Donald Rayfield

  • Dostoevsky. Vol II: The Years of Ordeal 1850-1859 by Joseph Frank
    Robson, 320 pp, £14.95, April 1984, ISBN 0 86051 242 8
  • The Village of Stepanchikovo by Fyodor Dostoevsky and Ignat Avsey
    Angel, 255 pp, £8.95, November 1983, ISBN 0 946162 06 9

Dostoevsky in the 1840s, a caustic and iconoclastic rising star, was the subject of Joseph Frank’s first volume of biography and critique, The Seeds of Revolt. This volume stood out from many rival studies for the thoroughness of its research, the generosity of its approach (to Dostoevsky and to other critics), its intelligent judgment of Dostoevsky’s psychology and literary intentions, and, rarest quality of all in the Dostoevsky industry, for its sheer readability. This second volume takes us forward a mere decade: from Dostoevsky’s arrest for revolutionary conspiracy in 1849, through his mock-execution, imprisonment and exile to Siberia, to his tacit rehabilitation in St Petersburg in 1859. In this period, the 1850s, however, Professor Frank’s problems are very different. First of all, Dostoevsky’s life and letters are so distant and fragmentary that there is little to discuss; secondly, the initial return to literature at the end of the 1850s is so disappointing that the critic is prompted to look elsewhere for the key to Dostoevsky’s greatness. Hence Joseph Frank has the field virtually to himself, and he ploughs it very purposefully.

This volume is just as readable and as impeccably prepared as its predecessor, but one cannot help a few misgivings. The first is over the pacing of Dostoevsky’s life. If there are a mere three more volumes to come, then they will have to deal with the remaining four-fifths of Dostoevsky’s literary output (not to mention his journalism). Given the complexity of the issues to come, these volumes will have to be very fat and Professor Frank and his publishers must be wished prosperity and a long life. There are many points where the division of this major study into several volumes leads to prolix cross-referencing. Much of Dostoevsky’s biographical material is transmuted into fiction a decade later: Notes from the House of the Dead, which will be a major subject for Volume Three, has its sources in the material for this volume. Likewise there is much on Dostoevsky’s socialism in Volume One which has to be reiterated here. Even within the volume psychological commentary tends to be repeated. Some of the excursions – on the mechanics of religious conversion, or on the type of epilepsy Dostoevsky suffered from – are far too prolonged: a footnote and a reference would have done. The whole approach to Dostoevsky would be easier if this study were condensed to half its length and merged with the volume to come.

What went on in Dostoevsky’s head during the 1850s we may guess largely from subsequent fiction: the fictionalised account of imprisonment in The House of the Dead, The Idiot’s speculation on what the last moments before execution must be like, Raskolnikov’s first encounter in Siberia with the New Testament. It would be an insult to Dostoevsky’s imagination to assume that all this was lifted unaltered from experience. Frank uses some little-known sources, including the memoirs of a Polish prisoner in Omsk, Tokarzewski, to shed a little new light, but he, too, has to fall back on the assumption that the House of the Dead in reality and fiction was identical. Dostoevsky’s letters after his release from prison are made to reveal every scrap they contain, so that we get a fuller idea of what induced Dostoevsky to make his first and disastrous marriage, and of his nervous reactions to the new literature that had sprouted up while he, like Rip van Winkle, was away from the scene. What emerges in both the emotional and intellectual sides of Dostoevsky is a nervous jealousy, a fear of being ousted by younger talents in the affections of Maria Isayeva or in those of the reading public: a fear that makes him an impassioned lover and a vitriolic critic. The negative side of Dostoevsky is perhaps more important than Professor Frank admits. It is the vast capacity for hatred and satire, for merciless parody even of the recently dead, the sincere and the suffering, that gives Dostoevsky’s ideas and drafts their impetus. His sustained hatred for Gogol, for Nekrasov and for newer writers such as Pisemsky was the means by which he kept alive his vehement confidence in his own literary future.

Professor Frank is more interested in the positive changes that must have happened to Dostoevsky in exile: the conversion to Christianity and the new-found love for the peasant and the primitive. He goes to great lengths to sketch out a model pattern that might account for these changes. But, all in all, it is not faith but a belief in the desirability of faith, not love so much as idolisation of the peasantry, which Dostoevsky takes up. What gives his truly great work, from Notes from Underground to the Brothers Karamazov, its power is not the Christianity nor the populism. The Brothers Karamazov achieves its effect despite the pastiche Christianity of Father Zosima, and the novelist in Dostoevsky keeps the peasantry to the very margins of the novel. Dostoevsky’s ideology is important for what it rejects, not for what it affirms, and the well-springs of his psychology must be located in the geodesies of Dostoevsky’s intimate life, in his irrational demolitions, not his rational constructions. All this can be inferred from Joseph Frank, but he is perhaps a little too patient with the rhetorical edifices of Dostoevsky the populist preacher.

