Thomas Atkinson and Dostoevsky

by Nick Fielding

In 2014 a scrappy piece of paper covered with jottings by the great Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky caused a bit of a stir, due to various doodles in the margin.

The page contained notes that were later used by Dostoevsky in his novel Demons, first published in 1871. One of the doodles was of a man’s head – see the picture below – which most experts took to be a portrait of William Shakespeare. However, beneath the little portrait can just be made out (in Cyrillic) the name ‘Atkinson’. Nothing else connects to the name and there is no further explanation. Who was this Atkinson mentioned by the great writer?

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The name Atkinson can be made out just below the portrait

According to scholars, it could only be one of two men; either Thomas Witlam Atkinson or the British art critic Joseph Beavington Atkinson (1822-86). Which one was it?

First, let’s deal with the question of whether or not the portrait is ‘Atkinson’. All the experts seem to agree that it is too close to the famous ‘Chandos’ portrait of Shakespeare to be anyone else. That being said, there is a very superficial resemblance to Thomas Atkinson, although it is extremely unlikely that Dostoevsky ever met him. Dostoevsky was imprisoned in Omsk in Western Siberia from 1851-54 and subsequently lived in Semipalatinsk – in what is now northern Kazakhstan – for a while after that, but there is no evidence from either man that they met.

Considering the name alone, let’s look at the case for Joseph Beavington Atkinson first. Dostoevsky expert Professor Nikolay Zakharov notes that in his diary Dostoevsky mentions an anonymous article called “Angliyskaya kniga o russkom isskustve i russkikh khudozhnikakh” (“An English Book about the Russian Art and Russian Artists”) which retells and includes excerpts from J. B. Atkinson’s book An Art Tour to Northern Capitals of Europe (London, 1873). Zakharov assumes Dostoevsky would have been provoked by Atkinson’s claims in the book that “up to now, the Russian school of art has not developed new styles or new themes”.

However, the date of the Atkinson book is a little late, considering that Dostoevsky’s novel was published in 1871.

So what about Thomas? As stated above, Dostoevsky was imprisoned in Siberia for several years and could certainly have heard about the odd English couple and their child roving around the Siberian and Central Asian steppes at that time.

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Atkinson asking directions

We also know that when he was living in Semipalatinsk, from 1854-56, Dostoevsky became friendly with Baron Alexander Egorovich Wrangel (1833-1915), an admirer of his books. They both rented houses in the Cossack Garden outside Semipalatinsk and the baron later wrote a book of reminiscences about his encounters with Dostoevsky.

Interestingly, in 1848-9 when Thomas and Lucy were living in Kapal in what is now eastern Kazakhstan – and directly south of Semipalatinsk – they also knew a Baron Wrangel, who was the commanding officer of the small outpost. As Thomas notes in Travels in the Regions of the Upper and Lower Amoor:

The society among which I was thrown was of a mixed character. At the head of the civil department was a German baron, who had won glory in the Caucasus, where he had received a wound from a Circassian sabre, that nearly proved fatal. He was the Priestoff, or political agent, whose duties were with the Kirghis. He was a good soldier, had few scruples, and was a most amusing fellow, believing himself equal to Nesselrode in diplomacy. Were fiction and invention essential in the acquirements of a minister, I would back the Baron against the Count.”

Thomas does not name the Baron, but Lucy does – more than 30 times! She writes many amusing anecdotes about Baron Wrangel, who was clearly a good friend of her husband. She even describes the two men playing duets – Thomas on the flute and the baron on the guitar.

Was this the same Baron Wrangel? Without knowing the full name of the Baron known to the Atkinsons it is difficult to be sure. Thomas’ baron had been wounded in the Caucasus, so that might be a clue. The baron known to Dostoevsky was born in 1833, which might make him too young to have been the same person known to the Atkinsons. If not, he was probably a close relative.

However, there are even more possible connections. We know that Dostoevsky went to live in Barnaul after leaving Semipalatinsk. Again, the Atkinsons were well known there, having spent two winters in the town. It seems very unlikely that Dostoevsky did not hear something of them during the time he spent there.

So, although we cannot prove definitively that Dostoevsky was referring to Thomas Atkinson in his marginalia, the likelihood seems very high. Did he ever appear as a character in a Dostoevsky novel? That is up to you, dear readers, to find out.

baron-a-e-wrangel

Baron A E Wrangel

In his book The Kazakh Khanates between the Russian and Qing Empires, Japanese Scholar Jin Noda notes that the Russian official appointed as Commissary to Kopal in about 1848 – where the Atkinsons were also staying – was Baron A E Wrangel. This is Alexander Egorovich Wrangel, the same person who Dostoevsky met in Semipalatinsk.

