Arts and Entertainment

STANDING ROOM ONLY: New translation of 'The Idiot' is magnificent

Far and away the most exciting news in the world of entertainment this week comes from late 19th-century Eastern Europe, where the deep and wintry soul of czarist Russia once received its finest portraiture through the epileptic genius of one Fyodor Dostoevski, the novelist whose epic narratives seem, in their gorgeous sprawl, to chronicle the whole inner history of humanity’s search for meaning. Dostoevski’s stories were pretty good, too – big, swelling soap operas filled with turmoil and tumult, where love and greed and envy and ambition drive larger-than-life characters to commit acts of extreme ambivalence…

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The reason for all this excitement is the recent publication of a new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky of Dostoevski’s great Russian novel, the Idiot. Pevear and Volokhonsky, a married couple who live in France, have been translating Dostoevski’s major writings for the past 15 years or so; for their excellent and no doubt arduous updating of The Brothers Karamozov they were awarded the PEN translation prize. They have also put out an edition of Gogol’s Dead Souls.

Certainly, Dostoevski has not lacked wonderful translations into English over the years, most notably the long-standing and highly readable texts of Constance Garnett. Times change, though. What distinguishes Pevear and Volokhonsky’s work is that along with their keen attention to detail, they maintain the larger rhythms and stylistic idiosyncrasies of Dostoevski’s artistry. Past translators sought to “clean up” what they saw as a sloppiness in some of Dostoevski’s language, without perceiving that the erratic and sometimes galloping nature of his prose was a quite deliberate choice. The result of such tidying-up by translators, whatever their intention, was that Dostoevski’s language was often overly Anglicized, transforming him into a proper Victorian novelist. Yet, as Pevear and Volokhonsky have pointed out, Dostoevski’s style was in fact both operatic and conversational, and his narrators were intentionally portrayed as unreliable, given to ellipses and omissions and exaggerations of the truth. He was not Tolstoy; he wrote fast and furiously, utilizing dramatic conventions more akin to those of the stage than staid, conventional fiction. Even two centuries later, Dostoevski’s books remain modern.

The Idiot is the best of Dostoevski’s epic novels, and one of the most powerful and compelling novels ever written. In the complexly fascinating character of Prince Myshkin, the author explores the idea of “a perfectly beautiful man,” as he described it, a modern, Christ-like figure who is nonetheless very human. At the opening of the story, Myshkin is riding a train into Petersburg, where he will enter society as a mysterious figure whose innocence and “idiocy” entrances those around him. The movement of the novel, however, is more psychological than spiritual or symbolic; Dostoevski’s “realism of a higher sort” explores the question of what would happen were a true saint to appear in modern society. That such a high-minded and potentially off-putting concept is treated with such dramatic precision and honesty is what gives the novel its timeless aspect. Through the character of Myshkin, the intrigues, ambitions, deceits and desires of Russian society are brought into stunning relief, and the urgency Dostoevski imparts to the story makes it universal. It’s a love story, a religious parable, a tragedy, a scathing exploration of human pettiness, an adventure. The ending will make your eyes pop out of their sockets.

When Dostoevski was 28, he was arrested for contributing to a “seditious” broadsheet and sentenced to death for treason. On the day of his execution, he was led down a long path, blindfolded, until he was standing before an open grave, facing a brace of riflemen. The blindfold was removed. The riflemen took aim. At the last minute, a soldier on horseback rode up, carrying a stay of execution from Czar Nicholas (he was to be thrown in Siberian prison instead). It was all a mean joke, meant to teach the talented young rebel a lesson. Dostoevski later said that during those excruciating minutes leading up to his “death,” he understood the idea of eternity and salvation. Each second became precious and complete. Such wisdom is what led him to write the Idiot.

On to Whidbey Island summer. Don’t miss the fun on the Fourth of July. Grand Marshal Roger Leonhardi will lead singing all along the parade route. In the afternoon, from 1-3 p.m., stroll the grounds of Oak Harbor’s Senior Center during their annual ice cream social. While their enjoy patriotic music from the Silver Tones.

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