Wednesday, August 8, 2012

"It is quite possible that both versions were true"

Last night I started Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov for the second time. I don’t remember when it was that I read the first half of this novel: a dozen years ago? a score years? In any case, I couldn’t make it past about the halfway mark and it’s one of the few novels I didn’t finish. In the intervening years/decades I’ve read Crime and Punishment, The Idiot and Notes From Underground and I am fond of those works. So this year’s Big Summer Book for me is a return to the murder of Fyodor Karamazov by one of his three sons.

I’m reading the Constance Garnett translation. I’m aware that Garnett had her flaws as a translator, leaving out sentences she didn’t understand, and filtering everything through a single sort of English Victorian prose style, but it’s a prose style I’m fond of (I adore Garnett’s translations of Chekhov and anyone who has a problem with that had best put up his dukes, boyo) and I have (see previous parenthetical) a loyalty to old Connie so it’s her version I’m going to read. I could beazle and prolix on about the vagaries of translation and how, at some point, one simply has to decide to just read the actual volume they’re holding in their hand because on a very important level we’re engaging with a book not an author so just read the damned book you own. But I won’t say any of that. I will say that despite her possibly giving some of Dostoyevsky’s prose a shade of meaning the original author wouldn’t have given it, I am enjoying Garnett’s work immensely. I shall now dispense with all talk of Constance Garnett.

I’m enjoying this novel immensely so far. It’s Dostoyevsky so it’s mad and sloppy and digressive, but after reading Salman Rushdie, it seems frankly pretty calm. I like the way the narrator (who I think is a monk at the local monastery; it’s not entirely clear but there seems to be at least one use of “we” where he is referring to the monks but he could just mean “we” as in “citizens of this town and its environs” but I’ll keep an eye out for more clues) hedges his bets by declaring that he has no way of knowing what some characters’ motivations were for certain actions, and he admits that he’s not in possession of some of the historical facts so you must just excuse those lapses. He comes across as human and honest, which of course will allow him later to make the most fantastic claims and relate events and inner experiences that he can’t possibly have witnessed or in any way known about; his early show of narrative innocence lulls the reader into accepting whatever he says as being true. So that’s a good novelist’s trick from Mr Dostoyevsky. You can see more of that sort of thing in almost any volume of Nabokov. I'd also forgotten how funny Dostoyevsky can be, how he's not all tragedy and confused Christian anarchy; his darkness is infinitely black but his light is as pure as anyone's. And at some point I'm going to compare The Idiot with a Henry James novel. Maybe The Ambassadors or Portrait of a Lady. See if I don't.

So this is fun so far. I have, I trust, learned patience as a reader during the many years since I last attempted this novel. I don’t plan to write much about Brothers Karamazov because I’m sure that five minutes with Google will net you far more useful critical commentary than I can ever hope to produce. I don’t have a lot of time to read just now, as I’m revising one of my own novels during lunch breaks and writing a first draft of a new novel(la) during my commutes home and so I only read the Karamazovs at home in the evenings. It’s a long book, too, but I hope to finish by the end of September because I’m determined to be part of the Fortunata and Jacinta readalong, and that’s an even longer book than the Dostoyevsky.


  1. If Garnett's Karamazov was good enough for Faulkner, it is probably good enough for the rest of us.

  2. If I hadn't already dispensed with all talk of Constance Garnett, I'd agree with you.

    Also, I assume you've seen this?

  3. Learning patience as a reader can be as difficult as learning patience as a writer, I've found. Brothers is still one on my shelf that I want to read. It's staring at me right now ...

  4. I hadn't yet learned how to read complex and lengthy fiction back in those days. It was, I believe, right at the start of my attempt to ingratiate myself with the great classics of Western Literature. I'm pretty sure I thought that you just opened your head up and poured the art in, a mostly passive exercise. It didn't please me that I had to work to understand some books. Now that work toward understanding is the primary pleasure of literature. If an author allows me to be lazy, I don't much like his books.

    I also crassly admit that I avoid long books because they're a bother to carry on the bus and to lunch. My briefcase is heavy enough as it is. Anyone says "eReader," and they get five across the eyes. eBooks are eVil.

  5. I will only mention eReader because I don't really read published books on mine - I use it to read other people's manuscripts. Quite handy since I hate printing stuff out. :)

    *ducks to avoid slap*


    And yes, I don't like to read fiction that allows me to be lazy. It's fine if there's a top entertaining layer, but there had better be something underneath that for me to roll around in.

  6. I know all about your Kindle, Mrs Argyle. You get an exception because you won't be reading Dostoyevsky or Shakespeare on it.

    The thing about reading is that my primary goal is to be entertained, and no mistaking. It's just that over the years what I consider "entertaining" has changed, and I've discovered that some writers work harder and more honestly than others, and I want to read the honest, hard-working writers and the lazy, dishonest writers can stay out of my kitchen.