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A 'full deck' of Chekhov, with the translators as the wild cards
‘Fifty-Two Stories’ By Anton Chekhov. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. 528 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $35.

by Parul Sehgal



NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- “Everywhere there is cholera, everywhere quarantine and terror.”

In 1890, Anton Chekhov, 30 years old, trained as a physician and coming into fame as a writer, was confronted by the horror of a cholera pandemic ravaging Europe and Asia. “There is no time even to think of literature,” he wrote to a friend. He began ministering to 25 local villages, refusing all remuneration. In letters, he complained of “cholera-loneliness” but also confessed: “There is a great deal that is interesting in cholera if you look at it from a detached point of view.”

Saint Anton. To Gorki, he was the only free man. To Tolstoy, he was “beautiful, magnificent.” “The good doctor” in the Neil Simon play of the same name and a model for “Doctor Zhivago,” Chekhov has become the embodiment of humility, patience and decency. He endowed libraries, built schools, treated thousands of patients free of charge in a year; traveled to Siberia to advocate for prison reform, all the while cheerfully supporting his family, including two profligate brothers and the brutish father who had made their childhood a misery. Composure was his creed. “Only people with equanimity can see things clearly, be fair and work,” he once wrote.

We often struggle to reconcile great art and private monstrosity; it can be difficult to appreciate what a particular annoyance Chekhov’s radiant, inexplicable goodness has proved for his biographers. “Chekhov attracts a kind of sickening piety,” Janet Malcolm wrote in a 2003 monograph. “You utter the name ‘Chekhov’ and people arrange their features as if a baby deer had come into the room.”

The writer we dare to sentimentalize was ruthless — not punitive, but pitiless; a writer who cultivated detachment and could find “a great deal interesting in cholera,” who created a gallery of the most benighted characters this side of the Inferno: idlers, braggarts, homicidal servant girls who smother their infant charges, assorted varieties of the dying and delusional.

With “Fifty-Two Stories,” Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky bring a new selection of the celebrated stories into English — “a full deck!” they proclaim in the preface, hand-picked to “represent the extraordinary variety” of his work. It’s a strange claim. The translators don’t mention that this is their second volume of Chekhov’s stories or that their previous book contained the masterpieces — “In the Ravine,” “Gusev,” “Gooseberries,” “Ward No. 6” (which Lenin claimed made him a revolutionary). The minor hits are represented here, the juvenilia, playful sketches and a handful of more fully realized stories, like the characteristically queasy romances “The Kiss” and “About Love.”

Chekhov often contributed to a literary journal called “Oskolki” — the title translates to “Splinters,” which is a fair description of his contributions: jagged, piercing pieces, some little more than intricate jokes. In “Joy,” a young man is proud to show his parents that he is in the newspaper, no matter that it’s a notice of public inebriation. “With what trash I began!” Chekhov once said of his early efforts, but from the beginning, you can discern his hallmarks, the shock of his disorienting last lines in which the stakes of a story are suddenly revealed.

Chekhov commonly complained that directors stripped his plays of their comedy: “They make me either a crybaby or simply a bore.” The stories, however, seem curiously translation-proof. Even in Pevear and Volokhonsky’s occasionally stilted interpretation, they lose nothing of their vigor and sheen. They reek with life. This might be because the pleasures of reading Chekhov aren’t at the sentence level — the language is unvarnished, the metaphors simple, sturdy and often repeated, a few plots even borrowed (Chekhov cribbed so openly from Maupassant he worried editors would catch on). It’s the watchfulness, the lack of contrivance and the economy of his fiction that still feel so shocking, so modern; the momentum he engineers, which carries his characters to the point where their defenses break down and ready-made language runs dry and they are left frighteningly exposed.

The issues with the new translation are not grievous. They’re little fish bones in the mouth, they stall and annoy. Pevear and Volokhonsky take strange pains to avoid idiomatic language, giving the prose an awkward formality.

To delve deeply into one story, take “About Love,” which stars Alyohin, a classic Chekhovian blowhard who fantasizes about the wife of a friend. In an early scene, a couple is playing a piano duet, which Pevear and Volokhonsky translate as playing “four hands.” “The work here boiled furiously,” they write elsewhere, another odd phrase. Compare this with the more obvious solution in my preferred translation, by Avrahm Yarmolinsky: “The work hummed.” Pevear and Volokhonsky: “People who live alone always have something in their hearts that they are eager to tell about”; Yarmolinsky: “People who lead a lonely existence always have something on their minds that they are eager to talk about.” Pevear once said that his ambition as a translator is to energize the English language. With what? I wanted to ask, trudging through “Fifty-Two Stories” — these affectations?

The deeper disappointment lies in how much of Chekhov’s subtle and comic characterization is lost. There’s a new distance we experience from such familiar characters as timid Ryabovich from “The Kiss” and alluring, ambivalent Olga Mikhailovna, the doomed heroine of “The Name-Day Party.” Language that once felt so closely molded to consciousness now feels labored and estranges us from the story. Returning to “About Love,” Pevear and Volokhonsky have Alyohin introduce himself by saying, “By upbringing I’m an idler, by inclination an armchair philosopher,” which is all wrong. He doesn’t possess this level of self-knowledge or self-deprecation; the entire story hinges on his conviction — never properly confirmed — that his friend’s wife reciprocates his love. Here is Yarmolinsky: “My education did not fit me for rough work and temperamentally I am a bookish fellow.” How lightly that version showcases his self-regard. It’s entirely possible that the new translation is more accurate — I have no way of knowing — but it misses some of the richness, the delicacy and irony of previous editions.

Chekhov was in his 20s when he first started showing symptoms of tuberculosis — a persistent, occasionally bloody cough. He refused to see doctors, but he must have recognized the signs. In his fiction and letters, there is a recurring figure of fascination: a character who senses his death but has time for a heroic final task.

He died in Germany at 44; with his last words he reportedly requested Champagne. His body was shipped to Moscow in a refrigerated railway car marked “For Oysters” — a detail, one is certain, he would have loved. His own heroic task amounted to some 800 stories: hives of human commotion, of grudges and grief, the deep optimism of adultery, battering rains, miscarriages, new dresses, of hay-making and mushroom-gathering.

In one of his notebooks, he copied a quotation from novelist Alphonse Daudet. “Why are your songs so short?” a bird was asked. “Is it because you are short of breath?” “I have a great many songs,” the bird responded, “I would like to sing them all.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company










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