David Clay’s book The Grand Spas of Central Europe: A History of Intrigue, Politics, Art and Healing also mentions Baron A E Wrangel. Referring to Dostoevsky’s visit to Wiesbaden in 1863, when he famously lost all his money at the card tables, Clay says that the novelist wrote to “an old family friend” to ask for 100 thalers to help pay off his debts. That old friend was in fact Baron A E Wrangel, who by this time was Russia’s emissary to Denmark! I have also found references to other contacts between the two men.

Thus Dostoevsky was in fact a close friend of the man with whom the Atkinsons had spent nine months in Kopal in the winter of 1848-49. Knowing this, I have no hesitation in suggesting that the Atkinson mentioned in Dostoevsky’s marginalia is undoubtedly Thomas Witlam Atkinson. Was the great writer thinking about creating a character based on Atkinson? We may not yet be at the bottom of this story.

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Thomas Atkinson later in life; the photograph is courtesy of the Paul Dahlquist Collection

If you had not previously heard of Thomas and Lucy Atkinson, it might be worth mentioning that this English couple spent almost six years exploring and travelling throughout Siberia and Central Asia from 1847-53, covering a distance of more than 40,000 miles, much of it on horseback.

Their son, Alatau Tamchiboulac Atkinson, was born during the first year of their travels and accompanied them throughout, even into the wildest places. Thomas painted hundreds of pictures of his travels and published two books. Lucy also published a superb book, possibly the earliest real travel book by a woman writer.

When I realised that there was a possible connection between the Atkinsons and Dostoevsky I was not entirely surprised. The Atkinsons had a passionate interest in the Decembrist exiles and Thomas planned to write his third book about the exiles of Siberia, dying in 1861 before it could even be begun. All of this must have been apparent to Baron Wrangel, with whom they lived in close proximity for nine months.

Lucy Atkinson

Lucy Atkinson

During their travels throughout Siberia the Atkinsons visited many of the Decembrists, in many cases bringing them gifts from their families. Lucy, who records all this in her book, Recollections of Tartar Steppes (1863), had previously been employed as a governess in St Petersburg in the Muravyev family, many of whose members had been exiled to Siberia as Decembrists and one of whom had been executed. Like Dostoevsky, the Decembrists too loved Dickens and in fact begged Atkinson to visit Dickens on his return to England and thank him on their behalf.

And that is exactly what happened. I have published the correspondence on my blog. In response Atkinson’s message from the Decembrists, Dickens replies:

“If you can see any of them again, pray assure them that I believe I have never received a token of remembrance in my life, with so much sadness mingled with so much gratification. I wish I could do more for them than remain true to the principles which faithfully maintained, would render their wrongs impossible of infliction. Lord help them and speed the time when their descendants shall speak of their suffering as of the sacrifice that secured their own happiness and freedom.”

Bearing in mind all this background, it seems quite likely that Dostoevsky would have been interested in the Atkinsons. Was he looking for material or perhaps for a character? Any thoughts on this or any of the other elements of this story would be much appreciated.


Nick Fielding is a journalist and author. He was a staffer on the Sunday Times and the Mail on Sunday and is the author of several books. For several years he has been retracing the travels of the Atkinsons in Central Asian and Siberia, and in 2016 he published his most recent book, South to the Great Steppe: the travels of Thomas and Lucy Atkinson in Eastern Kazakhstan 1847-1852. He writes the blog Siberian Steppes and lives in Oxford, UK.

This post is a cross-posting of two posts about Dostoevsky and Thomas Atkinson from Siberian Steppes. Please visit the blog to learn more about the Atkinsons and their travels.

