Chekhov’s Corpse and the Case of the Refrigerated Oysters

July 15, 2016

One hundred and twelve years ago today, Anton Chekhov drank his last glass of champagne.

His wife would describe the scene years later in her journal: “Anton sat up unusually straight and said loudly and clearly (although he knew almost no German): Ich sterbe (‘I’m dying’). The doctor calmed him, took a syringe, gave him an injection of camphor, and ordered champagne. Anton took a full glass, examined it, smiled at me and said: ‘It’s a long time since I drank champagne.’ He drained it and lay quietly on his left side, and I just had time to run to him and lean across the bed to call to him, but he had stopped breathing and was sleeping peacefully as a child….”

LittleApplesChekhov passed away in Badenweiler, a small German town near the Black Forest. His body was taken back to Russia by freight train, and somehow ended up in a refrigerated car meant for oysters. In Moscow thousands of mourners gathered to see his funeral—by the end of his life, Chekhov had won the Pushkin Prize, befriended Leo Tolstoy, and published hundreds of stories and numerous plays. But when a military band began playing behind the procession, the mourners realized that something was wrong.Soon enough the crowd found out that they’d been trailing behind the casket of Fyodor Keller, whose funeral was scheduled for the same day as Chekhov’s; in front of them was not the body of one of the greatest short fiction writers in history, but that of a general who’d been killed in the Russo-Japanese war.

Chekhov’s death and the scene thereafter seem lifted from one of his own stories—in a way, he could’ve written the tale himself. It has elements of tragedy, as the writer realizes his own death and the wife rushes to stop it; and it’s also funny, if in a dark way, with confusion and oysters and spontaneous German. Today, Chekhov’s stories are remembered more for walking (with “Little Dog” in tow) on the tragic side of life.. But it was humour that catapulted Chekhov into the literary world: as a young man in his twenties, Chekhov published numerous stories and sketches in Russia’s comic papers; these short, often absurd works were intended to catch a quick laugh from the reader, and, with payment by the line, a quick buck for the writer.


UndiscoveredChekhovSeven Stories has two collections of these early works: The Undiscovered Chekhov: Forty-Three New Stories, and, new this year, Little Apples and Other Stories. Until recently, scholars have given these early pieces less praise and attention than Chekhov’s heavier, late-career stories—contending that the earlier pieces were simply preliminary sketches for the author’s mature work.

As Cathy Popkin writes in her introduction to Little Apples: “Clearly the mythology of the ‘two Chekhovs’—one a young and callow humorist who dashed off trifles to make ends meet, the other a mature, sober tragedian who produced enduring works of art—has been tough to dislodge; the contrast between some of Chekhov’s initial efforts and his later, more widely known work is pronounced. But the connection between the early Chekhov of the comic press and the revered playwright of The Cherry Orchard is equally defining; even the last great drama of his Chekhov insisted on calling a comedy.”

Chekhov’s early stories are not so much preliminary sketches as masterpieces in one manner before the master moved on to the next. Both the early and late Chekhovs are masters of melding the futile with the funny, the lighthearted with the macabre.. They just used different recipes. So as we remember Anton Pavlovich on the day that his writing career ended, with champagne and camphor in his system, hauled off to Moscow with the oysters, it is important that we also look at where he started—namely, in Russia’s comic papers, making people laugh.

—Will Bellamy

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