my shoulders and set off for the station.
Can anyone out there lend me a hundred roubles?
A Dreadful Night
Ivan Petrovich Spektroff's face grew pale and his voice quavered as he turned down the lamp and began his story:
`It was Christmas Eve 1883. The earth lay shrouded in impenetrable darkness. I was returning home from the house of a friend (who has since died), where we had all been sitting up late attending a seance. For some reason the streets through which I was passing were unlit, and I had almost to grope my way along. I was living in Moscow, near the Church of St Mary-in-the-Tombstones, in a house belonging to the civil servant Kadavroff in other words, in one of the remotest parts of the Arbat district. My thoughts as I walked along were gloomy and depressing ...
"The end of your life is at hand ... Repent ... '
Such had been the words addressed to me at the seance by Spinoza, whose spirit we had succeeded in calling up. I asked for confirmation, and the saucer not only repeated the words, but added: "This very night." I am not a believer in spiritualism, but the thought of death, or even the merest allusion to it, is enough to plunge me into despondency. Death is inevitable, my friends, it is commonplace, but nevertheless the thought of death is repugnant to human nature ... Now, as cold, unfathomable darkness hemmed me in and raindrops whirled madly before my eyes, as the wind groaned plaintively above my head and I could neither see a single living soul nor hear a single human sound around me, my heart filled with a vague, inexplicable dread. I, a man free from superstition, hurried through the streets afraid to look around or glance to either side. I felt sure that if I did look round, I would see an apparition of death close behind me.'
Spektroff gulped for breath, drank some water and continued:
`This feeling of dread, which despite its vagueness you will all recognize, did not leave me even when I climbed to the third floor of Kadavroff's house, unlocked the door and entered my room. It was dark in my humble abode. The wind was moaning in the stove and tapping on the damper, almost as though it were begging to be let into the warm.
If Spinoza was telling the truth, I reflected with a smile, then I am to die this night to the accompaniment of these moans. What a gruesome thought!
I lit a match ... A violent gust of wind raced across the roof. The quiet moaning turned to a ferocious roar. Somewhere down below a half-loose shutter started banging, and the damper began whining plaintively for help ...
Pity the poor devils, I thought, without a roof over their heads on a night like this.
The moment was to prove inopportune, however, for reflections of that kind. When the sulphur of my match flared up with a blue flame and I looked round the room, an unexpected, a terrifying spectacle met my eyes ... Oh, why didn't that gust of wind blow out my match? Then perhaps I should have seen nothing and my hair would not have stood on end. I gave a wild cry, took a step backwards towards the door, and filled with terror, amazement and despair, closed my eyes ...
In the centre of the room stood a coffin.
The blue flame did not last long, but I had time to make out the coffin's main features ... I saw its richly shimmering pink brocade, I saw the gold-embroidered cross on its lid. There are certain things, my friends, which imprint themselves on one's memory, even when one has glimpsed them but for a single moment. So it was with that coffin. I saw it but for a second, yet I recall it in the most minute detail. It was a coffin made for a person of medium height, and judging by the pink colour, for a young girl. The expensive silk brocade, the feet, the bronze handles all these suggested that the deceased came from a wealthy family.
I rushed headlong from my room, not stopping to think or consider but experiencing only unutterable fear, and flew downstairs. The staircase and corridors were in darkness, I kept tripping over my coat-tails, and how I avoided tumbling head-over-heels down the stairs and breaking my neck, I shall never know. Finding myself in the street, I leant up against a wet lamppost and tried to recover my composure. My heart was thumping horribly and I had a tight feeling across the chest ...'
One of the listeners turned up the lamp and moved her chair closer to the narrator, who continued:
`I would not have been so taken aback if I had discovered in my room a fire, a thief or a mad dog ... I would not have been so taken aback if the ceiling had come down, the floor had collapsed or the walls had caved in ... All that is natural and comprehensible. But how could a coffin have turned up in my room? Where had it come from? How had an expensive coffin, evidently made for a young girl of noble birth, found its way into the miserable room of a minor civil servant? Was the coffin empty or was it occupied? And who was this she, this rich young aristocrat who had quitted life so prematurely and paid me this dread, disturbing visit? It was a tantalizing mystery!
