Friday, 19 September 2014

Dostoevsky’s crimes

Fyodor Dostoevsky was forty-three when he began work on what was to become Crime and Punishment. This was just old enough for him to count as an old fogey in the eyes of the young men and women who defined Russia in the 1860s and who found themselves slandered by Dostoevsky’s depiction of them as potential axe-murderers. For his part Dostoevsky felt vindicated when Dmitry Karakozov (aged twenty-five) made an assassination attempt on Alexander II that bore some resemblance to his protagonist Raskolnikov’s crime, just as his novel was commencing publication in the journal Russky Vestnik (The Russian Herald). Dostoevsky always fancied himself a prophet, but the French critic Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé attributed Karakozov’s crime to Dostoevsky’s penchant for stimulating the “demon of imitation”. Indeed, Dostoevsky sympathized with the young people’s desire for social justice, regarding their crimes as born more of impatience than malevolence. Yet crimes they were, and in a letter to his editor, the arch-conservative ideologue Mikhail Katkov (aged forty-eight), Dostoevsky diagnosed the pestilence afflicting Russian youth as nihilism:
“Our poor defenceless Russian boys and girls have their own eternal main point, which will be the basis of socialism for a long time to come, namely their enthusiasm for the good and the purity of their hearts. There are many swindlers and rascals among them. But all these school children and university students, of whom I have seen so many, have converted to nihilism so purely, so selflessly, in the name of honour, truth and true usefulness! Healthy science [or learning: nauka], of course, will wipe it out. But when might this occur? How many victims will socialism consume before then? And, finally, healthy science, though it will take root, will not destroy the chaff so soon because healthy science is still science, not a direct form of civic and social activity.”
Dostoevsky goes on to identify the antidote to nihilism as “freedom of speech” or “glasnost”, which will allow right-minded authors to “make all Russia laugh with positive clarifications of their [the nihilists’] teaching. Whereas now they are given the semblance of Sphinxes, riddles, wisdom, and mystery, and this tempts the naive”. Remaining true to his own youthful socialism, Dostoevsky saw the path to its fulfilment as much more fraught and dependent on discursive mediation. For all its suspense, Crime and Punishment was a considered contribution to the “science” of action.
Young people today may be less inclined to take direct offence, but they are no less likely to see themselves implicated in the naive “enthusiasm for the good” exemplified by Raskolnikov and his motley retinue. After all, the novel is very much a tragedy of failed generational change. When he sees a thirty-year-old man stalking a drunken sixteen-year-old girl, Raskolnikov reflects on how quickly and irrevocably living souls become demographic statistics (what more exalted types might still call “fate”): “Haven’t I seen girls like that? And how did they get there? . . . That’s how it should be, they say. A certain percentage, they say, must go that way every year”. Raskolnikov shudders at the thought of his sister marrying Pyotr Petrovich Luzhin (aged forty-five), even though, Raskolnikov’s mother reports, Luzhin shares “the convictions of our newest generations”; this ingratiating older man has learned the language of the young but misses their point, discrediting their ideals with his transparent calculation. For Raskolnikov all men over thirty are “Svidrigailovs”, or dissolute predators, nihilists of decay rather than of action. Svidrigailov himself is a youthful fifty years of age, but then Raskolnikov’s victim, this “old hag” and “louse”, is herself probably no older than fifty (we are told only that her younger sister, Lizaveta, whom Raskolnikov also murders without premeditation, is thirty-five, as is the investigator Porfiry Petrovich). The generations are separated by an ontological divide and intersect only in set-pieces such as interrogations, public scandals and crimes.
The ages are brought together most melodramatically in the saga of the Marmeladov family, a narrative strand that originated as a project for a novel with the working title “The Drunkards”. The elder Marmeladov, a former civil servant and self-flagellating alcoholic, is in his fifties, but he is only barely outlived by his second wife Katerina Ivanovna (aged thirty), whose fall from noble birth into disreputable squalor and consumption drives her to the brink of insanity. Her stepdaughter Sonya is a prostitute at sixteen, but retains enough of her youthful glow to rekindle in Raskolnikov – and generations of readers – belief in “the good”. The novel culminates in rebirth, the narrator tells us in the second epilogue, but Dostoevsky’s novel remains scarred by the inevitable loss of innocence that makes its characters dependent on contingent beneficence, and which renders direct action more a symptom of their malaise than its remedy.
Oliver Ready, the novel’s latest translator, advocates for the young, laying claim to “the first new translation for a generation”. This is only just true, that of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky having been first published in 1992. Short of some radical strategy of adaptation – and the world abounds in adaptations of Crime and Punishment for stage and screen and in formats such as the graphic novel – how can any new translation bring the novel any closer to new generations of readers? What is different about Ready’s generation of translators
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Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Tolstoy’s Real Hero - Orlando Figes on War and Peace

