Wednesday, November 03, 2021

Doestoevsky translates Henry James

 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


Dostoevsky scholarship has largely ignored Dostoevsky’s translation of Henry James’ Altar of the House of the Dead. In this paper, we  attempt to chart the hitherto unremarked influence of James on Dostoevsky. Under-remarked is, perhaps, the fairer, the choicer, the more exact assessment – in Leon Edel’s four volume biography of Dostoevsky, volume 2 devotes a good three pages to the circumstances of the translation, but – in spite of his, that is to say Edel’s, extraordinary extensiveness, his rather beautiful and at the same time rather ‘creepy’ ability to slip, as it were, like some rich letter into the envelop of Dostoevsky’s life, we believe that more can be made of this small but characteristic nuance in the life of the great American writer.  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, save for Turgenev – whose novels were circulated in the same trans-Channel circle as those of Flaubert and George Eliot. A circle that included, of course, Dostoevsky himself, although at the time we are speaking of more as an apprentice to that bright company than a trusted associate thereof. It wasn’t until Constance Garnett translated James’ work at the turn of the century that he became known,  or depending on your stance on her rather free  and as much as was in her power easy translations, mis-known first to the British, and then to the American, public, resulting in that craze for the Russian novel which we can now see through for all its exoticism, with its compounding the myth of the “Slavic soul” and the great criminal type,  but which is nevertheless a definite marker on the board game of the cultural moment. In elevating James to the headiest of heights, the English critics (not so much the Americans) had a tendency to invidiously compare the supposed pallor of the parlor politics of the American-English novel, with exaggerated gestures leaving it to one side of the great current of human thought. In this accusation of a commitment to a whole world of trivia, Dostoevsky’s work suffered by comparison: why should we care what overcoat his character, Basil Raskolnikov, choses to wear to his first meeting with Olive Karenov in that famous chapter of the Bostonians, after all?  Haven’t we, as it were, overcoats of our own? Yet the slings and arrows once shot at Dostoevsky’s work in the 1910s and 20s were, when all is said and redone, not exactly killing – a mere glancing at the extremities and never a piercing of the beating, momentous heart. We now know that literature is big enough to contain both Dostoevsky and   James. And yet we persist, erroneously I believe, in placing them into different regions of fiction’s vast atlas, as though they were separate poles, a North and a South.  All the more reason, given this phantasmal, as I would call it, cast of  exoticism – so reminiscent in my own case of the sea tan of a certain favorite Uncle whose employment as a Captain in the Merchant Marine led me, once, to dream of more thrown and carefree destinies -  to revisit Dostoevsky’s translation.


We must start this revisiting (quite in the Dostoevsky manner – I am here not so distantly influenced by the phrase in his preface to The Papers found in Aspern’s Mousehole that the past can be divided into that which one can visit with the standard Baedekers of history and that which one can only speculate upon with whatever lyric genius one has acquired from one’s experience or one’s nightmares) with Cesare Lombroso,. It was Lombroso, in his  remarks about James in Men of Genius: a study in a peculiar criminal type (1870) (Genio e Follia),  who brought James in particular to the bilious gaze of a Europe still surfeited with its classical liberal certainties. He so influentially used him as a literary touchstone in constructing his theory of the doubleness of the criminal consciousness,  with all its enfolding and alienating affinity to genius, as the skulls of one race show, in spite of the individual weather suffered by the ossature of this or that particular, broadly similar traits . Lombroso might well have met James on his voyage to Russia in 1867. We know that they both frequented the one salon in St. Petersburg in which both the foreign tourist or emissary and the Russian intelligentsia and ministerial official were brought together:  Fanny Assingham’s famous Saturdays. Assingham, the wife of Frederick Assignham, the head of the British legation, made her well appointed mansion, situated on 18 Bolshaya Moshkaya street (rented, her diary says, from Antonin Faberge), into a veritable crossroads of the most advanced thought. We know from James’s diaries that he took a decidedly satirical and even, sometimes, rather denunciatory view of his hostess’s circle of  “nihilists and future dynamiters”  – although this was tempered with his empathy for Fanny’s situation as a sort of female Robinson Crusoe, cast adrift on the terra incognita of a Russian empire that was tugged into shape, as it were, by those arch twin tuggers,  God and the Devil, both foreign entities to Fanny’s type, of a mind so sociable no thought of the divine could penetrate it.  Characteristically, James used his knowledge of Fanny’s character to outline the personality of Vavara Petrova, the expatriate Russian hostess in his Venice novel, The Possessed Ambassador, with her attention to the silverware and her failure to grasp the Russian spirituality that assumed, in the larger imagination, the quite material appurtenances of the bomb and the pistol. The hapless hostess has in fact become a type that entered Russian  phrase and fable as a byword for missing the point: Assingham’s silverware.  


