Margins: The Brothers Karamazov (Book IX, Chapter 4)

April 5, 2013

The novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky are not known for their humour. There’s precious little to be found in Crime and Punishment, for example. I remember reading this dark classic as a kind of grim rite of passage during my late teenage years: a feat of endurance befitting both my gloomy mood and desire to show off at having finished a Very Important and Difficult Novel. Shortly after, having overestimated my intellectual stamina, I began the book many consider Dostoevsky’s crowning achievement, The Brothers Karamazov and, like many I expect, gave up after some hundred pages: the combination of dense, confusing, tangled familial relations and obscure theological backdrop were too much.

More than a decade later, I thought I’d give The Brothers another try. I downloaded a nearly-free Kindle copy, forged ahead, and then troubled over the translation – which was I reading, and was it the best? I googled around, and found this fascinating New Yorker piece on ‘translation wars’ by American editor and author David Remnick. The article itself is, if you like this sort of thing, very rewarding. It revealed how vastly and (for many) damagingly influential had been Dostoevsky’s first English translator, doyen of the Victorian Russian Greats, a certain Constance Garnett. She translated at great pace, and made the prose of the novels she worked on come alive for English speakers, but at a price: Nabokov and others hated the way she elided, skipped over and over-simplified.

But thankfully, help was at hand. A much more recent translation of The Brothers Karamazov by a Russian wife/American husband translating team had won widespread praise and many accolades for the way it secured fidelity to Dostoevsky’s original text whilst also ensuring readability for English readers. I find it impossible to know whether it’s the impact of the translation or the fact that I’ve read a lot more by now than I had as a teen, but the version I have in front of me feels incredibly modern, accessible and, amazingly: funny. An example, almost at random (it did prompt this post): as one of the central characters is being interrogated over a criminal act, he says…

“Eh, gentlemen, why pick on such little things: how, when, and why, and precisely this much money and not that much, and all that claptrap… if you keep on, it’ll take you three volumes and an epilogue to cram it all in.”

As you’ve probably guessed or already know, The Brothers Karamazov is a fairly lengthy book: some four volumes, and of course an epilogue.


Margins: The Brothers Karamazov (Book VI, Chapter 3)

March 11, 2013

In which Fyodor Dostoevsky, writing more than a century ago, expresses pessimism regarding the future advent of social media:

We are assured that the world is becoming more and more united, is being formed into brotherly communion, by the shortening of distances, by the transmitting of thoughts through the air. Alas, do not believe in such a union of people. Taking freedom to mean the increase and prompt satisfaction of needs, they distort their own nature, for they generate many meaningless and foolish desires, habits, and the most absurd fancies in themselves. They live only for mutual envy, for pleasure-seeking and self-display.

(From the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation.)


Margins: Gladstone (IX)

January 25, 2013

I loved this glimpse into how William Gladstone spent the days immediately before presenting his first high stakes budget (as Chancellor) to Parliament, in 1853. One can only marvel at how times have changed.

Despite a lukewarm reception from his Cabinet colleagues…

Gladstone was undismayed. On the Sunday after the last of the five Cabinets [at which the budget had been debated] he went to church twice, wrote a small ration of letters … read Dante’s Paradiso, but [in his own words] ‘was obliged to give several hours to my figures.’


Margins: Infinite Jest (Year)

October 25, 2012

Infinite Jest by prodigiously talented but tragically suicidal author David Foster Wallace is emphatically not a difficult book. I finished it this weekend after starting almost a year ago, and am at once reluctant to post about it because as an Important Novel it’s been dissected to death, but at the same time it was thrilling, hilarious and dare-I-say important for me too.

And whilst not difficult it is enormous and often intimidatingly dense, so I can’t pretend I’m not a little pleased simply to have read the whole thing. Y’know, properly read it. Without skimming or sounding out words.

Infinite Jest charts in minute detail the scenery, characters, behaviours and events of a fortnight (or so) in two places: a halfway house for recovering addicts and a top tennis school nearby, both in Boston, Massachusetts in a near future (when published) dystopian America in which part of Canada has been annexed for use as a toxic waste dump. Weaving through these two main arenas of action is the story of the pursuit – by government secret agents and a Canadian terrorist group – of the master copy of a short film that’s so addictively entertaining it’s coma-inducing and practically lethal.

Here are the ten things I enjoyed most about Infinite Jest, in no particular order and off the top of my head:

1. The comedy. Infinite Jest is, as befits the title, a very funny book. In addition to the high farce set pieces, often hilarious dialogue and smartly parodic elements (see below), the novel is littered with beautifully comedic grace notes: vignettes that capture surreally funny actions or behaviour, like the parents who are so keen to be rid of their tennis prodigy children that gravel flies as the family car screeches to a halt on arrival at the academy and accelerates away, or the relapsed cocaine addict who becomes convinced that the enormous shopping bags carried by tiny Chinese women are stuffed full of cash. I frequently found myself laughing out loud.

2. The gruesome memories. Throughout the novel we’re treated to several characters – mostly but not solely recovering drug addicts – recounting episodes from their past that are so imaginatively awful and so incredibly vividly described that you find yourself both amazed and appalled at what Wallace was able to dredge from his mind.

3. The names. Wallace gives his characters names that in some cases achieve Dickensian identity fit, but always sound brilliant: ‘Lateral’ Alice Moore, Ann Kittenplan, Mary Esther Thode, Ortho Stice, LaMont Chu, Joelle Van Dyne.

4. The parody of highbrow cultural academia. The founder of the tennis academy is also the arthouse director who produced the apparently lethally addictive film of the title. Which gives Wallace licence to invent the most elaborate, baroque film titles, subjects and critical theories. I particularly liked The American Century as Seen Through a Brick; Poultry in Motion; and Möbius Strips, in which ‘a theoretical physicist who can only achieve creative mathematical insight during coitus, conceives of Death as a lethally beautiful woman’.

