How is More Better: Chekhov’s Letters in English Translation

Carol Flath, Duke University

Anton Chekhov’s complete works have yet to appear in a fully uncensored edition in any language, but access to previously closed materials has initiated a new era in Chekhov scholarship. Donald Rayfield’s frank 1997 Anton Chekhov: A Life (New York, 1997) represents the first biography based on this fuller body of archival material. The centennial year publication of Anton Chekhov: A Life in Letters (Ed. Rosamund Bartlett, Tr. Rosamund Bartlett and Anthony Phillips, London, 2004), represents the most complete edition of Chekhov’s letters in English to date. The beginning of the second post-Chekhov century offers an opportunity for scholars to reflect on the challenges presented by this new material. Chekhov’s prose fiction and his dramatic works, with minor exceptions, were relatively unaffected by censor’s cuts during the author’s lifetime and during the Soviet period; thus it is safe to say that new editions of the literary works will not necessitate radical revisions in the critical tradition. The same cannot be said for the letters, which present clearly autobiographical material in a masterful, carefully constructed epistolary style. Thus it is in the letters that the most compelling “new” Chekhov will reveal himself. The current paper offers an overview of several collections of letters in English translation from the last fifty years (Bartlett’s collection; Dear Writer, Dear Actress: The Love Letters of Olga Knipper and Anton Chekhov, ed. and trans. Jean Benedetti, London, 1996; Chekhov: A Life in Letters, Ed. and trans. Gordon McVay, London: 1994; Anton Chekhov’s Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentary, ed. Simon Karlinsky, trans. Michael Henry Heim in collaboration with Simon Karlinsky. Berkeley, 1973; Letters of Anton Chekhov, ed. A. Yarmolinsky, New York, 1973; The Selected Letters of Anton Chekhov, ed. Lilian Hellman, trans. Sidonie K. Lederer, New York, 1955. In what way will the more complete collections change our understanding of the man and his writing? How significantly does Chekhov’s epistolary style affect that of his writing, and in what ways did his purely fictional writing act to disguise and protect the author from readerly voyeurism—a voyeurism now possible for critics and ordinary readers alike? These and other questions should provoke a new level of critical introspection and a new awareness of the ethical challenges that come with broader scholarly access to intimate material.