No-one expects the Spanish Inquisition

20 August 2012 § 1 Comment

He descends into the scorching streets of a southern city…

My family may have thought they were safe from “Doffywevvy” (as my son used to call him) while we were on holiday in Southern Spain, but they were wrong, because we had a day out in Seville, home of the Grand Inquisitor. I couldn’t help but see the trip as a mini-pilgrimage, although I was a little disappointed to discover that Dostoevsky (or Ivan Karamazov) had obviously not really done any research. Ivan’s poem describes Christ appearing on the steps of the cathedral, raising a girl from the dead, and then being arrested by the Grand Inquisitor who sees the hubhub from across the square and comes to see what’s going on, but there are no steps to speak of, and the main west door of the cathedral gives onto a narrow alleyway. The great courtyard in the picture below (taken from the Giralda tower) is to the north side, and there’s quite a big plaza to the south too, but otherwise, the cathedral is hemmed in by a maze of narrow streets, and is surprisingly hard to find. We queued at the southern door for an hour in blazing heat, and I chastised a Russian family who were brazenly attempting to queue-jump, much to their surprise. No-one expects a cross, Russian-speaking Brit.
Seville Cathedral Now, of course, I know that the discrepancies between Ivan’s description and reality hardly matter, but it was an interesting game to play. I was also surprised at how much that passage had coloured my expectations of Seville. The incredible heat and the narrow streets were there, but because most of the action takes place during a hot, airless Seville night, my brain hadn’t expected such glittering whiteness, from the buildings and from the searing sunlight. At least such differences meant that my over-active imagination didn’t expect an Inquisitor to pop out from behind a corner.

(PS I did take some photos of the doors, but my camera has gone to China with my husband, so I had to use one of the Small Boy’s pictures – and he was more interested in architecture than literature).

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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.

Everything is permitted

16 December 2010 § Leave a comment

It struck me again, this evening, reading Brothers Karamazov, when Smerdyakov throws back Ivan’s words at him – “Everything is permitted” – that this is one of the themes that drives everything, not just in Brothers Karamazov but everything Dostoevsky writes. Isn’t it a tempting proposition.  I can envy the way that so often in Dostoevsky’s novels, people just let rip, and do and say what they please, without hiding their emotions. Wouldn’t it be liberating to throw off the good manners and social niceties, step into a parallel Dostoevsky universe and let your passions go wild. What would you do first?

Of course, it doesn’t really work like that though. Like Raskolnikov, Smerdyakov soon discovers that actually, when it comes down it, not everything is permitted. However much they try, most people still possess a shred of goodness somewhere (I was trying to explain this to my son not long ago after we had watched Return of the Jedi). Even rejecting God doesn’t mean that you can do what you like. This is obvious to us today, when atheism abounds, but was possibly just a little more shocking in the 1880s.  However much the Karamazovs try to push to the limits the idea that everything is permitted (and they all embody it, in their own way, even Alyosha) they all run up against that elusive human quality that, in the end, keeps us all under control. It cannot be for nothing that man evolved a conscience.

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