Crime, Punishment, and Kanye West

by Caroline Lemak Brickman

The following blog post emerged from a roundtable on “Teaching Dostoevsky in the 21st Century” organized by Daniel Brooks at the 2019 AATSEEL conference in New Orleans. This is the third in a series of posts by roundtable participants. The first post can be found here and the second here.

Last summer I taught a freshman composition course devoted to Crime and Punishment and Kanye West’s later albums.

The idea for the course came from a story someone told me about reading her students’ course evaluations at the end of the semester and seeing that one of them had written, “I wish we had read more stuff like Crime and Punishment.”

“But there is nothing else like Crime and Punishment,” she said to me, somewhat indignantly; “it’s the only book of its kind! What else should I have put on the syllabus for him – Turgenev? Nietzsche? John LeCarré?”

Much later I was listening to Kanye’s 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and trying to write about the way one of his verses models intoxicated temporality almost in the terms of a trolley-problem philosophical quandary. I was thinking about whether it was uncommon for rap to weave philosophy into a verse about getting trashed, and that exchange with my colleague came back to me. Could this album be the “more stuff like Crime and Punishment” her student had wanted?

The more I thought about it the truer it seemed, that Kanye was the Dostoevsky of our time. Both artists are politically conservative, vocally Christian, renowned for their virtuosic literary innovations, unrelenting in their critiques of the criminal justice system and the institutions of medicine and mental health, and (though this claim is controversial) unexpectedly and radically feminist, especially with regard to sex work. Both are obsessed with whether one man might become so great that he has total permission to do anything, because total power – and both are obsessed with what the personal price for such greatness may be. To my mind, though, their most significant similarity lies in their passionate commitment to the kind of critique that is only possible in literature: the repeated subjecting of persons and ideas to the ironized whims of narrative, or the punch of a perfect rhyme at the end of a verse.

I started the course with Crime and Punishment and halfway through the novel we began listening to Kanye, and analyzing his lyrics and sound together. The first song I assigned had a very specific thematic connection to the novel: we had just read Part IV, section 4 (Raskolnikov and Sonya; the raising of Lazarus), and I asked my students if they thought this was the beginning of a love plot.

“No,” one said, “I know she’s a prostitute, but I don’t think she’s going to want to be with him – I mean, he’s a murderer.”

There was general agreement among the class that in selecting a delusional criminal without a kopeck to his name as the novel’s protagonist, Dostoevsky had effectively carved out a class of citizen that even a sex worker might reasonably turn down. I cued up Kanye’s track “Hell of a Life” and asked my students to focus on the second verse, which features an exchange between a porn star for hire and a frustrated john:

Tell me what I gotta do to be that guy

[She] said her price go down, [if] she ever fuck a black guy

They zeroed in immediately on the crafty device of using a second-class citizen to voice the social unworthiness of another – figured not in terms of what price he can’t afford, but instead in terms of the effect their affair would have on her value.

The unlikely overlap between Kanye’s and Dostoevsky’s sexual politics – and the relation of those politics to each artist’s broader social critique – interested the class. In response to a comparative assignment, one student found moments in each corpus where a male speaker accuses the female object of his desire of being a sinner. Upon close analysis of both passages, she concluded that in each case the man is actually sinning, and projecting his guilt onto the woman. She finished her paper by arguing: “in the contexts of each moment, ‘sin’ becomes a mere buzzword of sorts, and is utilized simply as a tool to commit the horrific misogyny present.”

In response to the same assignment, another student compared Svidrigailov’s comment that he’s “going to America” right before he kills himself to Kanye’s song “Who Will Survive in America,” concluding that “America” indexes a kind of death or even hell in each passage. I found both of these essays remarkable because they used close literary analysis to get at a truth (or at least a trusim) about the way language works in the world: “sin” is a dogwhistle for masked misogyny at work; America is hell for some people.

As the end of the semester approached, we had a class discussion about Dostoevsky’s religious faith and crisis playing out not only thematically but also narratively, shifting between “godlike” omniscience and more subjective modes of knowledge. In response to this discussion, one student wrote a paper about “Ultralight Beam” – a Kanye song which takes faith in God as its explicit subject matter – in terms of its production. The argument was that – remarkably, for the opening track on a much-awaited album, – Kanye never actually raps a verse on “Ultralight Beam,” taking the more “godlike” role of producer, and “benevolently” offering the stage to others. The student concluded: “Yet for a song that directs the spotlight away from Kanye, his production value leaves his signature all over the song. For his influence to be felt without having to rap at all shows the level of power he has reached: perhaps he really is omnipotent.”


Caroline Lemak Brickman is a PhD candidate in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at UC Berkeley, completing a dissertation on twentieth-century Russian lyric and Greek myth. She is currently teaching in the Department of English at the University of Pittsburgh. The course discussed in this article was taught at Berkeley.

This post originally appeared on All the Russias Blog on 11 March 2019. It appears here with the permission of both its author and the All the Russias Blog editor.

The Incels and the Injured: Dostoevsky Against Toxic Masculinities

by Daniel Brooks

The following blog post emerged from a roundtable on “Teaching Dostoevsky in the 21st Century” organized by Daniel Brooks at the 2019 AATSEEL conference in New Orleans. This is the second in a series of posts by roundtable participants. The first in the series can be found here.

No shortage of contemporary horrors were prophesied by Fyodor Dostoevsky’s works: The Brothers Karamazov presages totalitarianism; Demons—terrorism; Diary of a Writer, the author’s ongoing, raw, dialogic polemic—Twitter. Although the author’s shorter, less ambitious texts are rarely accorded such powers of prognostication, few of his writings seem more urgent than the modest novella The Eternal Husband, which presents an object lesson in the toxicity of modern masculinity and homosocial desire.

