New Book Is the Gift You Didn't Know You Wanted

Question: What do you get the writer, reader, teacher, actor, director, medical doctor, or translator in your life who has everything?

Answer: This book.


October 24, 2008

Question: What do you get the writer, reader, teacher, actor, director, medical doctor, or translator in your life who has everything?

Answer: This book.

Chekhov the Immigrant: Translating a Cultural Icon came to me, in a sense, when I least expected it: While sitting on a blanket at a late-summer community picnic, slapping gnats and closely inspecting the chicken leg in my hand for botulism. I’d long since reached my anti-social stage and had notified Mrs. Churm of the need for our imminent departure, but out of courtesy said hello to the guy on the blanket next to ours.

We struck up a friendly conversation about the odd nonfiction book that Anton Chekhov wrote about his life-threatening journey across imperial Russia in 1890 to the island of Sakhalin, a penal colony. (I’m having this discussion all the time with my accountant.) Three days later, I got Chekhov the Immigrant in my campus mailbox; my fellow picnicker turned out to be its co-editor. I felt like it was my birthday, except I didn’t have to cut the lawn to make the place look nice for my own party. From now on, I vow, I won’t turn anti-social until I’m home and in bed.

The book is published by Slavica, Indiana University (2007), eds. Michael C. Finke and Julie de Sherbinin. Chekhov scholars are called chekovedy (one thing I learned from the book), a lovely name, and something I never knew I wanted to be: chekoved. To me it looks the same as beloved.

It's a collection of conference talks and other material from a National Endowment for the Humanities symposium at the Chekhov Centenary Festival at Colby College in October 2004. Doctors will look to it for how to be more humane; humanists for how to be more engaged; critics for insight to the range of Chekhov’s reception; directors and actors for the essential aspect of his drama; and writers for how his prose can be both quiet and powerful. I’m guessing you won’t see it at your local Borders, because it’s a shambling bear of a book, a miscellany with no “throughline,” other than how so many of us have brought this great writer into our own minds and look to him as a model for what we hope to do—personally, professionally—sometimes whether we know it or not.

That is, it’s about the difficulties of translation in the greater sense. On one hand, all of us translate, all day, every day, as we move among people, places, and things in our lives. On the other hand, it’s about translating literary texts from other languages, a problem of such enormous proportions that it makes me think (sensing it only from afar) that it must be akin to cooking a huge Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings in Ohio and walking it to Brazil to serve it. When you arrive, they say, yes, we eat turkey too. So what?

The book does look print-on-demand and contains a few typos, but in a strange way, that adds to its appeal. It looks and feels like a reading copy you’d gladly rescue from a sale bin or from a bench in a train station where it had been lost, and so far the binding's endured all my pawings. It’s for a general readership and largely free of lit-crit jargon, and university presses hoping for a crossover hit might look to this sort of thing rather than to Philosophy of Buffy books. It also doesn’t cost as much as many other academic press titles.

Contents include fascinating general essays (“On Chekhov’s Art,” by Yale’s Robert Louis Jackson), at least five essays on translating the plays and on performance practice, and eight essays on Chekhov’s influence on Anglo-American writing. There’s a seminar in the “medical humanities,” including an interview by editor Mike Finke with Dr. Robert Coles, on Chekhov and William Carlos Williams. (Coles knew Williams, who insisted he read Chekhov.) There’s an interesting essay on “medical geography” (think of those maps made of plagueish London in the search for the root of disease), and an excerpt—apparently the first time in English—by I.N. Altshuller, Chekhov’s own Yalta physician, which is worth the price of the book by itself.

Altshuller writes about Chekhov, who was dying by inches of tuberculosis, wanting badly to see his plays performed at the Moscow Art Theater, and to be with his wife, a smart, handsome, leading actress of her time. Altshuller quotes a family friend:

…Olga…was to participate in a concert. An elegant V.I. Nemirovich, dressed in tails with an impeccable plastron, arrived to take her there. Olga…came out wearing an evening gown and redolent of delicate perfume. Tenderly she said a sweet good-bye to Anton…with some cute "don’t miss me and be good," and disappeared. Anton…looked after her, then started coughing, long and hard. When the fit passed, without any connection to our prior merry conversation about old memories, friends, and such, he said, "Oh my, it’s time to die."

There’s even a DVD with the book of the Coles interview, useful for a classroom.

Other highlights include a spirited discussion among three prominent translators of Chekhov’s stories and a translation theorist. They talk about working methods and choices to be made. Richard Pevear:

Everything is put together only by the word "and" …. I had noticed this already in a number of Chekhov’s later stories…. Somehow it also describes this vastness of the Russian countryside, this "and, and, and" stretching out. […] There’s a rhythm that represents the landscape. And that also represents the relation of events within the story…. So it’s important for a translator to notice that and not to change it…. It’s a simple enough thing; what is strange is that translators sometimes don’t do it, indeed, very often don’t.

