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.

Nabokov’s Tall Tales

There are footnotes that bewitch, excite and then leave you a happier person than you were before. I’m slowing down my reading of Dostoevsky’s Memoirs from the House of the Dead by reading relevant parts of Frank’s Dostoyevsky, The Years of Ordeal, 1850-59.

In a footnote, Frank tells of a certain General I. A. Nabokov, great-great uncle of Vladimir Nabokov, who was commandant of the fortress in which Dostoevsky underwent solitary confinement after his 1848 arrest. According to Nabokov, his illustrious relative lent books to Dostoevsky, which Frank questions saying that no evidence exists for Nabokov’s fantasy that his ancestor loaned Dostoevsky books. Frank writes: ‘Perhaps all it means is that Dostoevsky borrowed books from the prison library.’

It is an amusing story because of Nabokov’s well-known disdain—in my view a philistine stance—for Dostoevsky and his fondness for parodying him.

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.

Polyphony and Birdsong in The Brothers Karamazov

After my last post, drawing an analogy between the birdsong in my garden and the dialogue in The Brothers Karamazov, my friend Kazuko (thanks @EstherHawdon) on Twitter drew my attention to Bakhtin’s analysis. Bakhtin writes of the polyphonic quality of Dostoevsky’s novels, not unlike that of the birdsong that accompanied my reading in the sun. Here’s the opening bars of Bakhtin’s analysis which I shall have to read in full:

Any acquaintance with the voluminous literature on Dostoevsky leaves the impression that one is dealing not with a single author-artist who wrote novels and stories, but with a number of philosophical statements by several author-thinkers-Raskolnikov, Myshkin, Stavrogin, Ivan Karamazov, the Grand Inquisitor, and others. For the purposes of critical thought, Dostoevsky’s work has been broken down into a series of disparate, contradictory philosophical stances, each defended by one or another character. Among these also figure, but in far from first place, the philosophical views of the author himself. For some scholars Dostoevsky’s voice merges with the voices of one or another of his characters; for others, it is a peculiar synthesis of all these ideological voices; for yet others, Dostoevsky’s voice is simply drowned out by all those other voices. Characters are polemicized with, learned from; attempts are made to develop their views into finished systems. The character is treated as ideologically authoritative and independent; he is perceived as the author of a fully weighted ideological conception of his own, and not as the object of Dostoevsky’s finalizing artistic vision. In the consciousness of the critics, the direct and fully weighted signifying power of the characters’ words destroys the monologic plane of the novel and calls forth an unmediated response, as if the character were not an object of authorial discourse, but rather a fully valid, autonomous carrier of his own individual word.

B. M. Engelhardt has been quite correct in noting this peculiarity of the literature on Dostoevsky. “A survey of Russian critical literature on Dostoevsky’s works,” he writes, “shows at once that with very few exceptions it does not rise above the spiritual level of Dostoevsky’s favorite characters. It does not dominate the material at hand; the material dominates it completely. It is still learning from Ivan Karamazov and Raskolnikov, from Stavrogin and the Grand Inquisitor, entangling itself in the same contradictions that entangled them, stopping in bewilderment before the problems that they failed to solve and bowing respectfully before their complex and tormenting experiences.”

J. Meier-Grafe has made a similar observation. “Would it ever occur to anyone to participate in any of the numerous conversations in L’Education sentimentale? But we do enter into discussions with Raskolnikov, and not only with him, but with every bit-player as well.”

Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, Edited and Translated by Caryl Emerson. Introduction by Wayne C. Booth

Karamazov and Birdsong

Yesterday foreshadowed summer as I sat reading in the sun in the garden, surrounded on three sides by forest, silence punctuated by birdsong. As a long-time city dweller I am frustrated not to be able to identify which birds are responsible for those rolling, brief songs that are interrupted in turn by the single, long continuous notes.

In between dozing amid the birdsong I read The Brothers Karamazov to about the quarter-way point. It’s an oddity, very different from what I remember of Crime and Punishment, a novel driven by each character’s interiority. Karamazov reads more like a novel prepared with a film deal foremost to mind, a sequence of set pieces populated by divinely distinct characters relaying their remembering and forgetting through dialogue.

It was in fact rather like the garden’s birdsong, a chain of thin notes from the blackbirds reminiscent of the rhythm of the monks surrounding the elder Zosima; the goldfinch’s trill accompanying the scene in which the great beauties Katerina and Grushenka shock Alexei Karamazov, and the bold rook’s harsh cough an echo of the crazy Father Ferapont seeing devils around every corner.