Less than a tenth of this volume is specifically devoted to the two Siberian novellas that marked Dostoevsky’s return to fiction. With hindsight, they can be seen to be immediately interesting works: if you know The Devils, you recognise in Uncle’s Dream the conflict of senility and conspiracy; if you know The Idiot, you can see the two good protagonists of The Village of Stepanchikovo and its Inhabitants incorporating, one the excitability, and the other the meekness, of the preternaturally good Idiot. But if you have not encountered Dostoevsky at his greatest you would have to be uncommonly perceptive to see any real promise in either work. They have a galumphing comic quality, as of a Brian Rix farce turned into a story, and P.G. Wodehouse could have reshaped them. At best, they show Dostoevsky as the greatest playwright that Russia never had, for in them he sharpens his gift for causing the character and intrigue of a novel to develop exclusively through dialogue, building tension to explosive levels. Professor Frank naturally has his mind on the volumes to come and dwells more on the embryonic greatness that he can detect than on the apparently hopeless failure of the exiled, isolated Dostoevsky to find what people would now read and what his contacts would now publish. That they went largely ignored in his lifetime is understandable: that they were published at all during the flowering of a whole new generation of novelists says much about the generosity of the Russian intelligentsia towards a very unsympathetic comrade.

The Village of Stepanchikovo can also be credited with a therapeutic role: Dostoevsky finally wrote Gogol out of his system with a monstrous parody of Gogol’s person and opinions in the form of the parasitic, vindictive bigot Foma Fomich, a piece of posthumous libel so scandalous that it should have been sufficient to give the story notoriety in its own time. Professor Frank’s summary and commentary are enough to whet one’s appetite, so that we can turn with gratitude to Angel Classics and Ignat Avsey for providing a new version, with a useful introduction and notes.

Is it too cynical to say that any reasonably competent translator can give us a good version of Anna Karenina or Crime and Punishment: that the original has enough power to overcome the resistance of a poor conductor? Certainly it takes a very good translator to make a convincing version of a minor work. It is quite right that we should have a new version of The Village of Stepanchikovo. The Constance Garnett version is not only hard to find: it is bedevilled by ludicrous mistakes – Constance Garnett was taught Russian by a retired anarchist, faithful to the last in his methods – and the colloquialisms have a strong early-Bloomsbury sound. Any work, whether a Chekhov play or a Dostoevsky story, with a strong ear for the way different people speak, for ‘idiolect’, will need a new translation every generation. The translator not only has to hear the different levels – the pious humbug, the military, the metropolitan youth, the half-educated servant, the sentimental précieuse, the Russian Squire Jones – he has to be able to find equivalents, or invent them, in the receiving language. Sometimes the task is impossible – which might explain why Leskov, a writer with claims to be regarded as Tolstoy’s or Dostoevsky’s equal, is unknown outside Russia. Here, however, the dialogue is not so specifically Russian as to be untranslatable: that, perhaps, is the weakness of the story, in that the situation could be that of a Molière play or a Wodehouse novel. Ignat Avsey’s ear is usually very reliable: he skirts round all the pitfalls that Constance Garnett fell into. He is aware of what the English demands and tries to give an idiolect to each character. But while his English is always correct and usually idiomatic, he distributes the clichés to the wrong characters and fumbles in the attempt to give the dialogue an authentic ring. The narrator, Sergey Alexandrovich (typical of Dostoevsky’s narrators in his shadowy lack of a surname), is quite laconic, if not always coherent, in the original. In this translation he is infected with the pomposity of his bugbear, the wicked Foma Fomich who is tyrannising his uncle’s household. For example, where the Russian states in four words, ‘this is even required by the rules,’ the translation puffs out: ‘it is required of me by prescribed procedure.’

The expansion of the narrator’s words happens constantly, so that the contrasts between a sane (if hotheaded) narrator and an insane (if cold-blooded) villain are lost. Simplicity often goes by the board: umer (died) becomes ‘passed away’; zasypali (covered with earth) becomes ‘interred’. Dostoevsky’s stylistic fingerprints – for instance, clusters of meaningless adverbs which add tension to the sentence – only mess up the English. Pithy phrases such as tyanut zhily (to stretch the sinews) are unforgivably mashed: ‘indulge in slow deliberate inquisition’ is an explanation, not a translation. Ignat Avsey’s translation is the best available but it cannot long remain definitive. A translator who knows his Dickens and his Wodehouse will find the right models for mimicry. Dostoevsky at his most uncertain needs a translator far more surefooted. It is very sad that the curiosity and interest Joseph Frank is arousing will be so disappointed by the translations currently available. On the one hand, the English and Americans can produce scholarship which surpasses that of the best Russian critics; on the other, English readers have to make do with translations of a standard far beneath the average Russian’s. Why should Soviet readers have C.P. Snow and Sillitoe in good Russian versions when we are so far from a definitive Dostoevsky?