Matrioshki

Craig Raine

  • Constance Garnett: A Heroic Life by Richard Garnett
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 402 pp, £20.00, March 1991, ISBN 1 85619 033 1

Matrioshki are those wooden, hollow, biologically improbable Russian dolls, sarcophagus-shaped and too rudimentary for much in the way of features or waists. In terms of beauty, they have all the allure of a thermos flask in national dress. What they lack in looks, however, they make up for in fecundity. Each holds several increasingly small replicas, one inside another. In their way, they are the perfect emblem for translation – for perfect translation, that is, where some diminishment is inevitable, but the model and the copy are otherwise identical. This depends, of course, on the given simplicity of the original. Anything too complicated – poetry, for instance – and, until quite recently, you might have found yourself looking for an entirely different image.

In the streets of Moscow, you can now buy a new-style matrioshka. The outside doll is Gorbachev. Inside him is Brezhnev. Inside Brezhnev, Khrushchev, and, finally, inside Khrushchev lurks Stalin. In the context of translation, the new-style matrioshka provides a neatly cynical emblem of theoretical continuity and actual, observable divergence. The blood on Stalin’s hands winds up – in the way of translation – relocated on Gorbachev’s bald spot. Not so different, actually, from Lyubimov’s wish to know, while he was directing Pas-ternak’s translation of Hamlet, if an English translation of the text was available. The answer is that there is and there isn’t. Shakespeare’s text won’t disclose what Pasternak did to it in the course of translation.

Versatile, even promiscuous, the capacious new-style matrioshka can also stand for what is sometimes gained in translation. For instance, the French open up Edgar Allan Poe and out pops Baudelaire. Here, what has been lost in translation – Poe’s energetic vapidity – represents an enormous gain. Equally, the new-style doll will cover plagiarism, the original sin. For example, Baudelaire’s essay, ‘Edgar Allan Poe, sa vie et ses ouvrages’, is plagiarised from two articles in the Southern Literary Messenger by John R. Thompson and John M. Daniel. Daniel’s article is plagiarised in its turn from Griswold’s obituary of Poe – a fraud within a fraud within a fraud.

Traduttore: tradittore. If, as the Italians say, to translate is to traduce, isn’t plagiarism a peculiarly faithful form of betrayal, a criminalised sub-species of translation? Not if you compare, as translations, Constance Garnett’s translation of Chekhov’s tale ‘Sleepy’ with Katherine Mansfield’s alleged plagiarism, ‘The Child-Who-Was-Tired’. The Mansfield is boldly, imprudently divergent from the original. The Garnett version, however, is so utterly unobtrusive as to deserve the plaudit of William Weaver, our senior living translator, who prefaces his translation of Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller with this note: ‘In Chapter Eight the passage from Crime and Punishment is quoted in the beloved translation of Constance Garnett.’ In 1921, Katherine Mansfield herself was moved, on finishing Garnett’s translation of War and Peace, to write of this and her other translations: ‘The books have changed our lives, no less.’ On the other hand, Ronald Hingley, translator of the nine-volume Oxford Chekhov, strikes a note of peevish judiciousness: ‘Though Garnett is far from the least competent of Chekhov translators, her English is marred by an element of quaintness.’ a comparison of Garnett’s ‘Sleepy’ with Hingley’s less quaint ‘Sleepy’ is impossible, alas, because Volume IV of the Oxford Chekhov, covering the years 1888 to 1889, begins, mystifyingly, in March 1888 – omitting ‘Sleepy’, which appeared in January of that year. Doubtless there are excellent reasons for this, but one can’t help feeling that room could have been found for a six-page story Hingley thinks a ‘minor masterpiece’

