Grand Booming Nonsense: Dostoevsky’s Demons

Posted on | January 24, 2011 | 6 Comments

It is often said that one is either a Tolstoy person or a Dostoevsky person, in the same way that one is either a cat person or a dog person.  I used to want to be a Dostoevsky person, just as I wanted to be a dog person.  Tolstoy and cats seemed the blander psychological profile.  But Nabokov’s Lectures on Russian Literature ultimately convinced me that I was in good and twisted company.  Nabokov is damning on the subject of Dostoevsky—much more so, I think, than Dostoevsky deserves: “Dostoevski is not a great writer, but a rather mediocre one—with flashes of excellent humor, but alas, with wastelands of literary platitudes in between.”

My recent Russian kick has continued with Dostoevsky’s Demons. After my last musings on reading Russian in translation, trying to puzzle through the imprint a translator leaves on a novel, I came up with a fun game: if I read Dostoevsky in Pevear and Volokhonsky’s rendering, would I be able to find traces of them?  That is, would Tolstoy and Dostoevsky seem closer to each other for having been filtered through the same voice?

The short answer is no.  Dostoevsky as translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky could not be farther from Tolstoy as translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky.  The Dostoevsky of Demons, or this version anyway (I’d never read it before, so I have no basis for comparison), is chaotic even on his own terms.  Which is not to say I didn’t like it—I did—but only that the characters who wander in and out of the plot are more than usually difficult to keep track of.  (Who is Arina Prokhorovna again?)  Nabokov cuts to the chase: “It is an incredible nonsense, but it is grand booming nonsense with flashes of genius illuminating the whole gloomy and mad farce.”  For whatever reason—probably just that I don’t feel the same need to grasp his authorial essence—the quandary that is translation doesn’t bother me with Dostoevsky as much as it does with Tolstoy.  His language doesn’t seem carefully calibrated enough for the minor variations to add up to a loss.  What’s more, it feels strangely fitting that his work should be transmitted by an outside voice.  After all, the entirety of Demons is already mediated: we are in the hands of a narrator whose connection to the plot remains tenuous at best.

Anton Lavrentievich Govorov exists in the company of venerable narrators—Conrad’s nameless seaman in Heart of Darkness, Mr. Lockwood in Wuthering Heights—who are more ventriloquists than characters.  (The narrator’s name is actually only given as G—v, but a quick Google search indicates that Dostoevsky had elsewhere called his narrator Govorov, which apparently translates loosely as Mr. Talk.  I had been calling him Gorov in my head.  Close enough, though I imagined it was more along the lines of a Russian Mr. Smith.)  Govorov is an associate, or at least neighbor, of the main characters, but his role in the narrative is almost always peripheral.

While his “chronicle,” as he calls it, often relies on second-hand information, Govorov unapologetically details scenes as if he were present.  He even presumes to know the inner thoughts of other characters.  When the would-be revolutionary Pyotr Stepanovich tries to persuade the nihilist Kirillov to make good on his promise to kill himself, the narrator relays Pyotr Stepanovich’s inner monologue: “‘Devil take it, he won’t shoot himself,’ he thought.  ‘I always suspected it; it’s a kink in the brain and nothing more.  What trash!’”  In another instance, Govorov gives official testimony about events he admittedly cannot fully remember:  “I, too, had to give my evidence at the investigation, as a witness, though a distant one: I declared that everything had happened to the highest degree by chance, through people who, though perhaps of a certain inclination, had very little awareness, were drunk, and had already lost the thread.  I am still of that opinion.”  Even when giving “evidence,” he instantly qualifies it as speculative—that is, as an opinion.

In other words, Govorov is a classic Dostoevsky narrator, forever undermining the certainty of the truths he purports to have discovered.  It’s just as Dostoevsky’s most prominent theorist, Mikhail Bakhtin, identifies in his theory of the “loophole,” the mechanism by which the Dostoevskian narrator evades commitment to meaning: “The loophole makes all the heroes’ self-definitions unstable, the word in them has no hard and fast meaning, and at any moment, like a chameleon, it is ready to change its tone and its ultimate meaning,” he writes in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Govorov creates a loophole by presenting us with a cacophony of conflicting voices, all with their own incommensurable truths.  In playing ventriloquist, he obscures his own role in shaping his “chronicle.”

Is there a better metaphor for the act of translation?  A word, when it moves from one language to another, becomes, by its nature, mutable.  Pevear and Volokhonsky must take liberties with Dostoevsky’s words just as Govorov does with Pyotr Stepanovich, Stavrogin, Kirillov, and all the other crazed characters in Demons. Pevear and Volokhonsky leave no visible trace, but even if they did, theirs would be just another voice in Dostoevsky’s boundless chorus. real gambling systems


6 Responses to “Grand Booming Nonsense: Dostoevsky’s Demons

  1. Amateur Reader
    January 25th, 2011 @ 9:25 pm

    What grade did Nabokov give his student, Dostoevsky? A C+, something like that?

