Tuesday, January 16, 2007

`Being Without You is Like Being Without Hands'

Dave Lull asked me to recommend a translation of Chekhov’s stories, and I regret having flooded him with a surfeit of information. Normally, I keep such things brief. Too much enthusiasm can scuttle the enthusiasm of others. Consider the Jehovah’s Witnesses. My excuse is that Chekhov is one of those rare writers one loves equally for his life and work. Without falling for the biographical fallacy, you accept the two as inextricable compliments. You wish to read everything by such writers and most things about them. On my list: Montaigne, Samuel Johnson, Thoreau, Henry James, Samuel Beckett, John Berryman.

To Dave I suggested the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of 30 chronologically arranged stories, titled Stories, published by Bantam in 2000. Let’s hope they put out more. Inevitably, we English-language readers owe a debt to the industrious Constance Garnett who, between 1916 and 1922, translated and published 201 of Chekhov’s stories in 13 volumes. In the nineteen-eighties, the Ecco Press reissued them and I acquired the entire set, even though the order of the stories remains random and you get little sense of Chekhov’s development as a writer. Someone has created a website where all 201 stories can be read in order. Garnett’s slightly fusty English has a charm many of us find inseparable from the charm of Chekhov himself.

She must have been a remarkable woman. While studying Greek and Latin at Cambridge, she also learned Russian from friends. In 1893, she visited Russia, met Tolstoy and resolved to translate the bounty of 19th-century Russian literature. Beside Chekhov and Tolstoy, she translated Dostoevsky, Gogol, Goncharev, Ostrovsky, Pushkin and Turgenev, among others. It’s jarring to think that Garnett was born in 1861, one year after Chekhov, but died in 1946, 42 years after his death. On Jan. 29, we celebrate Chekhov’s 147th birthday.

I also recommended that Dave read Donald Rayfield’s Anton Chekhov: A Life, the standard biography in English. Chekhov ranks almost in the letter-writing pantheon of Keats, Flaubert and Flannery O’Connor. I suggest Anton Chekhov: A Life in Letters, edited by Rosamund Bartlett, and translated by Barlett and Anthony Phillips. Penguin published it in 2004. For lovers of Chekhov, and lovers of romance and human devotion, I recommend Dear Writer, Dear Actress: The Love Letters of Anton Chekhov and Olga Knipper. Translated and edited by Jean Benedetti, the biographer of Stanislavski, Ecco Press published the volume in 1997. The letters begin in 1899, when Knipper and Chekhov were already lovers, and Knipper was a leading member of the Moscow Art Theater. She appeared as Elena in his Uncle Vanya, Masha in Three Sisters, and Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard. The couple married in 1901, three years before his death from tuberculosis at the age of 44. From Yalta, on Oct. 14, 1903, nine months before his death, Chekhov wrote to Knipper:

“[…] I sent for Altschuler as I was sick of having the runs. He ordered me to eat up to eight eggs a day and minced ham. […] Being without you is like being without hands. I’m on a desert island […]”

For two months after Chekhov’s death, Knipper kept a diary of letters addressed to him. It makes for heartbreaking reading. On Aug. 19, 1904, she wrote:

“At last I am able to write to you Anton, my dear, my sweet, so near and yet so far! I don’t know where you are now. I’ve been waiting a long time for the day when I could write to you. Today, I went to Moscow and visited your grave…”

1 comment:

The Lettershaper said...

Very much enjoyed my stroll through your blog...as a poet and an avid reader, I found it both an enlightening and enriching stay. I thank you...