Monday, September 10, 2007


I don't know how I was led back to The Brothers Karamazov but I have found myself once again absorbed in Dostoevsky's last novel. I am reading Richard Pevear and Larrissa Volokhonski's translation whose first printing was in 1990. Pevear and Volokhonski are coming out with a new translation of War and Peace on October 16th, and if their translation brings Tolstoy alive like the Dostoevsky, I might have to reserve three months so I can devote all of my time to it. I suffer from ESRS (extremely slow reader syndrome).

I read The Brothers Karamazov many years ago from the translation by Constance Garnett, who was, until recently, arguably the gold standard in translation of both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. How I wish I could read them in the original Russian, but possibly in another lifetime. I remember very little of the novel, vaguely recalling that there was a murder in a family of three sons. One part I remember, and this was why I was apprehensive about a re-read, was the long theological debates that take place in the monastery at the beginning of the novel. Reading this reminded me of wading through thick mud, but, at the time, I was patient enough to anticipate eventual plot development--possibly on page 456 or somewhere. Now that I'm a hundred pages into the re-read, the discussions don't seem that painful, possibly because I participate in/endure such discussions at the LLAC (little liberal arts college).

Mainly the argument is about the relationship between church and state. I won't go into the main theses surrounding the discussion, but there is a definite undertone of prevailing socialism being tauted by certain members in the debate. Now I see now how important this is to the introduction of the main characters in the novel, and, although it is still tough going at times, the discourse doesn't seem as long as I remember. I actually understand a great deal of it.

I'm also enjoying the development of the rogue father Fyodor Pavlovich, who is cringe-provokingly socially inept. Like an episode of Murder She Wrote, you get the idea that this guy is just begging for it. Also at stake are women and money, so there just has to be a grisly resolution at some point, and the tension is building toward a frantic, emotional, Russian climax.

Could it be the translation that makes this reading more compelling? I've got a copy of the Garnett translation here as well (sometimes I love working in a library) and I want to do a quick comparison to see how the language differs. At times the wording is identical, with the word "countenance" being replaced by "looks", but it seems that Pevear and Volokhonsky add depth to Dostoevsky's expressions. Here is a brief comparison of the same two sentences.

Even when he was excited and talking
irritably, his eyes did not follow
his mood, but betrayed something else,
sometimes quite incongruous with
what was passing.

Pevear and Volokhonsky:

Even when he was excited and talking irritably, his look, as it were, did
not obey his inner mood but expressed something else, sometimes not at all
corresponding to the present moment.

(sorry I can't go back from block quote mode, but F****** blogspot is being stubbornly inept today)

I love the use of commas in Dostoevsky. The placement of the words and the details contained in the clauses feed a rich image to me as a reader. The commas also do something for the pacing, which forces me to slow down, and take in the words individually, something I rarely do when reading any work. At this rate, how will I ever finish the book? It doesn't matter, this work has allowed me to find my groove in the right lane going five miles under the speed-limit and enjoying every bush and vista along the way.

I believe The Brothers Karmazov has a reputation as a difficult read. It may be so, but you've got to love a novel whose chapter titles bear declarations like this: "Why Is Such A Man Alive!", "One More Ruined Reputation," "Strain in the Drawing Room," "Strain in the Cottage," and "The Old Buffoon." All of the language in this novel is provocative and active, and if fiction is meant to be transformative, Dostoevsky is a master at taking this reader out of this world and into his.

Last night, at around 2am Booker woke me wanting to go out. I laid back down but I couldn't sleep. I had gone to bed early and now, in the middle of the night, I was wide awake. I puttered around the house a bit, checking to see if anyone from Indonesia was viewing my blog (they weren't) but finally I picked up The Brothers Karamazov and started reading. The inability to sleep is usually defined by too many things swirling around in my brain. Reading in this state rarely changes anything, except that I have a book in my hand that I can't concentrate on because of the Rolodex of anxieties flipping through my conscious. Last night reading worked, and Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, for all his faults, can be solely responsible for getting me out of myself and into his buffoonery, allowing the Rolodex to stop and sleep to overcome me. I woke up thanking Dostoevsky.

Extra: Here is a link to the article I wrote for the school paper. I'm doing restaurant reviews.


Sarah said...

I cannot wait for the new War and Peace translation, and I really, really need to finish The Brothers Karamazov (I've made it a third of the way through four times or so). You've inspired me to move it up my list!

imichie said...

Sarah, I'm glad you want to take another shot. I'm hoping my enthusiasm doesn't wane, but I don't think it will. I just love the way D. includes so many facets of so many personalities and relationships. I can't think of another writer who does this so richly. Okay, maybe Tolstoy, and then there are many other writers who I have not read or have forgotten about so I can't be very authoritative. But for now Dostoevsky rocks. How geeky does that sound?

linser said...

Now I really want to read Dostoevsky. I tried Crime and Punishment years ago and didn't make it through. I'm also looking forward to the new War and Peace translation--do you think reading W&P four times is overdoing it?

I liked your restaurant review.

imichie said...

Linser, Crime and Punishment is tough, and I could only make it through once, but maybe with a different translation we could have more success. A big emotionally-frought rollicking novel is just what I need right now.

Emily Barton said...

Funny, you were the one who told me years and years ago that I ought to read The Brothers Karamazov. Then I met Bob, and he's been saying the same. I was going to read it this year, but changed my mind. Perhaps next year?

imichie said...

I hope you do read it next year Emily, then we can talk about it. There just seems to be so much to read these days that it's hard to keep on course. I wonder if you've finished your look at the Amish

Froshty said...

I read Crime and Punishment when I was in my 20s but I don't remember much about it, which is probably related to the brain cells I was killing when I was that age. Now I want to give it and The Brothers Karamozov a try. I have a happy memory of a Peanuts cartoon when Linus announced that he was having an easy time reading The Brothers Karamazov because he just "bleeped" over the words he didn't understand. I think I did that with Crime and Punishment,

imichie said...

Hey Froshty, do you remember how Snoopy was acting out "War and Piece" with handpuppets? Some of them even had little cosssack hats on. I wish we still had that volumn. You can't beat peanuts in its glory-days.

Froshty said...

Ian, yes, I remember the handpuppets with the cossack hats on. Charles Schulz was such a quiet genius. I wanted to add that I enjoyed your descriptions of not being able to sleep (something I'm well-acquainted with) and I loved the part about "the Rolodex of anxieties flipping my conscious." I also liked your description of reading Brothers as cruising in the right lane five miles under the speed limit.

mister anchovy said...

It's been a while since I've read Dostoevsky, but I like his books a lot, and I'm due to re-read one or two.