In his Lectures on Russian Literature Vladimir Nabokov maintains that “the third, and worst, degree of turpitude” in literary translation, after “obvious errors” and skipping over awkward passages,
is reached when a masterpiece is planished and patted into such a shape, vilely beautified in such a fashion as to conform to the notions and prejudices of a given public. This is a crime, to be punished by the stocks as plagiarists were in the shoebuckle days.1
Whether one agrees or not with Nabokov—whose own translation into English of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin sacrificed poetic rhythm, rhyme, and readability for literal word-by-word equivalence—there is no doubt that the practice of translation is strongly influenced by the literary tastes and sensibilities of the receiving culture.
When the great Russian novels of the nineteenth century were first translated into English, beginning with Ivan Turgenev’s in the 1870s, they were patted into a Victorian mold of “good writing.” That the first to be translated was Turgenev, the most Europeanized of all the Russian writers, was to have a lasting influence on the reception of Russian literature in the English-reading world: Turgenev’s elegant simplicity of style and gentle social realism fixed the acceptable boundaries of “Russianness,” influencing later translations of the rougher and more Russian novels of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, which really only began to be widely read in English from the 1890s on.
No one did more to introduce the English-speaking world to Russian literature than Constance Garnett (1862– 1946), who translated into graceful late-Victorian prose seventy major Russian works, including seventeen volumes of Turgenev, thirteen volumes of Dostoevsky, six of Gogol, four of Tolstoy, six of Herzen, seventeen of Chekhov, and books by Goncharov and Ostrovsky. A friend of Garnett’s, D.H. Lawrence, recalled her
sitting out in the garden turning out reams of her marvelous translations from the Russian. She would finish a page, and throw it off on a pile on the floor without looking up, and start a new page. The pile would be this high…really almost up to her knees, and all magical.2
She worked so fast that when she came across an awkward passage she would leave it out. She made mistakes. But her stylish prose, which made the Russian writers so accessible, and seemingly so close to the English sensibility, ensured that her translations would remain for many years the authoritative standard of how these writers ought to sound and feel. For the English-reading public, Russian literature was what Garnett made of it. As Joseph Conrad wrote in 1917, “Turgeniev for me is Constance Garnett and Constance Garnett is Turgeniev.”3
The Russians were not so impressed. Nabokov called her Gogol translations “dry and flat, and always unbearably demure.”4 Kornei Chukovsky accused her of smoothing out the idiosyncrasies of writers’ styles so that “Dostoevsky comes in some strange way to resemble Turgenev”:
In reading the original [of Notes from Underground], who does not feel the convulsions, the nervous trembling of Dostoevsky’s style? It is expressed in convulsions of syntax, in a frenzied and somehow piercing diction where malicious irony is mixed with sorrow and despair. But with Constance Garnett it becomes a safe blandscript: not a volcano, but a smooth lawn mowed in the English manner—which is to say a complete distortion of the original.5
Joseph Brodsky sniped that the “reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky is that they aren’t reading the prose of either one. They’re reading Constance Garnett.”6
In the English-speaking world there is a common perception, largely due to Garnett’s translations, that Tolstoy’s style is classically simple and elegant. This is only partly true. Tolstoy writes with extraordinary clarity. No other writer can recreate emotions and experience with such precision and economy. His moral lexicon is penetrating and direct, without the nuances and ambiguities that make Pushkin so complex, and in this respect Tolstoy’s writing is relatively easy to translate (“goes straight into English, without any trouble,” Garnett said7 ). But there are other elements of Tolstoy’s literary style, in War and Peace in particular, awkward bumps and angularities that have been ironed out, not just in Garnett’s translation, but in most of the subsequent translations of this masterpiece.8
Tolstoy’s syntax is unconventional. In War and Peace he frequently ignores the rules of grammar and word order to strengthen an effect or to recreate the looseness of the spoken word—a practice that can make his Russian read quite clumsily at times. He employs a wide variety of linguistic idioms, from the archaic civil service language of the chancelleries (put into the mouths of statesmen such as Arakcheev) and the Latin-German pattern of eighteenth-century literary Russian (spoken by the old Prince Bolkonsky) to the Gallicized and sentimental Russian of the early-nineteenth-century salon and the plain speech of the soldiers, peasants, and workmen.
Above all, Tolstoy is deliberately repetitive. Repetition is perhaps the most distinctive single feature of his style. The literary scholar R.F. Christian has highlighted several types of repetition in War and Peace.9 Tolstoy constantly reiterates a particular mannerism or physical detail to identify his characters and suggest their moral qualities: Princess Marya’s “radiant eyes” or Napoleon’s “small white hands.” In describing the peasant Platon Karataev, Tolstoy uses the word “round” (krugly) no less than five times in one sentence. He repeats words and phrases for rhythm and rhetorical effect, sometimes using the same word six or seven times in as many lines, as in Prince Andrei’s death scene (in the excellent new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky):
They all went up to [the body in the coffin] for a last farewell and they all wept.
Nikolushka wept from a suffering bewilderment that rent his heart. The countess and Sonya wept from pity for poor Natasha and because he was no more. The old count wept because he felt that soon he, too, would have to take that dreadful step.
Natasha and Princess Marya also wept now, but they did not weep from their own personal grief; they wept from a reverent emotion that came over their souls before the awareness of the simple and solemn mystery of death that had been accomplished before them.
Equally characteristic is Tolstoy’s fondness for building large rhetorical structures through the classical device of repeated triads of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and prepositions:
Now thousands of feet and bayonets moved with flying standards and, at the officers’ command, halted, turned, and lined up at intervals, circling around other similar masses of infantry in different uniforms; now there came the sounds of the measured thudding and clanking of the dressed-up cavalry, in blue, red, and green embroidered uniforms, with embroidered musicians in front, on black, chestnut, or gray horses; now, stretching out with the brazen noise of polished, shining cannon shaking on their carriages, and with their smell of linstocks, the artillery crawled between the infantry and cavalry and settled in their appointed places.
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Friday, 5 September 2014

