08 August 2009

At Long Last, The Idiot

I’m writing this immediately after returning from a local used bookshop—30 Penn Books—flush with excitement from three acquisitions. I finally got around to buying Montaigne’s essays, (an old copy of the Modern Library edition of John Florio’s translation, The Essayes of Montaigne), and one more Martha Nussbaum title: The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 1988). But what I really wanted to focus on was one that I’ve already, in one sense, read: Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. In the summer of 1998, as I was preparing to write my senior research paper for the Religion School at Oklahoma City University, I read David Magarshack’s translation (The Idiot, trans. David Magarshack [NY: Penguin, 1955]). But for all of the other major works, Notes from Underground, Crime and Punishment, Demons (sometimes translated, a bit inaccurately, as The Possessed), and The Brothers Karamazov, I used the translations by the Orthodox husband/wife team, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky of Paris.

Early on in my Orthodox life, I’d come across Pevear’s and Volokhonsky’s translation of Victor Bychkov’s The Aesthetic Face of Being: Art in the Theology of Pavel Florensky (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1993), and soon discovered their literary translations as I started to devour the great 19th-c. Russian writers. I also enjoyed their introductions to these works. Here, for example, is a passage from Pevear’s Introduction to their award-winning translation of The Brothers Karamazov: A Novel in Four Parts with Epilogue (NY: Vintage, 1991):

The Brothers Karamazov is, among many other things, a novel about the word in all senses, from the incarnate Word of God to the emptiest banality. In the process of its composition it seems to have swallowed a small library: it is full of quotations, imitations, allusions. Its characters are not only speakers; most of them are also writers: they write letters, articles, poems, pamphlets, tracts, memoirs, suicide notes. They perofrm, make speeches, tell jokes; they preach and confess. Words addressed, received, remembered, forgotten, carry an enormous weight in the novel and have an incalculable effect. Words form an element between matter and spirit in which people live and move each other. Words spoken at one point are repeated later by other speakers, as recollections or unconscious echoes. (p. xvii)

Pevear and Volokhonsky have what would seem to be the ideal translation method. According to this NYT article:

The pair works consecutively, rather than concurrently, on a translation. Ms Volokhonsky, who was born in Russia, produces the first draft along with an accompanying commentary on style.

‘I might say this passage should be slangy, or this colloquial; this passage has biblical overtones or this is a distilled quotation from some poet,’ she explained. ‘Then I give it to Richard,’ who was born in the United States and has a better grasp of English. He produces three or four revisions of the complete text, including the final version.

Apart from the two PEN/Book-of-the-Month-Club Translation Prizes they’ve won, the pair has received another honour of more dubious distinction. In 2004, the godmother of sappy media personalities, Oprah Winfrey, as part of an idea to promote ‘classics’ of literature, chose Pevear’s and Volokhonsky’s translation of Anna Karenina (NY: Penguin, 2002) for her ‘Book Club’ selection. I first learned of this ‘Book Club’ as an employee of Barnes & Noble in the late nineties, and had residual nightmares of patrons hounding me for the latest ‘Book Club’ selection, the title of which they have invariably forgotten, as though I should have been watching Oprah too and known exactly which one she’d chosen. Unfortunately, I did not get around to purchasing my favourite translators’ edition of Anna Karenina until after the ‘Book Club’ announcement, which meant that—the show and the publishers having gotten their act together since my B&N tenure—the copy I found had a big ‘Oprah’ sticker and wrap-around cardboard promotion band, items I was forced to remove and dispose of on my way out the door of the bookshop.

I was thus thrilled to discover today that when they received the call from Penguin that Oprah had chosen their translation for her ‘Book Club’, according to the same NYT article quoted above, the Russian-born Volokhonsky said, ‘The name Oprah Winfrey ''was for me totally unknown”.’ On the other hand, ‘Mr Pevear [an American] admits to at least a passing awareness of Ms Winfrey’ and her ‘Book Club’.

So, to return to The Idiot, at the time I was preparing for my senior paper unfortunately, the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of the book was not yet complete, only being published in 2001. In the meantime, I had moved on from Dostoevsky in my reading and barely kept up with Russian literary interests at all. Which is to explain why I did not have a copy this morning when I embarked for 30 Penn Books. Finding it there for a mere $4.50, however, I couldn’t resist the urge to add it to my collection. I may even go back for no good reason and change the quoted passages in my senior paper to the P/V translation. Oh, and here, of course, is a little sample, first, from the ‘Introduction’ by Pevear, and second, from the beginning of Prince Myshkin’s story about Marie in Part I.vi (Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot, trans. Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky [NY: Vintage, 2003]):

On a house near the Pitti Palace in Florence there is a plaque that reads: ‘In this neighborhood between 1868 and 1869 F.M. Dostoevsky completed his novel The Idiot.’ It is strange to think of this most Russian of writers working on this most Russian of novels while living in the city of Dante. In fact the author’s absence from Russia can be felt in the book, if we compare it with his preceding novel, Crime and Punishment (1866), which is so saturated in place, in the streets, buildings, squares, and bridges of Petersburg, that the city becomes a living participant in events. Place has little importance in The Idiot. Petersburg and the residential suburb of Pavlovsk, where most of the action occurs, are barely described. There is little sense of a surrounding world or a wider human community. Russia is present in the novel not as a place but as a question—the essence of Russia, the role of Russia and the ‘Russian Christ’ in Europe and in the world. It was precisely during the four years he spent abroad, from 1867 to 1871, that Dostoevsky brooded most intensely on the fate of Russia, as the exile Dante brooded on the fate of Florence. (Pevear, ‘Introduction’, Dostoevsky, p. vii)

A child can be told everything—everything. I was always struck by the thought of how poorly grown-ups know children, even fathers and mothers their own children. Nothing should be concealed from children on the pretext that they’re little and it’s too early for them to know. What a sad and unfortunate idea! And how well children themselves can see that their fathers consider them too little and unable to understand anything, while they understand everything. Grown-ups don’t know that a child can give extremely important advice even in the most difficult matters. (Dostoevsky, p. 67)


Esteban Vázquez said...

I demand you send the Nussbaum book at once! I'm sure I've loved her longer than you have.

aaronandbrighid said...

Is that the rule? The Johnny-come-lately has to defer to the...other guy? Well, I'm pretty sure I was Orthodox before you, so maybe you should send me some of your Orthodox books!

Oh, by the way, I got it for just $8!

Esteban Vázquez said...

Oh, keep rubbing salt in the wound, won't you? Well, I'm just sore because I lost an online bid for that very book a few days ago.

Anyway, I don't know what the expression "Orthodox book" means. I've never seen a book be baptized, chrismated, or communed. Therefore, I'm afraid that I can't comply with your request. ;-)

aaronandbrighid said...

It's hard to explain, but you know them when you see them. I would say, for instance, that my new complete Evergetinos, is without doubt an 'Orthodox book'. I often recall being at the church with my first spiritual father when a new Gospel and Gospel cover that he had ordered arrived. He caressed it lovingly and said, in a rather sensual voice, 'This is sooooo Orthodox!'

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

I got (had?) to read the Epistle in English today and (as our parish does, saying them aloud together) the Prayers Before Communion, since our regular reader was away. Apparently, I was appropriately loud.

That Apostolos is heavier than it looked! But it was very certainly an Orthodox book.