The Brothers Karamazov: Translated by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky

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The Brothers Karamazov: Translated by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky

The Brothers Karamazov: Translated by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky

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Apart from the occasional blog post at The American Conservative, there’s just nothing on fiction, non-fiction, TV, or movies. But then came the pandemic: the students had been sent home, the library was closed (books could still be fetched for faculty, but there was no browsing or schmoozing). In the Wichita Eagle, we got an amazing full-page review with the headline ‘ “ karamazoV” still leads creative way,’ ” Pevear said as we broke for lunch one day. She worked with such speed, with such an eye toward the finish line, that when she came across a word or a phrase that she couldn’t make sense of she would skip it and move on. Soon, she tried her hand at translating minor pieces, beginning with Goncharov’s “A Common Story” and Tolstoy’s “The Kingdom of God Is Within You” and then moving on to her favorite of the Russians, Turgenev.

There’s a note about that, plus a full introduction by Richard Pevear (I didn’t read it all, he’s not my fav introducer), and a character list. The author’s towering reputation as one of the handful of thinkers who forged the modern sensibility has sometimes obscured the purely novelistic virtues—brilliant characterizations, flair for suspense and melodrama, instinctive theatricality—that made his work so immensely popular in nineteenth-century Russia. As part of the Revolution’s project to educate the masses, Maxim Gorky initiated a publishing house in 1918 with the plan of producing at least fifteen hundred volumes of “the most outstanding works of world fiction”; the project came to a halt in 1927, having turned out a hundred and twenty books. When the novel opens, Alyosha has been living in a nearby monastery as the disciple of the saintly, deeply humane monk Zosima, who preaches that one should never tell lies, especially to oneself, and that each individual is responsible for everyone else on Earth. Also, Volokhonsky said, “Dostoyevsky doesn’t use slang, really, though sometimes there is a vulgarism.Again I say it was not stupidity—most of these madcaps are rather clever and shrewd—but precisely muddleheadedness, even a special, national form of it. The Brothers Karamazov” is, to use Mikhail Bakhtin’s famous term, the most polyphonic of Dostoyevsky’s novels, the one with the most voices, tones, and textures braided into the text. Nabokov, the son of a liberal noble who was assassinated at a political conference, left Russia in 1919. Without translators, we are left adrift on our various linguistic ice floes, only faintly hearing rumors of masterpieces elsewhere at sea. Wilson not only disapproved of Nabokov’s “bald and awkward language”; he also discerned in his friend a desire to “torture both the reader and himself” by “flattening out” Pushkin.

Though overshadowed by the tempestuous Dmitry and the charismatic Ivan, Alyosha was actually intended as the main focus of “The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevskys greatest novel is a story of murder told with hair-raising intellectual clarity and a feeling for the human condition unsurpassed in world literature. I have just arrived and have come to thank you for that pound of nuts, for no one else ever bought me a pound of nuts; you are the only one that ever did. Let me repeat: it was not stupidity, for most such eccentrics are really quite intelligent and cunning, and their lack of common sense is of a special kind, a national variety. I first read Brothers when I was a high school student, puzzling over profound, religious questions: is there a God?

While I certainly enjoyed rereading “ The Brothers Karamazov” in this well-designed Liveright edition, I suspect that almost any modern translation will convey the deeply felt humanity, as well as the majesty, of Dostoevsky’s final masterpiece. Nabokov could not bear Arndt’s “Germanisms,” his freewheeling sacrifice of semantic accuracy for rhythmic “beauty. The poor girl had been unable to walk for about half a year already, and was wheeled around in a long, comfortable chair. He had always earned just enough to get by: in New Hampshire, he cut roses in a commercial greenhouse; he worked in a boatyard repairing yachts.

And now after twenty-three years have gone by, I am sitting one morning in my study, and my head is already gray, and suddenly a blossoming young man comes in, whom I would never have recognized, but he held up his finger and said, laughing: ‘Gott der Vater, Gott der Sohn, und Gott der heilige Geist! In 1894, she left behind her infant son and her husband and made a three-month trip to Russia, where she drove long distances through snowstorms by sleigh, visited experimental schools, and dined with Tolstoy at his estate. The narrator himself maintains an ironic stance to the action of the novel, right from its very first lines. Gary Saul Morson, a professor of Russian literature at Northwestern, compared this tone-deafness to “someone translating Paradise Lost from English into Russian who had somehow missed that Milton was a Christian.Although translators of long-dead authors do not have to share royalties, the arithmetic was unpleasant. In “Eugene Onegin,” Pushkin provides us with Tatiana Larina’s reading list—“From early on she loved romances, / they were her only food”—and it is all foreign: Richardson, Rousseau, Lovelace, Sophie Cottin, Madame de Staël. He gives us, for example, rememorating, producement, curvate, habitude, rummers, familistic, gloam, dit, shippon and scrab. There is, of course, no “best” translation of any book, but here I will show you why this translation works best for me.

Brodsky agreed; he once said, “The reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky is that they aren’t reading the prose of either one. After reading Wilson’s piece at home in Montreux, Nabokov cabled the co-editor of the Review, Barbara Epstein, in New York: “Please reserve space in next issue for my thunder. Alas, Dostoevsky — all of whose major characters clearly embody aspects of his own extremist personality — died in 1881, shortly after completing this summa of his most deeply felt themes and obsessions. The captain rushed out after the doctor and, bending low, almost writhing before him, stopped him to get his final word.Among the essential pillars of culture in the Soviet era was the journal Innostrannaya Literatura— Foreign Literature—which published stories and novels in translation. FROM THE AWARD-WINNING TRANSLATORS RICHARD PEVEAR AND LARISSA VOLOKHONSKY Dostoevsky's beautiful writing style and universal themes make this epic 19th century novel unmissable. Among the most astringent and authoritative critics of Garnett were Russian exiles, especially Vladimir Nabokov and Joseph Brodsky. A husband-and-wife team, Larissa makes a literal translation as close to word-for-word as possible and then Richard tidies up her copy.

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