01 February 2015

Anton Chekhov's Selected Stories: A Norton Critical Edition edited by Cathy Popkin

My name is Matthew and I am a Norton Critical Edition addict.

Hardly a term has gone by without my assigning students at least one NCE, both when I was a high school teacher and especially now that I'm teaching college students. (This term, it's The Red Badge of Courage.) I have been known to change syllabi each term just to try out new NCEs with students. I have bought NCEs for myself even of books that I already owned in multiple other editions. I have all four editions of the NCE of Heart of Darkness because the changes between them fascinate me. (I've been meaning to write a blog post or essay of some sort about those changes. I'll get to it one day.)

Anton Chekhov is my favorite writer, a writer whose work I've been reading and thinking about for all of my adult life. The Norton Critical Editions of Chekhov's stories and plays published in the late 1970s remained unchanged until Laurence Senelick's Selected Plays came out in 2004, and then, finally, last year Cathy Popkin's Selected Stories. Senelick's collection is good, and probably all that the average reader needs, though I'm more partial to Senelick's true masterpiece, the Complete Plays, which is awe-inspiring.

Popkin's Selected Stories is something more again, and easily the best single-volume collection of Chekhov in English. This is the place to start if you've never read Chekhov, and it's a great resource even for seasoned Chekhovians. I'll go further than that, actually: Because of the critical apparatus, this is a great resource for anyone interested in fiction, translation, and/or writing; and it is one of the most interesting Norton Critical Editions I know, almost as impressive as my favorite NCEs, Things Fall Apart and The English Bible.

Popkin made the interesting and valuable choice to not only include stories from multiple translators (including new commissions), but to foreground the act of translation by including helpful descriptions of each translator's approach and methodology, as well as short passages from multiple stories in numerous translations for comparison:

sample of the Comparison Passages section

Further, Popkin frequently offers a perspective on the translation of an individual story in the first footnote for it, and sometimes in subsequent footnotes that point out particular choices the translator made.

The foregrounding of translation allows Popkin to bring in essays in the critical section that focus on Chekhov as a stylist, something Ralph Matlaw, editor of the previous edition, specifically avoided because he thought it made no sense to talk about "since the subtleties of Chekhov's style are lost in translation." Popkin's contention is that this no longer needs to be true, if it ever was.

What we have here, then, is not only a book of Chekhov stories plus some biographical and critical material, but a book about aesthetics and writing. One of the critical disputes that Popkin highlights, both in her introduction and in her selection of essays, is a longstanding one between critics who believe every detail in the stories has a particular purpose and function, and critics who believe that Chekhov's art (and philosophy) resides in the very extraneousness and randomness of some of his details. There is, as Popkin notes, no solution to this question, and plenty of readers (I'm one of them) believe that in a certain way both interpretations can be correct — but the value here is that Popkin is able to make the critical dispute one that is not only about Chekhov, but about writing, realism, and the reader's experience of the text. Attentive readers of this Selected Stories will thus not only gain knowledge of Chekhov's work, but will also participate in the exploration of aesthetics: the aesthetics of the stories as well as the aesthetics of translation.

Inevitably, I have one complaint and a few quibbles. The complaint is that the physical book is terribly bound — the binding of my copy broke when I opened it, and continued to break whenever I opened to anything in the middle of the book. No pages have yet fallen out, but they could soon. This is unusual for a Norton book — The English Bible is huge and only one year older than Selected Stories and its bindings (2 big volumes) are very strong; my copy of the 1979 NCE of Chekhov's stories, purchased at the earliest 15 years ago, seems unbreakable. I hope the problem with this new book is an anomaly. [Update 2/11: The marvelous folks at Norton saw this post and sent me a new copy of the book out of the blue. I am thrilled to report that the new book has as strong a binding as we've come to depend on with the NCEs -- it opens nicely, and looks like it would take some real effort to break (no, I'm not going to try, you sadistic reader!). Thank you, everybody in the Critical Editions bunker at Norton!]

My quibbles are purely those of anyone who has their own particular favorites among Chekhoviana. I detest Ronald Hingley's imperialist atrocities of translations, and though I know they're necessary for this volume because they offer such stark contrast to other translations, why why why did Popkin have to include Hingley's translation of perhaps my favorite Chekhov story, "Gusev"?! At least she could have included somebody — anybody! — else's translation alongside it. (Indeed, I think it would have been helpful for the book to choose one complete story to offer in multiple translations. "Gusev" is probably too long, but Chekhov wrote a number of quite short stories that have been translated numerous times.)

The selection of stories in this edition is almost completely superior to Matlaw's, but it's unfortunate to lose the 1886 story "Dreams", which seems to me a perfect encapsulation of Chekhov's style between his early humorous sketches and his later, longer stories ... but it's easily available elsewhere.

One significant improvement Popkin makes over Matlaw's previous edition is the inclusion of some of Chekhov's longer stories, most significantly "Ward No. 6" and "In the Ravine", two of his most important works. The book is already almost 700 pages, so obviously novellas such as "My Life" and "The Steppe" — hugely important, original, difficult, complex, breathtaking works — wouldn't fit without bumping out a lot of other worthwhile material, but still I pine. Perhaps Selected Stories will be successful enough that Norton will consider a Critical Edition called Chekhov's Novellas...

Finally, it might have been nice to include something on the adaptation of Chekhov's stories to theatre, film, and television — though of course his plays are more frequently adapted, some of the better adaptations are of the short stories, and there's been at least a little bit of critical attention to that. Adaptation is another form of translation, and it would have been interesting to consider that further within the frame that Popkin set up.

But really, these are the inevitable, unimportant quibbles of the sort that any anthology causes in a reader familiar with the territory. Popkin's edition of the Selected Stories is a book to celebrate and savor, and it gets so many things right that it is churlish to complain about any of it. Even the cover is a smart, appropriate choice: a painting by Chekhov's friend Isaac Levitan.

This book is clearly the result of lots of love for Chekhov, and as such I can only love it back.