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May. 31st, 2008



The Brothers Karamazov Part III (Book 7-9)

I'm done with Part III (Books 7-9), the "easiest" of the first three parts, I think.  Book 7 displays Alyosha's saintly tender-heartedness and has the effect of softening us up for the long, frantic arc of Mitya's downfall.  If readers feel compassion rather than disgust for Mitya, it's partly because of his fierce honesty, but partly because Alyosha's compassion in Book 7 sets the tone for Books 8-9.

I'm enjoying and admiring TBK without being able to figure out why, 30 years ago, I thought it was the best novel I'd ever read.  My 25-year-old self was different from the current me, but not by any means prone to unaccountable literary judgments. 

When I'm done reading the much-acclaimed Pevear/Volokhonsky translation, I may go back and read some key passages in the much-maligned Constance Garnett version.  I can tell that P & V are more accurate:  Garnett sometimes makes silly-sounding choices, right from the first page, where P & V describe daddy Karamazov as "the type of man who is not only worthless and depraved but muddle-headed as well," and Garnett says he is "a type abject and vicious and at the same time senseless."  I remember thinking in my first reading that  "senseless" sounded like a poor choice, and wondering whether it was Dostoevsky's fault or Garnett's.  The dialogue sometimes sounds less stilted in P & V as well. 

And yet, and yet . . . I wonder whether Garnett may have captured the "flow" of the novel, the emotional ups and downs, better than P & V.  The novel seemed much more powerful when I read it thirty years ago--the psychology of the tragedy had a Shakespearean intensity, although Garnett's diction was anything but Shakespearean.  It would be interesting if Garnett were more accurate overall, despite P & V being more accurate word by word.  In translations, momentum can be as important as word choice.  Some translations are faithful to the original at the cost of missing the essence--in being a bit too precise, they fail to carry the emotional weight of the original into the new language, whereas a freer translation better conveys why the poet bothered to write the poem.

One of the critiques I've dipped into encourages me in these speculations.  Victor Terras's book "Reading Dostoevsky" has an interesting appendix called "How Much Does Dostoevsky Lose in English Translation?"  Terras compares Garnett and P / V to the Dostoevskian original and finds that both have to sacrifice many untranslatable nuances.  He concludes by saying, "Pevear's translation serves the scholarly reader better, as it brings him or her closer to Dostoevsky's craftsmanship.  Garnett's somewhat old-fashioned English has great charm and is close to the ethos of Dostoevsky's Victorian narrator.  It is not quite Dostoevsky, falling short of the prodigious energy of his dialogue, but the general reader may find it preferable to Pevear's."  Terras seems to be responding to the same differences that I'm talking about.

Some old French guy famously says that translations are like women:  "lorsqu'elles sont belles, elles ne sont pas fideles, et lorsqu' elles sont fideles, elles ne sont pas belles."  ("When they are beautiful, they are not faithful; when they are faithful, they are not beautiful.")  That's unfair to women but just right about translations.  When we find a translation that is both belle and fidele, we know we are in the presence of genius (Richard Wilbur's Moliere comes to mind).  Dostoevsky may still be awaiting his genius. 

Of course, there are other translations of TBK (David McDuff's and Andrew McAndrew's are easily available).  I guess I'll never know whether there's a better version than Garnett and P & V, because I'd have to read the whole thing each time to really test them--after all, word for word, P & V are clearly better than Garnett.  It's no big deal to compare a half dozen translations of a sonnet; an 800-page novel is something else again. (And, of course, not knowing any Russian is a bit of a handicap. . .)

P.S.:  I googled the belle/fidele quotation, but the results were inconclusive:  depending on which unreliable source you believe, it's by Voltaire, or Thomas Mann, or a contemporary Moroccan writer named Tahar Ben Jelloun.

May. 24th, 2008



An Onion

I'm into part 3, and the chapter "an onion" reminded me why I loved this book when I read it years ago.  I know I'm ahead of you, so I won't say much, except that I believe these things to be true:
1.  An onion is, after all, so little to give.
2.  Some people are never given anything more than an onion.
3.  Receiving an onion can change someone's life.

