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Travis Review:

Because Grigory Petrovitch Zapoikin “possesses a rare talent for impromptu speechifying“, he is called upon to give a speech at funeral. Chekhov sets the comic tone for the story when he mentions that the deceased “had died of the two afflictions so widely spread in our country, a bad wife and alcoholism.” The piece starts out as if it is written by a gossip columnist for a city paper. (“as many of my readers are aware…“) The speech itself is funny with Zapoikin extolling on the saintly virtues of a civil servant who was “impervious to bribes”, gave alms to the poor, and “gave up the joys of this life and even renounced the happiness of domestic existence.”  He ends the speech with the ultimate backhanded compliment: “…your face was plain, even hideous, you were morose and austere, but we all know that under that outer husk there beat an honest, friendly heart.” The real comic moment happens when we find that Zapoikin has confused the wrong secretary as Prokofy Osipitch, the man he was lamenting, is alive and well, standing at a tombstone. For most writers that would have been enough — punchline duly delivered, the end — but Chekhov adds a poignant scene with Osipitch confronting Zapoikin. “Your speech may be all right for a dead man, but in reference to a living one it is nothing but sarcasm!” That line made me think of the praise that is given to people when they are dead is often so much different than what people say when people are alive. (If any praise is ever given all.) Of course there are lifetime achievements awards and other accolades where people are unabashedly praised, but that is rare and it could very easily turn into sarcasm with too much effusive acclaim.

Rating: 7

Steve Review:

Today we meet Grigory Zapoikin, who possesed “a rare talent for impromptu speechifying at weddings, jubilees, and funerals.”  On this occasion, he was asked to give an impromptu speech at the funeral of Kirill Babilonov.  The comic tone noted by Travis ran throughout the story with reflections upon what is expected at funerals of the wife and mother-in-law who “in obedience to custom shed many tears” and despite their lamentations and stated willingness to follow him to the grave, “did not follow her husband into the grave probably recollecting her pension.”  Despite the serious topic of a eulogy, I couldn’t help but have a smirk on my face while reading in anticipation of the next farcical act of feigned sorrow.  Grigory accepted the task of the eulogy as an actor preparing for a serious role:  “he ruffled up his hair, cast a shade of melancholy over his face, and went out in the street…”  They eventually caught up to the funeral procession and Grigory was given his moment at the grave site.  His words were profound and eloquent but as might be predicted, they were for the wrong man.  To make matters worse, the man to which Grigory referred was actually present at the funeral to hear his words.  After the damage is done, Chekhov makes an interesting observation.  To speak of someone in angelic terms, even if untrue, is acceptable in death but intolerable if still living.  The Latin phrase “de mortuis aut nihil aut bene” (trans: of the dead speak well or not at all) is appropriate but I found it humorous how Grigory misquoted this to say “aut mortuis nihil bene”.  I’m not sure of the exact translation but it suggests ‘nothing good of the dead’…Perhaps Chekhov was trying to make a statement about the truth behind eulogies.

Rating:  6



Notable Quotes: (not referenced in review)

“He can speak whenever he likes: in his sleep, on an empty stomach, dead drunk or in a high fever.”

“You spout out some rigmarole like a regular Cicero at the grave and what gratitude you will earn!”

“Disinterested, incorruptible, won’t take bribes! Such things can only be said of the living in sarcasm.”