Thursday, January 21, 2010

Reading an article about new translations of old Russian novels, I learn that earlier translations of Dostoyevski tended to clean him up and make him more logical and consistent and reasonable than he actually was as he wrote.

I was happy to hear that because in the translation of Dostoyevski I've read, the not-fitting-togetherness of it all is still evident after the clean-up and works just fine.

For example, there's the "we" of "The Brothers Karamozov." Every once in a while, not consistently, we suddenly have a narrator who is suddenly saying what "we" knew about what was going on. "We" being who precisely? That isn't clear if I come from my double-entry bookkeeping mind. But it works in the narrative. We the village. We the group in a place where the group was stronger than in any place I've ever lived. We knew. If you try to work it out to a specific we, like this specifici village, it doesn't consistentently work. But it works in reading it because Dostoyevski lives in a strong we. I presume his culture had a strong we and he really picked up on it.

And then there's Dostoyevski's "Notes from Underground," much shorter than a novel but really painful to read, and convincing. The guy narrating lives in a city and feels isolated. Dostoyevski lives at the beginning of a certain kind of isolation becoming more common, as people left the village we and went to the city and sat alone in a room and walked along in the streets, and, if they were like the narrator of "Notes from Underground," felt horrible. Convincing, deeply, pervasively horrible, atoms of soul coming apart horrible.

I remember what I remember of "The Brothers Karamazov" as if it were an event witnessed, not a book read. And I don't remember it all, because the events are so different in style and assumptions than what I'm used to. A lot of books on the great books list, old-fashioned version, are from nineteenth century Britain and are handy views of how to be much more repressed and indirect in communication than USA people often are.

In "The Brothers Karamozov," I see people all the time howling in the streets when they feel bad, and the village, or whoever is around. "Notes from Underground" is from a hell partly made of unexpressed emotions that can't be expressed to any of the people rushing by. In "The Brothers Karamozov," the angry brother is angry indoors and out and cares not who hears and sees. The holy brother is out on the streets trying, with a little success, to make a group of young boys throwing rocks at each other not be a vicious gang. They think he's interesting because holy is different and not something you see everyday.

The rage and the holiness are out there for anyone around to see. Those who see become the immediate "we" who knows about those instances of rage, of holiness. The buildup of the various "we" witnesses remembering and talking to each other becomes the "we" that knows.

Maybe the teller of "Notes from Underground," feels underground in the city because he can't feel a "we" he understands to rise to and to join.