The plot of The Eternal Husband is simple; its characters less so. Velchaninov, a preening, self-deluded cad, was once involved with the now-deceased wife of Trusotsky, whose daughter, Liza is likely the product of this adulterous affair. Liza’s abuse at Trusotsky’s hands suggests his shameful knowledge of her true parentage; she dies under another person’s care. The widower Trusotsky, eager to remarry, strangely asks Velchaninov to approve of his would-be fianceé. After a night of drinking, Velchaninov awakens to find Trusotsky standing over him with a knife; Velchaninov subdues him, although Trusotsky quietly leaves of own accord next morning. The epilogue finds the two characters repeating the same patterns years later: Trusotsky is married to a woman with a wandering eye, and Velchaninov is on the prowl.

It is the discourse through which this adultery plot is refracted that resonates with our time, and makes The Eternal Husband ripe for discussion. Velchaninov coins the term “eternal husband” to characterize Trusotsky, a perennial cuckold before Velchaninov’s more virile type. With this phrase, Dostoevsky permits his character an idiosyncratic revision of critic Apollon Grigor’ev’s “peacable” (смирный) and “predatory” (хищный) Russian types. The more sexual nature of Velchaninov’s conceptual binary, coupled with his disdain for the women who “bedevil” him, portends modern online communities that trade in gendered male grievance: from Subreddits lambasting those who have been “blue-pilled” (cowed into accepting an unwarranted equality between genders) and lauding those who have been “red-pilled” (steeled against feminism’s insidious evils); to the devotees of Jordan Peterson, who bemoans the worship of “feminine chaos” and celebrates the promotion of “masculine order.” Velchaninov all but proclaims himself an “alpha” and Trusotsky (whose surname tellingly contains the root трус, coward) a “beta”; his coined phrase conceals the disdain expressed quite openly in “cuck,” the alt-right’s preferred epithet.

The passive fatalism suggested by the adjective in “eternal husband” has its echo in the now-ubiquitous term “incel” (a contraction of involuntarily celibate). Notwithstanding its more complex origins, the label has recently been appropriated by misogynist terrorist Alek Minassian, who on April 23, 2018 drove a truck into a Toronto crowd in order to murder women, foment an “incel rebellion,” and spite his alpha superiors—in much the same way that Trusotsky expresses anger at his unfaithful wife and her lover by abusing their daughter. Such violence by “betas” receives more nuance than its victims do: pickup artists claim that training in aggressive, misogynist courting rituals would have garnered incel terrorists sexual partners and relieved their murderous sense of failure; Jordan Peterson claims that their acts represent rebellion against a stingy god, and that society has an obligation to publicly shame the inversely promiscuous women who would deprive these violent men of a rage-soothing mate.

Dostoevsky’s text presents an additional pedagogical challenge in that it is focalized through Velchaninov’s “alpha” point of view. (The penultimate chapter is fittingly titled Анализ, Analysis, expressing the protagonist’s overweening assumption—à la Peterson—that he is the “logical,” “rational” actor in the story, telling hard truths about gender and society.) Trusotsky—by turns pathetic, revolting, and seriocomic—seems a difficult read to Velchaninov (and, perhaps, us). Yet he is not the aporia he seems, and Velchaninov’s puzzlement at Trusotsky’s actions is itself telling of modern-day homosociality’s lacunae.

Via Trusotsky’s seemingly contradictory actions, Dostoevsky’s text repeatedly suggests that the binary hierarchies which structure Velchaninov’s views—and those of Peterson, the “cuck”-obsessed alt-right, and the resultant Venn diagram between them—are flawed. In fact, the text’s twisted romantic dynamic reveals their fallbility. Renowned literary critic René Girard applied his theory of mimetic desire to a number of Dostoevsky’s works, demonstrating that his characters perform desires that have been previously exhibited—and thus preemptively sanctioned—by a third party. Desire becomes contingent rather than direct, expressed by a series of imitative moves that, in practice, destabilize the absolute hierarchy on which Velchaninov’s binary rests. When Trusotsky timidly requests his rival’s approval of his would-be bride, he seems a beta to Velchaninov’s alpha. But doesn’t Velchaninov’s perennial pursuit of married women reveal the same insecure need for prior approval? Isn’t Velchaninov’s incipient desire (“jealous, envious” according to the narrator) for Liza’s affection a sign of how easily Trusotsky turns his hated competitor into an obsequious imitator? Trusotsky’s actions might seem illegible to Velchaninov, but the former’s repeated usurpation of the latter’s dominant position speaks to how readily their fates can be reversed. Why learn pickup artistry and become an alpha if mimetic desire makes cucks of us regardless?

In the novella’s epilogue, Trusotsky abruptly, sorrowfully invokes Liza’s name. The girl has gone all but unmentioned in the chapters since her death—reflecting, at once, her true meaninglessness for Velchaninov and her status as the inscrutable Trusotsky’s secret shame. Dostoevsky asks us to remember Liza’s name in a world where she is treated as an empty object, the collateral damage in a war of revanchist homosocial desire. Trusotsky is not redeemed by his regret, but nor is Velchaninov’s narratively privileged perspective allowed to escape unscathed. In remembering the victim, exploding an untenable hierarchy, and undermining the bad-faith actor who forgets the former and promotes the latter, Dostoevsky presents an antidote to misguided, destructive expressions of sexual desire and competitive masculinity. Anne Dwyer has recently suggested that Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolitacaptures something that is wrong with the time and place in which we live,” and that wresting these wrong things from a novel narrated by a charismatic abuser remains a vital teaching and reading exercise; might not we say the same of The Eternal Husband?


Daniel Brooks teaches Russian language and literature at Franklin & Marshall College. His current research focuses on twentieth-century Russian auto/biography, memoir, and literary criticism. He thinks that, in the 21st century, Dostoevsky would be an Extremely Online individual.

For an explanation of the cover image, click here.

