Friday, January 18, 2019

Kipling and the Cross-Correspondences

Deborah Blum: Ghost Hunters (2006)

Among the founders of the British Society for Psychical Research in 1882 were psychologist Edmund Gurney (1847-1888), philosopher Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900) and classicist Frederic W. H. Myers (1843-1901).

It was hoped, not unreasonably, that these learned and dedicated pioneers in the field of parapsychology might make some concerted attempt to "come through" after their deaths, given their sustained interest in the question of some kind of survival of bodily dissolution.

Myers' immense tome Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death was published posthumously, in 1903. He certainly believed that he had provided in its pages both strong evidence for survival and for the existence of a soul.

The strange phenomenon of the "cross-correspondences" (so-called) which unfolded over two decades, beginning with some automatic writing scripts by Cambridge Classics lecturer Margaret Verrall in 1901, is therefore either the strongest - albeit, also, one of the strangest - chains of evidence for human survival of bodily death, or else a colossal piece of delusion and self-deception afflicting some of the acutest minds of the time.

Essentially, by choosing your authority, you choose the view you will be encouraged to take of the story. If, for instance, you read Deborah Blum's Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life after Death (2006), you will be left with a lingering sense of mystery and doubt surrounding the whole business.

Ruth Brandon: The Spiritualists (1983)

If, however, you read Ruth Brandon's trenchant The Spiritualists: The Passion for the Occult in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (1983), you may be left wondering why anyone could ever take seriously so bizarre a congerie of frauds and misfits?

The essence of the cross-correspondences was that it involved different mediums, on different continents, who separately received obscure and apparently nonsensical scripts which - when pieced together - produced more-or-less complete statements from (allegedly) specific individuals on "the other side."

The three principal conduits for these scripts were Mrs. Verrall (mentioned above), together with her daughter Helen; Mrs. Winifred Tennant (disguised under her professional name "Mrs. Willett"); and Mrs Alice Fleming, sister of Rudyard Kipling (who practised under the name of "Mrs Holland", thanks mainly to family disapproval).

As well as these, there was also some involvement from William James's favourite medium Leonora Piper in America. This geographical range from the United States to India has undoubtedly contributed something to the continuing fascination that still surrounds this psychic cause célèbre. And yet, what do these supposed "correspondences" actually amount to?

One of the earliest instances was noted by Alice Johnson, research officer of the Society for Psychical Research. While sorting through some of the papers held at their office in London, she noted some strange similarities between them:
in one case, Mrs. Forbes' script, purporting to come from her son, Talbot, stated that he must now leave her, since he was looking for a sensitive who wrote automatically, in order that he might obtain corroboration of her own writing. Mrs. Verrall, on the same day, wrote of a fir-tree planted in a garden, and the script was signed with a sword and a suspended bugle. The latter was part of the badge of the regiment to which Talbot Forbes had belonged, and Mrs. Forbes had in her garden some fir-trees, grown from seed sent to her by her son. These facts were unknown to Mrs. Verrall.
Taken alone, this might easily pass for coincidence, especially since, as she went on to say: "We have reason to believe that the idea of making a statement in one script complementary of a statement in another had not occurred to Mr. Myers in his lifetime — for there is no reference to it in any of his written utterances on the subject that I have been able to discover." However, in aggregate, she found the phenomenon less easy to dismiss:
Neither did those who have been investigating automatic script since his death invent this plan, if plan it be. It was not the automatists themselves that detected it, but a student of their scripts; it has every appearance of being an element imported from outside; it suggests an independent invention, an active intelligence constantly at work in the present, not a mere echo or remnant of individualities of the past.

Robert Browning: Abt Vogler (1864)

Another frequently mentioned example was the famous (or infamous) “Hope, Star, and Browning” correspondence. In this case three mediums made independent allusions to the poetry of Robert Browning. As Jill Galvan describes it:
First, Margaret Verrall wrote a script mentioning “anagram” and containing the phrases “rats star stars” and “tears stare,” along with a second script with the word “Aster,” which is both Greek for star and another anagram for tears and stare. Additionally, this second script contained a phrase beginning with the Greek word for passion and continuing, “the hope that leaves the earth for sky — Abt Vogler for earth too hard that found itself or lost itself — in the sky.” The investigators took the phrase to be an allusion to Browning’s “Abt Vogler” (1864), specifically to line 78, “The passion that left the ground to lose itself in the sky”; the script substitutes Browning’s original skyward “passion” with “hope.” Then, a couple of weeks later, a script by Piper asked if Margaret Verrall had gotten the message about “Hope Star and Browning.” Around the same time, Helen Verrall received a couple of scripts that each mentioned “star” and featured a drawing of one, as well as [alluding] to Browning’s “Pied Piper of Hamelin” (1842), and one of these scripts also offered anagrams for star in “arts” and “rats.”
This is the case which so impressed occult investigator Colin Wilson. And it does, on the face of it, seem difficult to interpret except as a series of allusions to essentially the same matter. Though precisely what was meant to be conveyed remains unclear.

One explanation for this, however, may be supplied by the sheer difficulty of transmission of ideas when one has left the earthly plain. Or so the defunct Frederic Myers explained at a séance with fellow psychical researcher Sir Oliver Lodge:
Lodge, it is not as easy as I thought in my impatience ... Gurney says I am getting on first rate. But I am short of breath ... I am more stupid than some of those I deal with ... It is funny to hear myself talking when it is not myself talking. It is not my whole self talking. When I am awake I know where I am.
He stated further:
We communicate an impression through the inner mind of the medium. It receives the impression in a curious way. It has to contribute to the body of the message; we furnish the spirit of it ... In other words, we send the thoughts and the words usually in which they must be framed, but the actual letters or spelling of the words is drawn from the medium’s memory. Sometimes we only send the thoughts and the medium’s unconscious mind clothes them in words.
Another explanation of the process came from another psychic researcher, Dr. Richard Hodgson, via American medium Leonora Piper:
I find now difficulties such as a blind man would experience in trying to find his hat, and I am not wholly conscious of my own utterances because they come out automatically, impressed upon the machine [the medium’s body] … I impress my thoughts on the machine which registers them at random, and which are at times doubtless difficult to understand. I understand so much better the modus operandi than I did when I was in your world.
The last word, though, must remain with Myers:
Oh, if I could only leave you the proof that I continue. Yet another attempt to run the blockade - to strive to get a message through. How can I make your hand docile enough - how can I convince them? I am trying, amid unspeakable difficulties. It is impossible for me to know how much of what I send reaches you. I feel as if I had presented my credentials - reiterated the proofs of my identity in a wearisomely repetitive manner. The nearest simile I can find to express the difficulty of sending a message is that I appear to be standing behind a sheet of frosted glass, which blurs sight and deadens sound, dictating feebly to a reluctant and somewhat obtuse secretary. A feeling of terrible impotence burdens me. Oh it is a dark road.

On April 24, 1907, while in trance in the United States, ... Mrs [Leonora] Piper three times uttered the word Thanatos, a Greek word meaning "death," despite the fact that she had no knowledge of Greek. Such repetitions were often a signal that cross-correspondences were about to begin. But it had begun already. About a week earlier, in India, Mrs Holland [ie: Alice Kipling] had done some automatic writing, and in that script the following enigmatic communication had appeared: "Mors [Latin for death]. And with that the shadow of death fell upon his limbs." On April 29th, in England, Mrs Verrall, writing automatically, produced the words: "Warmed both hands before the fire of life. It fades and I am ready to depart." This is a quotation from a poem by nineteenth-century English poet, Walter [Savage] Landor. Mrs Verrall next drew a triangle. This could be Delta, the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet. She had always considered it a symbol of death. She then wrote: "Manibus date lilia plenis" [give lilies with full hands]. This is a quotation from Virgil's Aeneid, in which an early death is foretold. This was followed by the statement: "Come away, come away, Pallida mors [Latin for pale death]," and, finally, an explicit statement from the communicator: "You have got the word plainly written all along in your writing. Look back." The "word," or "theme," was quite obvious when these fragments, given in the same month to three mediums thousands of miles apart, were put together and scrutinized. And in view of the lifelong interest of the communicator, it was certainly an appropriate theme. Death.

Rudyard and John Lockwood Kipling (c.1880)

When asked whether there was any basis to spiritualism,
Kipling replied “There is; I know. Have nothing to do with it.”
- George M. Johnson. Mourning and Mysticism in First World War Literature and Beyond: Grappling with Ghosts. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Kipling's famous poem "En-dor" (1919) warns sternly of the dangers of false comfort from spirits - or, rather, their dubious lieutenants, mediums:
The road to En-dor is easy to tread
For Mother or yearning Wife.
There, it is sure, we shall meet our Dead
As they were even in life.
Earth has not dreamed of the blessing in store
For desolate hearts on the road to En-dor.
He was himself no stranger to the subject. The death of his son John in combat at the Battle of Loos in 1915 was a blow he never really recovered from. It was made worse by the fact that he had had to exert all his special influence to ensure that John would be allowed to serve. He had already been rejected for active service due to his poor eyesight.

