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Artists and Philistines, Part 3

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Last night, the entire state was under a severe thunderstorm watch except us.  Which sounds good, until you realize that the facilities for all our utilities are someplace else, in another county which was getting the storms.  Lots of them.

The result was that our power kept going on and off.  This messed with the air conditioning, and in this house air conditioning isn’t about temperature any near as much as it is about allergies.

This didn’t bother me, because, quite frankly, I was asleep.  Greg, however, kept getting up every time the air conditioning went off, and finally he decided to call the electric company to see what was happening.

Now, there’s nothing particulary wrong with this.  The electric company has an automated line just for people who are angsting out over outages.  And Greg called that. 

The problem was, he called from his phone, and not mine. That meant the system didn’t recognize the number–it has mine, after all, not his–and started asking him a series of questions.  This is a voice operated system, not a touch tone one, so, of course, it would ask questions, Greg would answer, and the system would not be able to make out what he said.

So, eventually, it shunted him off to a real person–which, at three and four in the morning, is going to be somebody who is only there for dire emergencies like downed wires across roads or people who have been electricuted or electrical fires.

And he then proceeded to talk to this person in as loud a voice as possible for minute after minute on end–waking up the rest of us in the process.

Meaning that I’m a mess here.  I haven’t had any sleep (one thing and another, I didn’t get to sleep until midnight last night), I can’t see straight, and I’m worse than usual at catching the typos.

Which means I’m not going to get to th is definition of “philistine” today either.

I did think, though, that I’d try to respond to the thing about Dostoyevski, and maybe a little about poor Constance  Garnett.

I know that Nabokov thought Dostoyevski had forced and unnatural dialog and cartoon characters–but Dostoyevski’s books do not read that way to me.

Even when I first read them (and I read them at around the age of ten or so, Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamozov), they felt entirely real.  When I got older, they felt not just realistic and true to life, but a virtual field guide to real people in the real world, especially in the real world of American academia in the late Sixties and early Seventies.

Dostoyevski is one of the great chroniclers of self-styled revolutionaries and the tourists at their revolutions.  Any one of his political characters would be perfectly at home in any sociology department in any second-tier university from New Jersey to Oregon.. 

Is their language sometimes forced and stilted?  Yup, and it’s worse now than it was in Dostoyevski’s time.  At least Doestoyevski didn’t have to put up with lectures about how the hegemonic heteronormative discourse represses the transgressive hermeneutic of the developing world.

Or, you know, something.

It’s Tolstoy’s characters that seem to me to be cartoonish, deliberate constructs rather than organically grown, overdone, overwrought, and artificial.

And, like I said, that could be the translations I’ve read.  The first of those were by Constance Garnett–and would have been; in the Fifties, that was what Americans had–and Nabokov definitely does hate Garnett.  And since he speaks Russian and I don’t, I could hardly argue with his evaluation of her talents.

But I wonder if something else is going on here.  I wonder if some of this has to do with time.

I wonder if there are some writers who feel silly and false to their contemporaries because they are writing about things that are not present to most of those contemporaries–about things and people far enough removed from the everyday and ordinary for the time to feel unbelievable.

And if, time having gone on, we reach a point at which those out of the ordinary people become a larger part of society, so that representations of them in literature no longer feel wrong or artificial–because the real-life counterparts are all around us, and the characters ring true.

I feel like I’m wrapping myself up in verbiage here.  

But I think the point is this–one of the reasons why Dostoyevski’s characters don’t feel false or cartoonish to me is that I know their real life counterparts.  I know these people in droves.  And Dostoyevski had a very good ear for what they’re like, for the way they think and the way they behave and the way they speak.

Or, at least, he does in the translations I’ve read.

I wonder if it’s possible that writers can write well and naturally, but be in the wrong place at the wrong time for the narratives they’re presenting–so that they get written off as less than first rate until the culture changes and the things they’re writing about become part of the everyday experience of everyday people.

At which point, they begin to look like prophets. 

I’ve actually got one major Dostoyevski novel I haven’t read yet.  I picked it up in hardcover for less than what most paperbacks cost because it was one of the Barnes and Noble editions.

It’s The Idiot, in the Constance Garnett translation.

It also weighs a ton and scares me, so it may be a while before I get around to it.

I’m going to go see if I can put enough tea in me to fake being awake.

Written by janeh

June 4th, 2010 at 6:14 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Artists and Philistines, Part 3'

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  1. Jane wrote: “how the hegemonic heteronormative discourse represses the transgressive hermeneutic of the developing world.”

    Well, your day may not be going smoothly, but at least it isn’t wasted. The above cracked me up. Perfect.


    4 Jun 10 at 11:38 am

  2. Interesting point about writing for the wrong time. I think the converse is also true — there are writers who were incredibly popular in their time, and now they’re totally forgotten.

    The thing is — even if the translations have not been perfect, or sometimes even good, Dostoevsky’s works (and Chekhov’s) were understood enough in the West to change English literature. You want the translations to be perfect, so a close reader can find every little echo and allusion, but most people don’t read that way. And even a so-so translation will resonate.

    With Dostoevsky — some of the dialog and situations seem “oh come on” to me, set up to Make A Point but not really convincing. Sometimes he loses me; I haven’t been able to buy into the whole world he has created, so I roll my eyes, the way I do at late Woody Allen films. But I think that besides the technical criticism, Nabokov was just tempermentally the opposite of Dostoevsky. Nabokov wrote about very weird, crazy people, but they are another breed of weird, crazy people.

    Interesting, too, that Tolstoy’s characters seem utterly real to me, and I see them all around me every day in Moscow.


    4 Jun 10 at 12:26 pm

  3. Not that I know many, but every native Russian speaker that I know hates the Garnett translations.

    Diane L.

    4 Jun 10 at 2:51 pm

  4. Yes, I am sometimes surprised at how a story has grown in depth and pertinence just sitting on my shelves between readings. Now and then I’ve had to check copyrights.

    And I second Mab’s notion. I strongly suspect certain characters are denounced as “unrealistic” either because the world has changed or because the experience of the critic is too limited. I’m also quite sure some are so dismissed because our somewhat inbred critical establishment has trouble recognizing an accurate portrayal of the modern “Tourist.” Most of us have a little trouble recognizing ourselves.

    Which is not to say that some once very popular works haven’t faded for other reasons. Prose story-telling really did improve in technique down to about mid-Victorian times, and with every generation a novel needs more explanation as the author’s world passes away. At some point one recycles the plot instead.


    4 Jun 10 at 5:48 pm

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