Bring It On, Fyodor Mikhailovich
Joseph Epstein, finally well read
Jun 13, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 37 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
At English department parties of many moons past, or so I have been told, once all had become properly snockered, a popular game commenced in which everyone confessed to what he or she hadn’t read. The game had a crescendo quality as the intellectual stakes rose. “I’ve never read Christopher Marlowe,” a Renaissance English specialist might admit at the outset. “That’s nothing,” a Romantic poetry man might add, “I’ve never read, and won’t allow in the house, Wordsworth’s Prelude.” “Paradise Lost—forget about it!” Finally, as things continued, escalating nicely, someone would admit to never having read Homer or Hamlet and everyone could go home.
What I thought interesting about the game is that everyone, no matter how well read, is certain not to have read something he or she ought to have read. As for that phrase “well read,” I long ago decided that no one is genuinely well read; there are merely some people who have read more than -others. I am probably one of the latter, or at least I am taken for one of them. Which is why, without the aid of alcohol or a boring English department party, I wish to confess that I have never read—wait for it, wait for it—The Brothers Karamazov.
I am about to remedy that deficiency. A few days ago, at a library book sale, I acquired, for two dollars, a clean Penguin edition, translated by a Scotsman named David McDuff and running, with notes, to a mere 920 pages. I am off presently on a three-day trip and plan to take the novel along. (I hope American Airlines hasn’t begun to charge extra for thick Russian classics in one’s carry-on bag.) Not that I shall come near finishing it in three days, for I am a slow reader, always, like all writers, on the lookout for something I can steal from better writers. I shall be further slowed by the fact that I find it uncongenial to read dark works late at night, lest they disturb my already fragile sleep. I could well be a month or more reading The Brothers Karamazov, which I have promised myself never to call The Brothers K.
I write about a great deal of what I read, but I shan’t be writing about The Brothers Karamazov. “Joseph,” my friend Edward Shils once said to me, “we have each read a fair number of books. We are also reasonably civilized fellows, civilized enough, at any rate, to know that there is no point in our ever getting into a discussion about Shakespeare.” And we never did. Edward’s point, or so I took it to be, is what is there left to say about genius? The same applies to Dostoyevsky, or at least to this greatest of his novels, if its vast advance press is any guide.
For decades people have made a great fuss about the translations of Russian novels. One of the victims of this fuss has been Constance Garnett, who, as a one-woman translation factory, single-handedly imported Russian literature into the Anglophone world. The gravamen of the criticism against this amazing woman was that she “englished” the novels by including too many English idioms and thereby made all 73 of her translations of various Russian writers sound alike. I must say that, as a young student, so blown away was I by the sheer power of the storytelling in these novels and stories, I never noticed, and didn’t much care, if two Russians met on the Nevsky Prospekt and greeted each other as “old chap.”
George Steiner wrote a book called Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky: An Essay in Contrast (1960), but I see no “or” about it. Why not both? Forced to choose, I would take Tolstoy, if only because even when he is writing about dark things the light flows through his work, whereas with Dostoyevsky’s fiction it really is lights out. Not that Dostoyevsky can’t do amusing bits: His novel The Idiot is replete with them, and his parody portrait of Turgenev as “the great novelist” Karmazinov in The Devils is a wickedly funny take down of the type of the older liberal sucking up to the young.
In one of his letters to Harold Laski, Justice Holmes remarks that conscience drove him to finish every book he ever started until the age of 75, when he could finally quit an inferior book without finishing it. He claimed to fear St. Peter would test him on all he had read, and he was fearful of being caught unprepared. My simpler fear in failing till now to read The Brothers Karamazov is of missing out on something magnificent. I have now reached the age to read the novel with the tranquility and, I hope, the thoughtfulness it requires. So bring it on, Fyodor Mikhailovich; give me the best you’ve got.