His poem "My Boy Jack," though ostensibly about the drowned dead of the Battle of Jutland, seems to refer obliquely to his own grief, also:
“Have you news of my boy Jack?”
Not this tide.
“When d’you think that he’ll come back?”
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

“Has any one else had word of him?”
Not this tide.
For what is sunk will hardly swim,
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

“Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?”
None this tide,
Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind —
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.
There's an almost Modernist fragmentedness about the gradual breakdown of the ballad form in this poem: a grief too great for the traditional forms Kipling had hitherto been sedulous in preserving.

Charles Sturridge, dir.: FairyTale (1997)

If you want some sense of the contemporary atmosphere of a kind of half-life lived in the shadow of these immense crowds of thronging war dead, Charles Sturridge's 1997 film FairyTale - about the strange saga of the Cottingley Fairies - does a wonderful job of conveying it. Virtually all the literature of the time, the immediate post-war era - not simply such obvious examples as Eliot's Waste Land or Pound's "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley" - should be read with this in mind.

Kipling's own short stories and poems chart his own steadily less unavailing attempts to come to term with his own intolerable loss. From the harsh "Mary Postgate" (1915) he moved through the healing mechanisms of "A Madonna of the Trenches" and "The Janeites" (both 1924) to his most emotional and heartbreaking story of all, "The Gardener" (1925).

John Radcliffe & John McGivering's 2011 notes on “En-dor” (on the Kipling Society website) record the history of Kipling's engagements with spiritualism and the occult in general:

This ranges from his early story "The Sending of Dana Da" (Plain Tales from the Hills, 1888) - inspired by his father's scepticism about the claims of Madame Blavatsky, one of whose séances he attended in 1880 - to "They" (1904), whose unnamed narrator suggests that the company of the dead may be permitted to those who have not known them in life, but not to those who (like himself) are searching for a particular dead child. This story appears to have been inspired by the death from pneumonia of his elder daughter Josephine, or "Josie" (1892-1899).

Kipling was, it seems, only too aware of the presence in himself of something resembling the "second sight" common among the MacDonalds, on his mother's side of the family. He wrote sceptically of this ability in his autobiography, Something of Myself (1937), but is careful - if one reads between the lines - not so much to deny its existence as to disavow its usefulness to the living:
... there is a type of mind that dives after what it calls ‘psychical experiences.’ And I am in no way ‘psychic.’ Dealing as I have done with large, superficial areas of incident and occasion, one is bound to make a few lucky hits or happy deductions. But there is no need to drag in the ‘clairvoyance,’ or the rest of the modern jargon. I have seen too much evil and sorrow and wreck of good minds on the road to Endor to take one step along that perilous track.
Any unbiassed reader of his work will find it difficult to ignore the obvious fascination with telepathy, precognition, and other paranormal gifts which lies behind such stories as "Wireless" (1902), "The Wish House" (1924) and (perhaps most autobiographical of all) "The House Surgeon" (1909).

Nor would it be true to say that the perils of the "Road to En-dor" were more apparent to him after the First World War than before it. His simultaneous attraction-repulsion towards the occult seems to date from all stages of his career as a writer.

There are no reliable accounts of his own return from beyond the grave to answer any of the many questions raised by his works. His own comment on that is unequivocal. His late poem "The Appeal" - first published in 1939 - reads as follows:
It I have given you delight
By aught that I have done,
Let me lie quiet in that night
Which shall be yours anon:

And for the little, little, span
The dead are born in mind,
Seek not to question other than
The books I leave behind.

Rudyard Kipling: Something of Myself (1937)

The fear of such "unknown forces" was certainly great in Rudyard Kipling, but the temptation to write about them was evidently greater.

His younger sister Alice, known to the family as "Trix," who shared with him the appalling experiences of child-abuse and neglect - recorded in his classic story "Baa Baa Black Sheep" (1888) - which occurred when they were sent "home" to England from India in 1870, and who showed almost equal literary promise in her youth, took a rather different approach.

On her return to India at the age of 16, she married British army officer John Fleming, and, in 1893, "initially experimented with automatic writing." Her biography in the Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology remarks somewhat euphemistically:
After a long illness she returned to England in 1902 and in the following year read the classic study Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death, by F. W. H. Myers. As a result she contacted the secretary of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), London, regarding her own automatic writing.
This "long illness" is presumably the "recurrent mental illness" referred to in Radcliffe & McGivering's notes on her brother's poem "En-dor" (quoted above), which overtook her in "her thirtieth year":
Trix's family linked her madness with her psychic interests. When asked whether he thought there was anything in spiritualism, Rudyard Kipling replied "with a shudder": "There is; I know. Have nothing to do with it." He is presumed to have been thinking of his sister.
The Society for Psychical Research appears to have treated her abilities equally seriously, but rather more analytically, as is evidenced by a series of papers on the "cross-correspondences" controversy published by their research officer Alice Johnson in the Society's Proceedings:
  • "On the Automatic Writing of Mrs. Holland." Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 21 (1908).
  • "Second Report on Mrs. Holland's Script." Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 24 (1910).
  • "Supplementary Notes on Mrs. Holland's Scripts." Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 22 (1909).
  • "Third Report on Mrs. Holland's Scripts." Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 25 (1911).
Then (as now) we are left with a stark choice: either to follow the hints, the half-stated truths "known to nobody else", and the endlessly frustrating lack of definitive, convincing evidence of "survival" - or else to reject the whole business as cruel deception on the part of "sensitives" together with wish-fulfilment on the part of the client. Dr Johnson perhaps summed it up best, when remarking of ghosts:
It is wonderful that five thousand years have now elapsed since the creation of the world, and still it is undecided whether or not there has ever been an instance of the spirit of any person appearing after death. All argument is against it; but all belief is for it.
- Boswell: Life of Johnson (1791)

James Boswell: The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1791)

And yet, and yet ... thirty years before, in Rasselas (1759) he had commented with almost equal cogency:
That the dead are seen no more ... I will not undertake to maintain, against the concurrent and unvaried testimony of all ages and all nations. There is no people, rude or learned, among whom apparitions of the dead are not related and believed. This opinion, which perhaps prevails as far as human nature is diffused, could become universal only by its truth; those that never heard of one another would not have agreed in a tale which nothing but experience can make credible. That it is doubted by single cavillers can very little weaken the general evidence; and some who deny it with their tongues confess it by their fears.
"Some who deny it with their tongues, confess it by their fears." Kipling was very afraid of mental disturbances in the late 1890s, in the middle of a devastating quarrel with one of his wife's brothers (the "unstable" Beatty Balestier) which threatened to undermine his and Carrie's experiment of living in the United States.

His sister's mental illness, followed swiftly by the death of the Kiplings' daughter Josie, must have constituted a great temptation to give in to what Sigmund Freud, in 1910, referred to as "the black tide of mud of occultism." That temptation is already achingly strong in the story "They," and after John's avoidable death ten years later at the Battle of Loos, it may have seemed almost overwhelming.

The poem "En-Dor," then, is simply one instalment in that ongoing struggle with himself and with circumstances. For all the cogency of its description of spiritualism, one can't avoid the fact that - unlike Robert Browning, whose "Mr. Sludge, 'The Medium'" (1864) comes from a place of total non-belief - Kipling's resistance to communication with the dead seems to arise more from his conviction of its dangers to the living than from any inherent improbability in its claims:

Dmitry Nikiforovich Martynov: The Witch of Endor (1857)

Whispers shall comfort us out of the dark —
Hands — ah, God! — that we knew!
Visions and voices — look and hark! —
Shall prove that the tale is true,
And that those who have passed to the further shore
May be hailed — at a price — on the road to En-dor.

But they are so deep in their new eclipse
Nothing they say can reach,
Unless it be uttered by alien lips
And framed in a stranger's speech.
The son must send word to the mother that bore,
Through an hireling's mouth. 'Tis the rule of En-dor.
And what better summary of the cross-correspondences themselves can be found than the one contained in the following stanza?
Even so, we have need of faith
And patience to follow the clue.
Often, at first, what the dear one saith
Is babble, or jest, or untrue.
(Lying spirits perplex us sore
Till our loves — and their lives — are well-known at En-dor)....

Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018)

"All argument is against it; but all belief is for it." Quite so. There are no atheists in foxholes, as the saying has it. It's not that the question is - or, it seems, ever can be - definitively settled. But I think Ursula Le Guin was right to say, in the third book of her "Earthsea" series, The Farthest Shore:
The counsel of the dead is not profitable to the living.
Rudyard Kipling, I suspect, would have agreed with her wholeheartedly.