Rodion Raskolnikov, Your Tweet Archive is Ready

by Katherine Bowers

Two years ago, on May 1, 2016, the Twitter account @RodionTweets sent its first tweet. Since then @RodionTweets has “live-tweeted” the events of Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment, broken into 140-character-or-less snippets, from its hero Raskolnikov’s perspective. The bulk of the novel’s events take place over the course of three intense weeks in the summer, and the bulk of Rodion Raskolnikov’s tweets similarly appeared in July 2016, but the account has continued to tweet the book’s epilogues, which spread over the course of nearly two years. Finally, on April 24, 2018, Raskolnikov’s new life began and the twitter account went silent.
Rodiontweets-end-1

@RodionTweets was the brainchild of myself and Brian Armstrong, a kind of extension of our first experiment with Twitterature, @YakovGolyadkin. Both accounts were created through a process of tweet mining. For @RodionTweets we received permission from Penguin Classics to use Oliver Ready’s translation of Crime and Punishment. Then one Dostoevsky scholar mined one of the novel’s six parts and Kristina McGuirk, my wonderful RA, did a round of edits and loaded the tweets into TweetDeck, scheduling them in to tweet out according to the timeline for the novel that Brian and I had mapped.

Rodiontweets-end-2As each part of the novel was tweeted out, we reflected on our experience in creating the tweets in a series of blog posts. Sarah Hudspith mined Part 1 and reflected on the divide between public and private online and the use of hashtags as a narrative device. In her discussion of mining Part 2, Sarah Young considered the way digital approaches to the novel (tweeting, digital mapping) expand our avenues for understanding and interpretation. Kate Holland’s experience mining Part 3 led to a new perspective on the novel’s narrative structure. Brian Armstrong discussed the insight he gained into empathy in both Crime and Punishment, Part 4 and The Double through the intensely close scrutiny tweet mining requires. Jennifer Wilson’s mining of the scandal scene in Part 5 led to her reflection on social status and projection, and how pain, humiliation and suffering impact them. And my experience mining Part 6 and the epilogues led to a new realization on my part about timing in the novel. The blog post you’re reading serves as the project’s final, final note: one last reflection on what we’ve learned from @RodionTweets.

Of course, the first thing we, as literary scholars, noticed was that twitterifying Dostoevsky raised a number of questions that made us see the novel’s narration and themes in a new light. You’ll notice this from the blog post topics above. We began, however, with a basic question: how do you break a novel that’s narrated in the 3rd person down into tweets in the first person? Where does the narrator’s voice go? The switch from 3rd person narration to 1st reverses Dostoevsky’s own narrative switch from the 1st person he originally planned on to the 3rd person the novel ended up with.

Rodiontweets-end-3One of the conceits of the project is that Raskolnikov tweets as if he keeps a constant feed of everything that goes through his head. This, of course, means that the account presupposes that no one else from the novel world is reading it. For example, Raskolnikov live tweets the murder on @RodionTweets, and if Porfiry Petrovich were to read this in his Twitter feed, the novel would likely have been much, much shorter! – although this point is well taken. This style also renders @RodionTweets more like those Dostoevsky protagonists who monologue or write zapiski and less like most (active) twitter users, who may do this kind of live-tweeting some of the time, but not all of the time. Furthermore, as we mined the novel’s text for tweets, thinking critically about what would be omitted from the twitter narrative and what would be emphasized, as well as what Raskolnikov would be tweeting about, we created a feed that both captures the novel’s tone and renders the work more real-feeling, or, at least, more contemporary.

This contemporaneity was a really unexpected yet rewarding result of @RodionTweets. Beyond the experience of Raskolnikov’s tweets periodically appearing in his followers’ twitter feeds, the serendipity of their timing or placement allowed for connections to be drawn between followers’ lived experiences and Dostoevsky’s novel. Followers remarked on the eeriness of @RodionTweets juxtaposed with twitter updates about the Turkish coup attempt or the odd resonance between @RodionTweets and the mood of many in post-Brexit Britain. One of the strangest coincidences was that Raskolnikov’s monologue leading to his confession took place at the same time as Trump’s speech at the RNC in Cleveland on July 21, prompting a flood of comments from followers experiencing the two feeds – RNC live tweeters and @RodionTweets – together; here are a few examples. While unintended when we conceived the project, these juxtapositions highlight the power of Dostoevsky’s novel and speak to the relevance of his hero’s psychology for the present.

The project, though, was not all serious. Beyond the geopolitical resonances and the literary analysis, it is a project based in Twitter, a medium that’s equally political squabbling and entertaining puns, jokes, and sarcasm. The spirit of the project is one part Dostoevsky, one part Twitterature, and it also encompasses @RodionTweets’s love of strange hashtags and sublime Twitter moments such as when a Dostoevsky account interacting with his creation or a Shostakovich account liking some of @RodionTweets’s tweets. Or this, my favorite follower interaction with the account, which continues to crack me up nearly two years later.