If it's not a case of the supernatural, the thought flashed through my mind, then there's foul play involved.
I became lost in conjecture. My door had been locked while I was out, and only my very close friends knew where I kept the key. But the coffin certainly hadn't been left by friends. Then it was also conceivable that the undertakers had delivered the coffin to me in error. They might have muddled up the names, mistaken the floor number or the door, and taken the coffin to the wrong place. But who ever heard of Moscow undertakers leaving a room without being paid, or at least waiting for a tip?
The spirits foretold my death, I thought. Perhaps they've already set about providing me with a coffin, too?
I am not a believer in spiritualism, my friends, nor was I then, but such a coincidence is enough to plunge even a philosopher into a mood of mysticism.
But all this is absurd, I decided, and I'm being as cowardly as a schoolboy. It was an optical illusion no more than that! On my way home I was in such a gloomy state of mind that it's hardly surprising my overwrought nerves thought they saw a coffin ... Of course, an optical illusion! What else could it be?
The rain was lashing my face, and the wind kept tugging angrily at my hat and coat-tails ... I was wet through and chilled to the bone. I would have to find shelter but where? To go back home would mean running the risk of seeing the coffin again, and that was a spectacle beyond my powers of endurance. Not seeing a single living soul or hearing a single human sound around me, left alone in the company of a coffin which perhaps contained a dead body, I might easily lose my reason. But to remain on the street in the cold and pouring rain was equally impossible.
I decided to go and spend the night with my friend Lugubrovitch (who, as you know, was later to shoot himself). He lived in a block of furnished rooms belonging to the merchant Skeletoff the ones on the corner of Deadman's Passage.'
Spektroff wiped away the beads of cold perspiration that had gathered on his pallid brow, and with a deep sigh continued:
`I did not find my friend at home. After knocking on his door and deciding he must be out, I felt for his key on the lintel, unlocked the door and went in. I flung my wet coat on the floor, and feeling my way to the sofa, sat down to recuperate. It was very dark ... The wind droned mournfully in the ventilator. Behind the stove a cricket chirped over and over again its monotonous song. The Kremlin bells had begun to ring for Christmas morning communion. Hastily I struck a match. But its light did not dispel my gloomy mood; on the contrary. A dreadful, unutterable terror seized me again ... I cried out, staggered backwards, and rushed blindly from the apartment ...
In my friend's room I had seen the same as in my own a coffin!
My friend's coffin was almost twice as large as mine, and its subfusc upholstery gave it a peculiarly gloomy appearance. How had it got there? That it was an optical illusion now seemed quite certain there couldn't be a coffin in every room! I was obviously suffering from a nervous disorder, from hallucinations. Wherever I now went, I would see before me the dreadful dwelling-place of death. In other words I was going mad, I was suffering from a kind of "coffinomania", and the cause of my derangement was not hard to find: I had only to recall the spiritualist seance and the words of Spinoza ...
I'm going mad! I thought to myself with terror, clutching my head. Oh my God! What am I to do?
My head was splitting and my knees shaking ... The rain was pouring down in buckets, the wind was piercing right through me, and I had neither coat nor hat. To go back to the apartment for them was impossible, beyond my powers of endurance ... Fear gripped me firmly in her cold embrace. My hair was standing on end and cold perspiration streamed down my face, even though I believed that the coffin was only a hallucination.'
`What was I to do?' Spektroff continued. `I was going mad and in danger of catching a violent cold. Fortunately I remembered that not far from Deadman's Passage lived my good friend Kryptin, a recently qualified doctor, who had also been at the seance with me that night. I hurried round to his place. This was before he married his merchant heiress, and he was still living on the fourth floor of a house belonging to state counsellor Nekropolsky.
At Kryptin's my nerves were fated to undergo yet another ordeal. As I was climbing to the fourth floor, I heard above me a terrible din of running footsteps and slamming doors.
"Help!" I heard a soul-piercing cry. "Help! Porter!"
And a moment later a dark figure in a coat and battered top-hat came hurtling down the stairs towards me ...
