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:


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.


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.

The bilious Underground Man

13 June 2012 § Leave a comment

“I am a sick man… I am an angry man. I am an unattractive man. I think there is something wrong with my liver”. As opening lines go, that one’s a cracker, although the trouble is that it then continues in much the same vein for a hundred pages and it gets a bit tedious. The Underground Man goes out of his way to be disliked, and his accounts of what seem to be his final disastrous attempts at getting on with other people are excruciating to read. The trouble is, it’s a really important text for understanding Dostoevsky – I keep referring to it throughout Dostoevsky’s Russians – so I had to keep going back to wade through the mire. More dangerously, it’s also frequently misunderstood, and sets up the idea that Dostoevsky himself is advocating the Underground Man’s rejection of human society and everything good in the world.

The reason I’m writing about the Underground Man is that I came across this article by David Denby in The New Yorker – go and read it now, because it’ll save me the bother of rehashing his excellent summary of the novel. Denby rightly reminds us that Notes from Underground is a strikingly modern piece of writing – there’s no strong story; the narrative voice is thoroughly unreliable; it all contradicts itself and there isn’t really any story, as such. It’s also modern in its subject matter: the alienated individual, living alone in a big city, who has fallen through the cracks and dropped out of society. He’s constructed his little nest under the floorboards (the title, in Russian, literally means “notes from under the floor”), loves no-one and is loved by no-one. Today, it’s even easier to live without any human contact at all; our cities must be teeming with underground men.

I particularly like Denby’s assessment of the Underground Man’s own internal contradictions – “self destructive mess” is spot on – but I’m not convinced by his conclusions. The idea that Notes from Underground is a glorification of the Underground Man’s bad behaviour, that we all have the right to mess up our lives as we want to rather than submit to someone else’s idea of what constitutes happiness is misleading – this is how adolescent boys may read Notes from Underground and, indeed the big novels too, but this is a simplistic approach to Dostoevsky’s thought.

It’s not so much that Dostoevsky thinks it is wrong to imprison people in a perfect utopian society, like one of Charles Fourier’s phalansteries, but rather that he thinks it’s impossible, because as human beings, our natural tendency is to be stroppy and rebellious, and decide for ourselves what we want rather than be told by others. The Underground Man, like so many of Dostoevsky’s characters, is simply that side of our nature magnified to grotesque proportions. He’s saying, look this is what can happen: if you take individualism too far, we’ll all end up like the Underground Man. Specifically Dostoevsky is also satirising writers like Chernyshevksy, whose doctrine of “rational egoism” naively stated that people will always do what is in their best interests – the Underground Man is there to prove Chernyshevsky wrong. Joseph Frank suggests too that the Underground Man  is trying to live by rational principles, discounting all superstition and irrational emotion, but he ends up morally paralysed because you can’t reduce human nature to 2+2=4 and so he can do nothing but retreat from the world that causes such painful contradiction.

Dostoevsky doesn’t offer any solutions here – I don’t think he even had any answers at this stage, or at least nothing well-worked out. Frank’s interesting section on Notes from Underground in his Dostoevsky biography contrasts the novel with an article Dostoevsky wrote at about the same time about Christ – and as so often with Dostoevsky, that’s where the answer lies.  As the Grand Inquisitor complains, Christ gives us a terrible freedom – a freedom that the Underground Man abuses, but Dostoevsky thinks that somehow we can surrender to Christ and follow his way without actually being imprisoned in another Crystal Palace. The answer is much less interesting, and less effective, in literary terms than the posing of the problem.

A Pushkin fest

16 May 2012 § 2 Comments

Dostoevsky has had a bit of a back seat this week, although it’s hard to take in any Russian culture these days without him popping into my mind one way or another – and since man of the week has been Evgeny Onegin, there’s plenty to say. The reason for my foray into Pushkin was because I went to English Touring Opera‘s production of Onegin last night in Durham, and in a last minute fit of enthusiasm decided to buy the new Oneworld Classics edition, which has side-by-side Russian and English text.

It’s been quite interesting, taking my measures of Onegin simultaneously straight from Pushkin’s poem and from the opera, and also comparing ETO’s production to my massively heavyweight recording (Semyon Bychkov, and Krasnoyarsk’s own Dmitri Hvorostovsky). Tchaikovsky’s opera was first performed in 1879, so about a year before Dostoevsky’s great speech at the unveiling of the Pushkin statue in Moscow. Dostoevsky spoke about Pushkin not merely as a Russian writer, but as a giant of European literature, who, like Shakespeare, Cervantes or Schiller, who transcends national boundaries (unfortunately the near-impossibility of translating Pushkin’s sublimely elegant Russian into English means this giant is mostly invisible outside his native land). This was at the height of Dostoevsky’s messianic ideas about Russia’s destiny to bring a god-forsaken Europe to salvation, so the fact that he praises Pushkin for the innate Russianness of his characters isn’t such a contradiction:

Yes, the Russian’s destiny is incontestably all-European and universal. To become a genuine and all-round Russian means. perhaps (and this you should remember), to become brother of all men, a universal man, if you please. 

