Idiots and Devils

26 January 2011 § Leave a comment

I’ve finished the Idiot, and finally written something about it as well. I have to admit that I struggled a bit with this one – not the book itself, or even finding something to say about it, but with ordering the whirlwind of thoughts and impressions that was swirling around my head afterwards.  I still think there’s a lot that I haven’t said yet, but there are things like biographical details that I want to check, so some of it will have to wait. The point of the things I’m writing at the moment is to get down my own, raw impressions, before I go and read what everyone else has to say. I wouldn’t be able to do this if I were producing an academic study, or even when writing a student essay, but this way is fun.

One thing I didn’t manage to work into my first piece on the Idiot, but which I’m going to share now, is Lebedev’s very silly attempt at interpreting the book of Revelation, because it made me smile. He thinks he has identified the “star of wormwood” that the angel hurls to earth and which poisons all the rivers (Rev 8 v 11):

And would you go so far as to say that the waters of life had not weakened and become polluted beneath this “star”, under this network in which men are entangled? And don’t try to frighten me with your prosperity, your riches…and the rapidity of the means of communication! There is more wealth, but less strength; the binding idea is no more; everything has become soft, everything is flabby and everyone is flabby.

Which “network” does he mean? It sounds like a technophobic evangelical railing against the evils of the internet doesn’t it. Oh, is Dostoevsky being prophetic again?

No, the network that has got Lebedev so worked up is the railway network.

Now I’m starting on the Devils, or the Demons, or the Possessed, whichever translation you prefer. My edition has Devils.


sex, religion and politics

18 January 2011 § Leave a comment

They’re supposedly the three big unmentionables in polite society, but it’s these three conversational bombs that lie at the heart of Dostoevsky’s novels. I started off trying to see if I link one theme to each book; it would be nice if I could say well, the Idiot is all about sex, and the Devils is all about politics and Brothers Karamazov is all about religion, but it really isn’t quite as neat as that.

I’m reading the Idiot at the moment. I don’t think I’ve read it since I was 18, so I suspect I was rather youthfully idealistic about the sexual passions that run through it. This time round, I’m really struck by the destructive and unhealthy relationship between Nastasya Filippovna and Rogozhin; here are two people who probably really don’t actually like each other that much, but are utterly consumed with desire, oblivious to all sense, and to those around them. There’s some degree of that with Dmitry and Grushenka in Brothers Karamazov too, although not as fierce as Nastasya and Rogozhin.

The other big relationships are notable for their frustration and lack of fulfilment. Prince Myshkin and Aglaya almost mirror Nastasya and Rogozhin; neither of them seem to know what they want, they won’t admit that there is any attraction between them and they are prickly and defensive towards each other. In Brothers Karamazov, poor old Katerina is thoroughly confused about her feelings for Dmitry and Ivan, she probably thinks she’s in love with them both but again, it’s probably just good old-fashioned lust. (I can’t help feeling that Dmitry and Ivan are probably rather fanciable, in a hopeless sort of way). Even the great romance of Crime and Punishment, between Raskolnikov and Sonya, is not exactly wholesome.

There are happy, stable relationships, but these always seem to be between secondary characters; the lovely Razumikhin and Dunya, or Varya and Ptitsyn in the Idiot. I’m reading Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky biography at the moment, but I’m still on his bachelor days: I assume that his own life is going to shed some light on all these failed sexual relationships, since there’s so much of Dostoevsky’s own life and thinking crammed into the novels.

I’ve just been reading about Dostoevsky’s early literary life in St Petersburg, his championing by Belinsky and his circle followed by their great falling-out, and I’ve been wrapping my brain around Utopian Socialism and Left Hegelianism. I’m beginning to understand more clearly where Raskolnikov comes from, and some of the thinking behind the portrayal of Christ in the Grand Inquisitor, but I need to keep reading and thinking before I tackle Dostoevsky’s religion and politics.

This is making me wonder whether I’ve finally stumbled across some sort of idea for structuring all this. I’ll keep writing and let it cook.

found in translation

3 January 2011 § Leave a comment

A friend of mine asked over Christmas whether I was reading all the Dostoevsky novels in Russian or in translation, and she questioned whether it is possible to appreciate or understand a book without reading the original.

In theory, I agree wholeheartedly; I would prefer to be able to read something direct from the author’s pen, without the intermediary of a translator and I do try to do this where I can. I blame my poor knowledge of French literature on the fact that I feel particularly ashamed of reading French books in English so therefore don’t get round to reading anything at all until I get suitably motivated (usually about once a year). I also feel that Pushkin should only be read in the original because his Russian is so beautiful and elegant, and this is apparent even to a novice student of Russian. Poetry, of course should always be read in the original – I’m only really talking about prose here.

In the case of Dostoevsky, however, I shamelessly admit to reading in translation.  It’s partly a question of practicalities –  it would take me an infinite amount of time to read the big novels in the original, and I don’t think I would actually gain anything from it as I probably wouldn’t pick up on all the subtleties of the Russian text.

In further attempts to justify my laziness, I would argue that I probably get far more out of a translation where I can read fluently, press ahead with the story, and get deeply involved with the characters than when I’m ploughing slowly through, losing the thread because of stopping to look things up in the dictionary. I did read Crime and Punishment in Russian, whilst living in Moscow, but I don’t remember gaining any deeper insights from the Russian text and it was a bit of a cheat because I already knew it so well in English. I don’t particularly think that Dostoevsky’s Russian is what makes him a great writer; it’s his stories, his psychological illuminations and his philosophy that make him great and all this can be rendered perfectly well in translation.

I also imagine that most of the people reading this blog, and anything that may come out of it, will not be Russian experts, and will also be reading Dostoevsky in translation. It’s easy to overlook the translator, but this is a good time to pay tribute to them and the fabulous work they do. I owe an eternal debt of gratitude of course to David Magarshack for bringing Dostoevsky to me, but my life would also be much poorer without, for example, William Weaver (Umberto Eco),  Lucia Graves (Carlos Ruiz Zafon) and the various translators of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A good translation is a precarious balance between the author’s original words and something that works in the final version. I think Magarshack does particularly well because when I read his English texts, they still have a distinctly Russian flavour.

That said, I have just starting reading Poor Folk in Russian using the annotated text at – I will report back on how I get on!

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