"Kryptin!" I exclaimed, recognizing my friend. "Is that you, Kryptin? Whatever's wrong?"
Kryptin pulled up short and clutched my hand convulsively. He was pale, breathing heavily and trembling. His eyes were rolling wildly and his chest was heaving ...
"Is that you, Spektroff?" he asked in a sepulchral voice. "Is that really you? You're as white as a ghost ... Are you quite sure you're not a hallucination? ... My God ... you scare me stiff ..."
"But what about you? You look ghastly!"
"Phew, let me get my breath back, old chap ... It's wonderful to see you, if it really is you and not an optical illusion. That damned sance ... Would you believe it, my nerves were so overwrought that when I got back to my room just now I thought I saw a coffin!"
I could not believe my ears and asked for confirmation.
"A coffin, a real coffin!" said the doctor, sitting down exhausted on one of the stairs. "I'm no coward, but the devil himself would get a fright if he came home after a seance and bumped into a coffin in the dark!"
Stumbling and stammering, I told the doctor about the coffins I had seen ...
For a moment we gazed at each other, our eyes popping and our mouths gaping in astonishment. Then, to make sure we were not seeing hallucinations, we began pinching each other.
"We both feel pain," said the doctor, "which means that we're not asleep and seeing each other in a dream. And that means the coffins mine and your two are not optical illusions but really do exist. So what's our next move, old man?"
After standing for a solid hour on the cold staircase and losing ourselves in conjecture and surmise, we were chilled to the bone and made up our minds to cast aside cowardly fear and wake up the floor porter, in order to return with him to the doctor's room. This we did. On entering the apartment, we lit a candle and there indeed we saw a coffin, covered in white silk brocade, with a gold fringe and tassels. The porter crossed himself reverently.
"Now we can find out," said the doctor, pale faced and trembling all over, "whether this coffin is empty, or or inhabited!"
After an understandably long period of indecision, the doctor bent over, and gritting his teeth in dread and anticipation, wrenched off the lid of the coffin. We looked inside and ...
The coffin was empty.
There was no dead body, but we did find a letter which read as follows:
"My dear Kryptin! As you know, my father-in-law's business has been going from bad to worse. He's up to his neck in debt. Tomorrow or the day after they're coming to make an inventory of all his stock, which will deal the death blow to his family and mine, and to our honour, which is dearer to me than anything. At our family conference yesterday we decided to hide everything precious and valuable. As my father-in-law's stock consists entirely of coffins (he is, as you know, a master coffin-maker, the best in town), we decided to hide away all the best coffins. I appeal to you as a friend to help me save our fortune and our honour! In the hope that you will assist us in preserving our stock, I am sending you one coffin, old chap, with the request that you keep it until it is required. Without the help of our friends and acquaintances we shall certainly perish. I hope this is not too much to ask, especially as the coffin will not be with you for more than a week. I have sent a coffin each to all those I consider our true friends and am relying on their nobility and generosity.
Affectionately yours, Ivan Nekstovkin."
For three months afterwards I was under a specialist in nervous disorders, whilst our friend, the coffin-maker's son-in-law, not only saved his honour and his stock, but set up a funeral parlour and deals in memorials and tombstones. His business is none too healthy, and now, when I come home each evening, I am always afraid I'm going to see a white marble memorial or a catafalque by my bedside.'
Meet the Author
Harvey Pitcher, a graduate of St. John’s College, Oxford, and author of several books on Russian culture, has also written The Chekhov Play and co-translated Chekhov: The Early Stories, which was highly acclaimed for its original choice of stories and the quality of its translation.
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I have been an admirer of Anton Chekhov for years, read all of his plays and most all of his stories. This one was new to me and I was alerted to it in Lynn Truss's book, "Eats, Shoots and Leaves", where she referred to the comic story "The Exclamation Mark, a Christmas Story". The protagonist is trying to fall asleep trying to remember if he ever used an exclamation mark in his work as collegiate secretary. Sly and satirical wit characterizes this and all stories in this delightful volume. Some stories are only one page, some a bit longer, all of them worth the time for joy and relaxation