And so on… it’s all pretty silly, but the crowd went absolutely wild over Dostoevsky’s speech, so it puts into context the ideas that were floating around when Tchaikovsky wrote his opera. Dostoevsky places Tatyana at the centre of his thinking: he even says that Pushkin really should have named the poem after her. For him, Tatyana is the embodiment of perfect, pure Russian womanhood, but also of Russia herself, and Evgeny, corrupted by the values of Western Europe, is lost in his own land, a wanderer who fails to appreciate the true virtues of the Russian spirit. He claims that Tatyana would never have run off with Onegin even if she were free, because she knows that he doesn’t see her for what she truly is; he only sees the artificial, bejewelled creature and not the steadfast and pure Russian girl. For Dostoevsky, Onegin is a blade of grass, blown in the wind, but Tatyana is secure, rooted in her native soil. I don’t happen to agree with Dostoevsky here – he gets a bit silly when he’s not writing fiction.

Tchaikovsky, too, puts Tatyana at the centre of the opera; she is the focal point of the emotional drama, and surrounded by the songs of the peasant women, he anchors her firmly in the Russian countryside, and her wonderful letter-writing aria is the thematic highlight of the opera. Safe in the knowledge that his audience would all know their Pushkin intimately, Tchaikovsky was able to abbreviate the story, describing the work as “lyrical scenes”. In fact, the basics of the plot are all there, but the bits that are missed out mostly concern the development of Onegin’s character. The focus on Tatyana, the huge tunes and lavish orchestration set the music in a firmly romantic and nationalist vein, and it struck me listening to Hvorostovsky that Tchaikovksy’s was definitely an Onegin for the spirit of time.

What was really interesting about ETO’s production was that I think it looked beyond the 1870s, and back to the original poem – within the limits of Tchaikovsky’s score, of course. The small orchestra and fast tempi lightened the spirit, and brought us back to Pushkin’s irony; his whole poem is told with a decidedly raised eyebrow, and a tone of gentle, sympathetic mockery. The emphasis is on wasted youth that cannot be relived, the foolishness of missed opportunities and mistakes that cannot ever be rectified. A tarnished mirror cutting across the stage reflected the action through a glass, darkly, giving an impression of looking back at old photos, or fleeting memories, and Onegin’s everlasting regret at killing his friend was captured in a moment: Lensky’s body remained on stage at the beginning of the ball, before he quietly got up and walked off through the whirling dancers, watched by his distraught friend.

It was a pity, but probably necessary, that it had to be sung in English. Tchaikovsky retained much of Pushkin’s original verse in his libretto, and the short metre that works so well in an inflected language like Russian ends up sounding trite when forced into English. Also, when sung well, Russian sounds beautiful. Hearing it in English put me off to begin with, but it settled down and I enjoyed the performance greatly. I came away not overwrought with emotion, which is what I expected, but quite uplifted – I’d had a marvellous evening’s entertainment and Onegin got his comeuppance with style. I’m also grateful that the production prodded me into reading the Pushkin again – it was on my long mental to-do list. The side-by-side translation is great, because I can read it at a reasonable pace, and appreciate Pushkin’s lovely writing whilst still getting every word. I think Oneworld are bringing out a bilingual edition of Pushkin poetry soon, and they’re publishing a lot of other new translations of Russian classics, including some quite interesting and obscure stuff – look out for them.

I also wrote a straightforward review of ETO’s production for the Northern Echo.

Who then is laughing at mankind?

9 May 2012 § Leave a comment

Dostoevsky isn’t really a writer for the dictionary of quotations. Granted, there are a few famous lines – “Everything is permitted”, “beauty will save the world” – but to quote them like that is to take them right out of context, and render them meaningless. The other day though, I was thinking about this, and wondering if I could come up with a “favourite quote” from Dostoevsky’s novels. The closest I could manage comes from the conversation “over the brandy” between Fyodor, Ivan and Alyosha Karamazov. Fyodor alternately asks his sons whether God and the immortal life exist. Alyosha says yes, Ivan, no. One last time, Fyodor asks Ivan:

“…I say, Ivan, tell me for the last time and categorically: is the a God or not? I’m asking you for the last time”.

“And for the last time there isn’t”.

