The Death Of A Government Clerk by Anton Chekhov, 1883
The magic trick:
Using the absurd comedy of a social interaction as commentary
I never would have dreamed of putting Chekhov and Larry David in the same sentence before I read this story, but here we are.
The story finds our protagonist in the exact kind of ridiculous, stressful social situation we recognize from Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm. Our man accidentally sneezes on the head of a general during a show. He spends the rest of the story trying to set the situation right. So, you can guess, this is funny stuff. But this also being Chekhov – and not Larry David – there is a very serious, underlying commentary as well.
And that’s quite a trick on Chekhov’s part.
“I spattered you, your Excellency, forgive me . . . you see . . . I didn’t do it to . . . .”
“Oh, that’s enough . . . I’d forgotten it, and you keep on about it!” said the general, moving his lower lip impatiently.
“He has forgotten, but there is a fiendish light in his eye,” thought Tchervyakov, looking suspiciously at the general. “And he doesn’t want to talk. I ought to explain to him . . . that I really didn’t intend . . . that it is the law of nature or else he will think I meant to spit on him. He doesn’t think so now, but he will think so later!”
On getting home, Tchervyakov told his wife of his breach of good manners. It struck him that his wife took too frivolous a view of the incident; she was a little frightened, but when she learned that Brizzhalov was in a different department, she was reassured.
“Still, you had better go and apologise,” she said, “or he will think you don’t know how to behave in public.”
“That’s just it! I did apologise, but he took it somehow queerly . . . he didn’t say a word of sense. There wasn’t time to talk properly.”
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