Harvey Pitcher, Translator and Editor
Ivan R. Dee, 1999
The usually portrayed serious and melancholy Russian writer of the 1800s, Anton Chekhov, is quoted as saying, “Medicine is my lawful wife; literature is my mistress.” This collection of forty short and very short stories is written to make his mistress laugh. The stories are brief and often told as though they were being delivered as jokes during happy hour.
“Did you ever hear the story about the one fine morning they buried Collegiate Assessor Kirill Ivonovich Babylonov?” Chekhov might have leaned over to say. A flash fiction story then follows of not over a thousand words that ends with sardonic humor.
Through the stories the reader is reminded human nature doesn’t change, taxes and government are everyone’s bane, toothaches are always painful, and admitting you were once a circus clown can add to marital entertainment and bliss.
The stories are told forthrightly without preamble in as few words as possible. One is through the eyes of a dog, another told about a man who claims he would rather be home writing his thesis titled, “The Dog Tax: It’s Past and Future,” but instead is slowly enticed into an engagement with a woman he claims not to like. Chekhov lets the emotional lives of characters reveal itself through quick thought and action in vignettes that reveal the world he lived in.
Chekhov appears to write his stories from the view of a sympathetic observer who enjoys the frailties of human nature without demeaning it. Weaved through all of it is the unvarnished portrayal of people struggling to pay the rent, make a marriage work, deal with telephones which is the new technology of the day, or the pleasure of a good meal preceded by a drink.
“Now don’t pour the darling (vodka) into an ordinary wine glass, but into a little silver beaker that’s been in the family for generations, or one of those pot-bellied glasses with ‘Even The Monks Enjoy Their Tipple’ inscribed on it, and don’t down it immediately, but heave a contented sigh, rub your hands, glance casually at the ceiling, and only then, still taking your time, raise the vodka to your lips and at once you’ll feel a fiery glow spread from your stomach right through your body …”