‘Sleepy’ is the story of Varka, a 13-year-old nursemaid. Deprived of sleep by the screaming of her small charge and then made to work all next day by the demanding parents, she finally strangles the baby. The story’s form is the form of a matrioshka: as the poor girl drifts off to sleep, reality is superseded by the imperious further reality of first one dream, then another. A broad high-road is covered with liquid mud through which people trudge with wallets on their backs. After a brief moment of wakefulness, Varka dreams the death of her father, rolling on the floor because ‘his guts had burst’ – and the way she felt for ‘the broken pot with the matches’ to light the candle when the doctor called. Instantly, Chekhov imposes the scenarios on his reader. Like literary super-glue, they fasten on us, supplanting the previous reality much more effectively, it has to be said, than Calvino’s much lengthier, only half-tantalising truncated novellas in If on a winter’s night a traveller. In the Calvino, the deliberate air of pastiche alerts his reader’s wariness and, since his subject is the reading experience itself, Calvino tells his reader he is being sucked in even as the reader begins to succumb to the fiction – as a method, this is like someone waking you up to say you are falling asleep. But Chekhov is simply economical, with the facility that Kostya envies Trigorin in The Seagull: ‘Trigorin’s worked out his methods, it’s easy enough for him. He gives you the neck of a broken bottle glittering against a weir and the black shadow of a mill-wheel – and there’s your moonlit night all cut and dried.’ Chekhov establishes the milieu of ‘Sleepy’ in one brief authoritative paragraph – the icon lamp, ‘a string stretched from one end of the room to the other, on which baby-clothes and a pair of big black trousers are hanging’, and a stuffy smell that is a mixture of cabbage soup and ‘the inside of a boot-shop’. It is this unassailable reality which is banished by the irresistible competing realities of Varka’s dreams. The dénouement, flirting with melodrama as it does, depends on the reader’s habit of implicit belief in each succeeding ‘reality’. The murder is predicated on the indisputability of each inner scene: when, instead of a scene, Chekhov substitutes an idea – the idea of murdering the child for peace in which to sleep – the reader accepts his sleight of hand.

Despite Chekhov’s strategy, there is a slight narrative wobble as he transcribes Varka’s interior monologue. Before, the dreams seemed to engross us directly, apparently unmediated by Varka’s consciousness, whereas the idea of murder clearly emanates from her: ‘Kill the baby and then sleep, sleep, sleep...’ It is impossible here not to identify the two conflated voices of author and character with a third voice – that of the over-insistent hypnotist. However, as failure threatens, Chekhov’s imagination, characteristically combining the commonplace with the heightened, saves the story. Already amused by the ‘brilliance’ of her solution to the problem, Varka advances on the cradle, ‘laughing and winking and shaking her fingers’ in one of those grimacing paroxysms of synthetic merriment that adults visit on surprisingly unsceptical infants.

Katherine Mansfield’s ‘plagiarism’ of this story (a transgression for which, according to Claire Tomalin, she was blackmailed by her former lover, Florian Sobienowski) differs dramatically from the Garnett version. Whereas Garnett is everything a good translator should be, the ideal blend of saint and valet. Mansfield obtrudes everywhere, as an author in her own right, and ‘The Child-Who-Was-Tired’, though it derives clearly enough from Chekhov, isn’t an example of plagiarism at all. It retains the central situation and the risky dénouement – and changes everything else. These changes remake the narrative, not to mask the source, but the better to serve Mansfield’s own gifts. The scene is now Germany and the altered emphasis is on the child’s screaming: Chekhov’s donnée is fleshed out, literally, as the baby ‘doubled his fists, stiffened his body and began violently screaming’. The dreams are now one dream – of a little white road leading nowhere – but Mansfield’s attention is given over to the horror of domestic chores, to a world of broken bootlaces, to bickering children who spit on each other’s shaven heads, to the task of pegging out twisted and wind-bulged washing, to moistening the rubber teat in your mouth before giving the baby his bottle. None of these details occur in the Chekhov. ‘The Child-Who-Was-Tired’, then, is really a palimpsest, not unlike the Picasso Head of a Young Man (1906), where the gouache is laid thickly over a Japanese wood-block print, but not so thickly that one cannot see lines of the original like folds in the paper – creating a visual effect analogous to papier-mâché, at a time when Picasso’s pictures were seeking to annex sculptural values and effects of several different kinds.

