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Approaching the Real Russian Thing : DEMONS, By Fyodor Dostoevsky . Translated and annotated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Alfred A. Knopf: $27.50; 714 pp.)

October 16, 1994|Michael Henry Heim | Michael Henry Heim is a translator of Russian and Central European fiction and drama and teaches in the department of Slavic languages and literature at UCLA

No, a new Dostoevsky novel has not been discovered. "Demons," first published in 1871-72, and Dostoevsky's last major novel before "The Brothers Karamazov," is the work we have commonly known in English as "The Possessed." Such is the title Constance Garnett gave to her translation of the novel (its first, though it came out more than 40 years after the original). A more recent translator, Andrew MacAndrew, has kept it; two others, David Magarshack and Michael Katz, have--independently--called the work "The Devils." All four versions are currently in print. Do we need a fifth? Given the quality of the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation, the answer is most definitely yes .

The title is a case in point. The Russian word means evil spirits, not the people possessed by them. Had Dostoevsky wanted to name this work "The Possessed," he could easily have done so, Russian having an exact equivalent. There is also a perfectly good Russian word for devils, and it is not the word Dostoevsky chose to use.

"Demons" is the Dostoevsky novel for our age; in fact, it is a key novel as such for an age that has come to recognize the evils of ideology--any ideology. At the time it appeared in Russia, it could be read as the other sort of "key novel," a roman a clef , based as it was on the ideologically rationalized murder of a party member who had strayed from the fold. Millions and millions of ideologically rationalized murders later, it is infinitely more timely. Dostoevsky could not be published at all in the Soviet Union during the Stalinist years, and even in the relatively liberal post-Stalinist period this novel remained taboo and thus virtually unavailable in popular editions. Now that Russia has renounced its ideology it is being read with a vengeance: "Demons" tells Russia's story in microcosm, and in advance.

What makes the novel prophetic, however, is not so much how closely Dostoevsky's ideas approximate their 20th-Century counterparts as how deadly he makes any idea that assumes absolute priority. Each of the ideas has a voice very much its own, the voice of the character who professes and to some extent personifies it.

Dostoevsky's style has long been a bone of contention. Russian though he was, he came largely out of the early 19th-Century French urban ecole frenetique, and his diction tends to have a frenetic quality about it. Some Russians condemn it--and him with it. Nabokov, admittedly wishing to shock his Cornell students into reading the novel, called "Demons" "grand booming nonsense with flashes of genius. . . . It is, as in all Dostoevsky's novels, a rush and tumble of words with endless repetitions, mutterings aside, a verbal overflow which shocks the reader after, say, Lermontov's transparent and beautifully poised prose."

When translating Dostoevsky, Garnett was under some pressure from her editor "to tone down such passages as might be thought offensive," but she was also temperamentally inclined to do so. Of the more recent translators, MacAndrew tends to tone down Dostoevsky's language even more than Garnett, thereby making him "an easier read."

The path they have chosen is to retranslate the entire Dostoevsky corpus in an internally consistent manner (so far they have completed "The Brothers Karamazov," "Crime and Punishment," and "Notes from Underground" to great critical acclaim) and in the face of the commonplace that a translation should sound "smooth" and "natural." My feeling is that the reason they have succeeded so well in bringing Dostoevsky into English is not that they have made him sound bumpy or unnatural but that they have managed to capture and differentiate the characters' many voices.

All Dostoevsky's works are notably weighted toward dialogue. In "Demons" even the narrator participates actively as a character, conversing with us rather than telling us what to think (as do Tolstoy's narrators in no uncertain terms). Nabokov--again, by way of disparagement--called Dostoevsky "more of a playwright than a novelist" and complained that "the natural background and all things relevant to the perception of the senses hardly exist." Garnett acknowledged feeling less at home with dialogue than description; Pevear and Volokhonsky come into their own when faced with Dostoevsky's wonderfully quirky, yet in the end functionally more than justified use of varied speech patterns. Like their author, the translators convey through form, through the multiplicity of voices, the polyphony that the critic Mikhail Bakhtin, a staunch Russian admirer of Dostoevsky's, has made a catchword of contemporary critical discourse.

Some people prefer paintings by the Old Masters in the smoky, dirt-encrusted form in which they first encountered them; others revel in restorations. Yet in the end what really matters is the quality of the restoration, that is, the restorer's tact and skill. In this instance readers with no Russian can rest assured they are in the best of hands: The introduction, the helpful but unobtrusive notes, and most of all the fine translation make the new "Demons" a capital job of restoration. The Dostoevsky it conveys comes closer to his Russian persona than any we have had till now.

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