Messy Things Betwixt and Between

by Amy Ronner

The following blog post emerged from a roundtable on “Teaching Dostoevsky in the 21st Century” organized by Daniel Brooks at the 2019 AATSEEL conference in New Orleans. This is the first in a series of posts by roundtable participants. 

With my PhD in literature, I began my first career teaching at the University of Michigan and then at University of Miami.  It is not surprising that when I became a law professor, I instinctively integrated literature – – especially Dostoevsky – – into my classes: the obvious course is criminal procedure and one not-so-obvious is Wills and Trusts.

Because I have practiced law, I have seen what can potentially hobble a lawyer: namely, her insistence that things be tidy and fall within set parameters of unyielding doctrines. In fact, fledgling law students tend to apotheosize the legal system and expect it to bestow order and absolute certainty. Golyadkin, as law professor, tends to jolt these soon-to-be lawyers out of this stultifying mindset.  But what is that nexus between Dostoevsky’s The Double and Wills and Trusts?

After the publication of my article, “Does Golyadkin Really Have a Double: Dostoevsky Debunks our Mental Capacity Doctrine,” Capital University Law Review. 40 (2012), p. 195, Harvard Law Professor Robert H. Sitkoff referenced it in his popular text book, Wills, Trusts, and Estates (New York: Wolters Kluwer Law & Business, 2016).  The article, along with Sitkoff’s nod, gave me to idea to invite Professor(s?) Golyadkin to teach a unit in Wills and Trusts.

One unit in Wills and Trusts is about will contests where individuals seek to invalidate a testamentary document by arguing lack of mental capacity or insane delusion.  These cases involve people who contest wills because they feel that they have been unfairly omitted or slighted. (“Damn it, mom left my good-for-nothing brother more!” “Dad left that step mother, the witch, everything!”).  There are lots of cases like this and they are unsettling. In them, challengers argue that the wills are invalid because the testators have no basis to believe for example that one son was plotting murder, or that spouses were cheating, or that DEA agents were secretly monitoring their lives. When courts invalidate wills by finding that the beliefs behind them are the product of insane delusions, my students typically have a fit: how does that judge know that Smith’s son wasn’t trying to kill him?  How do the jurors know that Honigman’s wife was not smooching with Krauss behind the shrubbery?  How in the world can a jury find that DEA Agents weren’t monitoring Breeden’s life when it turned out that one of his friends was indeed such an agent?  As one student once succinctly put it, “these cases suck.”

In steps Golyadkin.  Despite the many debates over The Double commentators tend to concede that with respect to “hero” Golyadkin that they are never certain what is really happening and what is hallucination.  As Deborah Martinsen once put it, there is “narrative ambiguity around [the Double’s] objective existence.” (“Introduction” in Notes from Underground, The Double and Other Stories (New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003)). Drawing on my article, I created a class exercise where we read The Double and make Golyadkin a testator in a will contest, one who is charged with having insane delusions.  The students are asked to answer the question, how should a court rule?  In most states, a delusion is not insane if there is any factual basis for it.  Does our Golyadkin walk away with a clean bill of health or an insane delusion diagnosis?

The most aberrant event in Golyadkin’s life is his encounter with the Double and even that is not implausible.  In real life, such a thing happens.  Accounts of identical twins separated at birth who suddenly meet for the first time are plentiful.  In fact, Anton Antonovich even mentions that very phenomenon to Golyadkin: “[D]on’t you worry.  It’s a thing that does happen. Do you know, I must tell you this, the very same thing occurred to an aunt of mine on my mother’s side.  She saw her own spitting image before she died.” And incidentally, CNN has been redundantly pounding it into our heads that Golyadkins can even triplicate.

As in will contests, in The Double, there is conflicting testimony.  Petrushka, for example, takes two coats and serves two meals.  He confuses Golyadkin with his Double and even quits because “nice people don’t have doubles.”  In rebuttal, however, Petrushka, corroborating the contention that the Double is imagined, considers the task of taking Golyadkin’s letter to the Double to be a joke and claims that both Golyadkins have the same address.  Witness Anton Antonovich also speaks to both sides.  After being pressed, he at first admits that he detects only a slight “family resemblance” between the two Golyadkins and then suddenly anoints them two veritable clones: “Yes. Quite right. Really, the resemblance is amazing, and you’re perfectly correct – – you could be taken for one another . . . Do you know, it’s a wonderful – – it’s a fantastic likeness, as they sometimes say.  He’s you exactly.”

My Wills and Trusts students can never reach anything close to consensus.  But they come to realize that the debate and discomfort that The Double engenders replicate the reaction  that they and legal scholars have with respect to mental capacity case law.  Moreover, there are students courageous enough and willing to push further to consider whether it is even worthwhile to relentlessly adhere to the belief in the existence of an objective truth.  That is an uncomfortable place to go: it is the land of messy things betwixt and between, but for lawyers the very act of going there is quite salutary.


Amy D. Ronner, who holds both a law degree and an M.A. and Ph.D in literature, is a Professor Emeritus of Law at St. Thomas University School of Law, where she taught Constitutional Law, Wills and Trusts, Sexual Identity and the Law, and Criminal Procedure. She is the author of five books, including Dostoevsky and the Law (2015) and Law, Literature, and Therapeutic Jurisprudence (2010).

Dostoevsky and Detective Fiction: An Interview with Claire Whitehead

Today we’re sitting down with Claire Whitehead to talk about Dostoevsky, crime fiction, and her new book, The Poetics of Early Russian Crime Fiction, 1860-1917: Deciphering Stories of Detection, published in September by Legenda.

BK: So, first, tell us a little about your new book. What is it about?