Ursula Le Guin: The Farthest Shore (1972)

Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Garnett Family (2): In Defence of Constance

There's a fascinating passage in David Garnett's autobiography The Golden Echo (1953), where he describes how his mother set about her translations from the Russian:
Constance used to get up by half-past six or seven in the spring and summer, and we soon sat down to our breakfast of porridge, with milk for me and coffee for her. Her day contained so much that I cannot easily fit it all in. First thing in the morning she used to go round the garden, while the dew was still on the plants, and collect those miscreants, the slugs. This was a moment of self-indulgence, for the serious day's work was still before her. Some of the housework had to be done, then I was called in and my lessons started and, leaving me to work out a sum or to learn a proposition of Euclid, Constance would open the Russian volume which she was translating and begin work. Sometimes, but not always, I would work in the same room with her and, letting my pencil lie idle on the paper, I would watch the changing expressions on her face, eager, frowning, puzzled or amused. The Russian words were translated not only on the foolscap piece of paper in front of her, but into English features and flesh and blood. Her face was so expressive that I could guess at the emotional tension of what she was reading. Even if I did not interrupt, there would soon be a knocking at the back door, or Edward would come in with a letter in his hand, worried until he could read it to her and work off his irritation by a discussion. [53-54]
Given that she translated so much: the collected works of Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Gogol and Turgenev, together with substantial amounts of Tolstoy, Herzen and sundry others (NB: I've supplied a complete list at the end of this post), and that it's all now in the public domain, the merits of Constance Garnett's translations from the Russian continue to attract controversy.

Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977)

Principal among her critics was Vladimir Nabokov, who described her versions as "dry and flat, and always unbearably demure." Poet Josef Brodsky went further, saying:
The reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky is that they aren’t reading the prose of either one. They’re reading Constance Garnett.
It's worth noting, however, that Nabokov also believed that the ideal translator should always be a man, and that his own translations - the four-volume Eugene Onegin, for instance - have hardly attracted universal acclaim.

Aleksandr Pushkin: Eugene Onegin, trans. Vladimir Nabokov (1964)

Was she inaccurate? At times, it seems, yes - especially at first. She began working on Russian in the mid-1890s and kept going until the 1930s. The jewel in her crown is undoubtedly her massive edition of Chekhov (17 volumes: 1916-26). It would be no exaggeration to compare the influence of this work to that of Scott-Moncrieff's pioneering versions of Proust (1922-30). It gifted the English-speaking world with an entirely new conception of the short story, just as Proust revolutionised contemporary notions of the novel.

David Remnick's 2005 New Yorker article "The Translation Wars" gives something of the atmosphere of that discovery:
In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway recounts scouring Sylvia Beach’s shelves for the Russians and finding in them a depth and accomplishment he had never known. Before that, he writes, he was told that Katherine Mansfield was “a good short-story writer, even a great short-story writer,” but now, after reading Chekhov, she seemed to him like “near-beer.” To read the Russians, he said, “was like having a great treasure given to you”.
Close family friend D. H. Lawrence recalled her:
sitting out in the garden turning out reams of her marvelous translations from the Russian. She would finish a page, and throw it off on a pile on the floor without looking up, and start a new page. That pile would be this high — really, almost up to her knees, and all magical.
The inaccuracies have been exaggerated, too (often by rival translators, hoping to find a market for their own new version of some classic novel or other). Donald Rayfield, in his Chekhov Omnibus (1994):
compared Garnett's translations with the most recent scholarly versions of Chekhov's stories and concluded: "While she makes elementary blunders, her care in unravelling difficult syntactical knots and her research on the right terms for Chekhov's many plants, birds and fish are impressive.... Her English is not only nearly contemporaneous to Chekhov's, it is often comparable."

Feliks Volkhovsky (1846-1914)

That's not to say that accuracy is unimportant, but it's important to note that Garnett did not work alone. Taught Russian, initially, by Russian exile Feliks Volkhovsky (pictured above), she subsequently worked with his colleague Sergius Stepniak (below) on her first translations - of Goncharov and Tolstoy - both published in 1894.

Soon afterwards she made a trip to Russia - a journey described in loving detail in David Garnett's The Golden Echo. She met Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana, but was forced to turn down his offer of more of his works to translate as she'd already made a start on her massive edition of Turgenev.

After Stepniak died in 1895, his wife Fanny worked with Garnett on her translations. From 1906 onwards, however, she was replaced by Natalie Duddington, daughter of esteemed Russian novelist Alexander Ivanovich Ertel, whom she met in Russia and in whom she found "real intellectual companionship" (as her grandson Richard Garnett reveals in his 1991 biography Constance Garnett: A Heroic Life, 251).

Natalie Duddington, trans.: Russian Folk Tales (1969)

Another important thing to remember about translation in general is that the texture of the translator's prose is probably more important in creating an impression on the reader than the actual literal accuracy of each phrase. The latest translation of a book is not necessarily the best. I recently had the experience of reading a new translation of Bulgakov's classic novel The Master and Margarita, which advertised itself as "complete and unexpurgated" - inlcluding numerous passages previously suppressed - and generally a great improvement on the earlier versions:

Mikhail Bulgakov: The Master and Margarita (1940)

Bulgakov, Mikhail. The Master and Margarita. 1938. Trans. Michael Glenny. London: Collins Clear-Type Press / The Harvill Press, 1967.

Bulgakov, Mikhail. The Master and Margarita. 1929-40. Trans. Diana Burgin & Katherine Tiernan O'Connor. Annotations and Afterword by Ellendea Proffer. 1995. Vintage International. New York: Random House, Inc., 1996.
It was virtually unreadable! So cloth-eared was the prose, so clunky the annotation, that if I hadn't already encountered the novel in Michael Glenny's smooth and delightful version, I would have concluded that Bulgakov was massively overrated!

Moreover, when Constance Garnett put out a translation, it fell instantly into the hands of the likes of D. H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, and the entire Bloomsbury set. Was her diction overly "demure," as Nabokov claims? Not in their eyes. And this was, arguably, the best period in history for stylish English prose.

As Rayfield comments above, and it's a point worth stressing: "Her English is not only nearly contemporaneous to Chekhov's, it is often comparable." Constance Garnett is the closest thing we can get to a contemporary window on Chekhov - and the same applies to Tolstoy, too (though less so, admittedly, to Gogol and Dostoevsky, where her temperamental affinities are more strained).

Coming back to Hemingway, his verdict on the cumulative effect of those of her translations he read was as follows:

Ernest Hemingway: A Moveable Feast (1964)

In Dostoevsky there were things believable and not to be believed, but some so true they changed you as you read them; frailty and madness, wickedness and saintliness, and the insanity of gambling were there to know as you knew the landscape and the roads in Turgenev, and the movement of troops, the terrain and the officers and the men and the fighting in Tolstoy. Tolstoy made the writing of Stephen Crane on the Civil War seem like the brilliant imagining of a sick boy who had never seen war but had only read the battles and chronicles and seen the Brady photographs that I had read and seen at my grandparents’ house.
That's not to say that new versions of these classic texts should not continue to appear. That would be quixotic in the extreme. But the credentials of the translators as prose writers need to be as impressive as their command of the language they're translating from. There's always a need for good, accurate cribs for students to use, but to compose a new version of a great book requires real literary skills. These don't come ready-made.

And neither is it always possible to trust the verdicts of native speakers of the translated language. Nabokov and Brodsky were no doubt correct in thinking that Garnett does not convey the true flavour of Dostoevsky, in particular. But could either of them have done better? English has its own rules, its own stylistic norms. If Nabokov's own work as a translator had been less perverse, less deliberately discordant, it might be easier to accept his views. Brodsky worked mainly as a translator of his own verse from Russian into English. Again, it is unfortunately far easier to discern the merits of that work in English translations by other hands, I'm sorry to say:

Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996)

Brodsky, Joseph. Selected Poems. Trans. George L. Kline. Foreword by W. H. Auden. Penguin Modern European Poets. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.

Brodsky, Joseph. Collected Poems in English: Poems Written in English and Poems Translated from the Original Russian by or with the Author. Ed. Ann Kjellberg. 2000. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.

Lev Tolstoy (1897)

It was, I think, William Faulkner who said, when asked what were the three greatest novels of all time, Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina.

It may seem a bit presumptuous of me to question the judgement of Brodsky and Nabokov on the merits of Constance Garnett as a translator. Clearly, both as great Russian writers and as profoundly learned students of Russian literature in their own right, the competition is a somewhat unequal one.

I do feel strongly, though, that their strictures would apply just as much to more recent translations of these authors, and that what they are looking for - a kind of mirror of the genius of certain masters of the Russian language within the very different medium of English - is not really attainable in this world.

A brief experiment would therefore seem to be in order. I propose to take the famous opening passage of Tolstoy's great novel, and compare the different versions of it by various translators.

I hasten to say that my own Russian - a few memories of my schooldays, when it was taught to us as an "advanced" alternative to Latin - is rusty in the extreme. I can, however, read the language to some extent, so I'm not flying entirely blind:

Leo Tolstoy: Anna Karenina (1878)

Все счастливые семьи похожи друг на друга, каждая несчастливая семья несчастлива по-своему.