    In my last reading of Karamazov, my great “how did I miss this” discovery was that multiplicity of contradictory voices, not at all constrained by the hapless narrator, just one more voice among many. Identifying P&V as just another part of the cacophony is ingenious. usa welcome online casinos

  2. Michael Stein
    January 29th, 2011 @ 11:20 am

    Nabokov’s take on Dostoevsky, besides being eccentric and slanted by understandable political prejudices against a right-wing crank (as someone who doesn’t like right-wing cranks) also just isn’t very good. His essay on Tolstoy isn’t much better and picks a narrow feature of Tolstoy that gives you the feeling that he admired him without loving his work. When he wrote about Gogol is when he was brilliant. Nabokov’s book on Gogol is a classic.

    For the Tolstoy/Dostoevsky divide the best book is still George Steiner’s Tolstoy or Dostoevsky.

  3. Dillotank
    May 9th, 2011 @ 12:11 am

    I have never read any Dostoevsky. He is considered a heavyweight by many people who’s writings I have probably also not read. safe online casino slots

    However, I do know a little bit about this and that. One thing I know is that the Russian Communist revolution is one of the horrible tragedies of human history, leading to the deaths of tens of millions of innocent civilians and horrible suffering and injustice on a scale that is truly unfathomable.

    Many people say that Dostoevsky describes the “Possession” of the Russian intellectual class and their stunning irrationality and arrogance that led to the revolution, in truly prophetic terms.

    I feel comfortable saying that the revolution turned out rather badly. “Grand Booming Nonsense” is hardly an appropriate title for a review of what is obviously one of the most important works of historical fiction ever written.

    An uninitiated commoner like myself knows that Dostoevsky is difficult to read (That’s why I have never read any of it.), that the characters have Russian names, and there are lots of characters, it is incredibly difficult to keep track of who is who, one review I read said, it takes about 300 pages to figure out that a story is starting to take shape.

    Have you heard that “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it?” Maybe the author is also “Possessed”.

  4. Kasekemwy
    January 6th, 2012 @ 9:12 am

    Am sorry but this essay is rubbish. I just read Dostoevsky’s Demons and I just discovered the world’s greates writer as far as I am concerned. It is the finest novel I have ever read. I love the political philosophy of it; I love the manner in which it was able to prophesy the horror of Russian Communism; I love the passionate , weird and radical Christian Ethnic nationalism of Shatov centred around the Russian Orthodox Church, which Dostoevsky seemed to have shared, and which sees God as Russian. I love the way Shatov ( or Dostoevsky through Shatov) mocks the pathetic hatred of Russia as inferior to a superior western world, by the radicals. All these things reminds one that Communism was a Western Idea that ruined Russia, just as much as the neoliberalism of the 1990s were also a Western Idea that ruined Russia.

    I read Nabokov’s minuscle novel Lolita and was thoroughly annoyed and disgusted. It took me forever; it was like a chore. I read Demons & well it was a dream. I saw so much of my own mind and politics in that novel. Amazing. And I like very much how the novel creeps up on you. The mischief of the Demons begin with silly things like the radicals planting porn pics in the bibles being sold by some petty merchant and culminates eventually in the pile of dead bodies which accumulates at the end of the novel.

    Nabokov’s hatred of Dostoevsky is just evidence that even a genius can be in possession of very shabby taste.The opinions of Nabokov on Demons ought to mean nothing else besides that.

  5. DABM
    July 2nd, 2012 @ 8:44 am

    Talking about ‘the’ communist revolution in Russia is misleading. There were two revolutions, one in February 1917 which was backed by almost everyone including quite conservative reformers, and another in October 1917 which was carried out mostly by a small set of Bolsheviks (albeit with the support of a decent percentage or urban workers-though remember that most Russians were peasants at this time), and was really more of a coup than a popular uprising.
    Demons might portray moderate enlightenment liberalism as the real cause of Stalinist-style far-left extremism, but if the moderate liberals and socialists hadn’t been hobbled in the resulting civil war by reactionaries like Dostoesvky who divided the Whites amongst themselves, they might have won, and they might have prevented Stalinism in Russia, whilst also replacing the nasty and incompetent Tsarist system.

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  6. Fabio
    June 11th, 2013 @ 12:48 am

    Never read Nabokov’s essay, but for me Dostoevsky was always the writer with far more important things to say and Tolstoy the one with far better narration skills. I think that’s a no-brainer. I don’t think anyone can not read ND in his life, but of course reading Anna Karenina is more fun.

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