Alexander Grin - Where Simple Miracles Abound

Alexander Grin is the pseudonym of Alexander Stefanovich Grinevsky who was born into a family of an exile Polish living in Slobodskaya Vyatka Province.

In 1896 he finished a four-grade Vyatka college and left for Odessa. The boy lived as a tramp, worked as a sailor, and a fisherman, then washed gold in the Ural, and later served the army, where he joined the Socialist revolutionary party. Following this Alexander was arrested in Sevastopol for socialist propaganda. The writer served his sentence in prison and three exiles. His works were published starting from 1906. The first short story, titled Merit of Private Panteleev (Zasluga ryadovogo Panteleeva was of an agitation character and thus the copies of the brochure were confiscated by gendarmes. Soon Alexander Grin withdrew from direct political activities and started working as a professional man of letters. In 1912 the writer moved to St. Petersburg, mainly writing short stories at that time. After the revolution, which was a very painful experience for Grin, the fact obvious from his works of 1918-1919, the major theme of his writing was the collision of freedom and unfreedom, most vividly expressed in his novels The Shining World (Blistayushii mir) (1923), Jessie and Morgiana (1929) and The Road to Nowhere (Doroga nikuda) (1930). Grin’s symbolical fairy story Scarlet Sails (Alye parusa) (1923) is considered to be his best creation. In 1924 Alexander Grin moved to Theodosia, Crimea. Gradually his writings came to be in conflict with ideological principles of the communist party, and so his publications were getting scarcer and scarcer. In 1930 the writer moved to the town of Staryi Krym (not far from Theodosia), where two years later he died of lung cancer. This is where he was laid to rest. 