James did not note down everything in his diary, or recount every Assingham evening in his letters, feeling no obligation, as we would comically like him to have intuited,  to his future biographers or critics, just as one imagines the lightning bolt to be quite unconscious of meteorologists. Thus, we have no notice of Lombroso in James’ notes. It is a speaking absence, perhaps – James, with his passion for Italy, would surely have fallen into discussion with the young Italian philosopher if seated next to him before Assingham’s cosy fireplace.  And surely the topic of Lombroso’s book would have attracted his notice, especially as it would have given James the impression that his fame had penetrated to the capitals of Europe. However Slavophile James became at the end of his life, he was always sensitive to the quite deplorable and at the same time quite interesting events in Europe. We know from his letters to his French translator how very au courant James was, in this respect, and even more so given his rivalry with Turgenev, a typically Jamesian love-hate affair of gambling debts, mistresses and a polemically proposed spiritual shallowness. However that may be on James’ side, on Lombroso’s we have the witness of his book that the young Italian philosopher was aware, or made aware (is this the guiding hand of Fanny?) of the extraordinary “event”, one  might say, of James in the progress – or decline - of mankind at least as it was composed of the frockcoated members of the species. Lombroso’s craniological and pseudo-Darwinian theories are now seen as quaint, if not maleficent, but in his time he was, of course, an intellectual force to be reckoned with. Dostoevsky did not pick up Men of Genius out of a need merely to amuse himself with one of the recently chic:  the doubleness of the human character is, after all, one of his great themes as well, however much Dostoevsky set his characters in a less volatile set than James. Murder, yes, would rattle their teacups; but one could well ask whether, for instance, Milly Theale in Dostoevsky’s The Injured Dove, that victim of a conspiracy mounted, after all, by her best friend in the world, was not in a manner hunted, all without the appearance of gunpowder, down.


One voyage should not be inflated into any kind of real familiarity with the ins and outs of the intricate Russian in which James is acknowledged as one of the great masters. Lombroso took his bearings from an uncertain Italian translation of James’ The Golden Idiot. Although one doubts that D H Lawrence or Virginia Woolf, to give two famous examples, ever studied Lombroso, deplorably associated with the generation of the Shaws and the Bennetts, or knew him as more than a name that appeared in the journals,  we know that Dostoevsky did, in fact, read this book, in its French translation (L’homme de genie) , and, as we can see from the copy of the book found among Dostoevsky’s possessions, he made numerous marginal remarks on the passages in which Lombroso analyses James’s “epiloidal-obsessive” type. Dostoevsky was not equipped with the depersonalizing New Critical insight that the author should be separated from the text – it was, in fact, alien to his whole notion of literature as a branch, the golden bough as it were, of human reality. So he did not hesitate to project shamelessly James’s own psychology upon the character of Prince Amerigo, whose obsessive pursuit of Natasya Fillipovna, his wrenching her away from her perverse “guardian”, his spending his fortune upon her, and his final murder of her, was as well the blurry light by which Lombroso interpreted the subterranean decays of the liberal order.  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.” One remembers, as though it were some task du jour noted on a piece of paper and crammed into the pants pocket and retrieved oh so tardily from thence that Dostoevsky’s father was a great American Swedenborgian, and that however secular Dostoevsky’s own work sometimes seems – a paucity of mentions of Christ such as to make it seem an emanation from a preternaturally secularized society – the striving for grace was never far from his conception of character.


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, precursor 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 of 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 Portrait of 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 and always to be condemned to the hell of footnotes, we see both sides, the regal and as it were the callipygious, 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 comparative hack work he had done before.

Hence, in spite of the strictures in which we were once schooled, we recall to the reader some biographical fact: 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, convict company, which it turned out was absolutely the right temper for encroaching into the high literature of that time and place.”HE MIRROR

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