So what now? We have archived the project here: @RodionTweets, parts 1-3; @RodionTweets, parts 4-6 + epilogues. The archives are complete and tweets within them appear in chronological order (so you can read them alongside the book). They have already been used in the classroom by some. Professors assign students to read part of the novel alongside the corresponding tweets and then discuss, or to generate their own tweets from a different character’s perspective (this last idea is an assignment Kate Holland has implemented in her Dostoevsky class). If you are using the project in your class, please let me know!

Rodiontweets-end-4

At the end of my blog post about tweeting Part 6, I concluded by saying that the epilogues on Twitter would be spread across 18 months and then Raskolnikov would fade away. Now, though, I think that statement needs some revising. The spring of 2018 feels far removed in many ways from the summer of 2016. Much has happened since then. But I think the drawn-out nature of the epilogue, and Raskolnikov sporadically appearing in our feeds, has perhaps made it seem more like he is one of us – a Twitter user who is sometimes active (the conceit being he somehow manages to get online from his Siberian prison camp…), but more often not. And perhaps this silence is simply because his life is full and he hasn’t got time for social media. In this sense, although @RodionTweets has gone quiet, I hope he is not forgotten, but lingers on as part of our network, somewhere on the edge of our consciousness.


Katherine Bowers is Assistant Professor of Slavic Studies at the University of British Columbia. She is working on a book about the influence of gothic fiction on Russian realism and tweets about Russian lit and other things on @kab3d. She also edits Bloggers Karamazov and curates the North American Dostoevsky Society’s social media.

This post has been cross-posted on All the Russias, the blog of the NYU Jordan Center.

CFP: XVII International Dostoevsky Symposium

The XVII International Dostoevsky Symposium

The XVII International Dostoevsky Symposium will be held at Boston University in the city of Boston (with the participation of Harvard University, Suffolk University, Wellesley College, Brown University, and the Harriman Institute, Columbia University), 15-19 July, 2019.
Abstracts: Proposals for papers on one of the Symposium themes will be accepted until July 1, 2018. Please send your proposal using the submission form at http://www.bu.edu/wll/dostoevsky-2019/. The Program Committee will review the submissions, and decisions will be announced on the IDS website by October 1, 2018. The Program will be announced on April 28, 2019.
The official languages of the Conference are Russian and English. Presentations should last about fifteen minutes, to be followed by 5 minutes of discussion.
Symposium participants will be limited to about 150 speakers. Membership in IDS is required before registration. Further information about membership can be found here: http://www.dostoevsky.org.

XVII Симпозиум международного общества Достоевского

XVII Симпозиум международного общества Достоевского состоится в Бостонском университете в Бостоне, США. Финансовую и организационную поддержку окажут Harvard University, Suffolk University, Wellesley College, Brown University и Harriman Institute, Columbia University. Симпозиум будет проходить с 15 по 19 июля 2019 года.
Заявки на участие в Симпозиуме будут приниматься до 1 июля 2018 года. Пожалуйста, присылайте тезисы докладов и регистрационные формы в электронном виде через портал hhttp://www.bu.edu/wll/dostoevsky-2019/. Отборочная комиссия рассмотрит ваши заявки и объявит состав участников на сайте Международного общества Достоевского к 1 октября 2018 года. Программа симпозиума будет сформирована и опубликована к 28 апреля 2019 года.
Официальные языки симпозиума – русский и английский. Каждому участнику выделяется 15 минут для доклада и дополнительно 5 минут для дискуссии.
Количество участников симпозиума с докладами – около 1 5 0-ти человек. До регистрации необходимо подтвердить членство в Международном обществе Достоевского (IDS). Дополнительная информацияо членстве в IDS размещена на сайте : http://www.dostoevsky.org.

Symposium Theme:
150 years of The Idiot

The Symposium will celebrate 150 years of The Idiot, with a focus on new and multidisciplinary approaches to the novel. Sessions will include:

