Friday, September 11, 2015

Constance Garnett reorganizes Chekhov

The basic Chekhov chronology is that for several years he wrote lots of very short stories, sometimes two stories a week, but once he became famous enough to be paid well he started writing fewer but longer stories.  So in 1886 he published 55 stories and in 1889 three.  But he also became a more complex artist.  Those three are all masterpieces.  The later stories are pretty much all masterpieces.

When Constance Garnett turned to Chekhov she translated 201 of his stories, somewhat less than half of what was available to her.  She translated almost everything from 1888 on, the bulk of the material from 1885 to 1887, a little bit from 1883 and 1884, and one story from 1880 to 1882.  Then she assembled her Chekhov in thirteen volumes, in her order.  What a job she did.  The first two or three volumes are to me the epitome of Chekhov, just perfect; then for several volumes Garnett roughs him up a little, lets him get stranger.  All of this is still mostly the great, later stories with a few earlier pieces mixed in.

Around volume 9 or 10, though, Garnett is running out of late ones, except for a few she has carefully saved, while she still has a hundred of the little 1883 to 1887 stories.  She organizes them thematically, so that volume 10 is especially dark – Chekhov on horror, murder and madness – with “The Horse-stealers” (1890) and “Ward No. 6” (1892) leading off the theme in the late style.  Volume 11 has more than its share of illness and doctors.  And volume 12, most remarkably, is almost all about children, and if not children, dogs.  The only late ringer, “Whitebrow” (1895) is about dogs.  And a wolf; it is from the perspective of a wolf.

Volume 12 is The Cook’s Wedding & Other Stories.  I has not read it as a book until recently.  I had dipped in, since it is the home of some of my favorites, like “Vanka” and “Oysters.”  But I had not realized what Garnett was doing with her anti-chronological organization, how clever and effective it was, even with more minor Chekhov.  Taken as a whole, Volume 12 does not seem so minor.

Other Chekhov collections are good, too.  It is hard to find fault with The Portable Chekhov, where you can read “The Lady with the Pet Dog” (Garnett Vol. 3) right after “Gooseberries” (Vol. 5) and just after “In the Ravine” (Vol. 6), all in one place, which is great; whatever Chekhov you read do not miss “In the Ravine,” right?  Owning just The Portable Chekhov is wiser, I suppose.

But those thirteen books Garnett assembled, what a treasure chest.

I also recently read Volume 11, The Schoolmaster & Other Stories, as well as Volume 12, and what I plan to do is write a little about the contents of these two books, but I guess I am getting my little tribute to Constance Garnett, not just as a translator but as an anthologist, out of the way first.


  1. the garnett family had a wide presence in the english literary scene; richard in the british museum, bunny later in the social melee, and some nieces and nephews bouncing around in later times. it's fun to sample a bit(or more) from each...

  2. How do you sample them? A family biography would be interesting.

  3. This is exactly what is so satisfying about the Garnett collection. The organization of each book is carefully thought out, and they are not each a certain percentage of youthful stories as padding around one or two masterpieces. Read as books, as you say, the weaker tales gain strength through their thematic pairings. Say what you will about Garnett as a translator, as a curator she did a brilliant job of presenting Chekhov's themes. I am, I see, merely rephrasing you. What did I mean to say? Oh, yes: excellent post, Tom!

  4. That's really interesting! I think Garnett doesn't get the credit she deserves - people are too ready to criticise her translation, but forget how pioneering she was.


  5. So, where are you getting these books? Do you take them out of the library? I'm a huge Russian literature reader and love Checkov, and Garnett is my favorite translator. I want to own this collection! Any advice?

  6. The order and arranging of stories or poems is a late challenge...the question of whether to group like things together, or to have wilder collections with more variation and contrast. Interesting that this mode is so appealing to you and Scott.

  7. Marly, the volume of stories about children is by far the most blatant thematic book, and even here the last two stories move elsewhere. One is a curious parable about religious art. In the previous volume, illness and doctors are recurrent, not incessant, which is wise. A book of nothing but Chekhov illness stories might be hard to finish.

