Fiction

In 1984, Daniel Halpern, founder of the Ecco Press, began republishing all 201 of the Constance Garnett translations of Anton Chekhov’s stories. Since then, the thirteen resulting volumes have become a contemporary staple for the library of any serious reader. (I think I’ve purchased five whole sets in those twenty-odd years—several as wedding presents, one as a baby present, one remains in my study.) The price of around $8.50 per volume (which would total $110 for the series) represented a tremendous bargain for the most comprehensive collection of Chekhov stories in what is still the best complete translation available in English. Late in 2006, to coincide with its own thirty-fifth anniversary, Ecco republished the thirteen volumes in a handsome boxed set. After twenty years, the price has climbed only to $150.

Chekhov is a master at making his characters’ darkest aspects comprehensible and human. He’s never sentimental and he’s not particularly pleasant, but he will always feel modern because of his astonishing juxtapositions and the way his characters’ swift, darting minds vacillate between idealism and boredom, vanity and hope. His narrator has a keen vision of class anger, resentment, and envy. Although less enchanted by his own characters than was Tolstoy, Chekhov acutely portrays largeheartedness.

Given that all of the Chekhov stories translated by Garnett can be downloaded for free (James Rusk made them available at chekhov2 .tripod.com), Ecco might be wise to assemble the books in durable hardback; they will always find a market.

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Mona Simpson is the author of four novels, including Anywhere But Here (1986) and Off Keck Road (2000).

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