M-lgs-p771It’s a book about some of the many brilliant works of crime fiction that were published in Russia during the late Imperial era, from the period of the Great Reforms of the 1860s up to the 1917 revolution. And I guess I wrote it with two main aims in mind. The first is that I wanted to find out more about the history of this genre that doesn’t really appear in the pages of Russia’s canonical literary history: who was writing crime fiction, what sort of works were they producing and were these works like the works we know from the same era in other countries? The second is that I wanted to provide something more than an historical survey: I wanted to look at how these stories, novellas and novels use their narrative structures to manipulate the reader’s access to knowledge, which is what I think of as the key currency of crime fiction. So, there are chapters on questions such as narrative authority, temporal organization, multiple voice, intertextuality and parody that make reference to a host of largely unknown, but really entertaining and interesting, works.

BK: How popular was crime fiction in 19th-century Russia? How familiar would Dostoevsky have been with the genre?

Very, and deservedly so. If you look at Avram Reitblat’s book, Ot Bovy k Bal’montu i drugie raboty po istoricheskoi sotsiologii russkoi literatury (From Bova to Balmont and other works on the historical sociology of Russian literature, 2009), numerous works of crime fiction during this period figured amongst the most widely read publications of their given year. These include: Nikolai Sokolovskii’s Ostrog i zhizn’: iz zapisok sledovatelia (Prison and Life: From the Notes of an Investigator) (1866), Nikolai Timofeev’s Zapiski sledovatelia (Notes of an Investigator) (1872), Aleksandr Shkliarevskii’s Collected Works (1881), as well, of course, as Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Jeffrey Brooks’s When Russia Learned to Read (2003) makes clear that the rise in literacy rates, changes in publishing conditions, including the proliferation of smaller urban presses, ensured that crime fiction was readily available to (and hugely popular with!) Russian readers in the later part of this period, and right up to the 1917 revolution.

I think it’s fair to say that Dostoevsky was very familiar with the various authors who contributed to the birth of crime fiction in Russia. For instance, some of the earliest stories by Nikolai Sokolovskii were published in his journal, Vremia (Time), during 1862 and 1863. In the early 1870s, the aspiring crime writer Aleksandr Shkliarevskii wrote to Dostoevsky to declare his admiration for his works’ ‘deep psychological analysis’. And when Shkliarevskii moved to St Petersburg under the protection of the renowned prosecutor, A.F. Koni, he is said to have moved in some of the same circles as Dostoevsky. Moreover, given the popularity of these authors with a general readership, and Dostoevsky’s interest in all things connected with the law, it seems unlikely that Dostoevsky wouldn’t also have been reading these works.

BK: Crime and Punishment is obviously a text that must be addressed in your study, but it is not commonly read as crime fiction. Why is that?

I think there are a number of reasons. To some extent, it’s a question of the initial reception of the novel that has influenced its reading over subsequent years. When Crime and Punishment was first serialized, crime fiction was only just beginning to appear in Russia, and so there would have been little question of it being categorized in this genre. It was far more appropriate for it to be received as a work of critical realism in keeping with Belinskii’s call to action. And, as the era of the great realist novel in Russia continued to develop, Crime and Punishment, with its ideological, philosophical and existential concerns, fitted in with that particular narrative of literary historical development very productively. I do think it is important, however, to guard against any temptation to argue that Crime and Punishment is not primarily seen as crime fiction because there is so much else going on in the novel. I would suggest that that is, in fact, true of the majority of Russian crime fiction from this era, most of which displays a similar preoccupation with questions of socio-historical environment, individual psychology, determinism and free will, and the role of the law. Russian crime fiction of the late Imperial era is a sophisticated genre that shares many features with its more renowned or canonical literary cousins.

BK: I was intrigued to discover that, after Crime and Punishment, the Dostoevsky text your book discusses the most is Notes from the House of the Dead. This is a work about criminals and penal servitude, but I find it somewhat far from what I think of as crime fiction. What’s the connection?

I don’t claim in the book that Notes from the House of the Dead is a work of crime fiction. However, there are similarities between some of its features and works that do belong to the genre. So, for instance, Sokolovskii’s Prison and Life includes some stories that feature a judicial investigator working on criminal cases, but also others that simply recount his encounters with prison inmates and his knowledge of their habits and traditions whilst incarcerated, which are similar to those found in Dostoevsky’s work. This and other early examples of Russian crime fiction (such as Konstantin Popov’s Vinovatye i pravye (The Guilty and the Innocent) from 1871) make use of the type of physiological/ethnographic sketch that is to be found in Notes from the House of the Dead as well as, for instance, in a work such as V.V. Krestovskii’s Petersburg Slums (1864). And early Russian crime fiction seeks to create a strong sense of realism in part by its use of slang and dialect, which is another feature that is prominent in House of the Dead. So, it’s really a case of shared features rather than a common genre.

BK: Was Dostoevsky influential in 19th-century or later Russian crime fiction writing? What are some of the stories he influenced?

Yes, undoubtedly, although it’s obviously quite difficult definitively to establish influence. I’ve mentioned Dostoevsky’s connection with Aleksandr Shkliarevskii and I think you can see Shkliarevskii echoing a good number of his idol’s preoccupations with questions around criminal psychology, the role of environment and fate as well as with literary techniques related to temporal organisation and narrative voice. More specifically, in Shkliarevskii’s 1872 story ‘Otchego on ubil ikh?’ (‘Why Did He Kill Them?’), the protagonist, Narostov, who has strangled his wife and shot his mistress, refers to himself as a member of the ‘house of the dead’ and expounds on what he sees as the qualities of Dostoevsky’s depiction of the enigma of crime in that work. There are also clear points of resemblance between Dostoevsky’s concern with the plight of the lower echelons of society and Nikolai Timofeev’s plots in stories such as ‘Murder and Suicide’ and ‘The Prostitute’ in his Notes of an Investigator collection. I would also argue that Aleksandra Sokolova’s refusal of an easy explanation of criminal motive in a work such as Spetaia pesnia (The Song Has Been Sung) (1892) reveals the influence of Dostoevsky.

BK: How much influence did other crime fiction from the time have on Dostoevsky?

