Thursday, April 11, 2024

'We Live Missing Something'

Four years late, I’ve read Gary Saul Morson’s “Poet of Loneliness,” his review of Fifty-Two Stories (Knopf, 2020), a Chekhov translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. I ordered the collection early in the COVID-19 lockdown and will always associate it with the other books I read or reread during those baffling months – Malamud’s The Assistant, the three Library of America volumes of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s collected stories, Arabia Deserta, Nathaniel Rudavsky-Brody’s translations of Paul Valéry. In my experience, books, especially good books, the sort one is likely to reread, carry with them an aura of a time and place, like a disembodied supplement to the text. That aura becomes a filter through which we can return in memory to such volumes and such a time. 

Morson looks at a favorite of mine, one of Chekov’s finest early stories, written in 1886, the year he turned twenty-six, translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky as “Anguish.” I’m without Russian but that title seemed to me a little overheated, un-Chekhovian. Morson writes:


“The title of this story—the Russian word toska—has no exact English equivalent, but it is the emotion that characterizes much of human life as Chekhov saw it. The story itself could stand as an extended definition of the word. Constance Garnett translates it as ‘misery,’ Pevear and Volokhonsky turn up the volume to ‘anguish,’ but the sense is closer to ‘longing.’ In Russian, when you miss someone, you toska (toskovat’) for him. We live missing something, longing for something, though we do not always know what.”


That distils the mood of many Chekhov stories -- mood, not meaning. Often his people are passively bewildered, baffled, unable to find solace. That, and the muted sense of comedy he often generates, are what keep some of us returning across a lifetime to Chekhov’s stories. The humor isn’t intended as a palliative for the characters or the readers. Rather, it reflects Chekhov’s understanding of human nature and the essential contradictions that suffuse it. Presumably there are supremely confident, autonomous people who never experience loneliness, not just in the social sense but in what we might call the metaphysical sense. Most of us have known moments of floating alone in outer space, without tether or means of communication, like the doomed astronaut in 2001: A Space Odyssey.


For my money, the most lastingly good book published in 2023 was Morson’s Wonder Confronts Certainty: Russian Writers on the Timeless Questions and Why Their Answers Matter. In it he writes:


“The special sadness readers experience when reading Chekhov derives, in part, from the shadow cast by the sense of happiness lost and opportunities missed. By intimating possible plots as well as narrating an actual one, apparently simple tales achieve great depth. For character or many, each story is shadowed by others, and the shadows cast by all these could-have-beens accumulate in a pattern of poignant possibilities. The combination of real and possible stories into a seamless whole defines Chekhov’s narrative art.”


A wonderful and surprising thing Morson does near the end of his review is acknowledge how bad Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translations of Chekhov’s stories are:


“[O]ne should never read any translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. They translate literary masterpieces word by word, with no appreciation of what the author is trying to accomplish or what makes a great work extraordinary. If Pevear and Volokhonsky had done the King James Bible, Cain would have asked whether he was his fraternal sibling’s custodian. With Chekhov, their approach is especially unfortunate. He is all nuance, and they are all bluntness.”


Morson endorses my old reliables, Constance Garnett’s more-than-a-century-old translations of Chekhov’s stories, which remain, “despite some lapses, impressive in their sensitivity to tone.”


Isaac said...

More on P&V by Morson (The Pevearsion of Russian Literature):

"It looks as if people will be reading P&V, as they have come to be called, for decades to come. This is a tragedy, because their translations take glorious works and reduce them to awkward and unsightly muddles. Professional writers have asked me to check the Russian texts because they could not believe any great author would have written what P&V produce. The danger their translations pose is this: if students and more-general readers choose P&V—and it is clearly the intent of their publishers here and in England that their editions become the universally accepted renditions into English for a generation or more—those students and readers are likely to presume that whatever made so many regard Russian literature with awe has gone stale with time or is lost to them."

Thomas Parker said...

I read Anna Karenina in the P&V translation and then a few years later in the Constance Garnett. Night and day, and of course the P&V is the preferred translation of the Oprah Bookclub.

Tim Guirl said...

I've read only Constance Garnett translations of Dostoevsky and have seen complaints over the yea4s about the accuracy of her translations After reading this I'm glad I never got started with these two translators.