Chekhov’s unequaled mastery of the short story

“Fifty-Two Stories” reminds our reviewer of the Russian writer’s brilliance, even if this collection doesn’t quite live up to his best work.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House
“Fifty-Two Stories” by Anton Chekhov, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Knopf, 508 pp.

It’s understandable if you hesitate in front of a shelf of Russian fiction translated into English. Which “Crime and Punishment”? Which “Anna Karenina”? Which volume of Anton Chekhov’s stories? Are the newest ones best, or should you go with the ones published during the author’s lifetime?

A hundred years ago, Constance Garnett made it easy for the English-reading public to choose her translations of Chekhov, because before hers, there had been only a handful of his tales available in English. In about six years, she translated 201 of his stories, including almost all those he wrote between 1886, when he was in his 20s, and 1904, when he died. 

Garnett passed over almost all of his wholly comic tales and skits but otherwise did not bother sticking to chronology. She arranged the 13 volumes the way a florist might, to delight and surprise the reader. While Garnett is not everyone’s favorite translator, she is mine.

Students of Russian usually meet Chekhov before they meet the other literary giants, partly because Chekhov’s language seems friendlier and less labored, and partly because the rewards of comprehension are almost immediate: “Abogin’s voice trembled with agitation; in that tremor and in that tone there was far more persuasiveness than in his words.” In Russian we can hear Chekhov’s lively, good-natured voice and detect his amusement and sympathy for characters who don’t understand yet what’s hit them. Bless the translators who can carry over to us the spirit and sense of foreign literature!

Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky are the most famous Russian-to-English translators. Millions have read their versions of Russian classics, from Pushkin to Pasternak. Years ago, they translated Chekhov’s novellas and a collection of his best (or best-known) short stories. “Fifty-Two Stories” is more like an outtakes folder, with 11 of the stories from Chekhov’s comic-skits period (1883-85) and at least half the others from his B or B-plus list. (All but two of the stories, both slight and unimportant, have appeared in English before.) 

While Garnett has a voice that rises and dances with Chekhov’s, Pevear and Volokhonsky, who have long lived in Paris, seem to have gone tone-deaf to a natural English; at times the language seems unpolished, with evidence of Russian phrasing seeming to override normal English syntax. (The worst example might be this: “On your many thousands of acres, all that there is of healthy, strong, and handsome, all of it has been taken by you and your hangers-on as servants, lackeys, coachmen.” Come again?) 

Chekhov is so great, however, that even uninspired translations can’t ruin him. Everyone who thinks they want to write short stories should read his: first of all, because they’re a pleasure; second, because they will guide your moral bearings; and finally, because he has influenced the literary short story more than any other writer. 

But if you have never read Chekhov and you start from the beginning of this volume, I wouldn’t blame you for wondering what all the fuss is about. Either read any other translator’s collection first (Nicolas Pasternak Slater’s “The Beauties: Essential Stories” is excellent; all of Garnett’s are free online), or skip to about the middle of this book, to “The Kiss,” and read on from there.

In a matter of four or five exhilarating hours, you will have encountered at least a dozen great stories. You’ll then have some perspective as you set out on the uneven first half, where a few startling gems, among them “The Witch,” “Agafya,” “Difficult People,” and “Enemies,” shine among some of the slighter tales that Chekhov himself excluded from his “Complete Works.”

Bob Blaisdell’s “Creating Anna Karenina: Tolstoy and the Birth of Literature’s Most Enigmatic Heroine” is due out in August from Pegasus Books. He teaches English language and literature at the City University of New York’s Kingsborough Community College. 

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