Chekhov seemed to know us so well, it’s understandable that we should want to know him, too. Luckily he lived in an age when people communicated frequently by that archaic form, the letter. Chekhov produced thousands of these artifacts—letters to his sister, his publishers, his brothers, his many friends, other writers, his director, his wife.
Several collections have been published in English, the earliest being Letters of Anton Chekhov to His Family and Friends and Letters of Anton Chekhov to Olga Knipper, both translated and edited by the first translator of Chekhov’s plays and stories into English, Constance Garnett. Two other editions of letters also appeared in the early ’20s (Louis S. Friedland’s Anton Chekhov’s Letters on the Short Story, Drama and Other Literary Topics and The Life and Letters of Anton Tchekov, translated and edited by S.S. Koteliansky and Philip Tomlinson). Thirty years passed before another edition appeared. Translated by Sidonie K. Lederer, this new collection was selected and edited by a fellow playwright, the late Lillian Hellman.
First published in 1954, Hellman’s The Selected Letters of Anton Chekhov was hailed by the critics. Quoted widely in drama textbooks and popular as a very readable selection of letters, it has just been made available again this year. Hellman’s revised introduction provides a lively, human portrait of the writer; there are insightful and informed references to his culture and history, personal and national. Hellman takes some risks in severely criticizing Stanislavsky as being responsible for the misconception that “Chekhovian” meant “something drear and wintry, a world filled with puff-ball people, lying on a dusty table waiting for a wind to roll them off.”
Other of her risky assertions are harder to accept. She agrees with Tolstoy’s judgment that “Chekhov doesn’t have the real nerve of a dramatist.” And in her introduction to the selection of letters that encompasses Chekhov’s courtship and marriage to Moscow Art Theatre actress Olga Kipper, Hellman observes: “What we miss in the marriage is exactly what we miss in the work: there is a lack of passion and power. Chekhov was without the final spiritual violence which the very great creative genius has always had.” When she follows with the observation that “he knew it as he knew most things about himself,” we are reminded that Hellman could be just that critical of her own abilities.
In 1973, when yet another collection was published—Michael Henry Heim and Simon Karlinsky’s Letters of Anton Chekhov—the Hellman-Lederer book was criticized (by editors Heim and Karlinsky) as containing many “mistranslations and arbitrary cuts of crucial passages,” and for its superficial view of a complex artist. The Garnett translations, according to the editors, were truer to “the tone and spirit of the letters.” Such criticisms may have some merit, but the Hellman-Lederer collection remains idiomatic, lively and enjoyable to read—and the charge of superficiality cannot be laid at Hellman’s or Lederer’s feet. Even the best editors or translators cannot alert readers to all the in-jokes, ironies and subtleties that complicate the process of translation. A further problem is endemic to the letters of writers: there is a façade about them, an artificiality, because they are, still, a created extension of the writer’s public voice.
Finally, one wonders if we were to have every shred of Chekhov’s correspondence, somehow omnisciently translated and interpreted, whether their sum total would reveal more than a semblance of the man, much the way photographs of him merely tantalize us with distant images, always remaining stubbornly on the paper, like his letters, one-dimensional and opaque.
Late-Blooming Flowers and Other Stories, first published in 1964, is another volume of the Chekhov oeuvre to be reissued this year. It is a collection of eight stories, all dealing with the theme of love. The title novella was written in 1882; the last story in the collection was the last Chekhov wrote, “The Fiancée,” in 1903. So the works span 20 years, and the translator-editors, I.C. Chertok and Jean Garner, include an introduction that places each story in brief context of Chekhov’s literary and personal life; for example, we learn that “A Visit to Friends” was written in the winter of 1897 in Nice, after the critical failure of The Sea Gull, or that the incomplete “A Reward Denied” may have been based in part on Chekhov’s summer stay at Stanislavsky’s dacha where the great director’s pious mother ordered church services nearly every day.
Themes and images we know from the plays can be found in these stories: a violin string breaks suddenly and inexplicably, the watchman’s “click-clack” is heard, everywhere is the blooming of unrequited love. Most prevalent is the Chekhovian dream of a better future, and it is in “The Fiancée” that this theme is most perfectly realized. This story, the writer’s last, and the next-to-the-last work he was ever to produce (he made a start on The Cherry Orchard before the story was finished), may be Chekhov’s most personal work. Perhaps the man we’re unable to see clearly in the letters is here, in his work.
Constance Congdon is a playwright and literary manager at Hartford Stage Company.
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