Все смешалось в доме Облонских. Жена узнала, что муж был в связи с бывшею в их доме француженкою-гувернанткой, и объявила мужу, что не может жить с ним в одном доме. Положение это продолжалось уже третий день и мучительно чувствовалось и самими супругами, и всеми членами семьи, и домочадцами. Все члены семьи и домочадцы чувствовали, что нет смысла в их сожительстве и что на каждом постоялом дворе случайно сошедшиеся люди более связаны между собой, чем они, члены семьи и домочадцы Облонских. Жена не выходила из своих комнат, мужа третий день не было дома. Дети бегали по всему дому, как потерянные; англичанка поссорилась с экономкой и написала записку приятельнице, прося приискать ей новое место; повар ушел вчера со двора, во время самого обеда; черная кухарка и кучер просили расчета.
- Russian text (1878)

Leo Tolstoy: Works, trans. Constance Garnett (6 vols: 1901-04)

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Everything was in confusion in the Oblonskys' house. The wife had discovered that the husband was carrying on an intrigue with a French girl, who had been a governess in their family, and she had announced to her husband that she could not go on living in the same house with him. This position of affairs had now lasted three days, and not only the husband and wife themselves, but all the members of their family and household, were painfully conscious of it. Every person in the house felt that there was no sense in their living together, and that the stray people brought together by chance in any inn had more in common with one another than they, the members of the family and household of the Oblonskys. The wife did not leave her own room, the husband had not been at home for three days. The children ran wild all over the house; the English governess quarrelled with the housekeeper, and wrote to a friend asking her to look out for a new situation for her; the man-cook had walked off the day before just at dinner time; the kitchen-maid, and the coachman had given warning.
- Constance Garnett (1901)

Leo Tolstoy: Anna Karenina, trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude (1970)

All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Everything was upset in the Oblonskys' house. The wife had discovered an intrigue between her husband and their former French governess, and declared that she would not continue to live under the same roof with him. This state of things had now lasted for three days, and not only the husband and wife but the rest of the family and the whole household suffered from it. They all felt that there was no sense in their living together, and that any group of people who had met together by chance at an inn would have had more in common than they. The wife kept to her own rooms, the husband stopped away from home all day; the children ran about all over the house uneasily; the English governess quarrelled with the housekeeper and wrote to a friend asking if she could find her another situation; the cook had gone out just at dinner-time the day before and had not returned; and the kitchen-maid and coachman had given notice.
- Louise and Aylmer Maude (1918)

Leo Tolstoy: Anna Karenin, trans. Rosemary Edmonds (1978)

All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion.

Everything had gone wrong in the Oblonsky household. The wife had found out about her husband' relationship with their former French governess and had announced that she could not go on living in the same house with him. This state of affairs had already continued for three days and was having a distressing effect on the couple themselves, on all the members of the family, and on the domestics. They all felt that there was no sense in their all living together under the same roof and that any group of people who chanced to meet at a wayside inn would have more in common than they, the members of the Oblonsky family, and their servants. The wife did not leave her own rooms and the husband stayed away from home all day. The children strayed all over the house, not knowing what to do with themselves. The English governess had quarrelled with the housekeeper and had written a note asking a friend to find her a new place. The head-cook had gone out right at dinner-time the day before. The under-cook and the coachman had given notice.
- Rosemary Edmonds (1954)

Let's take, first, that most famous of opening sentences for a novel (alongside, perhaps, 'Call me Ishmael" and 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times"). The Russian reads:
Все счастливые семьи похожи друг на друга, каждая несчастливая семья несчастлива по-своему.

Vsye schastliviye syem'i pokhozhu drug na drug, kazhdaya nyeschastlivaya syem'ya nyeschastlivaya po-svoyemu.

[All happy families resemble one another, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way]
One would have to admit that the Maudes are somewhat more literal in their observance of the exact order of words in the Russian sentence. Garnett's slightly rearranged version does sound rather more epigrammatic in English, however. There's not a lot in it. The meaning of the sentence is not really in doubt in any of them. Edmonds is admirably concise.
Все смешалось в доме Облонских.

Vsye smyeshalos' v domye Oblonskikh.

[Everything was mixed-up / topsy-turvy in the house of the Oblonskys]

Жена узнала, что муж был в связи с бывшею в их доме француженкою-гувернанткой, и объявила мужу, что не может жить с ним в одном доме.

Zhyena uznala, chto muzh byl v svyazi s byvsheyu v ikh domye frantsuzhyenkoyu-guvernantkoy, i ob"yavila muzhu, chto nye mozhyet zhit' s nim v odnom domye

[The wife had learned that her husband was in connection with the former French governess in their house, and had told her husband that she could not live together with him in the same house.]

Положение это продолжалось уже третий день и мучительно чувствовалось и самими супругами, и всеми членами семьи, и домочадцами.

Polozhyeniye eto prodolzhalos' uzhye tryetiy den' i muchityel'no chuvstvovalos' i samimi suprugami, i vsyemi chlyenami sem'i, i domochadtsami.

[This situation was continuing for the third day, and was painfully felt both by the spouses themselves, as well as all members of the family and the household.]

Все члены семьи и домочадцы чувствовали, что нет смысла в их сожительстве и что на каждом постоялом дворе случайно сошедшиеся люди более связаны между собой, чем они, члены семьи и домочадцы Облонских.

Vse chlyeny syem'i i domochadtsy chuvstvovali, chto nyet smysla v ikh sozhityel'stve i chto na kazhdom postoyalom dvorye sluchayno soshyedshiyesya lyudi boleye svyazany myezhdu soboy, chyem oni, chlyeny syem'i i domochadtsy Oblonskikh.

[All members of the family and the household felt that there was no point in their living together, and that at any inn, the people who happened to come together were more connected with one another than they, the members of the Oblonsky family and household.]

Жена не выходила из своих комнат, мужа третий день не было дома. Дети бегали по всему дому, как потерянные; англичанка поссорилась с экономкой и написала записку приятельнице, прося приискать ей новое место; повар ушел вчера со двора, во время самого обеда; черная кухарка и кучер просили расчета.

Zhyena ne vykhodila iz svoikh komnat, muzha tryetiy dyen' ne bylo doma. Dyeti byegali po vsyemu domu, kak poteryannyye; anglichanka possorilas' s ekonomkoy i napisala zapisku priyatel'nitse, prosya priiskat' yey novoye mesto; povar ushyel vchyera so dvora, vo vryemya samogo obyeda; chyernaya kukharka i kucher prosili raschyeta.

[The wife did not leave her rooms; the husband was not at home for the third day. Children ran all over the house like lost souls; the English governess quarreled with the housekeeper and wrote a note to a friend, asking her to find her a new place; the cook had left the day before during the dinner service; the kitchenmaid and the coachman had asked for their wages.]
There are no very important divergences in meaning in any of these three translations. How could there be? The latter two had the advantage of Garnett's translation to guide them, but all were competent Russian scholars, perfectly capable of understanding the surface meaning and the underlying nuances of Tolstoy's wonderfully balanced prose.

You can see from the literal version above, though, that differences of idiom between the two languages make it difficult to preserve the insistent repetitions of such phrases as "vsyemi chlyenami sem'i" [all members of the family] and "domochadtsami" [household staff]. With the best will in the world, something is lost here in translation between Russian and English.

But does it matter? The Maudes certainly make a virtue of being less "free" than Garnett is in her transpositions and remodellings of the passage to sound like good English prose. In keeping with the ethos of the Penguin Classics, Edmonds tries to make the language of her translation sound as unpretentious and contemporary as possible - though given that there's now more distance between us and her (65 years) than there was between her and Constance Garnett (53 years), it's hard now to detect that much difference between them.

If you're a student of Russian needing a crib, I suspect that the Maudes would suit your purposes best. For sheer ease of reading, Edmonds is hard to beat (I once read most of her translation of War and Peace on an eighteen-hour plane flight, so I know what I'm talking about). Why do we still need Constance Garnett, then? Distinguished Slavonic scholar and teacher Gary Saul Morson summed it all up rather nicely when he wrote, in 1997:
I love Constance Garnett, and wish I had a framed picture of her on my wall, since I have often thought that what I do for a living is teach the Collected Works of Constance Garnett. She has a fine sense of English, and, especially, the sort of English that appears in British fiction of the realist period, which makes her ideal for translating the Russian masterpieces. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were constantly reading and learning from Dickens, Trollope, George Eliot and others. Every time someone else redoes one of these works, reviewers say that the new version replaces Garnett; and then another version comes out, which, apparently, replaces Garnett again, and so on. She must have done something right.
Quite so. Garnett brings with her a flavour of a classic era in English prose, and given her much greater proximity to the golden age of Russian prose, you discard what she brings to the table at your peril.

