Chekhov, “La mort d’un fonctionnaire”
(“The Death of a Government Clerk,” 1883)

Max Ernst, "Birth of Comedy" (1947) chekhov death of a functionary

Max Ernst, “Birth of Comedy” (1947, when Ernst was in Sedona, Arizona).

Playfully cringing through three pages, Chekhov begins with a couple of badinneries in the first six lines–the “no less fine government clerk” than the “fine evening,” and the post-modern stab at “suddenly”: “In stories one so often meets with this ‘But suddenly.’ The authors are right: life is so full of surprises.” (I’m not sure if Constance Garnette invented the exclamation marks or whether the Pléïade translators eliminated them in their generally more poetic versions). Chekhov is having a good bit of fun at his reader’s and character’s expense, neutralizing the stylistic weakness of suddenly by giving it this unexpectedly double-edged endorsement, before turning almost cruel toward Ivan Dimitritch Tcherviakov, who has the misfortune of sneezing on a general he knows. The general wipes himself. Tcherviakov can’t stop apologizing, not just that evening, to the general’s rising fury. But Tcherviakov wants an acknowledgement for his apology, not a dismissal, until, frightened by the general’s last outburst, something snaps, literally, in his gut. he feels it. he lies down. He dies. down to die. It’s one of Chekhov’s most anthologized stories.

Les éclats, 2 juillet 1883

Comments are closed.