Friday, April 2, 2010

Somehow - Karamazovian aesthetics

My Dostoevksy problem, or one of them:

Lately he had somehow become bloated; he began somehow to be erratic, lost his self-control, and even fell into a sort of lightheadedness; he would start one thing and end up with another; he somehow became scattered; and he got drunk more and more often. (I.i.4., 22)

Or how about this jewel:

One could see by her eyes that she had come for some purpose and had something on her mind. (I.ii.3, 50)

Quotations from the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of The Brothers Karamazov, page numbers from the 1990 North Point Press edition.  My impression, based perhaps on misremembering and misreading, is that Dostoevsky's best, or most fervent, readers, treat him as a wisdom writer, or a psychologist, but not necessarily as a first-rate literary craftsman. 

The ethical content of the Grand Inquisitor section or the Elder Zosima section are, then, the real substance of the novel.  Aesthetic matters are of secondary, or no, importance.  Whether or not that second quotation above is in and of itself execrable (it is) is inconsequential.  Maybe that's right.  Maybe this time through I'll learn how to read KaramazovNonsuch Frances mentions "surrendering to the flow" of the book.  I have not the slightest idea how to do that.  The Karamazov I'm reading is full of ruts and roots and switchbacks and dust.  There is no flow.  I proceed slowly, with great caution.  Perhaps, in the company of other readers, I will somehow learn to relax into Karamazov.

Somehow.  Please recall the first quotation.  What is missing in that sentence?  What is present?  With minor edits, the vague "somehow"s can be removed with no change in sense: "Lately he had become bloated; he began to be erratic," and so on.  The incessant vagueness ("one thing," "another") is intentional, an aesthetic effect, meant to do, ahem, something.  I'm not sure what. The Brothers Karamazov has a not-actually-Dostoevsky narrator, so the "some"s come from him.  I guess.

By contrast:

From the rectory had come the immense scarlet and lapis lazuli carpet, the great brass fire-basket and appendages, the great curtains that, in the three long windows, on their peacock-blue Chinese silk showed parti-coloured cranes ascending in long flights - and all the polished Chippendale armchairs. (II.iv., 245)

That's an almost randomly chosen bit of Some Do Not... (1924) by Ford Madox Ford, my other 800 page readalong novel (thanks to mel u at The Reading Life for organizing).  Soon after we find "peculiarly scented tea" and "a chin curved like the bow of a Greek boat" and "a great walnut-wood fluted chair."  And on and on like that. The organizing aesthetic principle could hardly be more different than Dostoevsky's.  There is no somehow.  Ford's function as a novelist is to tell us exactly how, within the limits of the language.

It will take me all month to read both of these books, so expect more Dostoevsky-Ford Ford juxtapositions, regardless of utility or sense.  That's what I've got!

Except for next week, which will be devoted to the lovely, odd Christian fantasy writer George MacDonald.  The week begins with an exciting event, with a special guest providing the very first Wuthering Expectations Guest Post.


  1. Those "somehow"s and "something"s are certainly one of my problems as well. Contrasting Dostoevsky with Ford in this way is sort of amazing and genius; I don't think you could have picked two more appropriate writers for this post. I will have to begin surrendering to the flow myself this weekend, though it seems so hard to tear myself away from Parade's End at all.

    Another pesky thing about those somehows—they make me feel like I'm reading my own vague and groping writing (horrors!). Fortunately I am not a novelist.

  2. Well, this is something! Somehow I don't see how you're not falling off your chair with admiration and delight. For me, Karamazov is just plain fun. This is my second reading after many decades, and it is like meeting an old friend.

    I'm glad you're going to George MacDonald next week. I've recently read all the way through the Collected Fairy Tales--which I did because of your Scottish Literature Challenge. So I'll be back!

  3. I'm looking forward to your special guest on George MacDonald week!
    In Russian lit class I was amazed by Gogol, I found Crime and Punishment great and War and Peace just tedious. Not sure if I noticed any of the writing or if it was all about plot.