May. 18th, 2008



The Grand Inquisitor and the kiss

 The Grand Inquisitor chapter clarified some things for me.  As you'll recall, the inquisitor argues at length that Christ was mistaken to offer humans freedom and that the Catholic church has made people happy by giving them something to bow down to.  And my first reaction is, yeah, that's pretty much how the Catholic church has operated over the centuries.  (Hey, don't get mad at me, I'm just agreeing with Dostoyevsky.)  But my other reaction to the Inquisitor's speech is:  blah blah blah, yadda yadda yadda, get over yourself.

God/Christ listens to this speech, says not a word in defense or protest, but, at the end, kisses the Inquisitor.  For God, the theological issues are beside the point.  It's the same message that Father Zosima seemed to be giving, through his actions: forget about theological issues, forget perhaps even about immortality, and start living a life of Christian love.  It's not what you believe that matters, but what you do.

 . . . All of which is appealing but in some ways seems very odd, because I don't think it's what Dostoyevsky would say he believed (if we could ask him), nor is it what Ivan seems to believe (and Ivan is supposed to be the author of the poem).  It reminds me a lot of what Shakespeare believed, though.  Shakespeare gives great arguments to even the most contemptible characters--he gets inside their heads, sees things from their point of view, and expresses their viewpoint without reservation or judgment.  Thus, for example, the arguments Goneril and Regan make for reducing King Lear's entourage sound quite reasonable, and much more practical than Lear's plan.  But despite all their fine words and fascinating speeches, it's not what the characters say that matters, but what they do.  Cordelia, refusing to speak the appropriate words for Lear's little family pageant in the opening scene, seems kind of bratty to me (though maybe she is sincere in saying that she just has no talent for speeches).   But Cordelia puts her life on the line for her father when her more verbally gifted sisters are trying to kill him.  Well, that was a rather long digression.

The Pevear/Volokhonsky translation is driving me nuts in one respect:  it's nice to know I'm reading a text that Russian scholars find accurate, but the two-page paragraphs are hard for me to negotiate.  And The Grand Inquisitor has an eight-page paragraph in it, if I recall.  I wish they'd broken those suckers up.  Maybe there's such a thing as too much accuracy. . . though it occurs to me that the eight-page paragraph makes Ivan's "poem" sound like a rant, and perhaps that's what Dostoyevsky intended.)

May. 15th, 2008

X-Files Rain


The Brothers Karamazov: How about a podcast?

I am nearly two-thirds of the way through Part II. I am enjoying the book, mostly because I think the characters are so well-drawn. This strikes me being as a 19th century Russian version of As the World Turns, complete with the multi-generational cast, sizzling romance, and fights over money, women, and honor. There is an underlying tenderness to Dostoevsky's portraits of these deeply flawed people that I am finding very moving. Everyone is obsessed with sex and religion, money and politics. And of course, love. In short, they are just like us.

I found a recommendation at Shelfari for a UC Berkeley Podcast of Philosophy 7: Existentialism in Film and Literature. Technophobe though I am, I am still going to try to download the lecture series, or whatever it is that you do in order to listen to it on the computer. (Yeah, because I have so much spare time.) There are twelve lectures on the novel, so they took six weeks to discuss the book, not four. I think we are going to take an extra week on Part II in order to give people time to catch up. This may even give a few more people, who couldn't due to exams or other RL concerns, a chance to get going on the novel and join us.

The wonderful Dostoevsky icon was made for me by 427_fandom. Yes, it is shareable.

May. 10th, 2008

X-Files Rain


The Brothers Karamazov: the latest schedule revision

For those of you who may be just joining us, we have, in theory at least, completed Part I, which ends in the 2002 Farrar, Straus and Giroux paperback edition on page 160 with "One More Ruined Reputation." We are now beginning Part II, which includes Books Four, Five and Six. We will try to complete this section by May 16. If anyone is falling behind, let me know. If anyone is not reading because they are waiting to get the newer translation, don't wait. idunnoh told me that he thinks the older Garnett translation actually might be easier to read, especially if you can find the old Signet paperback edition.

May. 9th, 2008



Books 1-3

 Ah, the vast scale of the Russian novel!  Here on page 160, where some novels would be trying to wind things up, I feel as if we've barely begun.  Heck, a major character like Smerdyakov didn't show up until page 122!