Perhaps it would be easiest to say, then, that you need never feel ashamed of concentrating most of your attention on Constance Garnett's translations of the great Russian prose writers. Would we had anyone capable of performing such a feat for the great Russian poets - Pushkin in particular - whose merits will have to continue to be taken on trust by English readers.

Constance Garnett (1861-1946)

Constance Clara Garnett (née Black):
A Chronological Bibliography

Constance Garnett's wikipedia page lists her as having published 71 volumes of Russian literature in translation, which also happens to be the total I've reached below. David Remnick's 2005 New Yorker article The Translation Wars gives the total as 70 (presumably by subtracting the collection by Maxim Gorky, only partially translated by Garnett).

The bibliography on pp.207-8 of Carolyn Heilbrun's The Garnett Family (1961) includes one additional book, Madame Lenev's Folk Songs of Great Russia, translated by Garnett, but published privately on an unspecified date.

Perhaps this is why Edna O'Brien's 2011 review of the reissue of Richard Garnett's 1991 biography Constance Garnett: A Heroic Life revises the total up to 73. How that number could otherwise have been arrived at, I'm not really sure.

In any case, the list below is as complete as I can make it. I've combined information from my own collection with the online listings here, as well as the dates and publication details given by Heilbrun (op. cit.).

    [in chronological order]:

    Ivan Goncharov: A Common Story (1894)

    Ivan Goncharov (1812-1891)
    [1 vol: 1894]
  1. Gontcharoff, Ivan. A Common Story. 1847. Trans. Constance Garnett. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1894.

  2. Leo Tolstoy: War and Peace (3 vols)

    Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1828-1910)
    [8 vols: 1894-1922]
  3. Tolstoy, Leo. The Kingdom of God is Within You. 1894. Trans. Constance Garnett. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1894.

  4. Tolstoy, Count Leo. Anna Karenin: A Novel. 1877. Trans. Constance Garnett. 2 vols. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1901.

  5. Tolstoy, Leo. The Death of Ivan Ilyitch and Other Stories. 1886. Trans. Constance Garnett (1902)

  6. Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace. 1869. Trans. Constance Garnett. 3 vols. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1904.

  7. Tolstoy, Leo. Christianity and Patriotism. 1895. Trans. Constance Garnett (1922)

  8. Ivan Turgenev: The Torrents of Spring (1897)

    Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev (1818-1883)
    [18 vols: 1894-1934]
  9. Turgenev, Ivan. Rudin. 1857. Trans. Constance Garnett. The Novels of Ivan Turgenev, 1. London: William Heinemann, 1894.

  10. Turgenev, Ivan. A House of Gentlefolk. 1859. Trans. Constance Garnett. The Novels of Ivan Turgenev, 2. London: William Heinemann, 1894.

  11. Turgenev, Ivan. On the Eve: a Novel. 1860. Trans. Constance Garnett. The Novels of Ivan Turgenev, 3. London: William Heinemann, 1895.

  12. Turgenev, Ivan. Fathers and Children: A Novel. 1862. Trans. Constance Garnett. The Novels of Ivan Turgenev, 4. London: William Heinemann, 1895.

  13. Turgenev, Ivan. Smoke. 1867. Trans. Constance Garnett. The Novels of Ivan Turgenev, 5. London: William Heinemann, 1896.

  14. Turgenev, Ivan. Virgin Soil. 1877. Trans. Constance Garnett. 2 vols. The Novels of Ivan Turgenev, 6-7. London: William Heinemann, 1896.

  15. Turgenev, Ivan. A Sportsman’s Sketches. 1852. Trans. Constance Garnett. 2 vols. The Novels of Ivan Turgenev, 8-9. London: William Heinemann, 1895.

  16. Turgenev, Ivan. Dream Tales and Prose Poems. 1882. Trans. Constance Garnett. The Novels of Ivan Turgenev, 10. London: William Heinemann, 1897.

  17. Turgenev, Ivan. The Torrents of Spring, etc. 1872. Trans. Constance Garnett. The Novels of Ivan Turgenev, 11. London: William Heinemann, 1897.

  18. Turgenev, Ivan. A Lear of the Steppes, etc. 1870. Trans. Constance Garnett. The Novels of Ivan Turgenev, 12. London: William Heinemann, 1898.

  19. Turgenev, Ivan. The Diary of a Superfluous Man, etc. 1850. Trans. Constance Garnett. The Novels of Ivan Turgenev, 13. London: William Heinemann, 1899.

  20. Turgenev, Ivan. A Desperate Character, etc. Trans. Constance Garnett. The Novels of Ivan Turgenev, 14. London: William Heinemann, 1899.

  21. Turgenev, Ivan. The Jew, etc. Trans. Constance Garnett. The Novels of Ivan Turgenev, 15. London: William Heinemann, 1899.

  22. Turgenev, Ivan. The Two Friends and Other Stories. Trans. Constance Garnett. The Novels of Ivan Turgenev, 16. London: William Heinemann, 1921.

  23. Turgenev, Ivan. Knock, Knock, Knock and Other Stories. Trans. Constance Garnett. The Novels of Ivan Turgenev, 17. London: William Heinemann, 1922.

  24. Turgenev, Ivan. Three Famous Plays: A Month in the Country; A Provincial Lady; A Poor Gentleman. 1850, 1851, 1841. Trans. Constance Garnett. Introduction by David Garnett. London: Gerald Duckworth & Co., Ltd. / New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1934.

  25. Alexander Ostrovsky: The Storm (1899)

    Aleksandr Nikolaevich Ostrovsky (1823-1886)
    [1 vol: 1899]
  26. Ostrovsky, Alexander. The Storm. 1859. Trans. Constance Garnett. London: Duckworth, 1899.

  27. Maxim Gorky: Twenty-Six Men and a Girl (1902)

    Maxim Gorky (1868-1936)
    [1 vol: 1902]
  28. Gorky, Maxim. 'Chelkash,' in Twenty-Six Men and a Girl. 1899. Trans. Constance Garnett et al. London: Duckworth, 1902.

  29. Constantine Feldmann: The Revolt of the "Potemkin" (1908)

    Constantine Feldmann (?-d.1937)
    [1 vol: 1908]
  30. Feldmann, Constantine. The Revolt of the "Potemkin". 1908. Trans. Constance Garnett (1908)

  31. Constance Garnett, trans.: Novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky (12 vols)

    Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoyevsky (1821-1881)
    [12 vols: 1912-20]
  32. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. 1881. Trans. Constance Garnett. The Novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky. Vol. 1 of 12. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1912.

  33. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Idiot. 1869. Trans. Constance Garnett. The Novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky. Vol. 2 of 12. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1913.

  34. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Possessed. 1872. Trans. Constance Garnett. The Novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky. Vol. 3 of 12. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1914.

  35. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. 1866. Trans. Constance Garnett. The Novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky. Vol. 4 of 12. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1914.

  36. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The House of the Dead. 1862. Trans. Constance Garnett. The Novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky. Vol. 5 of 12. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1915.

  37. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Insulted and Injured. 1861. Trans. Constance Garnett. The Novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky. Vol. 6 of 12. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1915.

  38. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. A Raw Youth. 1875. Trans. Constance Garnett. 1916. The Novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky. Vol. 7 of 12. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1916.

  39. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Eternal Husband, and Other Stories: The Double / A Gentle Spirit. 1870, 1846 & 1876. Trans. Constance Garnett. The Novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky. Vol. 8 of 12. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1917.

  40. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Gambler, and Other Stories: Poor People / The Landlady. 1867, 1846 & 1847. Trans. Constance Garnett. The Novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky. Vol. 9 of 12. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1914.

  41. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. White Nights, and Other Stories: Notes from Underground / A Faint Heart / A Christmas Tree and a Wedding / Polzunkov / A Little Hero / Mr. Prokhartchin. 1848, 1864, 1848, 1848, 1848, 1849 & 1846. Trans. Constance Garnett. The Novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky. Vol. 10 of 12. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1918.

  42. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. An Honest Thief, and Other Stories: Uncle’s Dream / A Novel in Nine Letters / An Unpleasant Predicament / Another Man’s Wife / The Heavenly Christmas Tree / The Peasant Marey / The Crocodile / Bobok / The Dream of a Ridiculous Man. 1848, 1859, 1847, 1862, 1848, 1876, 1876, 1865, 1873 & 1877. Trans. Constance Garnett. 1919. The Novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky. Vol. 11 of 12. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1919.

  43. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Friend of the Family, and Other Stories: Nyetochka Nyezvanov. 1859 & 1849. Trans. Constance Garnett. 1920. The Novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky. Vol. 12 of 12. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1920.

  44. Anton Tchehov: The Witch and Other Stories (1918)

    Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (1860-1904)
    [17 vols: 1916-26]
  45. Tchehov, Anton. The Tales of Tchehov, Vol. I: The Darling and Other Stories. Trans. Constance Garnett. Introduction by Edward Garnett. London: Chatto & Windus, 1916.