  4. "The Karamazov I'm reading is full of ruts and roots and switchbacks and dust."

    You must have grabbed my copy by mistake. I was SO disappointed by the Brothers. My Dostoevsky-loving friends, well, they were nice about it but one could see by their eyes that they had something on their minds.

  5. I was mildly frightened of finally reading Dostoevsky, but right around 22 pages into it I am finding it highly amusing. You point out why - it appears to be somewhat badly written!! The intro to my edition - the Pevear and Volokhonsky - did at some length make a case for Dostoevsky creating a narrator who is as much a character as the characters in the book. He wrote it intentionally badly...? I'm keeping that in mind, and in spite of it all I am enjoying it so far!

  6. Maybe as a preliminary note I should remind everyone that the fact that I am comfortable with what Ford is doing and not comfortable with Dostoevsky does not mean that one is better than the other. I'm just trying to define the problem.

    Having said that - Julia, pure fun! Dostoevsky! I would love to see - please write! - a pure fun defense of Dostoevksy for me. Please center it on I.ii.5, the debate about the ecclesiastical church. The fun in that chapter seems to be shot through with mercury and sulfur - highly impure. (By the way - thanks for joining in the proper Dostoevskian spirit, with your "something" and "somehow" - I got the joke!)

    Having said that, we're probably not so far apart. Dostoevsky is a child of Gogol. Karamazov, up to a point, is a comedy, like tuulenhaiven notes. In places, to me, a genuinely funny comedy.

    tuulenhaiven - an alternative theory: Dostoevsky has been writing fiction for over thirty years. He writes the way he writes. So he is shoring up a weakness by putting (some) of the narration in the mouth of this extra character. I haven't read the intro yet, but I hinted at the P&V defense in the post. It's clever, and maybe the only hope of forgiving some of Dostoevsky's infelicities. But I don't believe it. Topic for another time.

    nicole - that last thing you said, tell me about it, or, please, don't. I got to work on suppressing "sort of" in my own writing.

    Michael5000 - that's why I joined the readalong - I'm going to crack the nut this time.

    Yes MacDonald week will be great fun. The guest post will be the highlight, then the rest will be downhill, which is, come to think of it, bad planning.

  7. Hello, Amateur!

    Having some Dostoievsky fun, have you?
    It's interesting to note that, in French too, the old translations by Ely Halpérine-Kaminsky and Charles Morice or by Pierre Pascal has been recently replaced (meaning in the last ten years and still counting), with great noise, by more "respectful" ones by Andre Markowicz --"respectful" meaning "closer to the original", or at least that's what I was led to believe (it's quite clear when compared to Halpérine/Morice, where the inquisitor has totally disappeared! but maybe doubtful in other cases).
    There's a certain "oralité", if you pardon my french, in Dostoievsky, and Markowicz tries to convey this. Maybe the somehow, somewhat, somewhere came from there, if P&V took the same road. When reading it I felt as if it has been written in one single shot, without any editing, like a stream of romanesqueness pouring from a pen directly onto the page, leaving chunks of vagueness, places the narrator didn't had time to depict. I noted that, strangely, the vagueness vanished when Ivan or Zosima start to talk, I think because the characters perfectly knew what they're going to say, when the narrator didn't. The result, in Markowicz version at least, is a novel where characters are in control of their own selves, their ideas, what they are here for, and the narrator merely trying to follow the pace. The usual idea of Dostoievsky as a psychologist might come partly from there: the narrator erased, there's no puppeteer, only colourful, complete, true characters. In René Girard's words, I would say that, as opposed to the aesthetic of le mensonge romantique, we're facing here la vérité romanesque. Dostoievsky is, in my view, the only writer who admits he knows less than his own creations do.

  8. They left out the Grand Inquisitor! Unbelievable, hilarious!

    I've begun to see just what you describe. Karamazov is a novel of competing persepectives. The non-omnisicient omnisicent narrator has no more understanding of anyone else than does, for example, the reader. The art of Dostoevsky is centered on the monologues.

