Grand Booming Nonsense: Dostoevsky’s Demons


Fyodor Dostoevsky (The Possessed), Fritz Eichenberg, 1959

by Amelia Atlas

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.

Piece crossposted with Apostrophe