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A New Dostoevsky?

The Brothers Karamazov

by Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by Richard Pevear, by Larissa Volokhonsky
North Point Press, 796 pp., $29.95

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, when it became clear to readers in Europe and America that masterpieces of fiction on a huge scale had been produced during the last half century in Russia, there was a demand for translations. Anna Karenina appeared first in France and was reviewed in England by Matthew Arnold, who saw what a great novel it was, though he objected that Anna behaved in a rather precipitate and un-English fashion: George Eliot would have organized her temptation and fall as perceptively but with more decorum. The craze for Dostoevsky came later. Constance Garnett, the wife of a literary agent and man of letters, brought out translations of all his novels between 1912 and 1920, when his work was already well known on the Continent. Her knowledge of Russian was not particularly good and she was apt to leave out the bits she could not quite get the sense of, but she adored her work and her style had a natural animation and flow. She had already translated Turgenev, and her version of Dostoevsky remained the standard one until fairly recently, though there were more accurate renderings by David Magarshak and others.

The Brothers Karamazov, the last, longest, and most complex of the novels, presents the biggest challenge to the translator. It comes in a new version now by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, both of whom are unusually well qualified for such a task. Mr. Pevear has received fellowships for translation from several august bodies including the Guggenheim Foundation, and Larissa Volokhonsky was born in Leningrad and has wide experience of putting into English the new Russian orthodox theologians. They also have a clear idea of what the problems of Englishing Dostoevsky are: how to give some idea of the extraordinarily rich polyphony of voices, accents, undertones, and suggestions in the text; how to convey the novel’s marvelous construction, and at the same time its wholly “living” air of majestic dishevelment.

They have succeeded amazingly well. The reader who is not familiar with the nature of Dostoevsky’s writing and the special problems the language poses for translation will nonetheless feel a sense of that writing’s freedom and exhilaration, of what Dostoevsky called zhivaya zhizn, living life. Sometimes he referred to the book’s “higher realism.” The reader becomes more and more absorbed in the story of the three brothers, instead of struggling, as he used to do, with a text that might have seemed to him dead and buried, or at least quaint and fossilized. It is, in a sense, the sheer “literariness” of Dostoevsky that is the hardest thing to get across in another language. Trying to update his idiom into an idiomatic usage of our own time would not do at all—in fact it would be fatal. Imagine the style of Dickens updated in translation into the contemporary idiom of a foreign language, and it gives one an idea of the difficulty of transposing Dostoevsky into an idiom that is dramatically alive without being aggressively up-to-date.

An English speaker can adjust without much effort to the living and personal language of Dickens, different as it is from anything he now speaks or hears, and a Soviet audience can adjust to Dostoevsky’s now oldfashioned linguistic richness in the same manner. But to construct a suitable “Dostoevskian English” is an exceedingly tricky task, though perhaps not an impossible one. Pevear and Volokhonsky have made a spirited and on the whole successful attempt at it, showing themselves well aware of problems that Constance Garnett was probably unconscious of, or took more or less in her stride. A small but significant instance of their care for idiomatic accuracy comes in chapter six of Book Two: a chapter to which they give the title of “Strain in the Cottage,” following its predecessor “Strain in the Drawing Room.” Constance Garnett rendered “Strain” as “A Laceration,” which may sound more conventionally Dostoevskian but misses the mild irony of the Russian text.

Chapter titles are important in Dostoevsky. Garnett called Book One, which describes the history and situation of the Karamazovs, “The History of a Family”; the new version gathers in the title’s humor with the accurate rendering, “A Nice Little Family.” The Karamazovs, from the unspeakable but earthily vital old father to the wild eldest Mitya, the tormented intellectual Ivan, and the naively good-hearted Alyosha, are certainly that.

Long ago, and basing his insight on the Garnett translation, Aldous Huxley pointed out that Dostoevsky’s immense superiority over Dickens in describing heart-rending scenes, like the death of the child Ilyusha, lay in his eye for heterogeneous details of all sorts: Ilyusha’s worn little boots, neatly arranged side by side by the woman who has come to lay out the dead boy, the doctor’s “sealskin hat with its sealskin visor,” and so forth. When he did the death of Little Nell, in The Old Curiosity Shop, Dickens abandoned all such incongruities entirely, as inappropriate to the pure sentiment he wished to put across. Huxley’s comparison becomes all the more telling in the text of this new version, where word order and single words are carefully arranged to give the maximum effect that they possess in the original Russian. When Alyosha goes to try to find Captain Snegiryov, the broken-down drunken father of Ilyusha, he locates “a decrepit, lopsided little house, with only three windows looking out onto the street, and a dirty courtyard, in the middle of which a cow stood solitarily.” Garnett has “a solitary cow,” which is not the same thing at all.

Then, after Ilyusha’s funeral, the captain walks distractedly home, attended by his son’s schoolmates, one of whom, crying bitterly and carrying the captain’s hat, “still managed…to snatch up a piece of brick lying red on the snow-covered path and fling it at a flock of sparrows flying quickly by. He missed, of course, and went on running, crying.” This detail and timing only Gogol or Dostoevsky could manage, and they are weakened in Garnett, who offers “a piece of red brick that lay on the snow of the path,” and a boy who “went on crying as he ran.” The new translation contrives to build up a consistent imitation of the original’s acoustic idiom and feel.