Pevear and Laura Volokhonsky—husband and wife, and the rock stars of literary translation—are of course translators of choice to Oprah, who picked their Anna Karenina for her book club. Pevear charmingly says, “Our editor called, laughing her head off, and said, ‘I love telling you guys this, because you don’t know what I’m talking about.… Do you know who Oprah Winfrey is?’ And I said, ‘No…I think she’s a Country-Western singer.’ Grand Ole Oprah….”

(The year after the centenary festival, Pevear and Volokhonsky were profiled in the New Yorker (“The Translation Wars,” by David Remnick.)

I have trouble managing one pseudonym, but Chekhov used at least 51 in his published writing and others in his private letters. The book includes an interesting essay on this and a list of the pseudonyms, which range from the relatively obvious (A.P. Ch-v, Antonsha Chekhonte) to the comic (Mr. Baldastov [blockhead], M Kovrov [carpets], Young Old Man) to the heroic (Ulysses, Laertes,) to the detached or urbane (Man Without a Spleen, Shampansky [champagne]). (There’s a fascinating riff in this essay by Cathy Popkin on champagne’s meaning in the medical community and in the legend of Chekhov’s death. “Ich Sterbe,” Chekhov said after he’d drained a glass ordered up by his doctor. “I die.” And he did.)

To ask how we bring the idea of Chekhov into our moral and aesthetic lives is to ask, by extension, why he might be important to others. I once had a Russian student tell me that his family thought Chekhov the story writer was a vulgarian (Chekhov the playwright sublime), but for me, as for so many, he’s the humanist with the eternal gaze and the quietly intense images. That’s why the most valuable part of this collection to me is on his influence on writing in English. As Claire Messud says, “To trace the influence of Chekhov on contemporary fiction is like searching for the original cutting from which a vast plant has grown.”

To this end, the book includes essays by Messud, James Wood, Francine Prose, and James McConkey, who organized a seminal festival on Chekhov at Cornell 25 years ago and edited Chekhov and Our Age: Responses to Chekhov by American Writers and Scholars. (A book that itself contained classic craft essays by Eudora Welty, John Cheever, Harold Brodkey, and Walker Percy.) For a writer, these essays are gold. Robert Louis Jackson quotes Chekhov:

Nature is a very good tranquilizer. It reconciles, i.e., it makes a person indifferent [in the sense of detachment or with equanimity]. And in this world one must be indifferent. Only indifferent people are capable of looking at things clearly, of being just, and working. Of course, this applies only to intelligent and honorable people; as for egoists and empty people, you’ll find plenty of indifference there.

Jackson ties Chekhov’s "poetics of seeing” to Tolstoy’s idea that “The word of the Gospel, ‘ do not judge’, is profoundly true in art: narrate, depict, but do not judge.”

This "seeing" is a complicated act. Messud quotes Chekhov:

Why write about a man getting into a submarine and going to the North Pole to reconcile himself with the world, while his beloved at that moment throws herself with a hysterical shriek from the belfry? All this is untrue and does not happen in reality. One must write about simple things: how Peter Semyonovich married Maria Ivanovna. That is all.

There are too many valuable ideas for writers spread through the book to relate here. You simply need to read it. Alright, one more. Michael Henry Heim:

Flaubert once said that the rhythm of a sentence often came to him before the words (and consequently before meaning itself). When I first read that, I thought Flaubert was proselytizing art for art’s sake or merely exaggerating. But the more I translate, the more I see how right he was: I often find myself fitting words to a pre-existing prosodic pattern.

In the end, the entire effort of the conference and the book serves as both experience of and validation for what many of have known from our own readings of Chekhov, that he is like a great good friend. As Katherine Mansfield wrote, “Ach, Tchekov! Why are you dead? Why can’t I talk to you in a big darkish room at late evening—where the light is green from the waving trees outside? I’d like to write a series of Heavens: that would be one.”

It’s no longer summer, so there are no more obligatory picnics. The weather has turned rainy, and I look forward to cold-weather pleasures. Since Mrs. Churm is often searching for gift ideas for me for the holidays, I may ask that we all go for a meal at Russian Tea Time, where you can order latkes or potato dumplings called vareniky. A nice cutlet, or stroganoff, or croquettes with the Tashkent Carrot Salad with coriander and garlic vinaigrette. Oh, my sertsa!—that carrot salad. Scalding cups of flowery tea drained from brass samovars, the crude cubes of Muscovado to sweeten them. A slice of strudel or a torte, and since you’re buying, Doug, a glass of champagne for everyone, Veuve Clicquot—Clicquot’s widow—to toast all we hope to find.

We can look forward to all that but in the meantime we have Chekhov the Immigrant to—no other word for it—savor.


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