Likewise, Katherine Mansfield has learned general lessons from Chekhov – his weaknesses as well as his strengths. Suffocation, rather than strangulation, is a more plausible form of infanticide, since the inflicted violence is unseen. Despite this improvement, Mansfield manages to introduce her own wobble: her nurse maid is characterised, unlike Chekhov’s, as a simpleton, for reasons of greater plausibility. However, we learn that she is retarded because her unmarried mother tried to kill her by ‘trying to squeeze her head in the wash-stand jug’. Fearful symmetry. This unsuccessful infanticide, let alone the successful one with which the story closes, is one infanticide too many. The most useful lesson Mansfield has absorbed from Chekhov is that the short story should include purely gratuitous details, lest the narrative appear not merely short but anorexic. Mansfield gives us, therefore, a vignette of the coal cellar: ‘Such a funny, cold place the coal cellar! With potatoes banked in one corner, beetroot in an old candle box, two tubs of sauerkraut, and a twisted mass of dahlia roots – that looked as though they were fighting one another.’ Another brilliantly irrelevant detail occurs at lunchtime: ‘dinner was eaten, the Man took the Frau‘s share of the pudding as well as his own.’

In Chekhov’s ‘The lady with the Dog’ there is a glorious supernumerary detail which perfectly illustrates the dual economy of the greatest short stories – an overall parsimony suddenly leavened by luxury. Fresh from their first adultery, the new lovers sit in the dawn’s outdoor emptiness and are approached by a man who looks at them, then walks away. For the reader and the lovers, it is as if the strangeness conferred on them by the affair has been corroborated. In Garnett, this figure is ‘probably a keeper’. In Hingley, he is ‘a watch man, no doubt’. In koteliansky, he is, unambiguously, ‘a coastguard’. As a non-Russian-speaker. I have no idea which of these professions is correct, but I don’t think it matters. Garnett evidently made a number of slips in this area – Augusta Tovey notes in ‘The Steppe’ a confusion between cherep (‘skull’) and cherepok (‘potsherd’). This is hardly surprising. Her dictionaries must have been considerably worse than the Oxford Russian-English dictionary compiled by Marcus Wheeler – which my wife found less than adequate when she was translating Pasternak’s poetry.

More important are mistakes of tone or straightforward clumsiness, of which there are relatively few examples in Garnett. In ‘A Dreary Story’, even allowing for the narrator’s habitual academic delivery, one baulks at this stilted sentence: ‘You may be ever so much of a gentleman and a privy councillor, but if you have a daughter you cannot be secure of immunity [my italics] from that petty bourgeois atmosphere...’ This is exceptional and no worse than Hingley’s maladroit update in ‘Murder’: ‘Mother’s breast is baby’s snackbar.’ Alas, ‘snack-bar’ is no longer current and hasn’t yet acquired an appropriately antique patina. ‘Mother’s breast is baby’s buffet’ would achieve, by contrast, a timeless and relatively placcless quality.

A comparison of three versions of ‘The Lady with the Dog’ (Garnett), ‘A Lady with a Dog’ (Hingley) and ‘Lady with the Toy Dog’ (koteliansky) makes it clear that Garnett is the superior translator. Hingley, on principle, gives us what Chekhov would have written had he been an English writer. ‘Snack-bar’ is one instance of where this principle leads. Chekhov’s own belief was that some things do not translate: ‘The Cherry Orchard is being translated for Berlin and Vienna. But it won’t succeed there because they don’t have billiards, Lopakhins or students à la Trofimo.’ Undeterred by this, or by Matthew Arnold’s ironic example of Mdlle Rossignol for Florence Nightingale, Hingley boldly translates the untranslatable. Anna Sergeyevna is deprived of her atmospheric and irreplaceable patronymic and becomes ‘Anne’. In Garnett, Anna Sergeyevna isn’t sure ‘whether her husband has a post in a Crown Department or under the Provincial Council’. In Hingley, Anne’s choice is between ‘the County Council or the Rural District’. But there are no absolute rules in this area, except what works on the page, and Hingley is correct to prefer ‘ENTRANCE TO CIRCLE’ for the more literal ‘TO THE AMPHITHEATRE’ chosen by Garnett and Koteliansky. On the other hand, Hingley’s ‘Slav Fair hotel’ doesn’t sound plausibly English at all. The Commercial Hotel would be a better equivalent, but better still is Garnett’s ‘the Slaviansky Bazaar hotel’, which is aromatic with Russianness. The replacement of ‘Crown Department’ by ‘County Council’ is equivalent to the substitution, in a translation from Italian, of the Archbishop of Canterbury for the Pope. You may as well translate matrioshka as Cindy doll.