Again, I think it’s quite difficult to establish this definitively, but there’s no question in my mind that Dostoevsky was aware of the crime writing of the time and that it affected him to some extent. So, for example, I’ve always wondered whether the description in Sokolovskii’s story ‘Skvernye minuty’ (‘Fateful Minutes’), first published in 1863, of a prostitute, Lizaveta, who hides a stolen wallet under the wallpaper near the plinth of her door, might have given Dostoevsky the idea for Raskolnikov’s stashing of what he has stolen from Alyona Ivanovna. More broadly, the depiction of broken family relations that lead to crime, of the type that Dostoevsky illustrates in The Brothers Karamazov, were a staple of Russian crime fiction throughout the 1860s and 1870s. And, the recognition that scenes played out in law courts were ripe with dramatic potential might well have been influenced by other crime writers, such as Semyon Panov and Nikolai Timofeev, who frequently included an account of criminal trials in their work.

BK: Does reading Dostoevsky within the context of 19th-century crime fiction shift our understanding of Dostoevsky’s works?

Yes, potentially. One of the first arguments I make in my book is that Dostoevsky should not be considered to be the first or only author of crime fiction writing in the 1860s. Dostoevsky’s fascination with various aspects of the legal system both in Russia and abroad, expressed not just in Crime and Punishment but also in Notes from the House of the Dead and, later, in The Brothers Karamazov, is far from being unique during this period. Debates conducted in polemical journalism about the proposed legal reforms influenced a good many writers, and these preoccupations found their way into a numerous literary works. Also, to a reader more familiar with the ‘Western’ canon of crime fiction, Crime and Punishment seems at odds with the genre’s conventions because there is no mystery whatsoever about the identity of the criminal. However, when you place Dostoevsky’s novel in the context of works of crime fiction from this early period, you discover that none of them are really interested in the question of ‘whodunit’. Louise McReynolds has written very persuasively about the Russian genre’s greater interest in the issue of ‘whydunit’ and the implications of that focus: she argues that whilst the ‘whodunit’ accuses an individual, the ‘whydunit’ points the finger of guilt at broader, more collective social forces. None of this is to take away from Dostoevsky’s achievements; but it is important to view him as part of a broader literary-cultural movement, many of whose participants have been forgotten.

BK: What is your favourite work of 19th-century crime fiction and why?

Hmmm… that’s a difficult one. Of course, I genuinely love Crime and Punishment and always have such fun talking about its various aspects with my students. But looking beyond that landmark, I would say my favourite author currently is Semyon Panov who wrote five works of crime fiction in the 1870s, all of which are deserving of a much greater reputation. Of his works, I think that Ubiistvo v derevne Medveditse (Murder in Medveditsa Village) (1872) is a very accomplished and rich work, and the dizzying parody Iz zhizni uezdnogo gorodka (From the Life of a Provincial Town) (1876) is well worth a read, not least because I think it might well have influenced Chekhov later on.

BK: Why do you think nearly all of the texts you discuss are not translated into English yet? And do you know of any plans to translate them?

There is still a good deal of ignorance about the existence of many of these works (in spite of my and others’ best efforts) and so they aren’t immediately obvious choices for translators. Many of them have not been reprinted even in Russian since their first publication, or at least not since the late nineteenth century. I would love for someone to translate them and have begun to do some work on trying to find translators with whom I could collaborate. The project that I’m most excited about at the moment, though, is my collaboration with the illustrator and author, Carol Adlam (www.caroladlam.co.uk), on a graphic-novel adaptation into English of Semyon Panov’s Tri suda, ili ubiistvo vo vremia bala (Three Courts, of Murder During the Ball) from 1876. Carol is the artist behind the brilliant cover image of my book and we have just received some seed-funding from the University of St Andrews to produce about ten pages of proof-of-concept artwork to be able to pitch the full adaptation to a publisher. We are hoping that this might be the first step on a longer journey of bringing some more of these works to an anglophone audience, and in an exciting and popular medium.


A specialist in nineteenth-century Russian literature, Claire Whitehead is Senior Lecturer at the University of St Andrews. Her books include The Fantastic in France and Russia in the Nineteenth Century: In Pursuit of Hesitation (2006) and The Poetics of Early Russian Crime Fiction, 1860-1917: Deciphering Stories of Detection (2018). Growing up, she flirted with the idea of becoming a police officer or a forensic scientist, before deciding on the far more glamorous career of an academic.

The cover image at the top of the page is original artwork by Carol Adlam and appears with the artist’s permission. 

 

Dostoevsky at AATSEEL 2019!

by Greta Matzner-Gore

In just a week you all will be eating beignets in the French Quarter… and I’ll be eating my heart out here at home. In between jazz sessions and bowls of gumbo, make sure to check out the conference’s many exciting papers on Dostoevsky! You can find them below, listed by date, time, and room number.

Friday, February 8

8:00 AM – 10:00 AM

Session 1-7: Stream 7A: Monopoliphonic/polimonologic Tolstoevsky or Spirited in Flesh (I): Friendship, Suicide and Resurrection in Dostoevsky’s Works

Location: Orleans

Chair: Carol Apollonio, Duke University

“The Philosophical Problem of Friendship in Dostoevsky’s Works”

Justin Trifiro, University of Southern California

“Physical Resurrection in Notes from Underground

Max Gordon, Northwestern University

“Sudden Suicidal Convulsions in Notes from the House of the Dead

Amy Ronner, St. Thomas University School of Law

Discussant: Robin Feuer Miller, Brandeis University

 

10:15 AM – 12:00 PM

Session 2-7: Stream 7A: Monopoliphonic/polimonologic Tolstoevsky or Spirited in Flesh (II): The Problem of Gender in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky

Location: Orleans

Chair: D. Brian Kim, University of Pennsylvania

“How a Man Killed His Wife: Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata and Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Dead House

Irina Erman, College of Charleston

“In Defense of Katerina Maslova: Bakhtin and Resurrection

Erica Drennan, Columbia University

Discussant: Victoria Juharyan, Princeton University

 

4:30 PM – 6:30 PM

Session 4-7: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Gogol

Location: Endymion

“The Disintegration of Personality: Literary Parallels Between Dostoevsky’s The Double and Gogol’s ‘The Portrait’”

Olga Khometa, University of Toronto

“So…What Is To Be Done About Poor Nastasya in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot?”

