Reading Middlemarch with no particular desire to finish reading Middlemarch brought home to me just how much I love reading what Henry James denounced as ‘loose baggy monsters’ or very long books (as defined, say, of more than five hundred pages).

I don’t think Middlemarch is that loose or baggy, quite the opposite in fact. It is a novel of immense discipline with a great deal of thought put into the architecture and the skeleton building. Nor do I think looseness is such a bad thing in a novel. Looseness gives one room to breathe, to slow down.

There is something in the psychological experience of burrowing into a long and expansive novel that is very special. That isn’t too say I don’t admire writers who can achieve the concentrated unity of an effective shorter novel, but all too often they rely overly much on plot, creating those tiresome “page-turners” that end up being exhausting and ephemeral. Besides, are monsters such a bad thing? The word stems from monstrum, something that upsets thought, that lives at the edge of reason, and that is an apt word to underpin the unsettling, time-shifting nature of a long, complex novel.

So I have in my sights some other monsters that I’ve not read before. This might be a year I read only another dozen books:

  1. Alexander Theroux, Einstein’s Beets
  2. Péter Nádas, Parallel Stories
  3. Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet
  4. Cora Sandel, Alberta trilogy
  5. Peter Handke, My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay
  6. George Eliot, Daniel Deronda
  7. Katherine Anne Porter, Ship of Fools
  8. Divine Comedy (Dorothy Sayers’ translation)
  9. Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries
  10. Thomas Mann, Joseph and his Brothers
  11. Dorothy Richardson, Pilgrimage (last four books to finish)
  12. Maybe more Nádas, or Tolstoy, or Weymouth Sands, or rereading Proust or Karamazov, or . . .

If you have a favourite monster I’ve not mentioned please drop into comments.

The Voice of the Book

“A man who has read Book XXIV of the Iliad–the night meeting of Priam and Achilles–or the chapter in which Alyosha Karamazov kneels to the stars, who has read Montaigne’s chapter XX (Que philosopher c’est apprendre à mourir) and Hamlet’s use of it–and who is not altered, whose apprehension of his own life is unchanged, who does not, in some subtle yet radical manner, look on the room in which he moves, on those that knock at the door, differently–has read only with the blindness of physical sight. Can one read Anna Karenina or Proust without experiencing a new infirmity or occasion in the very core of one’s sexual feelings? To read well is to take great risks. It is to make vulnerable our identity, our self-possession.”

George Steiner, from the essay Humane Literacy in Language and Silence

Dostoevsky, Dreams, Joanna Walsh (My Week)

“These obvious absurdities and impossibilities with which your dream was overflowing . . . you accepted all at once, almost without the slightest surprise, at the very time when, on the other side, your reason was at its highest tension and showed extraordinary power, cunning, sagacity, and logic. And why, too, on waking and fully returning to reality, do you feel almost every time, and sometimes with extraordinary intensity, that you have left something unexplained behind with the dream, and at the same time you feel that interwoven with these absurdities some thought lies hiddden, and a thought that is real, something belonging to your actual life, something that exists and always existed in your heart. It’s as though something new, prophetic, that you were awaiting, has been told you in your dream.”

This passage from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot played on my mind during this week of fever and dreams (and Joanna Walsh’s fevered dream of a book).

The Power of Memoirs from the House of the Dead

Sometimes I think I ought abstain from fiction, that my melancholic nature leaves me susceptible to fiction’s power to destabilise. Dostoyevsky’s Memoirs from the House of Dead is dangerous for its fiction is a thin disguise, its unfolding of oppression and monotony carries none of the nonsense of fiction. Sometimes I think I ought to read more fiction, that my melancholic nature leaves me susceptible to fiction’s power to disrupt and superimpose itself onto reality.

Dostoyevsky’s Memoirs from the House of the Dead, translated by Jessie Coulson, is coldly objective. Its coolness and monotony saturated the ten days it has taken to slowly marinate in its journalistic spirit. ‘Freedom, a new life, resurrection from the dead . . . What a glorious moment!’ I feel the glorification, the lifting of a period of dull despondency.

In Memoirs from the House of the Dead are the bones of Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. Without the raw life of the zone—the house of the dead—neither of those glorious later novels are possible, both represent the poetic form of Dostoyevsky’s four years of existential hell as a convict.

I want to see a Tarkovsky interpretation of Memoirs from the House of the Deadonly that director could fully capture Dostoyevsky’s intense self-disgust but also the brutal honesty of the meaninglessness of life.

Dostoyevsky’s Chaos and Form

Reading Dostoevsky’s Memoirs from the House of the Dead and some relevant parts of Joseph Frank’s Dostoyevsky, The Years of Ordeal, 1850-59 brings into focus what I think I find most interesting in Dostoevsky’s novels. The narrative texture of Memoirs from the House of the Dead is very different from his other novels in that Dostoevsky avoids didacticism and narrates using what is almost a direct reportage style. Nowadays we’d classify it as fictionalised autobiography.

The flat narrative texture is far less forgiving and shows up the imperfections in Dostoevsky’s form to a greater degree than the other novels. It recalls the Beckett quote that I wrote about once before:

…there will be new form…and this new form will be of such a type that it admits the chaos and does not try to say that the chaos is really something else…That is why the form itself becomes a preoccupation, because it exists as a problem separate from the material it accommodates. To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.

In a sense, Dostoevsky steals a march on Beckett’s 1961 comments by finding a form that accommodates his chaotic themes, characters, all the stuff he chucks into his narrative. Style and artistry are secondary to his psychological intuition. The insight that lies within Dostoevsky’s ideas and thoughts are what makes his novels so interesting, and so worthwhile to read and ponder.

