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Artists and Philistines, Part 2

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This isn’t really the post that was meant to follow yesterday’s post.  I’m having one of those days when I have to do thirty gazillion things right away, so I wasn’t going to post at all.

But some interesting things came up in the comments, and I thought I’d cover them, more or less.

My actual interest in all this is in the idea of the “philistine,” which begins with Nabokov’s short essay/speech on it in the book I’m reading, but that’s going to take a little time.  I’ll get there tomorrow, or over the weekend.

In passing, however–

1) Mab is absolutely right about what Nabokov SAID was his understanding of Humbert Humbert.  And I’m one of those people who thinks that we should take what an artist says he means and what he says he’s trying to do with seriousness.  After all, he’s the one most likely to know.

The problem, however, is that he’s not always right, and not always on to himself about his own deepest motives.   I think it was Byron who said that Milton “was of the Devil’s party, and didn’t know it.”  Milton certainly did not think he was promoting the Devil’s faction, but Lucifer remains the only truly vivid character in Paradise Lost.

In the end, we can only take the text in front of us.  It is what it is, and somewhere there will come a time when we no longer have access to what the author thought he was doing.

And Lolita is, taken as it exists in front of us, a brilliant but highly skewed novel.

Second, Mab is also right about what Nabokov SAID were the reasons for his preference for Tolstoy over Dostoyevski.

Here, I’ve got two problems.

The first is that the essay/set of lecture notes on Dostoyevski in the book I’m reading is absolutely lunatic.  With every other writer Nabokov deals with–Tolstoy, yes, but also Chekov, Gogol, Pushkin and Gorki–he presents an evenhanded analysis.  With Dostoyevski, he spends page after page after page calling the man names, declaring all the novels sentimental dreck that shouldn’t ever be called literature, trashing Dostoyevski for everything from his epilepsy to his preferred form of Christianity–and then he gets Crime and Punishment wrong. 

The whole thing is a disply of visceral emotion, not a literary evaluation.  And I’d say it probably means that there was more going on with Nabokov and Dostoyevski than he comes out and admits to.

The second thing here is the idea that Tolstoy’s characters are “more realistic” than Dostoyevski’s.

All I can say is–not to me.  Tolstoy seems to me to be “realistic” only in the sense that the old noir hard boiled writers were–that is, he presents people as inherently and unredeemably and nearly automatically corrupt.

I know a lot of people think that this is more “realistic” than writing about characters who are good and decent–but it always seems to me to be just the mirror image of sappy sweet Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm kinds of things.

This definitely collides, for me, with the way Tolstoy portrays women–not only in the nearly constant theme of female adultery, but in his near obsession with the pains of childbirth.

And it doesn’t help any that I know, from what I’ve seen of his ideas of religion, that Tolstoy opposed the introduction of anesthetics in childbirth as somehow “inauthentic,” or something.

“The Kreutzer Sonata” is a brilliant short story whose underlying sense of the nature of human beings is as foul as a garbage dump.  I don’t find it realistic.  I find it disturbing.


And it’s a big but.

Like most Americans, I have read the Russians only in translation.  I don’t read Russian.  I probably never will.

And that brings up the possibility that Tolstoy and Dostoyevski as I experience them are not what they would be in I could read them in Russian.

Translation can have an enormous effect on the experience of reading any writer, even if the translation in question is a good, solid and accurate one.  I think it explains why the French have always considered Edgar Allan Poe a genius while English and American readers winced at the overblown style.  It is always possible that, in French translation, the stylistic oddnesses have been corrected.

There’s an essay on translation at the end of this Nabokov book I’m reading.  I’ve been interested in getting to it.

But I do have to say that this whole thing may be nothing but the result of the differences in the texts that we’ve all read, as I assume that Mab, like Nabokov, can read Russian novels in Russian.

And now to do forty pointless things that I have to do if my life isn’t going to come apart.

Written by janeh

June 3rd, 2010 at 8:45 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Artists and Philistines, Part 2'

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  1. Translation is always a problem–difficult in prose, and nearly impossible in poetry. And the size of English–nearly twice the vocabulary of French or German–adds to the difficulty of tranlating out of English. As one translator once complained, “English has very few synonyms. It has a dozen ways of saying slightly different things.”

    Poe isn’t the only example of a writer who evidently reads better in translation, though: H.P. Lovecraft also seems to be more highly regarded among those who read him in French. Jules Verne seems to have the reverse situation–highly regarded EXCEPT in the English-speaking world, and some reason to believe the worst “glitches” in his science were not present in the original.

    I should be very interested in reading something on translations of those three writers by a fluent bi-lingual. If Poe and Lovecraft are in fact more popular because someone “fixed” their prose, perhaps we should consider translating the French versions into English.

    But it could just be that national tastes differ. Certainly not every composer or painter is equally esteemed in every land, nor by every critic–which could also be our problem with Nabokov and Dostoevsky.


    3 Jun 10 at 4:09 pm

  2. Yeah, I did read the novels in Russian, but also in translation. What Nabokov despises about Dostoevsky is the false-sounding dialog, the cartoon quality of the characters, the fake (to him) torturous emotions and scenes. He also hated Freud. He thought people were more complicated than Freud’s one neurosis fits all approach allowed.

    I sort of agree with you about the difference between what the author intended and what slipped through his/her intentions. I translate, and to translate means to read really, really, really carefully. In good literature you find all kinds of inner structures, echoed words, internal parallels, etc. Most of them aren’t noticed by readers, but you realize that they kind of sub-consciously hold the work together. I’m never sure if the author put all of them in consciously, or if something else was going on.

    But with Nabokov and Lolita: he did put in the irony that HH, obsessed with young girls, maneuvering and plotting to get Lolita, then discovers that she wasn’t a virgin and probably would have slept with him if he asked. But he loathed HH for destroying her life. He believed Lolita was tragic and heroic and HH was a pathetic trickster, using his facility with words to try to justify himself.

    From all accounts, Nabokov was in some ways old-fashioned, and his wife Vera was his helpmate, translator, protector. But she was also brilliant, strong-willed, and talented. There is no indication that he treated women scholars or students less seriously than men, although (as you’ll see) he had a prejudice against “female translators,” which always (obviously) drove me nuts. I think he was totally unfair to Constance Garnett. Later in life he came up with his own totally crackpot notion of translation, although his own translations of the Russian classics (except for his Pushkin) violated his own translation rules and were quite good. (Their failing is that he would occassionally come up with a word in English that “perfectly matched the Russian,” only the Russian word would be common and the English so obscure no one could understand it.)

    In any case, Dostoevsky is stylistically worse in Russian than he is in English translations. It’s very hard not to improve prose when you’re translating, and when you read the translation, it’s hard for the reader to figure out if it’s clunky dialog or if it’s the translation or if “that’s the way those strange Russians spoke.” There is also a question of language evolution, which I’m personally obsessed with. English langauge prose has changed more rapidly than Russian prose, and until 20 years ago, spoken Russian was also kind of frozen in time. So other than references to pre-Revolutionary life (titles, estates, etc.) Chekhov’s characters speak exactly the way contemporary Russians speak. But Dickens’ characters do not speak the way contemporary Brits speak. This is one reason why translations need to be updated. Garnett was the contemporary of the people she translated, but her translations now seem dated and stodgy. It’s hard for readers to have a sense of 1) what the prose sounded like to Russians 100 years ago and 2) what it sounds like them today.

    Off soap box now.


    4 Jun 10 at 4:10 am

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