21 June 2004

Anton Chekhov, an introduction

I always forget birthdays and every other date of any significance, so I owe a debt to Mark Sarvas for noting that we are fast approaching the 100 anniversary of Anton Chekhov's deathday.

Chekhov is, simply, the one writer whose works I would not want to live without. Hundreds, even thousands of other writers are important to me, but Chekhov is the writer to whom I always return, the voice and imagination I trust the most, the dreamer whose dreams never fail to enchant me.

Thus, even though I'm not a proponent of numerology, I now have an excuse to write about him here, because I have wanted for a while to address the common perception of Chekhov as a realist, an idea I think limits his accomplishment. While certainly his work borrows much from both the Naturalists as a group and from realism as a mode of writing, the influence of the Symbolist movement on his stories and plays should not be discounted.

I'm writing off-the-cuff at the moment, and need to spend some time doing a bit of research, so let me simply offer some introductory material by and about Chekhov for readers less familiar with his work. I'm not an expert (I don't read Russian), merely a fan.

Constance Garnett's translations of Chekhov's stories have all been put online, which is a tremendous service, because though the translations are somewhat stilted, and Garnett's knowledge of Russian was not at the level of modern translators, scholars such as Donald Rayfield have said that her style and Chekhov's work well together.

If you want to prepare for some of what I expect to be writing over the next few weeks here, in a series of occasional posts about Chekhov, read the following stories online (I've mostly chosen quite short pieces, though the longer, later works are in many ways the height of Chekhov's achievement in fiction):
"The Telephone"
"After the Fair"
"Ward No. 6"
Garnett had less of a talent for plays, and her translations, as well as all the other public domain translations of Chekhov's plays, can be painful to read. Two translations of the plays offer different, but accurate versions: those of Carol Rocamora and Paul Schmidt. The Schmidt translations are deliberately contemporary in their idiom, the Rocamora more "classical" (I should note my own bias here: I owe my love of Chekhov to a class I had with Carol Rocamora at NYU, and I did proofreading and editorial work on the second and third volumes of her translations of the plays).

Chekhov's letters are fascinating as well, though only a few editions offer unedited and faithfully translated versions. The best edition currently available in the U.S. is Anton Chekhov's Life and Thought.

There are numerous biographies of Chekhov, and Ernest Simmons's 1962 edition remains the most readable and interesting, though Donald Rayfield's more recent biography benefited from access to numerous materials Simmons didn't have. Unfortunately, Rayfield's biography is turgidly written.

Hundreds of critical works exist, and I've only read a small selection of them. I have been most impressed by Richard Gilman's book on Chekhov's plays, Vladimir Kataev's If Only We Could Know, and James McConkey's To a Distant Island. (The latter is an extraordinary mix of criticism, history, memoir, and fictional devices -- a beautiful book.)

For now, let me leave you with this, from the Simmons biography, about an idea Chekhov had for a play shortly before his death:
...both Olga [Knipper, his wife] and Stanislavsky mention that Chekhov outlned roughly to them the theme of a new play he had in mind. The hero was to be a scientific man. He goes off to the far north because of his disillusion over a woman who either does not love him or is unfaithful to him. The last act was to present an ice-bound steamer. The hero stands alone on the deck amid the complete stillness and grandeur of the Arctic night. And against the background of the northern lights, he sees floating the shadow of the woman he loves.