LI apologizes in advance for today’s post. Usually we stick to the non-fiction side of our oeuvre in these parts. However, we’ve been having fun writing the following story. Usually, when we write a story, we shop around for some small journal to send it to. Or, if we throw in a lot of sex, some adult mag to send it to. But this story seems appropriate for a weblog.
Don’t worry. We aren’t publishing the whole thing in one post. We will publish bits of it, though. For readers who come here looking for LI to whack something, we will be back to that in our next post.
Working title of this thing is: Dostoevsky translates Henry James
…here were time and reverse-time, co-existing, cancelling one another exactly out. Were there many such reference points, scattered through the world, perhaps only at nodes like this room which housed a transient population of the imperfect, the dissatisfied; did real time plus virtual or mirror-time equal zero and thus serve some half-understood moral purpose? – Thomas Pynchon, V
Abstract: Dostoevsky scholarship has largely ignored Dostoevsky’s translation of Henry James’ Altar of the House of the Dead. In this paper, we both reprint the translation and attempt to chart the hitherto unremarked influence of James on Dostoevsky. James, at the time Dostoevsky encountered his work in Paris, was almost unknown in the English speaking world, although this was a fate that he shared with most of the great Russian writers of the time. It wasn’t until Constance Garnett translated James’ work at the turn of the century that he became known, first to the British, and then to the American, public. Dostoevsky’s translation was superceded by Garnett’s superior version. We argue that James’ passionate struggle to mold an image of Christ in terms of Russia’s unique redemptive role profoundly effected Dostoevsky’s conception of his own fundamental task, which was, as he put it, “ to disclose the abjured figure, the wrecked aboriginal, the buried Caliban, in the great American carpet.”
Dostoevsky purposely so dissolved the boundary between his fiction, his “lying muse” and his biography that the formalist tenet of the impersonality of art, besides being pertinent more to a mode of art of which he was the conscious, and uneasy, precuror than to his own aims or methods, simply must throw up its hands in despair at a case so hard as to be virtually uncrackable.. Thus, to understand how Dostoevsky came not only to read the Altar in the House of the Dead sitting in a Parisian café with a “brand new copy” of L’Observateur de Deux Mondes in 1870, but to understand further how the necessitous grip of the story was of such a degree that it interrupted the flow of his own work on the novel that eventually became The Possessed (1876), we must adduce the ‘personality of the artist,’ and, indeed, horror of horrors, his very historical circumstances, which were, after all, the stock of newspaper headlines. Although the translation acted as an interruption, one which other commentators have overlooked as so much not to the point, we see both sides of the coin, here: the other side was a release “devoutly to be wished,” upon the completion of which Dostoevsky embarked upon a series of novels and stories that were of a markedly different quality – indeed, his own quality, the ‘Dostoevsky’ who became, along with his beloved Hawthorne, Melville and Twain, the abiding American novelist – than the comparitive hack work he had done before.
In 1870, Dostoevsky was thirty years old. Five of those years he’d spent in prison in California for attempting to assassinate the governor. As he wrote of the narrator in his autobiographical novella, In the Cage:
I had hoped, in visiting Paris again, to commune with the young man I had been, as I was assured by others if not, wholly, by the direct proofs and confidences of my own memory, at nineteen. But the lesson I learned was, perhaps, as old as Achilles, who though knowing that his invulnerability extended only to cover the majority of his public person, and not his very all, never in spite of this returned to douse himself, with a final completeness, in the holy water of the River Styx, no doubt instructed by the oldest of human instincts that tells us that fate transacts its business all at once, with the immediate brightness and crash of a lightning bolt, and that no dickering, no returning, no excuses, no, as it were, satisfaction guaranteed or your money back, counted with that covert power. So too, douse as I would in the mellow air of that incomparable thing, a Paris Spring, I could never, as it were, touch bottom – so that, indeed, there were mornings of a grimness in my room at the Jockey when, in a fantastic mental rush, I was returned to hopeless days sitting in much less promising quarters, the smell of my own extruded necessity assaulting my nostrils. There was something in the memory that deprived me of breath, something that seemed to disclose a darkness as of a deep, an endless well, narrowly constructed, in which I fell further and further from the pale glare of the light that signalled the mouth and possible, or impossible, exit to the architecture. What had happened to me once could happen to me again – nay, could happen to any man. It was hard, then, to see the complacent paletot, the bourgeois opera hat, the bustle around some extraordinary product of the hour’s chef, without envisioning it all collapsing in a like darkness. I was, in a word, bad company