Dostoevsky by Charles Bukowski

against the wall, the firing squad ready.
then he got a reprieve.
suppose they had shot Dostoevsky?
before he wrote all that?
I suppose it wouldn’t have
not directly.
there are billions of people who have
never read him and never
but as a young man I know that he
got me through the factories,
past the whores,
lifted me high through the night
and put me down
in a better
even while in the bar
drinking with the other
I was glad they gave Dostoevsky a
it gave me one,
allowed me to look directly at those
rancid faces
in my world,
death pointing its finger,
I held fast,
an immaculate drunk
sharing the stinking dark with

Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2015 (updated)

These are not reading resolutions. Writers promising literary gifts lead me astray too easily for these ideas to be fixed in any way.

This year I read widely covering fifty or so writers, concentrating my reading more deeply only twice on Houellebecq and Anne Carson’s work. In 2015 I’d like to read more deeply into the work of some of my favourite authors: alternative Dante and Homer translations (and Adam Nicholson’s The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters) ,  more Ballard’s short stories, always more Beckett, John Berger, Roberto Calasso, more Anne Carson, the new Tom McCarthy, Robert Musil’s diaries, Hélène Cixous, Coetzee, Jenny Diski, Dostoevsky, Marguerite Duras, Pierre Hadot, Houellebecq’s new one if translated next year, Kafka’s short stories, László Krasznahorkai, Clarice Lispector, Bourdieu, Doris Lessing, Nabokov, Alice Oswald, Robert Macfarlane, Nietzsche, Atiq Rahimi, WG Sebald, Thomas Mann, Christa Wolf and Virginia Woolf.

Beyond these ‘old chestnuts’ (as Beckett called his favourite authors) I’m looking forward to unexpected surprises within the pages of the following new books, either missed in 2014 or due in 2015, by authors I have not read before:

  1. Kirmin Uribe – Bilbao – New York – Bilbao
  2. Claudia Rankine – Citizen: An American Lyric
  3. Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor – Dust
  4. Ceridwen Dovey – Only the Animals
  5. Karin Wieland (trans. Shelley Frisch) – Dietrich & Riefenstahl: The dream of the new woman
  6. Can Xue – The Last Lover
  7. Anna Smaill – The Chimes
  8. Han Kang (trans. Deborah Smith) – The Vegetarian
  9. Paul Celan – Breathturn Into Timestead
  10. David Winters – Infinite Fictions: Essays on Literature and Theory

There are several other writers whose older works I’d like to get around to exploring sometime soon including Jens Bjørneboe, Martin Shaw, Ivan Illich, Eva Hoffman, Ivan Goncharov, David Abram, Ágota Kristóf, Rebecca Solnit, Tomas Espedal and Elfriede Jelinek.

As always, distractions are greater than my ambition, but if I manage to take in a decent selection of the above I’m expecting a good year in reading. There are several other titles I have my eye on but I’m mindful of your patience and Molloy’s admission that ‘if you set out to mention everything you would never be done.’

Atiq Rahimi’s A Curse on Dostoyevsky

What would have made Atiq Rahimi’s A Curse on Dostoevsky a better book? Like any brilliant book it is multiply flawed, how could it not be?

The women are impoverished, wafer-thin, particularly in contrast with his richly depicted male characters, who are breathing with complexities and life. Rahimi’s pawnbroker Nana Alia is as two-dimensional as Dostoevsky’s Alyona Ivanovna in the parallel Crime and Punishment, his Sophia is not a match for Dostoevsky’s Christ-like Sonia (Sofia).

As the title suggests, Rahimi borrows from Dostoevsky the narrative frame for his book, mirroring the original to a point, but setting it a violent and war-worn Kabul during its occupation by the Taliban. A Curse on Dostoevsky lacks much of the whiff of Christian moralising that weighed Dostoevsky’s masterpiece down, but also lacks much of its intensity and intricacy. The comparison is only viable because of Rahimi’s bravery in choosing to echo Crime and Punishment, a novel he clearly dissects with love.

The radiance of A Curse on Dostoevsky lies in the characters that do come together, particularly the protagonist Rassoul, every bit as distinctive and imbued with existence as his brother Raskolnikov. There is also sheer joy in the unpredictable turns of what might loosely be called a plot, you never really know where Rahimi is going with his narrative, but the writing is so good that you stay for the journey, a pleasure to be part of the conflicted world he has created. I was enchanted by the story and sorry to leave Rassoul and his world behind.

Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg

Such darkness in Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg, ostensibly the tale of a haunted, fictionalised Dostoevsky returning to nineteenth century St Petersburg to mourn and collect the papers of a dead stepson, who has apparently become the political tool of local nihilists.

Although Coetzee’s Russian backdrop is superficially different from his earlier works, his theme of a tortured protagonist that must humble himself to learn to love, against an undercurrent of violence and death, is familiar territory. The tension in The Master of Petersburg is created from a confrontation of moralities and questions around authorship.

This Wikipedia post on the book suggests a confessional aspect to The Master of Petersburg, which I’ll investigate further when time permits. The intertextual relationship with Dostoevsky’s Demons is clear and fascinating. I love when a writer of Coetzee’s ability continues a literary conversation started a century earlier.