(Phoebe Taplin’s article appeared in Russia Beyond the Headlines, 9/23.)

The Prank is the collection of stories that Anton Chekhov hoped would kick-start his career as a writer. Censored in 1882, now, 133 years later, the book he intended has finally been published – in English – with the subtitle “The Best of Young Chekhov”. The collection has never appeared before, even in Russian, although many of the stories in it are well known, and only two of them are new to translation.

Chekhov the chameleon

This selection of playful tales sheds new light on the young writer, a confident foretaste of recurring themes: misogyny, pretension and lack of compassion. Chekhov appears as a chameleonic jester: here in the guise of a Spanish translator and there as a scientific journalist; a malapropistic, elderly landowner, writing to his educated neighbor, or a cantankerous mother complaining about marriage. By the end of the book, his romantic pastiche swallows its own tail in an ecstasy of meta-fictional, pre-modernist surrealism.

In the 1880s Chekhov was in his twenties and training to be a doctor. To pay the tuition fees of his Moscow medical school and support his family, he wrote a series of comic short stories under pseudonyms like Antosha Chekhonte. Already published in humorous magazines, this was to be his first book, with the revised stories illustrated by his brother Nikolai. The imperial censor rejected the manuscript, and it languished in a dusty office until a Soviet scholar rediscovered it in the 1970s.

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