Riddle of Life and Dostoyevsky Translation

Translators are modern day alchemists, trying to generate gold from gold without introducing impurity. Translate with absolute fidelity and lose the rhythm or retain the emotional power by using some versatility and inventiveness? One needs to be a writer of some talent, yet have bags of humility.

Before reading Dostoyevsky’s Memoirs from the House of the Dead, also known as House of the Dead or Notes from a Dead House, I compared three translations side by side. The three sentences below are quite instructive, but, to be honest, the translated titles were almost sufficient to make the case. Jessie Coulson’s Memoirs from the House of the Dead is unquestionably the most aesthetically pleasing title; Constance Garnett’s House of the Dead is straightforward; Pevear and Volokhonsky choice of Notes from a Dead House seems pretty wretched to me: what is a ‘dead house’?

In the sentences below, P&V and Coulson chose ‘riddle of life’ versus Garnett’s more dour ‘problem of existence.’ I’m sure both work but answers in comments please if you know what Dostoyevsky meant, or maybe it becomes clear later in the book. I’ve only just started. Do I need to go to Siberia to solve the riddle of life? Or the problem of existence?

It’s the third sentence that stands out for me, where Coulson’s translation is the one with just the right amount of rhythm and pace. I’ll take ‘frivolous’ over ‘light-minded’ and ‘more levity.’ The P&V sentences sound clunkier in comparison.

I could draw out other examples but the decisive one for me was Coulson’s ‘The people were simple, untouched by liberal ideas …” compared to Garnett’s stiffer but fine ‘The inhabitants are simple folk and not of liberal views…” compared to P&V’s ‘People live simply, unprogressively.’ So I chose the Coulson, and I am inclined to reread The Brothers Karamazov in the Ignat Avsey translation sometime soon to balance the P&V interpretation I finished this week.

Jessie Coulson:

Those among them who are capable of solving the riddle of life almost all remain in Siberia and gladly take root there. The fruits they subsequently bear are sweet and abundant. The others, the frivolous ones, who cannot guess the answer to life’s riddle, soon grow weary of Siberia, and disheartened, ask themselves why they ever came there.

Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky:

Those who are able to solve the riddle of life almost always stay in Siberia and delight in taking root there. Later on they bear sweet and and abundant fruit. But others, light-minded folk, unable to solve the riddle of life, soon weary of Siberia and ask themselves in anguish why on earth they ended up there.

Constance Garnett:

Those of them who are clever at solving the problem of existence almost always remain in Siberia, and eagerly take root there. Later on they bring forth sweet and abundant fruit. But others of more levity and no capacity for solving problems of existence soon weary of Siberia, and wonder regretfully why they came.

Perov’s Dostoyevsky

Yesterday at the National Portrait Gallery I visited the Russia and the Arts exhibition, small but perfectly composed, a rare opportunity to see portraits from the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. Of course, Perov’s stark Dostoyevsky was the highlight

Fedor Dostoevsky (1872) - Vasily Perov

Fedor Dostoevsky (1872) – Vasily Perov

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.

Rachel Cusk’s Aftermath

Rachel Cusk knows how to look at things. In Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, her forensic sense of empathy is clear whether describing a local florist or her profound alienation after her marriage of ten years came to an end.

What happens when the texture of our world shatters into pieces? If we are no longer able to see the form that provides a sense of structure to our world? Cusk seeks to give form to her world through language, giving shape to chaos through writing Aftermath. As David Winters writes of Lydia Davis’s novel, “she tries to imprint an order upon her experience.”

Cusk’s Aftermath is a work of originality.. An striking opening leads to a startling, clever ending, but along the way she looks at the fragility of most unions whose pieces rarely fit tidily together, and like a jigsaw only looks complete from far away.

I intend to explore Cusk’s backlist further but the call back to Dostoyevsky is stronger.

How to disengage from The Brothers Karamazov?

How to disengage from The Brothers Karamazov? Merely rhetorical, of course. Does adding the question mark make my statement a question? I want to read nothing else right away, fog bound as I am with Dostoyevsky’s novel parked in the centre of my mental runway.

I imagine that there are readers who read this story as a thrilling tale of murder and sexual friction, but that would be to disregard an encounter with massive principles and judgements. It isn’t fashionable to write such novels these days. It is barely recognisable as a novel. There are certainly few concessions to plot or structure.

I’m told that Dostoyevsky dictated his story, without returning to it, served it up just as it flowed from his crazy genius mind. I’ll have to read a decent biography. I last read Dostoyevsky in a grand passion in my late teens, tearing through Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Notes from Underground, and The Gambler, reading for aesthetics as much as ideas. But I am glad I waited for The Brothers Karamazov — I understood that it would be essential to read it in the right spirit, with sufficient reading behind me to be intrigued and enriched by its echoes of other texts

This is a book to fully inhabit, from within the utterances of the Elder Zosima and the elation and despair of Ivan, those twin poles of Dostoyevsky’s indictment of God and religion through a debate on the ethics of killing. In the 800 odd pages of The Brothers Karamazov it is impossible not to be drawn into this darkest tragedy, to identify in part with the moral, religious, and psychological themes. It isn’t possible to disengage from this book as it concerns itself with issues that most of us take very seriously. The openness of its ending is a judgement in itself that the issues are too complex to warrant any final conclusions. What I shall immediately miss is the vivid dialogue, Dostoyevsky’s razor sharp perception and his extraordinarily complex characters.