Let me first disabuse the reader. There is nothing undiscovered in these early stories, which Chekhov wrote mostly when he was a medical student, specifically for the Moscow and St Petersburg comic weeklies. As a mature writer, he excluded them from his Collected Works (or forgot to include them). Peter Constantine’s excited introduction, relating his discovery of these stories in bound volumes of the comic weekly Oskolki in the New York Public Library, is specious hype. All these stories can be found in any university library in America or Europe with a modest Russian holding, for they are included with notes and variants in the major Soviet collected editions (in enormous print-runs) of Chekhov’s complete works. There may well be some undiscovered (and unsigned) Chekhov in the Moscow comic weeklies: stylistic analysts are crunching them through their computers. The archives of Moscow University’s medical faculty probably have a few more of Chekhov’s clinical essays (and the historia morbi was a genre which shaped his writing) to be dug up. If any undiscovered work is left to be found in Oskolki, then it is the Daumier-like sketches and cartoons by Chekhov’s dissolute elder brother, Nikolai. Reproducing and publishing Nikolai’s artwork really would be launching an undiscovered Chekhov on the world.
Constantine must be judged not as a discoverer, but as a translator and anthologist. As a translator, he is very good – although the choice of stories has clearly depended on what lends itself to translation and not what is the best in Chekhov’s early work. He makes quite a few howlers: for example, podkosilis’ nogi comes out as ‘his feet started shaking’, instead of ‘his legs gave way’. And he makes unacknowledged omissions, when the puns of Chekhov’s ‘Glossary of Terms for Young Ladies’ prove intractable.
As for the selection of stories. Constantine has gathered together a handful of representative early Chekhov. Despite the extravagant responses elicited from Vanessa Redgrave, there is little here that would stand out from routine contributions to Punch or Oskolki in the 1880s. Had Chekhov died of TB in 1886, or had he decided to make medicine a full-time profession – had he, in fact, not received a letter of fulsome encouragement from Dmitri Grigorovich, the Grand Old Man of Russian literature, followed by a lucrative contract from the Rupert Murdoch of the day Aleksei Suvorin, I wonder if any of Chekhov’s early work would be remembered, let alone translated, today. Nevertheless, the early comic works show a gift for laconic wit, surreal vision and, in one story that Constantine translates (‘Autumn’), pathos: but only hindsight makes us single these out from the mass of competent hack-work that fed the appetite of St Petersburg’s and Moscow’s new literates. Very often, if Chekhov is original in this early work, it is because his impatience with the genre and his need to earn five kopecks a line as fast as possible make him flippant, mocking and, in the best sense of the word, absurd.
A number of early Chekhov works do show signs of genius: notably his only novel, called A Shooting Party (a parody of a detective novel), and this work has not been re-translated since the 1920s, although fifteen years ago it found a champion in Julian Symon and was reissued. Chekhov’s serious early stories, such as ‘Belated Flowers’ or ‘The Lady’, may incline towards sensational melodrama, but they contain in embryo the material and manner of the mature Chekhov’s prose. It was not because of these early comic stories (as Constantine implies), but despite them, that Chekhov received the Pushkin Prize (or more exactly, a half of it) in 1888. For deserting the comic genre and taking himself and literature seriously, as Suvorin and Grigorovich had implored him to do, Chekhov was rewarded by admission to the pantheon. And after the prize, he wrote comic pieces only when in need of a quick rouble, or when a friendly editor had to be appeased.
Nevertheless, Constantine’s anthology helps to fill out our picture of Chekhov, and increases our wonder that from such lowly origins a major genius could arise. Constance Garnett, in her now unavailable dozen volumes of Chekhov, translated some of the early comic work, but she was aware only of the stories that Chekhov himself had wanted to survive him. Ronald Hingley’s Oxford Chekhov of the 1970s begins with the mature work of 1888 – a pity, since Hingley has a Wodehousian style ideally suited to early Chekhov. Only Harvey Pitcher and Patrick Miles have, in the past few years, produced substantial and professional English versions of the earlier work, and since they selected the most interesting stories, they have left Constantine limited scope for astonishing us. With Chekhov, as with most other Russian writers, the English-reading public (unlike the German-reading public) has been poorly served by its translators, both in range and in quality. For that reason we should be grateful to Constantine, who writes very well. Now perhaps he will provide us with versions of the ‘serious’ early stories – A Shooting Party cries out for a new English version.