Probably the most profound and illuminating analysis of Dostoevsky’s literary method is that of Mikhail Bakhtin, writing in Russia forty years ago; and although Pevear does not mention him in his preface he is clearly well aware of the importance of Bakhtin’s findings in relation to the structure of the novels, and particularly The Brothers Karamazov. Bakhtin, to put the matter in a nutshell, showed that Dostoevsky’s method is consistently “polyphonic”: that is, by an orchestration of narrator and characters, author and dialogue, he achieves an effect perpetually expectant and incomplete, impersonal and yet crammed with personalities, including that of the narrator; full of the substance of thought and understanding but never dogmatic, dealing always in assertion and renewal, but never in conclusion. There is evidence that in the sequel he planned for The Brothers Karamazov, a few months before his death, Dostoevsky intended to introduce an Alyosha fallen from grace and subject to the lusts of the flesh, like his own father; an Alyosha who becomes “a great sinner,” and who in the course of the next dramatic narrative is “to sin his way to Christ.” Put thus the new novel sounds depressingly schematic, but one can be sure that if Dostoevsky had lived to write it the book would have been as palpitatingly alive, as full of unachieved aspiration and “dialogic” debate (the adjective is Bakhtin’s) as is The Brothers Karamazov itself.

Nor do Pevear and his partner ever forget that on one level the great novel is a whodunit, full of suspense effects and the suggestion of enigmatic mystery and evil. This leads to the prolonged climax of Mitya’s trial, virtually an orgy in the comedy of style and humors of individual and idiosyncratic language, interspersed with moments of piercing pathos like Mitya’s “good dream.” Dostoevsky’s admiration for both Shakespeare’s plays and Walter Scott’s novels comes vividly to life in these sequences. Not only Fyodor Pavlovich, father Karamazov, but the saintly monk Father Zosima and Alyosha himself are masterpieces of serio-comic creation. While he was finishing Book Six, “The Russian Monk,” Dostoevsky wrote to a friend that “life is full of the comic, and only majestic in its inner sense”; and no creator has been more successful at revealing in his words and language the possibilities of both. There is a sense in which almost all later novelists of any scope and stature are inheritors of the Dostoevskian tradition, rather in the way in which Dostoevsky himself remarked that all the Russian novelists, himself included, had “come out from under Gogol’s ‘Overcoat.’ ” But it is one thing to aim for a continuous mixture of farce and tragedy, philosophical utterance and linguistic play in a novel; quite another to have achieved it in the way that Dostoevsky did in The Brothers Karamazov.

It is indeed arguable that Dostoevsky’s influence as a writer, a colossal personality of the fictive art, has been by no means wholly benign. No one can write like Tolstoy, or reproduce the extraordinary transparency and density of the worlds of War and Peace or Anna Karenina, but it is at least possible to imitate the Dostoevskian mishmash of fact and fantasy, narrative virtuosity and verbal extravagance, and not always to good effect. Failed Dostoevskys, as it were, have always been a menace on the literary scene. And many writers who have secretly learned from him have been quick to repudiate any suggestion of influence. Nabokov never lost an opportunity to depreciate Dostoevsky and his “gothic rodomontade”; but the author of Lolita and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight had absorbed more of the master’s magic than he was prepared to admit.

So had D.H. Lawrence. Edward Garnett was one of the first to discern Lawrence’s genius and to give him invaluable help, and there is no doubt that both the novelist and his friend Middleton Murry were strongly influenced by the Constance Garnett translations, although Lawrence reacted violently against the image of Dostoevsky and his characters that was sweeping Bloomsbury by reason of the Garnetts’ enterprise, and reacted the more because Murry had concocted a kind of bogus “spiritual” atmosphere from the work of the great Russian. Murry and Lawrence, it could be said, were among the more famous of those who got Dostoevsky wrong, principally because—not having much humor themselves—they failed to see the vital role played in the novels by laughter and the comedy grotesque. Nor did the Garnett translation give them much help here. The misunderstanding in our highbrow circles made Dostoevsky a prototype of Slavic anguish and extremity, much as Chekhov had already been typecast as the wistful Chekhovian.

Well aware as they are of their author’s true nature (Pevear firmly begins his preface with the statement that “The Brothers Karamazov is a joyful book”) the translators have managed to suffuse their version with much of the Dostoevskian effervescence and high spirits, his delight, as Pevear puts it, in “the richness of spoken language, its playfulness, its happy mistakes, its revealing quirks and peculiarities.” To be sure, this is the standard contemporary attitude, at a time when even Lawrence himself has been claimed (by the critic David Lodge) as an exponent in his own style of Dostoevskian polyphony, of the dialogic ebb and flow of always unresolved vision and question, which Bakhtin saw as the supremely original method of the Russian master. The idea of every man—or at least every author—his own Karamazov is not perhaps the best thing in the end for Dostoevsky and his reputation. And yet the real achievement of this translation should be to banish any such new stereotypes, and involve the reader in a wholly unique, and indeed an unexpected, world. Tolstoy’s domain has always been much more accessible, and can be seen steadily and whole. But it may well be that Dostoevsky’s, with all its resourceful energies of life and language, is only now—and through the medium of new translation—beginning to come home to the English-speaking reader.

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