Wittgenstein and Dostoyevsky

A great many, perhaps most, of the books I choose to read are a consequence of something I’ve just read, or an intriguing comment on social media. Kaufmann’s The Faith of a Heretic led me to Norman Malcolm’s delightful Wittgenstein memoir, which in turn fixed my resolve to read The Brothers Karamazov. Malcolm’s contention that Wittgenstein considered The House of the Dead Dostoyevsky’s greatest work is unusual in that it is not one of his ‘big four’ novels.

Once when we were conversing Wittgenstein was delighted to learn that I knew Tolstoy’s Twenty-three Tales. He’d had an extremely high opinion of these stories. He questioned me closely to find out whether I had understood the moral of the one entitled ‘How Much Land Does A Man Need?’ Wittgenstein had been stiff with me at the beginning of the conversation because he was displeased with me for a reason I have forgotten. But when he discovered that I had read, understood, and valued Tolstoy’s stories, he became friendly and animated. Wittgenstein also admired the writings of Dostoevsky. He read The Brothers Karamazov and extraordinary number of times, but he once said that The House of the Dead was Dostoevsky’s greatest work.

Memoirs from the House of the Dead is therefore what I’ll read next, in the Jesse Coulson translation.

3 thoughts on “Wittgenstein and Dostoyevsky

  1. I spent several hours reading arguments for and against P&V and the other traditional Dostoyevsky translators (admittedly not Jesse Coulson). It is enough to put one off ever reading Russians in translation. There are always going to huge compromises in any work of translation, particularly between cultures, languages and alphabets as widely diverse as Russian and English (or Chinese, Japanese etc). The P&V version of The Brothers Karamazov seemed less clunky than Garnett’s so I went with that. I’ll pick another translation when I reread, as I’ve done with Homer. I’ve just done a comparison of the first page of the various translations of Memoirs from the House of the Dead and I do prefer the Jesse Coulson version, so thanks for pointing me in that direction.

  2. i actually preferred Solzhenitsyn’s “one day in the life of ivan denisovitch” to “house of the dead”; i think i was getting rather tired of D when i read the latter – his depressing outlook wears after a while. although “ivan” had it’s negative aspect, in the end i thought it was rather a celebration of the capacity of humans to find meaning in appalling circumstances: more or less a paean to existence, as it were…

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