5. The account of addiction. For me the pages (and pages and pages) dedicated to explaining/expounding theories of addiction, treatment, rehabilitation and relapse were the most ‘realistic’ and seemingly heartfelt of a novel that is also chockful of surreal artifice. How accurate these passages are I have no idea, but they have the clear ring of authenticity.

6. The set-pieces. These showcase Wallace’s amazing talent best, I think. Throughout the thousand pages of the novel there are about three or four ‘big events’ that build, and build, and become achingly suspenseful, and then climax with supreme Wallaceisian style. My favourite comes right in the middle of the book: a geopolitical strategy wargame played out with rapidly decreasing mathematical precision on tennis courts.

7. The richness of language. By which I mean the breadth of Wallace’s vocabulary and his ability to work effectively and meaningfully with such a rich palette. I’ve never read a novel which had me reaching for the dictionary so frequently and being so consistently pleased I had. You never feel like Wallace is showing off: he’s revelling.

8. The portrayal of family life. Parent-child and other family relationships are right at the heart of Infinite Jest, one of its central themes. Almost every character mediates on his or her place in the family, and the impact fatherly or maternal influence has had. Parents in the novel are variously aloof, abusive, overbearing, incapable, well-meaning, claustrophobically open, repulsive and loving. There’s a wonderful, subtle seam of unquestioning brotherly love running throughout. Families are never simple, always formative. Just like in real life.

9. The dialogue. Wallace captures voice, cadence and delivery superbly, whether the to-and-fro banter of the locker room or the overlapping, solipsistic chatter of the rehab room. However hard it would be to translate the impact of Infinite Jest into film, the quality of the dialogue surely makes it worth a try?

10. The sentences. In the foreword to the edition of the novel I have Dave Eggers compares Wallace to Proust, and putting aside the question of the general accuracy of the comparison for a second, there must be something to be said for Wallace matching his predecessor for crafting incredibly lengthy sentences that never seem to flag.

In the interest of balance I should say that I enjoyed less the overarching narrative stuff about the politics (both geopolitical and entertainment business politics) – in particular the central theme of a North American president so much in thrall to advertising and entertainment that he allows companies to sponsor years (hence the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment in which most of the action occurs) – because for me it uneasily straddled outright comedy and biting satire, achieving neither quite as well as the standard set by the rest of the novel. But that’s simply a personal reaction, and detracts not a bit from my feeling of being bowled over by this amazing book. Emphatically worth embarking upon, however long it takes.


Margins: Martin Chuzzlewit (II)

October 6, 2012

Just lovely:

…from the ivy-shaded windows such gleams of light shone back upon the glowing sky, that it seemed as if the quiet buildings were the hoarding-place of twenty summers, and all their ruddiness and warmth were stored within.


Margins: Lonesome Dove (409)

August 25, 2012

I’m beginning to feel pleased I persisted with Larry ‘Terms of Endearment’ McMurtry’s plains of Texas epic Lonesome Dove. Bought on a whim in Swindon’s only bookshop, the novel traces the fortunes of several loosely-connected folk as they wend their respective ways northward to Montana.

The problem is (or was) that both plot and penmanship are plodding, for at least the first hundred pages. McMurtry goes to great lengths – laborious really – to establish, in dull, sleepy smalltown terms, the characters, eccentricities and past dalliances of a host of ex-rangers, gamblers, hands, whores, deputies, boys and bandits. All of which detail gets consigned to the memorial dustbin once the journey (or journeys, rather) begin.

Once things get going, Larry’s on much firmer footing. The descriptions of life on the trail, replete with campfires, varmints, creeks, buffalo hunters, chance encounters (with villains, weirdoes, heroes and everyone in-between) and dramatic weather, are really atmospheric, and the characters which had once felt cut-out become lasting, charming and human.


Margins: Tudor weddings, Tudor funerals

July 5, 2012

I’m currently enjoying Thomas Penn’s Winter King, a history of Henry VII’s reign and the founding of the Tudor dynasty; a time of almost constant plotting and counter espionage.

I remember studying the era at A-level, but only wish I’d had a gripping narrative account such as this to bring the events to life: apart from vague familiarity with some of the names (Perkin Warbeck, anyone?) almost all of it feels entirely new to me.

Particularly vivid is Penn’s recreation – much from primary sources – of the wedding of Henry’s son Arthur to the pre-Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon. Catherine processes from the Thames past incredible pageants, with costumed actors and vast mechanical models depicting mythical or astrological scenes chosen to illuminate the marriage as destiny fulfilled.

It’s impossible, in short, not to read without thinking of last year’s similarly bombastic royal wedding. The parallels abound. Here is renowned statesman and philosopher Thomas More, unable to contain his adoration for the bride-to-be, just as correspondents throughout the world swoon over Duchess Kate:

Take my word for it, she thrilled the hearts of everyone; she possesses all those qualities that make for beauty in a very charming young girl. Everywhere she receives the highest of praises, but even that is inadequate.

To complete the picture – eerily similar despite the centuries elapsed – More gives an acidly derogatory verdict on the rest of the bridal party: Catherine’s ladies-in-waiting look like ‘refugees from hell’.

I wonder, however, whether when the sad day comes when our current Queen departs this sceptred isle for good, her funeral procession will be able to hold a candle to that of her early 16th Century predecessor, Henry’s wife:

At Fenchurch Street and the top of Cheapside stood groups of thirty-seven virgins, one for each year of the late queen’s life, dressed in white, holding lighted tapers.

I mean after all trends in life expectancy, along with changing sexual norms would surely make this a pretty tricky act to follow.


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