Alexander Herzen was born in Moscow in 1812 and educated at Moscow University. He entered government service but was denounced for his democratic and westernizing ideas. After inheriting a fortune on his father's death, he left Russia in 1847, never to return. He experienced the revolutions of 1848 in France and Italy, and settled in London in 1852, where his home became a mecca for Russian visitors and for an assortment of liberals and radicals. He wrote prolifically, embarking on the monumental and amorphous body of memoirs by which he is best known, the first two volumes of which appeared in 1861. He left London in 1865 to continue his activities as a radical publicist on the continent, and died in Paris in 1870. The subtitle of Richard Garnett's biography (reissued in Faber Finds) of his grandmother, Constance Garnett (1861-1946) is A Heroic Life. It couldn't be more apt. She remains the most prolific English translator of Russian literature: twelve volumes of Dostoevsky, five of Gogol, six of Herzen (his complete My Past and Thoughts), seventeen of Tchehov (her spelling), five of Tolstoy, eleven of Turgenev and so on. Many of these will be appearing in Faber Finds. In all she translated over sixty works. It is not, however, the sheer quantity that is to be celebrated, though that in itself is remarkable, it is more the enduring quality of her work. Of course there have been critics - translation is a peculiarly controversial subject, but there have been many more admirers. Tolstoy himself praised her. Of her Turgenev translations, Joseph Conrad said 'Turgeniev (sic) for me is Constance Garnett and Constance Garnett is Turgeniev'. Katherine Mansfield declared the lives of her generation of writers were transformed by Constance Garnett's translations, and H. E. Bates went so far as to say that modern English Literature itself could not have been what it is without her translations.
This extraordinary achievement was accomplished despite poor health and poor eyesight, the latter being ruined by her labours on War and Peace ,a tragic if fitting sacrifice; hers indeed was A Heroic Life.
More books by Alexander Herzen
More books by Constance Garnett