So, although some promising plot lines have been opened up and some religious themes hinted at, I find I don't have much to say at this point except "onward."

One odd thing--the Karamazovs are all supposed to be "sensualists."  That makes sense for Fyodor and Dmitri, but does it fit Ivan and Aloshya?

At the moment, the evil characters seem to be the most fun.  Fyodor creates his scandal, Grushenka catches Katerina and the reader (me) off guard; all the "good" characters stand around and are scandalized.  But I think attention shifts more to the inner torments of Dmitri and Ivan soon.

A most unfortunate bunch of brothers.  Only Smerdyakov grew up with a parent, and he was the parent's servant.  No wonder they all seem lost, or grumpy, or both.

So anyway, I feel like this titanic novel has barely left port, although the plot is already giving me a sinking feeling . . .

May. 8th, 2008

X-Files Rain


The Brothers Karamazov: Book III The Sensualists

I just finished reading Chapter 1, In the Servants' Quarters, and I am totally hooked. These characters, Gregory Vasilievich and his wife Marfa Ignatievna, are so real and vividly drawn, and the ending of this chapter is such a jolt. How does Dostoevsky do this? He just revealed so much about these people and their lives, that I feel like I grew up with them. I feel like I could be them, and yet I am as far away from their lives as I am from the moon. But now their wants and their desires seem so real, so compelling, so heart-breaking. I feel illuminated, my heart is on fire. On to Chapter Two. . .

May. 5th, 2008



Book 2, Chapter 4

Page 53 (Book 2, Chapter 4).

I remember reading this book 30 years ago and being riveted.  I couldn't wait to find out what happened next.  I hid in the back of the corporate library where I worked so that I could keep reading.

So far, I'm not having that kind of experience.  My expectations are sky-high, based on my reading of the book when I was 25 years old and a different person.  I need to lighten up.

The first time I got a hint of what I felt in my previous reading was in the chapter where Father Zosima greets the supplicant women.  I was moved by the contrast between him and Fyodor Karamazov.  Fyodor:  totally egotistical, seeking attention and always playing a role that gets it for him.  Father Zosima, standing on a kind of stage (the porch built onto the outside wall) but totally selfless, not playing a role but absorbed in helping others, and having the power to do so precisely because he's not playing a role (whereas Fyodor K's posturing has no effect except to irritate others).  

Fyodor reminds me of some of my high school students:  constantly disruptive because they constantly need attention, no matter how negative.  Or else what?  If they didn't get attention, would they disappear?

Father Zosima reminds me a bit of a former minister at All Saints Church in Pasadena:  George Regas.  I'm not religious myself, but I respect true spirituality when I see it.  (It's rare.)

May. 2nd, 2008

X-Files Rain


Translation Blues

So, just for fun, I decided to join fdostoevsky and ask for some advice on how to tackle this novel for the first time. perosha assured me that the most important thing was the translation. perosha and altglas both advised against reading Constance Garnett's translation as it is both inaccurate and badly written. So, after a bit of research, I have decided to go with the one by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. It seems to be the one everyone loves. I am almost certainly going to read this novel only once and I want to have the best chance of understanding and enjoying it that I can. Here is a link to the review from the New York Times of the edition published in 1990: Dostoevsky, With All the Music. I will be reading the paperback edition from 2002 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
X-Files Rain


The Brothers Karamazov: the first schedule revision

But probably not the last. . .

Since the author has divided the book up into sections, I thought it would make more sense to use his divisions. So, rather than just reading through to to chapter 24 by May 9, we will read through to the end of Part One, which concludes with "Another Reputation Ruined," which by coincidence just happens to be the twenty-fourth chapter in the online version! Confused much?

Someone asked me what translation I am reading, so that we can all be on the same page. I don't actually see any need for us all to be on the same page. But for what it's worth, I am reading the Constance Garnett translation. I have a cheap Barnes and Noble hardback edition, and an even cheaper Signet paperback edition. There is a newer translation coming in the mail. I might switch to it when it arrives. I might not. IMHO, newer is not necessarily better.

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