  46. Tchehov, Anton. The Tales of Tchehov, Vol. II: The Duel and Other Stories. Trans. Constance Garnett. London: Chatto & Windus, 1916.

  47. Tchehov, Anton. The Tales of Tchehov, Vol. III: The Lady with the Dog and Other Stories. Trans. Constance Garnett. London: Chatto & Windus, 1917.

  48. Tchehov, Anton. The Tales of Tchehov, Vol. IV: The Party and Other Stories. Trans. Constance Garnett. London: Chatto & Windus, 1917.

  49. Tchehov, Anton. The Tales of Tchehov, Vol. V: The Wife and Other Stories. Trans. Constance Garnett. London: Chatto & Windus, 1918.

  50. Tchehov, Anton. The Tales of Tchehov, Vol. VI: The Witch and Other Stories. Trans. Constance Garnett. London: Chatto & Windus, 1918.

  51. Tchehov, Anton. The Tales of Tchehov, Vol. VII: The Bishop and Other Stories. Trans. Constance Garnett. London: Chatto & Windus, 1919.

  52. Tchehov, Anton. The Tales of Tchehov, Vol. VIII: The Chorus Girl and Other Stories. Trans. Constance Garnett. London: Chatto & Windus, 1920.

  53. Tchehov, Anton. The Tales of Tchehov, Vol. IX: The Schoolmistress and Other Stories. Trans. Constance Garnett. London: Chatto & Windus, 1920.

  54. Tchehov, Anton. The Tales of Tchehov, Vol. X: The Horse-Stealers and Other Stories. Trans. Constance Garnett. London: Chatto & Windus, 1921.

  55. Tchehov, Anton. The Tales of Tchehov, Vol. XI: The Schoolmaster and Other Stories. Trans. Constance Garnett. London: Chatto & Windus, 1921.

  56. Tchehov, Anton. The Tales of Tchehov, Vol. XII: The Cook’s Wedding and Other Stories. Trans. Constance Garnett. London: Chatto & Windus, 1922.

  57. Tchehov, Anton. The Tales of Tchehov, Vol. XIII: Love and Other Stories. Trans. Constance Garnett. London: Chatto & Windus, 1922.

  58. Tchehov, Anton. The Plays of Tchehov, Vol. I: The Cherry Orchard and Other Plays. Trans. Constance Garnett. London: Chatto & Windus, 1923.

  59. Tchehov, Anton. The Plays of Tchehov, Vol. II: Three Sisters and Other Plays. Trans. Constance Garnett. London: Chatto & Windus, 1923.

  60. Garnett, Constance, trans. Letters of Anton Tchehov to His Family and Friends. London: Chatto & Windus, 1920.

  61. Garnett, Constance, trans. Letters of Anton Tchehov to Olga Leonardovna Knipper. London: Chatto & Windus, 1926.

  62. Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol (1809-1852)
    [6 vols: 1922-28]
  63. Gogol, Nikolay. Dead Souls. 1842. Trans. Constance Garnett. 2 vols. London: Chatto & Windus, 1922.

  64. Gogol, Nikolay. The Overcoat and Other Stories. Trans. Constance Garnett. London: Chatto & Windus, 1923.

  65. Gogol, Nikolay. Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka. Trans. Constance Garnett. London: Chatto & Windus, 1926.

  66. Gogol, Nikolay. The Government Inspector and Other Plays. Trans. Constance Garnett. London: Chatto & Windus, 1926.

  67. Gogol, Nikolay. Mirgorod. Trans. Constance Garnett. London: Chatto & Windus, 1928.

  68. Alexander Herzen: My Past and Thoughts (vol. iii)

    Aleksandr Ivanovich Herzen (1812-1870)
    [6 vols: 1924-26]
  69. Herzen, Alexander. My Past and Thoughts, 6 vols. Trans. Constance Garnett. London: Chatto & Windus, 1924-1926.

  70. [in alphabetical order]:

    Chekhov (1916-26): 17 vols
    Dostoyevsky (1912-20): 12 vols
    Feldmann (1908): 1 vol
    Gogol (1922-28): 6 vols
    Goncharov (1894): 1 vol
    Gorky (1902): 1 vol
    Herzen (1924-26): 6 vols
    Ostrovsky (1899): 1 vol
    Tolstoy (1894-1922): 8 vols
    Turgenev (1894-1934): 18 vols

    = 71 volumes in all

    Osip Braz: Portrait of Anton Chekhov (1898)

Thursday, January 03, 2019

Robert Lowell Revisited

Kay Redfield Jamison: Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire (2017)

Roughly seven years ago, I wrote a post detailing my views on the work of Robert Lowell's then two principal biographers, Ian Hamilton (1982) and Paul Mariani (1994).

Paul Mariani (1940- )

Now, however, there's a new book out, by psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison, herself a sufferer from bipolar disorder, and therefore uniquely placed (one might think) to give us insights into the true nature of Lowell's mental illness - both its nature, that is, and the effects she alleges it had on his own creativity.

I remember when I first discovered Robert Lowell's writing, back in the early eighties, remarking to my then guru, Prof. D. I. B. [Don] Smith of Auckland University, that it sounded as if Lowell must have been a horrible man. This was based on my reading of Hamilton's biography, then freshly out, hence the major source of information on the subject.

"I'm sure that's quite untrue. Who wrote the biography?" responded Don.

"Ian Hamilton," I replied.

"Oh, the shit!"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, we prescribed a selection of Robert Frost's poetry a few years ago with an introduction by Hamilton. Instead of talking about Frost's poetry, he went into lots of detail about what a terrible person he was: completely unnecessary! Even if it's true, it didn't need to be said."

Ian Hamilton (1938-2001)

Don generally had a new angle on virtually any topic one raised with him. Part of it came from his long years of study and teaching in the UK and Canada, which seemed to have resulted in his meeting virtually every significant literary figure of the time (he had some original views on Alan Bennett, whom he'd met at Oxford - on Auden, as well - but that's another story).

"Lowell was a delightful man," he went on to say.

"How do you know? Did you ever meet him?"

"No, but I've just been reading his essay on Ford Madox Ford, and the man who wrote that must have been a wonderful man."

Ever dutiful, I went off and duly read the essay on Ford, and started to see what Don was driving at. His point was, I think, that whatever the arc of one's biography - moving from misery to happiness to pain, or whatever pattern we impose on it from a distance (the diachronic view, if you prefer that terminology) - the actual experience of being that human being, or even meeting him or her - i.e., the synchronic section cut across that larger chronology - can be completely different.

The Lowell of the Ford essay came across as kindly, relaxed and wise (quite a lot like Don Smith, in fact, if the truth be told). I began to realise that a person only really exists as a series of moments, and the artificiality of any tragic arc - the largely malign one drawn by Hamilton, for instance - should always be taken with a grain of salt.

It's not, mind you, that people always come out better taken moment by moment, or (alternatively) that tout comprendre c'est tout pardonner [to understand all is to forgive all]. It's just that one should never take any biographical construct too seriously, particularly if it's been concocted by someone who never met - or met only fleetingly - their subject.

Meeting Lowell - just like being him - could clearly be hellish at times, but Lowell-on-paper does not come across like that. He reads like someone who found life, not death, an 'awfully big adventure,' and who never gave up on its possibilities, even in the extremes of despair.

Gerard Malanga: Lowell in London (1970)

Since Hamilton's book in the 80s, the only really significant biographical studies have been by Mariani (mentioned above), as well as the tireless Jeffrey Meyers, author of 25 or so biographies to date, among them books on Hemingway, Mansfield, and a host of others, including no fewer than three volumes on Robert Lowell and his circle.

Jeffrey Meyers (1939- )

The first two of these appeared in the late 80s, but his most recent effort is Robert Lowell in Love (2015):

Jeffrey Meyers, ed.: Robert Lowell: Interviews and Memoirs (1988)

Jeffrey Meyers: Robert Lowell in Love (2015)

It's safe to say, then, that the actual incidents of Lowell's life have had a fairly thorough airing in the various accounts above. Jamison begins wisely, then (in my opinion) by stressing that what she has written is "not a biography." Instead of that, she goes on to say:
I have written a psychological account of the life and mind of Robert Lowell; it is as well a narrative of the illness that so affected him, manic-depressive illness. ... My interest lies in the entanglement of art, character, mood and intellect. (5)
Quite a tall order, one would think. After all, when in doubt, a standard, common-or-garden biography can always take refuge in a bit more detail: a few more addresses, a few more laundry lists and bank receipts. Once one has thrown away that crutch, it's hard to know exactly what to fall back on.