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ALEXANDER GRIN, who died in 1932, was a most ''un-Russian'' Russian writer. His lush and romantic tales transport us to exotic and refreshingly apolitical climes worlds away from the boring, flat steppe of the motherland: tropical rain forests, way stations in the Andes, enchanted warmwater seaports, desert islands. Grinlandia, as the author called his fictional realm, is a never-never land as far removed from the depressing realities of early 20th-century Russia as ''Alice in Wonderland'' was from life in Victorian England.

Photographic realism of the sort practiced by Tolstoy and Turgenev, or even by his erstwhile protector Maxim Gorky, left Grin unmoved. Instead, perhaps in an attempt to escape a life dogged by poverty, loneliness, sickness and misfortune, he turned to Western adventure writers for excitement. Robert Lewis Stevenson, Fenimore Cooper, Mayne Reid (now better known in Russia than in English-speaking countries) and Bret Harte were among his models, as Nicholas Luker points out in the informative introduction to this welcome new collection. Grin - his real name was Grinevsky - has even been called (wrongly) ''the Russian Edgar Allan Poe.''

It's all the more curious, then, that Grin's prose has traveled so poorly. Although adored at home, Grin has remained virtually unknown abroad - even among students of Russian literature. But he has found a devoted fan in Mr. Luker, a British scholar and translator who has been laboring for some years to bring Grin's work out of obscurity, and who has now selected and translated 20 representative stories by the writer he calls a forgotten ''visionary.''

Mr. Luker's work is affectionate and solid. The dust jacket would have us believe ''this is the largest selection of Grin's tales to appear in English,'' but a Soviet foreign-language house published a fatter volume in 1978. It included a translation of the author's best-known work, his short ''fairy-tale novel'' ''Scarlet Sails,'' which also appeared separately in America in 1967 and again in 1985. Mention ''Scarlet Sails'' to a Russian, and he or she is likely to respond with the sort of nostalgic sigh that ''Treasure Island'' evokes in Americans and Englishmen.
Presented chronologically, the stories Mr. Luker has selected come from all periods of Grin's career. The first, ''The Oranges,'' about a political prisoner's relationship with a woman comrade who brings him oranges stuffed with increasingly romantic missives, was finished in 1907, when Grin was 27 years old and after he had been several times arrested and imprisoned for his work with the outlawed Socialist Revolutionary Party. The last, ''The Green Lamp,'' a parable on the familiar theme of ironic role reversal between rich man and bum, was completed in 1930. By then Grin was seriously ill and almost entirely excluded from publication by the reigning Russian Association of Proletarian Writers, which denounced the content and characters of his fanciful stories as remote from the gritty work of socialist reconstruction.

And they were. Despite his early involvement in the Russian revolutionary movement, Grin was anything but a socialist realist. For him, imagination was the most fascinating, noble - and most powerful - human faculty. Miracles abound in Grinlandia, but they are the work of simple men and women, not of supernatural forces or magical creatures.

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Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Bella Akhmadulina: Rain Flogs My Face...

Rain flogs my face and collar-bones,
a thunderstorm roars over musts.
You thrust upon my flesh and soul,
like tempests upon ships do thrust.

I do not want, at all, to know,
what will befall to me the next - 
would I be smashed against my woe,
or thrown into happiness.

