The book has a cover

21 July 2012 § 1 Comment

Sennaya PloshchadI’m really excited: I have found a photo that works perfectly for the cover of my book. It’s a picture of Sennaya Ploshchad in St Petersburg – the Haymarket as it is often known in English editions of Dostoevsky – the centre of the action in Crime and Punishment. The title of my book is Dostoevsky’s Russians so I wanted a picture with people in it, and preferably a contemporary picture. I talk a lot about the universal human ideas in Dostoevsky’s novels, so I wanted a photo that could remind us of the way we are all linked to his characters. And as an added bonus, not only is this photo taken in the heart of Dostoevsky’s part of Petersburg, the people are emerging out from the Underground, into the light. Perfect.

I’m really grateful to the photographer Oleg Mirabo for letting me use his picture. He told me that he had a project for a series of photos retracing Raskolnikov’s wanderings around St Petersburg – I hope it happens, and if it does, there’ll be a link here!

A tiny book excerpt about The Devils

5 July 2012 § 1 Comment

This post is a very short book extract, for Tom, who commented on my last post and said he was thinking of re-readingThe Devils. The comment notification arrived while I was in the library editing my chapter on Nikolai Stavrogin, and I thought the first couple of paragraphs of that chapter would stand nicely on their own as a blog post:

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The Devils, (or The Demons, or The Possessed, depending on your translation) is more firmly rooted in its own time than Dostoevsky’s other major novels; the setting is quite definitely Russia of the 1860s, and it couldn’t possibly be anywhere else. It contains references to contemporary events and debates, and savage caricatures: Dostoevsky cannot resist poking fun at some of the major political movements of his time – the Slavophiles, the nihilists, socialists of various hues and, in the elderly Stepan Verkhovensky, the European romanticism and liberalism of his own youth. Several of the characters can be traced to real people, and there is a vicious and undisguised attack on his old enemy and former friend, Turgenev, in the character of Karmazinov, an attack which is so prolonged that it makes the reader quite uncomfortable. And if you aren’t familiar with all the fine details of 19th century politics and culture, the effect is a bit like that of the Literary Quadrille that takes place during the novel’s disastrous fete– you know that something’s being mocked but you’re not really sure of all the details.

It’s probably this specific sense of time and place that makes The Devils the toughest of Dostoevsky’s four major novels, and I confess that it was with some degree of trepidation that I picked it up to re-read it when writing this book. It had been a long time since I last read it, and I had but a vague memory of pages and pages of incomprehensible philosophising, followed by a melodramatic bloodbath in which most of the major characters are killed off in a few pages. It’s true that The Devils requires a bit more effort than the other novels, but it’s worth persevering, because beyond the satirical surface (parts of which are actually really funny), we return to the same ideas that thread their way through all of Dostoevsky’s writing: good and evil, personal salvation, and how to live a life that is not devoid of meaning. It’s also the home of Nikolai Stavrogin – hypnotic, seductive and absolutely, irredeemably evil.

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I have plenty more to say about The Devils – on Nikolai Stavrogin as the successor to the superfluous men of Pushkin and Lermontov, on Herzen and Granovsky as the prototypes for Stephan Verkhovensky, on the clash of generations in the novel, and on the demonic aspects of Pyotr Verkhovensky, but it would get a bit unwieldy to put it all on here – and of course I do want people to buy my book when it comes out. But I am quite interested in Herzen at the moment, so he may get a separate piece on here before too long.

The Karamazov Brothers

3 July 2012 § 7 Comments

In Russian, the title is Братья Карамазовы (Bratya Karamazovy) – that’s the way the word order goes in Russian, simple as that – same as it does in most other European languages, for that matter. Constance Garnett, the first English translator, left the Russian word order, and the novel’s standard English title has been The Brothers Karamazov pretty much ever since.  Newer editions, most notably Ignat Avsey’s excellent translation, are returning to the correct English word order, thus correctly removing any misleading sense of the exotic. We’re supposed to think, at the outset at least, that this is an ordinary tale of simple Russian folk, a straightforward family saga, and we only gradually discover the true scale and ambition of Dostoevsky’s work as we become immersed in the story. For this to work, the title itself needs to be understated, not something that looks deliberately foreign, or like an advert for a circus. Likewise, I prefer The Devils over The Possessed because it’s clean, unfussy, and neutral.

So I’m going to do my bit to encourage use of the re-ordered title, and will go with The Karamazov Brothers, whilst offering up a prayer to the god of search-and-replace.  I’m reading Ignat Avsey’s translation of The Karamazov Brothers at the moment, and enjoying it very much, as well as finding it quite an interesting experience. The effect is rather like that of listening to a piece of music that one knows really well: each performance is undoubtedly of the same work – if that is in doubt then the performance is a failure –  but changes in speeds and different orchestral colourings and phrasing create something subtly new each time. And so, reading a new translation, I’m noticing slight changes of emphasis, and odd details that had escaped me before. It might be because the change of rhythm slows down my reading, or it could be down to each translator’s choice of words and sentence structure. There’s also the whole question of language; of tone and register:  Avsey’s translation feels much more contemporary than Magarshack’s, and I think for the modern reader his language delineates the characters a little more sharply, changing them from smudgy pencil sketches to crisp inked outlines. Rakitin is even more vicious, Katerina even more controlling. I assume that this probably gives us a better sense of how Dostoevsky’s Russian might have felt to his first readers – but then again, we don’t feel the need to re-write Dickens or Hardy just because their prose is rooted in the 19th century. I still find that Magarshack’s text is the more fluid (I can’t comment on which is more accurate), but Ignat Avsey’s is immensely enjoyable and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone, whether or not you have a battered old Penguin Classics Magarshack copy to hand.

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