Denis Zhernokleyev, Vanderbilt University

 

Session 4-10: The Language of Space and the Space of Language in (Post-)Soviet Russian Culture

Location: St. Claude

“Space in Contemporary Cinematic Transpositions of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment

Alexander Burry, Ohio State University

 

Saturday, February 9

8:00 AM – 10:00 AM

Session 5-2: Stream 2B: Mimesis in Russian Art and Aesthetic Theory (I)

Location: Ile de France II

Chair: Kit Pribble, University of California at Berkeley

“Dostoevskiian Allegory and the Realist Project”

Melissa Frazier, Sarah Lawrence College

“V romane nado geroiia”: Realist character-systems in Dostoevsky’s Zapiski iz podpol’ia

Chloë Kitzinger, Rutgers University

“Not theatrical, not aesthetic beauty will save the world: Realistic Symbolism and Naturalism on the Stage”

Lindsay Ceballos, Lafayette College

Discussant: Susan McReynolds, Northwestern University

 

Session 5-7: Stream 7B: The Russian Medical Humanities (I)

Location: Orleans

Chair: Melissa Miller, University of Notre Dame

“Stavrogin as Syphilitic in Dostoevsky’s Demons

Brian R. Johnson, Macalester College

 

3:15 PM – 5:00 PM

Session 7-10: Graduate Invitational Panel: Feeling Across Borders in 19th-century Russia

Location: St. Claude

Chair: Jinyi Chu, Stanford University

“Identifying Emotional Communities in the Age of Pushkin”

Emily Wang, University of Notre Dame

“Emotions and Cognition in Dostoevsky’s ‘Dream of a Ridiculous Man’”

Victoria Juharyan, Princeton University

Discussant: Ilya Vinitsky, Princeton University

 

 5:15 PM – 7:00 PM

 Session 8-5: Roundtable: Crime and Punishment: Issues of Teaching and Translation

Location: Frontenac

Chair: Robin Feuer Miller, Brandeis University

Discussants:

Carol Apollonio, Duke University

Kate Holland, University of Toronto

Katherine Bowers, University of British Columbia

Val Vinokur, The New School

 

Sunday, February 10

8:00 AM – 10:00 AM

Session 9-5: Roundtable: Teaching Dostoevsky in the 21st Century

Location: Endymion

Chair: Robin Feuer Miller, Brandeis University

Discussants:

Amy Ronner, St. Thomas University School of Law

Caroline Lemak Brickman, UC Berkeley

Chloë Kitzinger, Rutgers University, New Brunswick

Daniel Brooks, Franklin & Marshall College

Katherine Bowers, University of British Columbia

Sean Blink, Yale University

 

Session 9-6: The Reading and Reception of the Russian Classics in the Late-Soviet Period

Location: Orleans

Chair: Jonathan Wurl, Stanford University

“‘Yes, not to Leningrad, but to Petersburg’: Reading Tsypkin Reading Dostoevsky”

Brett Roark Winestock, Stanford University

Discussant: Alexander Prokhorov, College of William and Mary

David Magarshack, the Penguin Archive, and Translating Dostoevsky: A Chat with Cathy McAteer

Today we are sitting down to talk about translating Dostoevsky and David Magarshack with Cathy McAteer, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Exeter who has recently defended her PhD in Russian and Translation Studies at the University of Bristol. Her doctoral thesis examines Penguin Books’s Russian Classics series (1950-1964) with special emphasis on Magarshack’s role as translator in bringing Russian literary texts to an anglophone audience.

BK: So, first of all, tell us a bit about your research project. Why did you decide to focus on Penguin’s Russian Classics series? Were there any surprising discoveries in your research?

CM: Hello Katia, thanks for inviting me to talk a bit about my research. My interest in Penguin’s Russian Classics took on a new dimension once I’d started my MA in Translation Studies at the University of Bristol. The act of comparing different Penguin versions of Russian literary classics against the original source texts prompted a new set of questions for me about the background to those Penguin commissions: who were the people driving and completing them; what were their various professional backgrounds and qualifications (if any); how did Penguin and its commissioned translators interact with each other; was there ever such a thing as an in-house Penguin translation style; and then, how well did the Anglophone lay audience, which ultimately spanned several geographical borders, receive this relaunched literary canon? When I finished my Masters, I was fortunate to receive funding to pursue a PhD framed around answering these questions. On a broader scale, I also wanted my PhD to fill a gap in knowledge as far as the more modern phase of Russian literary translation in English is concerned, namely the mid- to late-twentieth century, the exact time when Penguin was publishing its versions of the classic Russian literary canon.

My doctoral project relied heavily on detailed archival research, initially at the Penguin archive (housed at the University of Bristol) but also at the Leeds Russian archive. In terms of surprising discoveries, I never expected the personalities of key and minor players to reveal themselves so strikingly via their correspondence. They came to life in a way which is never apparent just from reading their end-products, the translated texts themselves. Individuals like the editors EV Rieu and ASB Glover feature throughout, efficient, often humorous, and polite. Translators like Elisaveta Fen, Rosemary Edmonds, and, of course, David Magarshack reveal that they could be self-assured and commercially astute, but at times frustrated by the tedium of the commercial process and unsolicited changes to their translations. Surprises include one letter which reveals the Turgenev translator Gilbert Gardiner’s patient, 25-year wait for missed royalty payments. There are startlingly frank letters from the lay-reading public too. Some applaud the price and accessibility of Penguin’s Russian Classics, while others offer criticism. One correspondent criticizes Penguin for allowing over-popular translations of Russian literature ‘just so that it can be understood by people without literary knowledge’, another complains to the editors for even allowing the title Anna Karenin (‘an act of impudence and vandalism’), and another correspondent praises an excellent translation (The Devils) but laments that it is marred with ‘phrases, not to say paragraphs in French’. Their voices are vibrant; it was fascinating to discover how opinionated Penguin’s readership could be over matters of translation.