    The thematic organization of the first two or three volumes is aesthetic - "Aren't these great?" Or maybe they are themed by voice. Garnett is so good with Chekhov's voice. I am more than happy to criticize Garnett's translation, done in haste, full of errors, but the machine seemed to work with Chekhov. I have never found another translator who makes me feel like I am reading a different Chekhov.

    Ivalleria has spurred me to do a tiny bit of research, and I am saddened to discover that the Ecco Press Chekhov set is now rare and expensive because people like Scott and me are hoarding it, I suppose. The individual volumes used to be easy to find. I collected them over time in various Chicago bookstores.

    However, the books are public domain, so scans of the original volumes are available at and so on. Someone should reprint them for a sensible price.

    By the way, Ivalleria, nice to make the acquaintance of your blog.

    1. Interesting, thanks. (And I'm always finding that something I especially want now costs an exorbitant amount of money. More POD for these out-of-print desires!)

    2. The prices for these Chekhov volumes - well, there is an opportunity for a publisher.

  8. This evening I'll be taking a 13-hour flight, and one of the books I packed for the plane is In The Twilight, the collection Chekhov himself assembled in 1888 which made him famous and won him the Pushkin Prize. There are none of the big masterpieces in the book, so it will be interesting to read these stories selected and ordered by the author. I'll report back, maybe, in two weeks when I return to America.

  9. Good. I have not read that one either, not as a book.

  10. I hadn't realised Constance Garnett had organized Chekhov's stories thematically. What an interesting approach! The last time I read through those stories, I was taken aback by the sheer variety - both of tone and of subject matter. It made nonsense of any attempt to characterise Chekhov - whatever one said about him, one could find examples to the contrary.

    Constance Garnett also gets unfairly criticised. I was once at a lecture given by Robert Chandler in which he said that, despite occasional inaccuracies, she often captured the tone of the writer remarkably well (although he did add that she was better with certain writers than with others). And in a 2001 Folio Books edition I have of his short stories, editor Gordon McVay - who uses many of Garnett's translations, with occasional revisions and emendations - says of her Chekhov:

    "Garnett's versions are generally accurate, and particularly felicitous in conveying the rhythm and texture of Chekhov's prose, and his descriptions of nature and of people."

    (He does add, however, that her dialogue is frequently stilted, and that "she frequently fails to capture Chekhov's deliberate repetition of significant words and phrases".)

    But i digress. A thematic arrangement of Chekhov's work sounds fascinating - I must look out for those volumes.

  11. Not Garnett, but an interesting-sounding selection of Chekhov reviewed here:

  12. That new translation, The Prank, might have no overlap with Garnett at all, since it is all stories from 1880 to 1882, and Garnett only translated a single story from 1882. A different Chekhov. The new book includes a number of parodies, something I have never read from Chekhov, unless some of them are in The Undiscovered Chekhov, in which case I have forgotten them.

    "her dialogue is frequently stilted" - maybe so. Fortunately Chekhov's best stories do not rely heavily on dialogue. Perhaps, though, I fail to realize that some dialogue-heavy are among his best because Garnett is weak with them. Quite possible.

    Anyway, the thematic arrangement begins to kick in with the later volumes of Garnett, around 9 or 10, as she works more with the larger mass of earlier stories, many only a few pages long.

    All right, I was wrong up above. Leafing through The Cook's Wedding there are at least three more stories about animals - they are all in a cluster - one of which, "The Dependents," would be the saddest story the author ever wrote - for most authors.

  13. I've recently been reading Chekhov's stories in Ronald Hingden's translation. He edited and translated the complete works for Oxford; some of them are in print as Oxford World Classics paperbacks. I must admit Constance Garnett's Chekhov never appealed to me. On the other hand, I love her Turgenev. Go figure?

  14. This is why it is so nice, and not just a luxury, to have more than one translation available. We can each find our own Chekhov.

    I still think that Garnett's Dostoevsky translations are problems, but Garnett's Dostoevsky was Faulkner's Dostoevsky, and I'm not going to do anything with Karamazov more interesting than what he did, right?

    I should try Hingley. If I feel that I must have looked at his translations, but I don't really remember.