“Who then is laughing at mankind Ivan”

Ivan answers that it must be the Devil, before quickly going on to assert that of course the Devil doesn’t exist either. But it’s that bleak, poignant question, from the disgusting old drunkard, “who then is laughing at mankind?” that brings me up short every time I read it. He doesn’t ask who is judging us, or protecting us, or loving us – no, all that Fyodor Karamazov thinks we are fit for is being laughed at, or mocked. It’s probably the most truthful thing the old man ever said.

Here we are, industrious little ants, who seem to think that we have an important place in the universe, and the idea that if there’s any point to our existence it’s just to amuse a cruel deity nicely puts a stop to any anthropocentric ideas about the universe being created purely so that we can exist in it. We all need to be laughed at from time to time, to shake us out of our pomposities, to deflate our sense of self-importance. If it applies to us as individuals, why not the whole species? We’ve created such wonderful things – Durham Cathedral, the B-Minor Mass, The Brothers Karamazov –  but we need a reminder that in the grand scheme of time and space, we’re really nothing.

Yes, the question of who is laughing at us is terrible, but it has a frightening beauty to it, that echoes the frightening beauty of that vast empty universe in which we float. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams imagines the “total perspective vortex” which drives its victims to insanity by showing them just how small and insignificant they are in relation to the rest of the universe. Perhaps just being laughed at is the best way to deal with the problem – if there is anyone there to laugh at us.

Fyodor Karamazov seems to have reached his old age untroubled by the metaphysical questions that torment his sons, particularly poor Ivan. Ivan gets himself tied up in horrible knots thinking seriously about the problem of God and his creation, when a little humorous detachment might have helped him to disentangle himself from his deadly confusion. Dostoevsky must surely understand this, for why else would he conjure up for Ivan his greatest comic creation – the Devil that springs from serious Ivan’s own imagination to taunt and tease him. If there’s no God to laugh at us, we have to create our own petty demons to do the job for us.

The First Blogger

1 May 2012 § Leave a comment

I’ve been inspired to make more effort to write on here by none other than Dostoevsky himself. In a letter to Vladimir Solovyov in January 1876, he describes his innovative publishing venture Diary of a Writer:

I’ll write about things I’ve heard and read – everything or anything that has struck my imagination during the preceding month…. Its account of an event will not be as a news item so much as an effort to show what more enduring effect the event will leave behind it, more related it a general trend. Finally, I have no intention whatsoever of confining myself to simple reportage. I am not a chronicler. What I have in mind is a diary in the full sense of that word, i.e., an account of what has caught my personal interest, even if it is just a whim.

I’ve seen other people describing Diary of a Writer as being like a blog, and browsing through it again last week, it struck me how absolutely spot-on that description is. Published monthly, (or thereabouts) from 1876-77, it’s a chaotic mixture of journalism, polemic, memoir, short stories and reviews and it was incredibly popular.  To take a random example, the issue for March 1876 covers a debate about idealism versus reality, a short story about an old woman, musings on European government, Don Carlos, spiritism, and the youth of Russia.

And like today’s bloggers, Dostoevsky became actively engaged with his readership: his open and candid style spurred many ordinary Russians to write to him with their own thoughts and often their own problems, and this grumpy old man did his best to respond to them all individually. When work on The Brothers Karamazov forced him to cease publication of the Diary, he had 7,000 subscribers, and received hundreds of letters from his readers begging him to continue. He did manage to start it up again 1880-81 but only managed a couple of issues before he died.

The Diary served for Dostoevsky as a laboratory where he carried out his preparatory work for The Brothers Karamazov, so there’s a lot on court cases, suicide and horrible cases of child neglect (all the examples in Ivan Karamazov’s great raging against God are to be found there in the Diary). It’s also really useful for getting behind the scenes and seeing a bit of Dostoevsky the person – apart from odd passages in the novels, this is as close as we get to any sort of autobiography.

There’s an awful lot of it though, and quite large chunks of it show an uncomfortably unattractive side to Dostoevsky, particularly when he goes off on long xenophobic rants: Russia was busy helping to liberate the Southern Slav nations from the Ottoman Empire at the time, and Dostoevsky saw the war as the first sign that Russia was fulfilling her destiny to bring salvation and brotherhood to the world – it all gets a bit much. The Diary is a marvellous idea in theory, and there are some rather good little stories and other gems lurking in its pages, but the truth is that Dostoevsky’s strengths lie in his fiction, not his journalism.

Would you read this book?

10 March 2012 § Leave a comment

The title says it all.

I’ve now posted chapter summaries here for anyone who is interested. The full book proposal is now being proof-read by a very kind friend, then I’ll be onto the scary business of sending it out into the big bad world and hoping that someone likes it. Посмотрим.