Analysis of this archival material allowed me, therefore, to construct a profile, a microhistory, of key Penguin Russian players, but also to map the climate of reception for Russian literature in English translation during the last half of the twentieth century.

magarshack

David Magarshack, (n.d.)
© Magarshack family

BK: Now tell us a bit about David Magarshack. He’s an acclaimed translator of Dostoevsky (and others). Why did you choose him as the focus of your case study?

CM: I suspected from the outset that David Magarshack would probably play an important role in my thesis – he was after all one of the longest-serving early translators for Penguin’s Russian Classics, translating the four major works by Dostoevsky for them, along with Goncharov’s Oblomov, Gogol’s Dead Souls, and Chekhov’s Lady with Lapdog – but I never actually expected him to dominate the project to such an extent! After weeks of scouring the Penguin archive I realized I would need to corroborate my Bristol findings by pursuing material stored in other collections. I went to Leeds, therefore, to examine David Magarshack’s (and Elisaveta Fen’s) private papers. Fen’s papers were useful, certainly, but I found the most relevant and detailed material in Magarshack’s papers where, to my delight, his notes included specific lectures and essays about his translation strategy.

Magarshack was born in Riga (then Russia) in 1899 but emigrated to the UK in 1920 in search of a higher education (a right restricted to only a limited number of Jews at the time of Magarshack’s student years). He arrived in the UK with scarcely any English but graduated four years later with a 2:1 in English Language and Literature at UCL. After years of trying to make a living as a crime-writer, journalist, and aspiring newspaper editor, he eventually offered his services as a literary translator to Penguin. His first Penguin book was Crime and Punishment, completed ahead of the scheduled delivery date, perhaps thanks in part to his wife Elsie, a Yorkshire-born, Cambridge-graduate of English. (According to Magarshack’s daughter, Stella, Elsie helped with all his translations, proofreading and correcting, but she is never mentioned in his work. For me, Elsie is something of an unsung heroine; my hope is that my PhD has at least apportioned her some belated fame.)

The more I learned about Magarshack, the more fascinated I became by his commercial approach to translation and literature. With very little money coming in as a journalist, Magarshack was a man under pressure; he had a wife (and in-laws with financial aspirations for their daughter), four children, and a keen sense of pride and ambition. Magarshack comes across in his letters as driven primarily to make his career a success, but also eager to refashion the Russian literature translated by Constance Garnett and keen to match (if not improve!) Dostoevsky.

He represents a rare, modern case study because of the large amount of archival material which stands alongside all the text-based material he left behind; this combination has made it possible to construct a detailed microhistory of his professional life, to shed light for the first time on a man so readily associated in readers’ minds (lay and academic) with Penguin’s Russian literature.

BK: I know you’ve worked extensively with Penguin’s archive and the Magarshack papers in the Leeds Russian archive. Can you speak a bit about those collections? What are the documents like? What kinds of materials? And did you make any new discoveries?

The Penguin archive consists of 2,300 boxes, 500 metres of Penguin titles, and it grows by a metre of shelf space every month: signed books, correspondence, photos, promotional material. It is vast. The Penguin Classics section represents a small part of the entire archive, and the Russian Classics titles amount to just 23 folders in total, spanning from 1950 to 1970, which vary considerably in size. Some contain no more than a couple of letters confirming a print re-run, others contain tens of pages of detailed discussion about deadlines, royalty payments, corrections, correction costs, copyright, translation queries, suggestions for cover design, readers’ letters, etc. Thick files usually bode well, either because there has been a particular working rapport between editor and translator – good or bad! but always with an eagerness all round to produce the best possible text for publication – or because a text has prompted a high level of reader response: from individuals, theatre troupes requesting stage adaptations, the BBC seeking broadcasting permission, and, in the case of the Dostoevsky files, there are repeated requests by academics for permission to use translation excerpts in their psychology manuals. Inevitably, though, archival work is the domain of one-sided conversations which can often lead to unanswered questions, red-herrings, and dead-ends; these all become a bit of an occupational hazard! Just when you think the next letter will neatly conclude an ongoing discussion, the trail runs dry, which is why I ended up pursuing other collections.

Fortunately for me, Magarshack kept large quantities (27 boxes in total) of his letters, reviews, theatre programmes (his play translations continued to be used for decades), copies of his works, notes on translation, which answered many questions, provided new lines of enquiry, but also led me to Magarshack’s daughter Stella and the opportunity for me to interview her about her father’s translation career. I discovered that aside from his translations (not just for Penguin) and biographies (many of your readers will be aware of Magarshack’s Dostoevsky biography), Magarshack also tried his hand at crime-writing, à la Dostoevsky, but without comparable success. The highlight for me, though, was discovering that he had attempted to quantify his translation strategy towards the end of his career. He set down his thoughts and observations of twenty years or so of literary translation practice in preparation for a book he had been commissioned to produce for Victor Gollancz on the principles of translation. Had Magarshack’s book made it to publication, it would have been ahead of his time; he had hoped to offer his strategies on how best to tackle classic translation challenges such as Russian naming practices (a question which appears repeatedly in the Penguin Russian Classics archive and perplexes even today), vernacular dialogue, idiomatic equivalence, register, syntax. It is a great shame, therefore, that Magarshack died before the book could be completed.