Jamison (unfortunately) has a tendency to fold in pages of pretentious waffle about the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, or any other uplifting subject whenever she runs short of material. Mainly, one is forced to conclude, because she has to admit to knowing little about poetry, and is therefore at the mercy of the contradictory critical assessments of even Lowell's major works, let alone such late books as Day by Day (1976), which she alone seems to see as ranking with Lord Weary's Castle (1946) and Life Studies (1959) as one of the jewels in his diadem.

What expertise she does have lies elsewhere:
My academic and clinical field is psychology and, within that, the study and treatment of manic-depressive (bi-polar) illness, the illness from which Robert Lowell suffered most of his life. I have studied as well the beholdenness of creative work to fluctuations of mood and the changes in thinking that attend such fluctuations. Mood disorders, depression and bipolar illness, occur disproportionately often in writers, as well as in visual artists and composers. Studying the influence of both normal and pathological moods on creative work is critical to understanding how the mind imagines. (5) [my emphases]
I don't have a problem with this agenda per se. There's always something new to be learned from any new approach, and Jamison's close scrutiny of Lowell's psychological records - allowed here for the first time by kind permission of Lowell's daughter Harriet - might certainly be seen to justify a study on this scale (if, like me, you persist in seeing Lowell as one of the most significant twentieth century American poets, that is).

I have underlined out those two statements above, however, since I think they demand further attention. The first appears to posit a link between creativity and mania which one would have thought had long since fallen casualty to the romantic notion of the artist-creator.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact
Jamison is careful to buttress it up with endless clinical details and citations, but she is, it appears, genuinely of the opinion that occasional bouts of mania were of assistance to Lowell in his writing, and provided "material" for him to work over later in the depressions that inevitably followed them.

As her strange saga proceeds, moreover, one begins to realise that its basic postulate is that Lowell can do no wrong (possibly because she too is a sufferer from the same debilitating condition, and therefore can't bear to think otherwise). Even though Lowell himself castigated himself profoundly after each period of madness for the verbal and physical cruelties he had inflicted on those dearest to him, this is - to Jamison - simply proof of his superior "character."

Luise Keller: Friedrich Hölderlin (1842)

And, of course, there's a certain truth in these ideas. One can't really assess Lowell (or, for that matter, Hölderlin, or John Clare, or Christopher Smart) without factoring the influence of their "madness" on the totality of their work (thus perhaps justifying the second bolded-out sentence above). But was it of genuine advantage to them? I think a very strong case could be made for the negative in each case, though of course a final decision on the matter is not really attainable.

It's all very perilous, however: I would see it as a profoundly dangerous way of thinking. It's the kind of stuff John Money spouted when he was trying to persuade the young Janet Frame to commit herself (voluntarily) for psychological treatment: Schumann, Van Gogh, Hugo Wolf were the examples he used to see madness as an essential part - almost as proof - of an artist's character.

That didn't work out so well, and I have to say that Lowell was probably better off with the doctors he had at the time than with one as starry-eyed as Jamison. While (fortunately) a strong believer in the virtues of lithium, she does seem to believe that "poets" are some kind of arcane race of superhumanly gifted beings. Even if that were so (and I don't believe it is), it's rather pointless to use that as a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card when it comes to charting their biographical progress.

There are many things to like and admire in her account. It's very interesting at times. However, with the best will in the world, I'm unable to award it, as a whole, even the qualified thumbs up I conceded in my earlier post to the Hamilton-Mariani double-act. One explanation for this lies in the immense amount of redundancy weighting down her book. As an example of the kind of padding she far too often permits herself, savour these parting words about Lowell's funeral:

A foot of snow lay on the ground outside the church and the wind blew to the bone; it was winter in Cambridge. Had the mourners looked up at the bell tower of the church as they left the service for Robert Lowell on that March day they would have seen the bell that tolled for him. But they would not have been able to see the words carved into the shoulder of the bell. Words for the dead, they had been chosen by Lowell's cousin nearly fifty years earlier, when, as president of Harvard, he donated the bell to the college church. In Memory of Voices That Are Hushed, the bell read. In memory of the dead.

The voices of the living could be hushed as well. Lowell's great-great-grandmother had lived a silent death in madness; her son had said that only as much of her remained as "the hum outliving the hushed bell." The poet's voice speaks for the dead, the hushed, the valorous. It signifies the hours, reminds of death. It gives depth and resonance to blithe times, solace in the dark.

The bells cry: "'Come, / Come home ...,' Robert Lowell wrote. "'Come; I bell thee home.' " (403-4)
Not, I think, since Carl Sandburg's six-volume hagiography of Abraham Lincoln has an American writer permitted herself to go quite so far as this into the realms of footling hyperbole. I remember once reading a long quote from The Prairie Years (1926) about the significance of Lincoln's rocking cradle which did indeed rival the above on the bullshit meter, but it was a pretty close call.

Unfortunately Jamison has failed to learn the distinction between poetry ("the best words in the best order" - S. T. Coleridge) and the poetic (vague, dirge-like words strung together for some kind of solemn - or somnolent - effect).

Robert Lowell: The Dolphin (1973)
[cover by Sidney Nolan]

I'm afraid, however, that where Jamison really falls down for me is in the ethical colour-blindness which continually undermines her version of Robert Lowell's life. Take, for example, her account of the controversy over Lowell's use (without permission) of extensive quotes from his then-wife Elizabeth Hardwick's letters in his 1973 collection The Dolphin, which, as a whole, chronicles the beginning of his new relationship with wife-number-three Caroline Blackwood.

The precise details of the argument to which this has given rise - over the limits of poetic "licence" (as it were) - are a bit niggly. I've chronicled the matter in rather more detail in a lecture originally given in a university course on Life Writing, so I won't bother to rehearse it all again here.

Suffice it to say that Lowell's close friend and poetic colleague Elizabeth Bishop took great exception to this act for the following reasons (as she explained to him in a long, fascinating letter):
One can use one's life as material - one does, anyway - but these letters, aren't you violating a trust? IF you were given permission - IF you hadn't changed them ... etc. But art just isn't worth that much. I keep remembering [Gerard Manley] Hopkins's marvelous letter to [Robert] Bridges about the idea of a "gentleman" being the highest thing ever conceived - higher than a "Christian," even, certainly than a poet. It is not being "gentle" to use personal, tragic, anguished letters that way — it's cruel.
[Letter of March 21, 1972]
Not only had Lowell not received permission to quote from the letters; he'd even taken it upon himself to rewrite them substantially (all within quote marks, mind you), and thus put things she never actually wrote or said into his wife's mouth.

Elizabeth Hardwick: Sleepless Nights (1979)

When I mention this in class, along with various other examples of Lowell's playing fast and loose with other people's words, I've noticed that most students tend to take Bishop's side. Jamison doesn't see it that way at all, however. Her reasons for this are interesting, to say the least.

First, it was all a long time ago:
It has been more than forty years since the publication of The Dolphin, and the indignation over Lowell's taking lines from Hardwick's letters has lessened but not disappeared. Time has a blanketing effect on outrage. (344)
No doubt time does "have a blanketing effect on outrage," but that seems a particularly foolish extenuating cicumstance for a biographer to advance. If outrage wears so thin over time, how about our interest in the minutiae of Lowell's clinical diagnoses and treatment?

Second, it wasn't that bad in the first place:
In many respects, as literary and historical controversies go, the appropriation is not particularly egregious. The issue was an important one to many of those most involved, however, including critics, friends, and, of course, Elizabeth Hardwick, Caroline Blackwood, and Lowell himself. Elizabeth Bishop's burning words to Lowell ... "Art just isn't worth that much" - are repeated still. They raise general questions about the use of private observation in art; they also raise questions of hypocrisy. (344)
So if it's still being discussed, as well as having had the effect of galvanising everyone involved, even peripherally, at the time, then I'd have to say that still sounds pretty important: even, perhaps, "egregious" - to me, at any rate.

Like ex-NY Mayor Rudy Giuliani skating around the latest porkie from his client, the President of the United State, Jamison proceeds to pour even more fuel on the flame, with her admission that "for years he had taken bits of conversation and correspondence from his friends" [a long list of friends and other public sources follows].
Lowell [she informs us] had a poet's magpie eye and an imprinting ear: he spotted, snatched, rejected, revised, incorporated. Words of others became part of his available stock. But it was his imagination that picked, sorted and built. That created poetry. (345)
No doubt he did. But were any of the people she mentions the opposite party in an increasingly acrimonious marital dispute, soon to culminate in divorce? No, they weren't: he may have quoted from Eliot, Pound, Homer, Sophocles, Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all on many occasions, to little controversy, but that was under completely different circumstances.

You might as well say that Lowell had written and published poems before - to no particular objections - so why were they all protesting now? It's deliberately misleading chicanery on Jamison's part, in other words.