    I wonder to what degree Dostoevsky was in control of what he was doing. Is it really all just poured out (it sure seems like it), or is that a writerly illusion?

  9. Hi Amateur,

    They left out the Grand Inquisitor! Unbelievable, hilarious!

    I know, I couldn't believe it, but...

    But I must rectify as I have made a deep offense to HK&M: they're not to blame. This infamous "first translator" is another one (I thought they were the first translators, but I checked and found the inquisitor in their text.)

    André Gide is not helping here in our quest for the original translator, as I'm sure "the first translators" he is referring to are HK&M. Bref. I'll find it one day.

    I've begun to see just what you describe. Karamazov is a novel of competing perspectives. The non-omnisicient omnisicent narrator has no more understanding of anyone else than does, for example, the reader. The art of Dostoevsky is centered on the monologues.

    Exactly. Exactly. And exactly.
    Maybe we can link this trait with the absence of any symbolism. Nowhere you will find a sentence where you can feel the author is hiding something. There is not any game, any letting the reader deduce, or induce, what the meaning is. Dostoevsky (I'm trying to adopt the Enlgish written form) is struggling along with the reader.
    That might add to the power of monologues, where the meaning is as straightforward as can be.

    I wonder to what degree Dostoevsky was in control of what he was doing. Is it really all just poured out (it sure seems like it), or is that a writerly illusion?

    I would say he's not "in control". In fact, I think, without any real study to back that up, we're between amateurs here, Dostoevsky (really? no "i" between the "o" and "e"? You English speaking guys always had this problem when more than two vowels are colluded, no?) is this kind of mystical writer who was afraid to touch what "the inspiration" had written. I think he was surpassed by his own talent.

  10. Argh, interesting gallicism in my previous comment : "between amateurs" shuold have been "among amateurs".

    It reminds me of a joke you could tell your wife (who is French, if I recall well...):
    - Ce n'est pas ici le cours d'anglais grand débutant ?
    - If if! Between!

  11. Perhaps you really should try a different translation. I could not even find a quote similar to what you wrote down in my translation. The one I have is from my college Russian Literature course in which the professor was also fluent in Russian and recommended. It is the Modern Library edition translated by Constance Garnett in 1950.

  12. Oops that isn't the version I have. It has been updated from the garrett version for more accuracy. It is translated by Ralph Matlaw. Confusing because both names were in the books. Perhaps I am just not looking in the right place for the quotes. Sorry about that.

  13. Here is a link with three translations to show you how different the versions really are from one another.

    Many say that the version you are reading is the most accurate to the Russian language and than others says it is too abrupt and inaccurate. I think the semicolons and colons with the version you are reading would drive me crazy!

  14. Karamazov was always my favorite novel (kind of odd,since it could not be more different from my own work): but it was not until I read it out loud to my daughter, as she did artwork on the floor, that I realized that it's funny. She kept laughing out loud at some of the very weird locutions that could otherwise, I guess, be found mannered. Who knows though what's it's like in the original?

  15. tcheni - thanks for these helpful comments. Part of the struggle with Dostoevsky is setting aside a lot of what I think a great literary artist is supposed to be doing. Dostoevsky is not going to give me every satisfaction. Not all the time, at least. Once in a while he springs a good, well-written scene on me.

    Now, as for "Dostoevsky," I'm just going by the book I'm reading. My old Garnett translation is by "Dostoyevsky." Today I glanced at The Cambridge Companion to Dostoevskii. Help.

    Speaking of Garnett, Heidi, thanks for that link. Anyone interested in the different translations should take a look. The Garnett paragraph is terrible, a complete botch.

    Note that the colons and semi-colons are in the Russian! That's Dostoevsky. He's bumpy.

    And funny, like Shelley says. Anyone gotten to the "Father Ferapont" chapter yet? Hilarious, funny in a number of ways.