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.

4 thoughts on “Wittgenstein and Dostoyevsky

  1. I would strongly advise against the P&V translation for this, as well as for any Dostoevsky book. They have been roundly criticised and picked apart and their (or his) English is dreadful. A little long, but I have copied this from a review on amazon for Memoirs from the house of the dead:

    ‘This is a review of the P/V translation. Dostoevsky’s prison memoir is a marvelous, if torturous, work. Van Gogh, for instance, regarded it as an aesthetic model for his painting and for his experience of life. Simply, I don’t see why another rendition is necessary, certainly not one by this crew.

    First of all, the title. Perhaps there is a characteristic pithiness in ‘Notes from a Dead House’ that P/V sometimes excel at, but I don’t think it makes sense. What is a ‘dead house’? It doesn’t really connote the hell of the gulag. Nabokov, in his lecture on Dostoevsky, gave the title as “Memoirs from the House of Death”. Jesse Coulson, whose translation is far superior to this one, comes elegantly close with her title “Memoirs from the House of the Dead”.

    Actually, the important passage in which Dostoevsky alludes to the title is further botched by P/V:

    “Here you were in a special world, unlike anything else; it had its own special laws, its own clothing, its own morals and customs, an alive dead house, a life like nowhere else, and special people”.

    Really…’an alive dead house’? Could there be a more inelegant combination of adjectives? Also, the designation of the prison house should not follow from the preceding list with just a comma – a colon or hyphen should be used to signal a change from the list to the sardonic comment. Oddly enough, P/V are addicted to the colon and semi-colon throughout this rendition, often to its detriment.

    Here is how Coulson rendered the same passage:

    “Here was our own peculiar world, unlike anything else at all; here were our own peculiar laws, our own dress, our own morals and customs, a house of the living dead, a life such as lived nowhere else, and people set apart.”

    Yes, Coulson does not announce the title with special punctuation either – but she has not separated the prisoners from the descriptive items, and so it seems less awkward when a comment is then passed on the institution as a whole. Also, she has used ‘peculiar’ instead of ‘special’. ‘Peculiar’ neatly connotes eeriness and idiosyncrasy. You’ll notice that Coulson also specifies that isolation is the salient factor in the prisoners’ alienation from society – “people set apart” as opposed to “and special people”.

    This is a comparison of just one of the most recognizable passages from the book. But it is in some ways representative of P/V’s more general flaws. Again, I don’t see why there should be such a proliferation of translations of Russian literature. P/V print a new translation, reasoning that any new edition ought to benefit Dostoevsky scholarship. But really, the superabundance of renditions only serves to confuse the student of Russian literature. In any case, Garnett and Coulson are more elegant, as is Macduff’s recent rendition.’

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    • 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.

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  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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