These are small points. The main difference between Hingley and Garnett is that Hingley’s literary touch is coarser. In the Garnett, Gurov encounters the lady with the dog and reflects: ‘if she is here alone without a husband or friends, it wouldn’t be amiss to make her acquaintance.’ What is not fully disclosed even to himself is taken by Hingley out of the arena of the half-formulated. The ambiguity in Garnett, admittedly short-lived, is between two alternatives: is his sexual interest aroused by the absence of husband and friends, or does that absence simply point up the loneliness he wishes magnanimously to alleviate? Hingley resolves the problem prematurely with contemporary demotic: ‘If she has no husbands and friends here she might be worth picking up.’ So much for a motivation poised momentarily between the predatory and the polite

Hingley is too prone to translate Chekhov’s hints and guesses into four-square certainties. After Anna’s seduction, Hingley depicts her remorse thus: ‘she had struck a pensive, despondent pose, like the Woman Taken in Adultery in an old-fashioned picture.’ Garnett has: ‘she mused in a dejected attitude like the woman who was a sinner in an old-fashioned picture.’ Koteliansky has ‘exactly like a woman taken in sin in some old picture’. Since Russian has no articles, definite or indefinite, ‘a woman’ or ‘the woman’ are equally possible. But the Biblical allusion, with its assumption of forgiveness, works against the idea of Anna’s remorse.

There are three occasions when Chekhov’s characters show emotion and where Garnett outdoes Hingley because he overdoes the emotion. At the theatre, the lovers meet again. Gurov sees Anna and, in Hingley, his ‘heart seemed to miss a beat’. In the Garnett, ‘when Gurov looked at her his heart contracted.’ When Anna looks up and sees him there, she is, in Garnett, ‘unable to believe her eyes, and tightly gripped the fan and the lorgnette in her hands’. Hingley overstates the action by a fatal margin: ‘not believing her eyes, crushing fan and lorgnette together in her hands’. Compare, too, their first kiss. Example A: ‘Then he stared at her hard, embraced her suddenly and kissed her lips. The scent of flowers, their dampness, enveloped him, and he immediately glanced round fearfully: had they been observed?’ Example B: ‘Then he looked at her intently, and all at once put his arm round her and kissed her on the lips, and breathed in the moisture and the fragrance of the flowers; and he immediately looked round him, anxiously wondering whether anyone had seen them.’ I don’t believe that you need to be told that the abrupt, parodically passionate advance of Example A, faintly reminiscent of silent films, is by Ronald Hingley. In any case, the ineptitude of ‘he stared at her hard’ is sufficient to trigger uneasiness. Her hard what? The phrase belongs with another clunking Hingleyism: ‘people who would have been glad to misbehave themselves, given the aptitude’. Constance Garnett avoids Hingley’s ugly retread of ‘given the opportunity’ and translates: ‘persons who would themselves have been glad to sin if they had been able’.

The Oxford Chekhov is a great gift, with all its flaws, and we monoglots are properly grateful. It is simply that Constance Garnett’s contribution to world literature is incomparably vast – and that where we encounter Hingley as a series of snags in his translations, she is perfectly invisible, as effective and insubstantial as the Holy Ghost, a divine nobody.

This fascinating life by her grandson, Richard Garnett, is the life of a nobody, taking on at times the authentic intonations of Mr Pooter: ‘In February I had greens (which neither of us care much for) for dinner 14 times.’ But if this biography in its fullness sometimes makes over to us the genuine stupor of everyday concerns, its meticulousness also rewards us with the extraordinariness of the ordinary. Out of the matrioshka Constance Garnett emerge the translations of Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov and Goncharov. The Russian connection isn’t just literary: as a boy, her father skated across the Baltic; she knew the Russian exiles Felix Volkhovsky, Stepniak and Kropotkin, whose beard covered his solar plexus.

