I’ve been in a Dostoevskian mood since, oh … November 2016 … but only recently gave in to it. Last spring I read Crime and Punishment—a book I had tried numerous times but was always defeated by Constance Garnett‘s translation. (Over one of my college summers, in my callow youth, I’d read her version of The Brothers Karamazov from beginning to end, which may be why it took me almost 50 years to take up Dostoevsky again.) As David Remnick, in a New Yorker piece on the woes of translators, noted: “Garnett is often wooden in her renderings, sometimes unequal to certain verbal motifs and particularly long and complicated sentences.” She also had an imperfect knowledge of Russian. “When she came across a word or a phrase that she couldn’t make sense of,” Remnick notes, “she would skip it and move on.” All I can attest to is the effect her Crime and Punishment had on me. I slogged through it as if through a Florida swamp and emerged with little desire to read the wild Russian again.
But I couldn’t shake him. So a couple of months back I took up another Dostoevsky novel, The Idiot, this time in a new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. As in Garnett’s Crime, here Dostoevsky embeds his story in conversations; almost every dialogue and every action takes place in a room, almost none out in the open air; it’s as if the natural world doesn’t exist. But unlike the conversation in Crime, the talk in The Idiot has more variety—by turns awkward, earnest, heated, even hilarious, touching on philosophy, politics, psychology, and issues of class. There is a crime, but whereas the other book gives us the aftermath of one, this novel delivers a prologue to a crime. Beyond that, I can’t think how to characterize it except as a social melodrama that flowers into tragedy.
As I read, I noted a slew of passages that struck me but want to share one that, at this particular moment—as our bombastic president continues his desperate campaign flights from battleground to battleground in a very ugly election—seems especially insightful. It’s from a conversation between Prince Myshkin (the “idiot”) and a young woman named Aglaya; both are unstable personalities, but Aglaya, unlike the prince, knows how to lie, and in fact has just been caught doing it:
“You know what I lied to you just now?” She suddenly turned to the prince with a most childlike trustfulness and with laughter still trembling on her lips. “Because when you lie, if you skillfully put in something not quite usual, something eccentric, well, you know, something that happens quite rarely or even never, the lie becomes much more believable.”
Trump’s supporters like to say he “misspoke,” then move on to explain what he really meant. But Trump, of course, is lying as fast as he can—skillfully, eccentrically—and even while his followers admit that his facts are not facts, his ideas ridiculous, his behavior boorish, they nevertheless believe in him. They believe in him without believing him! It’s this irrationalism that is the most frightening aspect of our American moment. It is a kind of fanaticism, and if Dostoevsky were alive and writing in this country, he would know how to address it. Pre-revolutionary Russia gave him all the tools he would need.
(After writing the above post, I slipped into my second brain—a.k.a. the internet—and discovered
(of course) that my Trump observation is not new. Check out professor of Russian lit Ani Kokobobo‘s essay,
“How Dostoevsky Predicted Trump’s America.” I also discovered this tantalizing bit of authorial insight,
about Dostoevsky’s meeting with Charles Dickens.)
The next novel on my Big D. list is another Pevear/Volokhonsky rendering, Demons. I think I’ll have to wait another year for so or that one.