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Editor's Choice

The Tales of Anton Chekhov, translated by Constance Garnett (Ecco Press, paperback, 13 boxed volumes, $150).

Let us now praise Constance Garnett -- and not just because of the great writer she begat, her son David, author of "Lady Into Fox," one of more remarkable, if little known, fantasies in all of English literature.

Garnett's time seems to have come around again, at last.

For decades, her translations were the shortest distance between the great masterpieces of Russian literature and the English language. In fact, when it came to Chekhov and Dostoevsky, Garnett was their primal translator into English, their first conduit into our language. In the realm of human activity, then, she is definitely of the tribe of Prometheus. (Without the Constance Garnetts of this world and the gifts they bestow, civilization itself isn't really possible.)

But, over time, the deficiencies in her High Victorian/Edwardian prose became more obvious and other translators (David ,3.5i Magarschack, the currently active Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokovsky) came along to be (we're told) both truer to the originals and more graceful to read. It is, in fact, to the occasionally tortured Garnett Dostoevsky translations that we owe the ordinary modern confusion over just how Russian patronymics work anyhow.

But in her own trail-blazing way, her translations -- especially of Chekhov -- remain not only readable but even graceful sometimes and nicely redolent of an era worth preserving.

Here, altogether wonderfully for the season, are "The Tales of Chekhov" as translated by Constance Garnett in a terrific box of 13 paperback volumes. It's an international foundation for the modern short story in general but, for certain, the short stories, in English, of everyone from Hemingway, Frank O'Connor and Sherwood Anderson to John Cheever, Raymond Carver and Richard Ford.

Here, in his introduction to the first volume -- a selection of Ford's called "The Darling" -- is Richard Ford on one of the more galling but familiar conundrums of reading Chekhov's tales: "As is true of many American readers who encountered Chekhov first in college, my experience with his stories was both abrupt and brief and came too early. . . . For all their surface plainness, their apparent accessibility and clarity, Chekhov's stories -- especially the greatest ones -- still do not seem so easily penetrable by the unexceptional young. Rather, Chekhov seems to be a writer for adults, his work becoming useful and also beautiful by attracting attention to mature feelings, to complicated human responses and small issues of moral choice within large overarching dilemmas, any part of which, were we encounter them in our complex headlong life with others, might evade sophisticated notice."

A memorable, even striking, packaging then of a foundation of modern civilization itself, not just literature.

-- Jeff Simon

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