Her marriage to Edward Garnett was celibate after the birth of their only child, David or Bunny. Constance suffered a prolapse of the uterus and thereafter wore some kind of internal support. After a time Edward, with Constance’s consent, found himself a sexual partner in Nellie Heath, a painter who had previously fallen for her teacher, Sickert. Constance had her own tendresses, though none of these became physical, and she wrote, truthfully, to Edward that their love for each other was central and permanent: ‘other interests – even other love – cannot alter it.’ Curiously, it seems to have been most threatened, not by illicit sexual attraction, but by Edward’s lack of respect for her socialism and her individuality: a bitter but generalised letter suddenly resolves itself into a particular grudge, at once trivial and humiliating: ‘to call me “a boiled owl” for instance before the Lucases.’

Apart from translation, sex and sickness are the great currents through her life, sometimes flowing together. What kind of internal support must she have worn? How was it kept clean? How did she manage while menstruating? Was it feasible on long Russian train journeys? Was it specially made, like Ruskin’s truss? At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, one was only a short step away from the musty atmosphere of the sickroom and everyone had their small ailment. One thinks of Eliot’s truss, worn from boyhood, and of Updike’s father’s ‘pathetic sweat-stained truss’ in Self-Consciousness. Constance’s mother dies of an aggravated rupture, caused by lifting her invalid husband from bed to bathchair and back again: ‘my mother unconscious and gasping in an awful way looked quite different – sunken and grey. Grandmamma was crying on one side of the bed, my poor father, crying too (which seemed almost the most dreadful thing of all) was saying “Oh, the little monkeys, the poor little monkeys!” – his nickname for Gracie and Katie. In the next room Robert was sitting with a book open pretending to read.’

All those ailments from a different era: ulceration of the retina, internal inflammation, sick headaches, Valentine’s Meat Juice as a remedy for Edward’s abscess on his tooth, the typhoid that left the ‘walls of his intestines as thin as paper’, the way he took quinine till it left him deaf. Mental illness: the mad brother who murdered his wife and child with the coal-hammer before killing himself; the friend who stole Constance’s pistol and fired it at an editor who rejected his poems. Sex and sickness: the sister whose husband contracted syphilis in Brazil; the locomotor ataxia of Constance’s father which she believed, incorrectly, was caused by syphilis. As a young man, her father made servant girl pregnant. When he somewhat high-handedly arranged for his illegitimate son to go to boarding-school, the boy’s maternal grandmother wrote with all the heartbreak that unpunctuated literary ignorance can convey: ‘pleas to be so kind as to Let mee know how you leave him poor little fellow he will feel very strang with all Strangers ... I cannot tell you how I feel.’ In sexual matters, this biography is to be commended for its candour. David Garnett, we learn, was fundamentally heterosexual, but willing to comply with the physical demands of Duncan Grant – it was the emotional burden he found insupportable. Despite their subsequent celibacy, Constance and Edward were lovers before they married. Certainly, she was no prude and, via her husband, recommended ‘Malthusian sheaths’ to her son. In fact, she was in general rather tough. Of Tolstoy she remarked: ‘these prophets are dreadful people to deal with.’ She never had much time for religion and dismissed the Gospels because they were ‘written by ignorant men in Aramaic and translated two centuries later into bad Greek’.

All in all, she is a matrioshka containing multitudes: Shaw ‘looking like a fairly respectable plasterer, his cuffs trimmed with scissors’; H.G. Wells, vigorous but ‘a bit vulgar, you know’; D.H. Lawrence, protesting, ‘Mrs Garnett says I have no true nobility – with all my cleverness and charm. But that is not true. It is there, in spite of all the littlenesses and commonnesses’; Tussy Marx; the Webbs; Yeats poor enough to black his heels where they showed through the holes in his socks; Tolstoy’s wife, dismissed as ‘a Philistine, admirably qualified to be the wife of the Mayor of Brighton’; and, best of all, Ford Madox Ford, telling a Russian émigré that rye was England’s largest crop, but that the most profitable crop was ‘a very tall cabbage, the stalks of which supplied walking-out canes for soldiers in the British Army’. If you didn’t know that Tolstoy was ‘a keen cyclist and rode for considerable distances on a solid machine with a single-plunger brake and no mudguards’ – then you need this biography, which also contains the cycling secrets of Henry James.