Perhaps the most devastating attach on Lowell's behaviour over The Dolphin was expressed in a contemporary review by former friend and fellow-poet Adrienne Rich:
What does one say about a poet who, having left his wife and daughter for another marriage, then titles a book with their names [For Lizzie and Harriet - also 1973], and goes on to appropriate his ex-wife's letters written under the stress and pain of desertion, into a book of poems nominally addressed to the new wife? (346)
"The book," she went on to say, was "cruel and shallow," and the "inclusion of the letter poems stands as one of the most vindictive and mean-spirited acts in the history of poetry."

Ouch! That must have stung a bit. But not for Lowell, who never seems actually to have understood what all this controversy was about. In his reply to Bishop's letter (quoted above) he said only:
Lizzie's letters? I did not see them as slander, but as sympathetic, tho necessarily awful for her to read. She is the poignance of the book, tho that hardly makes it kinder to her. ... It's oddly enough a technical problem as well as a gentleman's problem. How can the story be told at all without the letters. I'll put my heart to it. I can't bear not to publish Dolphin in good form.
[Letter of March 28, 1972]
In other words, yes, it is a bit rough on her, but the alternative would probably be to scrap the book entirely, and that's just not going to happen. He enlarges on this a bit in another letter to his friend, the eventual editor of his Collected Poems, Frank Bidart:
I've read and long thought on Elizabeth's letter. It's a kind of masterpiece of criticism, though her extreme paranoia (For God's sake don't repeat this) about revelations gives it a wildness. Most people will feel something of her doubts. The terrible thing isn't the mixing of fact and fiction, but the wife pleading to her husband to return - this backed by "documents"
[Letter of April 10, 1972]

Frank Bidart (1939- )

And what is Jamison's response to all this? Rather than attempting to engage with them, she is content to call Adrienne Rich's strictures 'a stretch':
Whatever legitimate criticism of Lowell's including excerpts from Hardwick's letters, it is far from the one of the most vindictive acts in the history of poetry. There is too much competition. (346)
In other words, sure, it was bad, but it wasn't the worst - worse things happen at sea. And the culminating point of all this havering around the point is the following piece of pomposity: "Scandals blaze; they die down. Art lasts or it doesn't."
Two years after Lowell died, Elizabeth Hardwick told an interviewer that Lowell was "like no one else - unplaceable, unaccountable." Unplaceable, unaccountable. Perfect words: wife to husband, writer to writer. (348)
Do you see what I mean? The net result of 400 pages of this kind of thing is, unfortunately, to obscure all the paradoxes stated so starkly by Ian Hamilton (in particular), and to make one alternately yawn and gag as one turns the next page to ever more egregious excesses of Lowell-worship.

"Art lasts or it doesn't" - what a crock of shit. If anything in Lowell's art looks likely to last, it certainly isn't that mad rush of sonnets from 1967-1973, culminating in the weird biblioblitz - History, For Lizzie and Harriet, and The Dolphin - of 1973. And, in any case, how could that ever be the point?

The point for my Life Writing students is that they have to make their own decisions on what personal and family details they choose to reveal in their writing. There are precious few signposts on this particular road, and one of them is this particular controversy between Bishop and Lowell. How dare Jamison refer to it simply as some old, dead "scandal"!

True, that's pretty much the line taken by her hero Lowell, who clearly - in his letter to Frank Bidart, at any rate - sees it as more of a technical challenge than a moral one, and goes on to attributes the vehemence of her reaction more to Bishop's "paranoia" about revelations than to any real problems with his own behaviour.

There are no special rules for artists: no special code of conduct that excuses 'great' poets from the normal codes of conduct that apply to the rest of us. Do you hear that, Kay Redfield Jamison, through the blinkered spectacles of your Carlylean "great man" theory of history?

"How far can I go?" is a real, practical problem, which applies to writers - and not just ones in the fields of memoir, autobiography and confessional poetry - every day of their lives. Am I justified in letting the cat out of the bag when it comes to family skeletons - or only about my own misdeeds? Can I really write all those mean things about people without getting ostracised?

Lowell took it pretty far. That's one of the reasons he remains interesting, and still well worth reading (imho). Jamison thinks he's worth reading because he found interesting metaphors and descriptors for the particular madness he suffered from. That may well be true, also. But don't obscure that simple, basic point with a whole lot of palaver about "character" and "moral fibre," as if a self-indulgent, womanising drunk were really some kind of unsung Saint. If he had been he would be boring - it's his flaws that sell him, as he himself knew all along.

"In the kingdom of the dumb, the one-track mind is king." Jamison's hagiography has, it seems, reaped a certain amount of praise from those equally ignorant of the true nature of Lowell's work, but even the most sympathetic reviews acknowledge a certain failure to edit: to cut out all those long apostrophes about Captain Scott (another exemplar of moral heroism, it would appear - you know my views about that), bio-sketches of distant relatives who also ended up in asylums, and - really - just random blah.

The way she writes off Rich's and Bishop's concerns about playing fast and loose with other people's lives and reputations is terrifyingly slick, however - "Satan hath made thee mighty glib," as my old Dad used to say whenever anybody looked likely to best him in argument.

It sounds, in fact, uncomfortably like what we've become used to from PR spokespeople and other paid apologists for any unpalatable view: racism, genocide, fraud, or just plain old lies in general - there's nothing, really, you can't massage with those old cons about how "it was a long time ago and let's hope it never happened. And if it did happen it wasn't my fault. And if did happen and it was my fault then I'm sorry you feel that way about it - let's move on, what's the point of dwelling on it? You really are pathetic in still wanting to drag up that old stuff. Get a life!" I think you all know the kind of thing.

In short, then, I'd like to like Jamison's book, but I just can't. Nor can I really conscientiously recommend it as a valuable contribution to Lowell studies. For the moment, I'd say that those of you still curious about the poet would be far better off reading the fine, comprehensive editions of his poetry, prose and letters which continue to appear forty years after his death.

Saskia Hamilton, ed.: The Letters of Robert Lowell (2005)

Robert Traill Spence Lowell IV


  1. Land of Unlikeness. Massachusetts: The Cummington Press, 1944.

  2. Lord Weary's Castle. 1946. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1947.

  3. Lord Weary's Castle and The Mills of The Kavanaughs. 1946 & 1951. A Harvest / HBJ Book. San Diego, New York & London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1974.

  4. Poems 1938-1949. 1950. London: Faber, 1970.

  5. Life Studies. 1959. London: Faber, 1968.

  6. Life Studies and For the Union Dead. 1959 & 1964. The Noonday Press. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974.

  7. Selected Poems. 1965. Faber Paper Covered Editions. London: Faber, 1969.

  8. Near the Ocean. London: Faber, 1967.

  9. Notebook 1967-68. The Noonday Press N 402. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969.

  10. Notebook. 1970. London: Faber, 1971.

  11. History. The Noonday Press N 513. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973.

  12. For Lizzie and Harriet. London: Faber, 1973.

  13. The Dolphin. London: Faber, 1973.

  14. The Dolphin. 1973. The Noonday Press N513. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975.

  15. Raban, Jonathan, ed. Robert Lowell’s Poems: A Selection. 1973. London: Faber, 1974.

  16. Selected Poems: Revised Edition. 1976 & 1977. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1981.

  17. Day by Day. 1977. London: Faber, 1978.

  18. Hofmann, Michael, ed. Poems. London: Faber, 2001.

  19. Bidart, Frank & David Gewanter, with DeSales Harrison, ed. Collected Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003.

  20. Plays:

  21. The Old Glory. London: Faber, 1966.

  22. Translation:

  23. Phaedra: A Verse Translation of Racine’s Phèdre. 1961. Faber Paper Covered Editions. London: Faber, 1971.

  24. Imitations. 1961. Faber Paper Covered Editions. London: Faber, 1971.

  25. ‘Poems by Osip Mandelstam.’ The Atlantic Monthly, 211 (June, 1963): 63-68.

  26. ‘Poems by Anna Akhmatova.’ The Atlantic Monthly, 214 (October, 1964): 60-65.

  27. The Voyage and other versions of poems by Baudelaire. Illustrated by Sidney Nolan. London: Faber, 1968.

  28. Prometheus Bound: Derived from Aeschylus. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969.

  29. Prometheus Bound: Derived from Aeschylus. 1969. London: Faber, 1970.

  30. The Oresteia of Aeschylus. 1978. London: Faber, 1979.

  31. Prose:

  32. Giroux, Robert, ed. Collected Prose. London: Faber, 1987.

  33. Letters:

  34. Hamilton, Saskia, ed. The Letters of Robert Lowell. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005.

  35. Travisano, Thomas, & Saskia Hamilton, ed. Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.

  36. Secondary:

  37. Axelrod, Stephen Gould. Robert Lowell, Life and Art. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978.

  38. Hamilton, Ian. Robert Lowell: A Biography. 1982. London: Faber, 1983.

  39. Mariani, Paul. Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell. New York & London: W. W. Norton, 1994.

  40. Jamison, Kay Redfield. Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire - A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character. 2017. Vintage Books. New York: Penguin Random House LLC, 2018.