Fyodor Dostoevsky: Notes from a Dead House

It was for a perhaps peripheral participation in the “Petrashevist” movement that Fyodor Dostoevsky was arrested in 1849 and sentenced to four years of hard labor followed by four years of military service in Siberia; he’d circulated a letter and supported the establishment of a subversive press, all done in resistance to the established imperial power structure with the Church and Tsar Nicholas I at its head.

Dostoevsky immediately began characterizing his impending sentence as a kind of death – with the promise of resurrection to follow. He assured his brother in the most fulsome terms that if he survived his coming ordeal, he’d be reborn.

He got out of the prison portion of his sentence at the beginning of 1854 and began his military service in Kazakhstan by promptly importuning his brother for books, emphasizing “my whole future depends on this.” In this he was, at least artistically speaking, entirely right; prior to his imprisonment, he’d been the author of a listless novel and some fairly listless short stories, and on some level he must have recognized the potential his tragedy had to work as a catalyst. As Richard Pevear remarks in the Foreward of his new translation, the appearance of the resultant book, Notes from a Dead House, in 1861-62, “marked a triumphant return to literature” for its author, who never thereafter wrote a listless word in his life. The book, a lightly-fictionalized chronicle of Dostoevsky’s prison experiences – here happening to a nobleman named Alexander Petrovich Goryanchikov, who’s sent to penal servitude for the crime of killing his wife – was a great critical and popular success. A writer was indeed reborn.

The appearance of any new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky is always an event in a literary season, and any kind of event that puts great literature before a wide audience (and audiences don’t get much wider than Oprah’s, who were recommended in their millions the Pevear & Volokhonsky translation of Anna Karenina) is to be applauded. It’s true that too many critics – and far, far too many general readers – have taken the arrival of a new P & V translation as an occasion for scorning the steadfast and often quite lovely older translations of such figures as Constance Garnett, Rosemary Edmonds, and Louise and Aylmer Maude, but that was hardly our new duo’s aim and certainly not their strategy. Nations, times, and idioms change, after all; translation itself is a constantly ongoing process; it “openeth the window,” as the King James Bible translators wrote 500 years ago, “to let in the light” – and each day’s light is subtly different from the light of the day before.

Notes from a Dead House got a very good English-language translation by David McDuff for Penguin Classics back in 1985 (with the title The House of the Dead), in his Introduction to which McDuff sticks up for the most embattled and often forgotten aspect of Dostoevsky’s novel: the very fact that it IS a novel. “Yet it would be a mistake,” McDuff tells us, “to view the novel simply as a work of documentary realism.” In his own Foreward, Pevear disagrees, maintaining that “the fictionalizing was in part a mask for the censors”:
The notes of a man serving a sentence for a common-law crime were more likely to be passed for publication than the notes of a political criminal. But the mask is dropped rather quickly … Though he keeps the persona of Alexander Petrovich throughout, the narrator’s thoughts, his preoccupations, and his conscience are not at all those of a man who has murdered his wife. Dostoevsky’s personality does not disappear from view; he is present as the observer of the life around him …
But no matter where a reader stands on the question of Dostoevsky’s re-invention of himself for his book’s narration, one thing is certain about this new Pevear & Volokhonsky translation of the book itself: it’s a triumph. In its beautiful new Knopf edition (given a graceful, somber design by Peter Mendelsund), our translating team have given us a Notes from a Dead House every bit as reborn as its author was – a rediscovered masterpiece, here given an intellectual and moral heft fit to set it alongside all of Dostoevsky’s later works of genius.

Like most prison memoirs (even the fictionalized kind), it’s a story composed entirely of vignettes. Our narrator visits the wretched infirmary; our narrator samples the wretched food; most of all, our narrator – a disgraced aristocrat initially despised by his plebeian fellow-prisoners – first dismisses the men around him and then gradually awakens to their depth and even subtlety of spirit. In one of the most pathetic and touching scenes of the book’s latter half, the prisoners have been keeping a wounded eagle as a chained and defiant pet in their barracks. Finally they decide to give the bird what they themselves are denied: freedom. McDuff’s translation captures something of the bittersweet momentum of the moment:
“There’s no point in trying to put him in a cage out here. Give him his freedom, give him the genuine article!”
And Mikita hurled the eagle off the ramparts and into the steppe. It was far into autumn, a cold, dark day. The wind was whistling over the bare steppe, hissing in the dry, yellow tussocks of grass. The eagle set off on an even trajectory, beating its great wings as though in a hurry to get away from us, anywhere at all. The convicts watched with curiosity as its head flickered through the grass.
“Just look at him,” said one man, thoughtfully. “And he doesn’t look round!” added another. “He hasn’t looked round once, lads, he just keeps on going.” “What did you expect, did you think he was going to come back and say thank you?” asked a third. “Freedom, that’s what it is. He can smell his freedom.”

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