BOOK REVIEW / Patricidal passions in the abyss of nihilism

Cathy Porter
Friday 07 May 1993 23:02 BST

THIRTY years after Dostoyevsky's death in 1881 he was still largely unknown outside Russia when Arnold Bennett persuaded Heinemann to commission Constance Garnett's translation of his final masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov. It was received with raptures of love and loathing, and by the outbreak of the First World War, Garnett's translations of his works had achieved something like cult status.

From the trauma of his father's murder, trial by firing squad and imprisonment in the House of the Dead, through debt, epilepsy and a disastrous gambling obsession, Dostoyevsky plunges into abysses of nihilism and paradisal harmony. In The Brothers Karamazov, published just a year before his death, some of these unresolved terrors are explored through the patricidal passions of one 'nice little family'.

Several translators since Garnett have tackled this untranslatable mix of tragedy, metaphysics and comic melodrama. In 1990 there was a new version by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Vintage, pounds 7.99), and now Penguin Classics has brought out another by David McDuff (Penguin, pounds 6.99).

Translators of Dostoyevsky face a monumental challenge to their sanity and endurance. We are outraged by the reek of corruption, the tearful humility, the deranged ecstasy, the carnivalesque scandal scenes, the lengthy disquisitions on saintliness and sin. We are unsettled by the illogicality, the doubts, reservations and conjectures, the shattering flashes of insight. It is impossible to know whether his stylistic eccentricity was intentional or just careless. There are the problems of his 'telling names', a multitude of cultural and historical meanings, and the inflected compactness of Russian, which means that we have to use about 20 per cent more words to reach the same place. The Brothers Karamazov is steeped in words: allusions, letters, tracts, memoirs, suicide notes, speeches, jokes, confessions.

Pevear and Volokhonsky's playful engagement with the characters' language respects Dostoyevsky's solecisms and inconsistencies and 'as it weres', and the result is earthy, colloquial and occasionally wordy. Take their rendering of Dmitry's delirium over the 'devil-woman' Grushenka:

How can I make a compact with the earth evermore? I don't kiss the earth, I don't tear open her bosom; what should I do, become a peasant or a shepherd? I keep going, and I don't know: have I gotten into stench or shame, or into light and joy? . . . Let me be cursed, let me be base and vile, but let me also kiss the hem of that garment in which my God is clothed.

McDuff uses even longer words to carry Dmitry's demented poetry into yet higher psychic strata:

How am I to join eternal union with the earth? I don't kiss the earth, I don't churn up her breast: what am I to do, become a muzhik or a shepherd? I go and know not whether I have landed in foulness and ignominy or in light and joy . . . I may be cursed, I may be base and vile, but I too shall kiss the hem of the robe in which my God enwraps Himself . . .

Constance Garnett's modest brevity is surely better suited to this rough word-drunk style, while resisting the temptation to 'improve' it:

How am I to cling for ever to Mother Earth? I don't kiss her. I don't cleave to her bosom. Am I to become a peasant or a shepherd? I go on and I don't know whether I'm going to shame or to light and joy . . . Let me be accursed. Let me be vile and base, only let me kiss the hem of the veil in which my God is shrouded . . .

Because Dostoyevsky 'feels ideas' the way others feel hot and cold, his settings - crowded rooms, a dark crossroads, a pathless forest - are more cerebral than real and his characters, though related to real life, seem to inhabit a different universe. Even Fyodor Karamazov is in danger of becoming a disembodied spirit. McDuff's 'Voluptuary' physically disengages from Fyodor's sinister debauchery in a way that 'Sensualist' doesn't, and by rendering 'Stinking Liza' as 'Lizaveta Smerdyashchaya' he sacrifices comprehensibility to decorousness.

Dostoyevsky grounds his ideas by focusing each scene dramatically on one particular character, and the translator must make each voice distinct and personal. At the heart of the book Dmitry is standing in the dark of his father's garden just before the old man is murdered.

Garnett is brief and direct:

Mitya looked at him from the side without stirring. The old man's profile that he loathed so, his pendent Adam's apple, his hooked nose, his lips that smiled in greedy expectation, were all brightly lighted up by the slanting lamplight . . .

McDuff heightens the tension:

Mitya observed from the side and did not stir a muscle. The entire profile of the old man, which so revolted him, the pendular Adam's apple, the crooked nose, the lips, smiling in lecherous expectation, all of this was brilliantly illuminated by the oblique ray of the lamp.

Note the enhanced effects ('stir a muscle', 'brilliantly illuminated', 'oblique ray'). Yet Dostoyevsky didn't write like this; he constantly deflates his protagonists' pretensions to emphasise their weakness and humanity. Even the Grand Inquisitor is a mere product of Ivan's despair, while the Devil, the least disembodied of all the characters, is just an alcoholic dream.

It's in these episodes of alcoholic delirium that McDuff's translation excels. Take Ivan's demented assumption of guilt at Dmitry's trial:

Oh, I am in my right mind, all right . . . and it is a villainous mind, the same as yours, the same as theirs . . . A father has been murdered, and they pretend they are frightened . . . They give themselves airs before one another. Liars] They all desire the death of their fathers. One vile reptile consumes the other . . .

Pevear and Volokhonsky recoil from these ravings:

The thing is that I precisely in my right mind . . . my vile mind, the same as you] A murdered father, and they pretend to be frightened . . . They pull faces to each other. Liars] Everyone wants his father dead. Viper devours devour . . .

Garnett's sensibilities are clearly outraged, and the result is implausibly nice:

I should think I am in my right mind . . . in the same nasty mind as all of you . . . my father has been murdered and they pretend they're horrified . . . They keep up the sham with one another. Liars] They all desire the death of their fathers. One reptile devours another . . .

The great strength of this new translation, despite its cerebral wordiness, is to look madness in the face. Only by surrendering to the horror can we engage with these Napoleons, murderers and femmes fatales of the St Petersburg slums, and see what makes Dostoyevsky's world such a rich, dangerous and funny place.

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