In awe and gaiety elated, 
like a ship, that's going tempests through, 
I am not sorry that I've met you,
and not afraid to love you, too. 

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Nadezhda Teffi -Unimpressed by Rasputin: A witty female voice in a male-dominated sphere

If you asked most readers for a list of 20th century Russian prose writers, the same names would keep cropping up: Bulgakov, Pasternak, Gorky, Chekhov, Solzhenitsyn. Few people would mention Teffi. And yet in the years leading up to the 1917 revolution, Teffi was a bona-fide leading light, a superstar who was stopped on the streets of Moscow by admirers and counted both Tsar Nicholas II and Lenin as fans. She mingled with high society figures like Rasputin and wrote about them with a searing and uncompromising wit. 

Teffi was born Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya in 1872 to a wealthy St. Petersburg family. She married in 1890 and moved to the countryside to begin a calm and uneventful domestic life. However, Teffi wasn't the kind of person to live up to society's expectations, and a decade later she headed back to the city to make a go of her writing career. She deliberately picked an androgynous pen-name – adapted from the name of a fool, since fools were supposed to be lucky – and set about carving a niche for herself writing satirical articles and vignettes of contemporary life. The editor of The Russian Word, Vlas Doroshevich, recognized her potential and encouraged her to spread her wings into short stories. “Let her write what she wants to write,” he said. “You don't use a pure-bred Arab to haul water.”

Until now, there haven't been a great deal of English-language editions of Teffi's writing, but a notable exception is the recently published “Subtly Worded,” translated by Anne Marie Jackson with the collaboration of Robert Chandler, Clare Kitson, Irina Steinberg and Natalia Wase. The book shows us the development of Teffi's writing from short, vivid sketches to more nuanced narratives. Clever, outspoken and sarcastic, she pokes fun at socialists and snobs alike, and the tales are full of sharp and sudden turnarounds. “One of Us” is the story of a society woman who is delighted by a conversation with a knowledgeable stranger at the opera – only to find, to her horror, that he used to work there as an usher. “One Day in the Future,” on the other hand, is a withering and brave little piece from 1918 warning about what to expect after the Bolsheviks turn the social world on its head: “They were even going to send a telegram to the Minister of Enlightenment, but it turned out none of them knew how to write. Then they remembered the Minister couldn't read or write either, so they decided not to bother.”

Teffi's style combines Jane Austen's nose for pretension and the gleeful, catty wit of a Wilde or a Waugh. She is a master of capturing the inflated dramatics of children and skewering the vanity of the privileged. “The driver flicked the reins and the boy dropped behind,” she writes. “Varenka felt rich and important, and modestly pursed her lips so that the passers-by she had splashed with mud would not be too jealous.” 


Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Dostoevsky’s cacophonic catastrophes: A new translation of 'Crime and Punishment'

What unites Cervantes’s “Don Quixote” and Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”? Both are centered on the perception of reality through literature. As translator Oliver Ready argues, Raskolnikov, the anti-hero of “Crime and Punishment,” is most at home in the world of words, whether books, newspapers or letters from acquaintances and relatives that he analyses like a literary critic or a detective. He is not just a student and a murderer – he is a reader and a writer, whose literary debut, an article about crime, is one of the great missing clues in the novel. 

The very fact that Raskolnikov is a man of letters is what makes it so important to get as close to the original as a translation allows. Out this year in Penguin Classics, Oliver Ready’s new translation of Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” aims to preserve the original's troubled and polyphonic narrative, and the varying language and vocabulary of its different characters. In his translation, Ready, a research fellow in Russian society and culture at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, chose not to use 19th century English or contemporary language. Instead, his vocabulary belongs somewhere in the middle of the 20th century, and he tries to avoid words that appeared after the 1960s. This makes the new translation's language “modern, but not contemporary.” Back to pen and paper The translation has been five years in the making, and to get closer to Dostoevsky’s own approach, Ready worked in longhand. “In fact, I wrote out every sentence – it was a kind of experiment, I suppose. I did this to get away from the computer and in the hope that the translation would come out better if I wasn’t tempted to edit myself after every phrase. That's the curse of Word,” Ready explains. “In reality, the laptop remained switched on for much of the time while I consulted online dictionaries and other resources, but still, I found the process of writing by hand helped my concentration and nerves.”