The strategies and references he noted in the preparatory material for his book reveal that Magarshack was a man straddling the two cultures and worlds he knew best: Russian and British, and he felt strongly that his Russia and Dostoevsky’s Russia had not previously been satisfactorily conveyed by translators, mainly Constance Garnett. He appears to have felt a huge responsibility to try and address this failing by producing his own translations.

 

Two of Magarshack’s translations for Penguin Classics (Personal collection of C. McAteer)

BK: One of your chapters examines Magarshack’s translation of The Idiot (1955). This was really the first of the modern translations – the previous translations were all published at least 40 years earlier. What does your research reveal about Magarshack’s translation practice?

CM: As I mentioned earlier, my research has revealed that Magarshack approached his translation work with a keen sense that the ‘real’ Russia had never been accurately conveyed to British readers in preceding translations. In his observations about translation, Magarshack noted with evident concern that Garnett had created a ‘popular notion of the Russian as an incompetent, gloom-sodden, bizarre, and even grotesque figure’, a view ‘so generally accepted that it even colours the views of serious authors on Russian affairs’. Magarshack relates his concern over poor translations even more specifically to Dostoevsky, though; he writes that the realization ‘that, for instance, Dostoevsky’s novels are full of laughter as well as tragedy, has yet to be proved to the English reader’. Magarshack hoped that his translations would reinstate the humour as well as the tragedy. Not all readers would now agree that Magarshack achieved this aim; Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonskaya, for example, claim instead that there is ‘something tame’ about Magarshack’s translation of Brothers Karamazov which replaces the style, tone, and humour of Dostoevsky’s original. The important thing for me, though, is that Magarshack identified what he felt was missing and tried to rectify the shortfall.

Magarshack’s attempt to differ from his predecessors’ efforts (summed up in his notes in a blend of Western and Soviet-style traditions and techniques) relies on a combination of translation devices: he tries his hand at vernacularized dialogue; incorporates Anglicized naming practices (Mr, Mrs, and Miss) and minimizes the inclusion of patronymics; domesticates culture-specific references; avoids all footnotes (he believed they were ‘a translator’s confession of failure’), and he frequently tries to smooth out syntax. The Idiot contains examples of all these effects and, while readers from a modern vantage point may consider his practice unsubtle and somewhat contrived at times, these devices were a novel way to treat Dostoevsky in the mid-twentieth century. Magarshack created a different feel to Garnett’s earlier translations and provided a stylistic talking point for subsequent translators.

BK: And what can Magarshack’s translation of Dostoevsky tell us about Dostoevsky?

CM: Magarshack wanted his translations to speak to a modern audience and show that there was more to Dostoevsky, more depth and colour, than previously thought. Magarshack strove to show that Dostoevsky had all the tragedy as well as the comedy of Dickens. He believed that the absence in previous Dostoevsky translations either of any humour, or of any attempt at full-bodied characterization, presented an anaemic version of the real Dostoevsky. Magarshack felt it was the translator’s duty to serve and reveal the original author by researching the author’s background, social context, morals, literary style, and channel that knowledge into decisions over lexis, idiom, register, voice. Magarshack can be regarded as the first modern translator, therefore, to expose the existence in Dostoevsky of characters who build tension, evoke sympathy, have nicknames and humour, reveal vices and morals, who speak like barrow boys and express credible feelings. Of course, he didn’t succeed on every count (possibly because he was having to work fast to pay the bills). There are always deficits in a translation, some of Magarshack’s decisions irritated readers then and now (for example, Magarshack’s occasional glossing over of culture-specific references and syntax, his occasional omissions, over-domestication of names) but Magarshack has been credited with revealing the polyphony which exists in Dostoevsky’s works, giving voice to a more comprehensive range of Dostoevskian characters who were previously served by Garnett’s one Edwardian voice, for example.

Magarshack and Penguin proved that Dostoevsky was an accessible author who could be appreciated by all lovers of great literature, that he wrote for the everyman and not for an elitist readership after all. Many of Penguin’s archived letters of appreciation confirm as much but I’d like to finish with just one comment from Anthony Powell of Punch. He wrote that ‘David Magarshack has revolutionized the reading of Dostoyevsky’s novels in English by his translations which have appeared during the last few years … for years I was rather an anti-Dostoyevsky man, owing to the badness of the translations, but now there is an excellent translator in Magarshack’ (2 April 1958)’.

Thank you!


Cathy McAteer is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Exeter on the project “The Dark Side of Translation: 20th and 21st Century Translation from Russian as a Political Phenomenon in the UK, Ireland and the USA”, which has just gone live, fresh for 2019. More information is available on Twitter (@Rustransdark) and on the project website. Cathy’s publications include ‘Bringing Books Across Borders – Behind the Scenes in Penguin Books’, Transnational Russian Studies (edited by Andy Byford, Connor Doak, Stephen Hutchings) due to be published later this year, and ‘Translation and the Classic: Russians and Romanticism until 1917’, Routledge Handbook on Translation (edited by Siobhan McElduff, James Hadley, Paul Bandia), publication date tbc.

Dostoevsky at MLA 2019!

Are you heading to Chicago for MLA 2019 next week? If yes, stop by the International Dostoevsky Society-sponsored panel, taking place on Fri, Jan 4 from 5:15-6:30pm in the Sheraton Grand (rm Superior A). The panel is Idiot-themed to kick off the novel’s 150th anniversary year!

Dostoevsky’s The Idiot at 150: Textual Transactions

“Dostoevsky’s Capitalist Realism; or, Why Money Doesn’t Burn in The Idiot” – Vadim Shneyder, U of California, Los Angeles

“Prince Myshkin and the Female Fool: Gendering Dostoevsky’s Fools for Christ” Melanie Jones, U of California, Los Angeles

“The Devil Rousseau Comes to Petersburg” – Brian Armstrong, Augusta U

We hope you’ll join us in Chicago! Click here for more information.

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