Several earlier translations tended to smooth over Dostoevsky’s stylistic peculiarities, robbing the novel of the unique, jagged tone and nervous repetitions that best represent Raskolnikov’s anxious state. Ready sought to preserve these lexical peculiarities of Dostoevsky’s language in his own work, while also trying to maintain the novel’s hypnotic and compelling power. In doing so, he inevitably stumbled on some unique features of Russian that are very hard to reproduce in English. “All those particles and adverbs, often denoting elusive emotions and emphasis rather than meaning – dazhe (even), kak by (as if), kak-nibud (somehow); all those deliberate – and accidental – repetitions; all those short, apparently simple words that actually have a multitude of meanings. Raskolnikov says his heart is zloe. Evil? Spiteful? Nasty? For me, none of these. I chose something different, on the evidence of his character throughout the novel – as I understand it.”

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Monday, 11 August 2014

Tolstoy translated

At the beginning of the 20th century, there were more people reading Tolstoy in translation than any other writer. That this was an extraordinary phenomenon becomes clear from reading an unsigned review of 13 new volumes of Tolstoy translations published in Britain’s liveliest literary periodical, the Saturday Review, in 1905. “Twenty years ago Tolstoy was hardly known outside Russia”, it begins. “We remember mentioning his existence to an American novelist of first rank, a great admirer of Turgenev, who did not seem inclined to believe that people would soon come to recognise the greater power of Tolstoy. Who has not heard of Tolstoy now?”

The novelist in question is undoubtedly Henry James, a friend and well-known admirer of Ivan Turgenev, the first leading Russian writer to be widely translated and recognised abroad. The critic is almost certainly James’s protégé HG Wells, one of a number of brilliant young writers drafted in to shake up the Saturday Review by its new editor in the 1890s. A year after this review was published, Wells would write Tolstoy a fan letter, telling him he had read everything by him he could find in English, about 18 volumes, and that, in his opinion, of all the works he had had the fortune to read,War and Peace and Anna Karenina were the “most magnificent and all-encompassing”

Before 1905, James could be forgiven for not immediately perceiving Tolstoy’s genius, as few people outside Russia had even heard his name before the mid-1880s. The English-speaking world was introduced to Tolstoy’s prose when the American scholar and diplomat Eugene Schuyler published a translation of The Cossacks in 1878. Schuyler had visited Tolstoy at his Yasnaya Polyana estate while working as the US consul in Moscow, and had translated the novella after an extended period in Russia, so he was highly qualified.

This was not the case with the first translators to tackle War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Clara Bell, who worked in London, was a talented linguist but the English War and Peace she published in 1886 was translated from the first French edition of 1879 rather than the Russian original, which it little resembled. The American Nathan Haskell Dole, who published the first translation of Anna Karenina, also in 1886, did work with the Russian text but this was not always apparent. To the critic of the New York Times, his version suggested “the geological subsidence of a layer of Russian into a substratum of English, leaving a number of words to linger fossil-like amid the latter in untranslatable durability”.

Not only was the sheer prolixity of Tolstoy’s great novels a deterrent to all but the most determined of translators, but after the urbane Turgenev, whose measured prose slipped so easily into English, Tolstoy was also far more unpolished, more uncompromising and, well, altogether more Russian. Henry James spoke for many when he proclaimed in 1896 that Tolstoy was a “monster harnessed to his great subject – all human life! – as an elephant might be harnessed, not to a carriage, but to a coach-house”. It would fall to the next generation of translators to produce the more faithful versions in English that would have so powerful an effect on modernists such as Virginia Woolf.