  • The Idiot in its time and 150 years later
  • Digital Dostoevsky
  • Late Dostoevsky and The Life of a Great Sinner
  • Dostoevsky and the West
  • Dostoevsky and Translation
Cultural Program
The cultural program will include a visit to Walden Pond, a film screening at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and a tour of historical landmarks.
Housing and Meals
Participants will be housed in air-conditioned dormitories on the Charles River Campus of Boston University (in central Boston, right next to the St. Paul Street subway stop) at a price of $ 86 per person a night.
Buffet-style breakfast and lunch will be served each morning and noon, provided courtesy of a series of co-sponsors, including Boston University, Harvard University, Brown University and Wellesley College. Coffee and refreshments will be served throughout the day courtesy of the Harriman Institute, Columbia University.
The Symposium will end with a celebratory banquet overlooking the Boston Harbor.
Funding
Accommodation and travel expenses will be borne by the participants, but we are dedicated to developing a fund to help defray conference fees and the costs of travel and accommodations for those in need of financial assistance.
Conference Fee
The conference fee will be $150 for participants ($100 for spouses).
Visas
For participants from countries requiring visas to the US, letters of invitation will be issued by the International Students and Scholars Office at Boston University.
Airport and Transportation
Boston Logan Airport is located near downtown Boston. The average time on the subway from the airport to the Boston University campus is under one hour. The average taxi fare from the airport to campus is $35.

Тема симпозиума:
150 лет со дня публикации романа «Идиот»

Симпозиум отметит 150-летие романа «Идиот» и осветит новые и междисциплинарные подходы к изучению романа. Предполагаемые темы заседаний:

  • «Идиот» при жизни Достоевского и 150 лет спустя
  • Достоевский и информационные технологии ( Digital Dostoevsky )
  • Поздний Достоевский и «Житие великого грешника»
  • Достоевский и Запад
  • Достоевский в переводах
Культурная программа
В программу симпозиума будут включены поездка на Уолденский пруд, экскурсия по историческим местам Бостона, а также просмотр фильмов в Бостонском музее изобразительных искусств.
Проживание и питание
Участникам будет организовано проживание на кампусе Бостонского университета. Университет предоставляет кондиционированные комнаты в общежитии по цене 86 долларов в день на человека. Общежитие находится в центре города, на берегу реки Чарльз, недалеко от станции метро St. Paul Street.
Завтраки и обеды (шведский стол) в течение 4х дней будут обеспечены нашими спонсорами — Boston University, Harvard University, Brown University и Wellesley College. Кофе и легкие закуски обеспечит Harriman Institute. Симпозиум завершится «Пиром на пирсе» — банкетом в бостонской гавани.
Финансирование
Большинство участников должны будут сами оплатить проезд и проживание, но мы понимаем, что некоторым коллегам может понадобиться финансовая помощь. Мы постараемся найти средства и обеспечить поддержку тем, кто в ней нуждается.
Регистрационный взнос
Для участников с докладом взнос составит 150 долларов. Для гостей и членов семей – 100 долларов.
Визы
Всем участникам, кому требуется виза в США, будут высланы официальные приглашения из Бостонского университета.
Как добраться из аэропорта
Boston Logan Airport расположен недалеко от центра города. На метро Вы сможете добраться до университета меньше, чем за час. Средняя стоимость поездки на такси (20-25 минут) составляет 35 долларов.
Организаторы / Conference co-organizers:

  • Yuri Corrigan (Boston University)
  • Evgenia Cherkasova (Suffolk University)
  • William Mills Todd III (Harvard University)
  • Svetlana Evdokimova (Brown University)
  • Deborah Martinsen (Columbia University)
  • Carol Apollonio (Duke University)
  • Brian Armstrong (Augusta University)
Спонсоры / Sponsors :

  • The International Dostoevsky Society ( IDS )
  • The North American Dostoevsky Society (NADS)
  • Boston University Department of World Languages and Literatures
  • Harvard University Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures
  • Brown University Department of Slavic Studies
  • Wellesley College Department of Russian
  • Suffolk University College of Arts and Sciences
  • Harriman Institute, Columbia University
  • The North American Dostoevsky Society

For more details, please visit the symposium website.

 

Big Fat Books: Worlds of The Brothers Karamazov

On Saturday April 7, Boston University will host a one-day symposium: “Worlds of The Brothers Karamazov.” The symposium is part of an annual series on “Big Fat Books” run by the Department of World Languages & Literatures in which scholars from various disciplines and literatures present comparative approaches to a major text of world literature. Our keynote speakers this year are Robin Feuer Miller (“Dostoevsky Writ Small”) and Gary Saul Morson (“Six Theses on KARAMAZOV“). Their addresses will be followed by two panels of BU faculty (Comparative Karamazov West and East), and then by a student panel of close readings. Michael Katz (Middlebury College), William Mills Todd III (Harvard University), and Evgenia Cherkasova (Suffolk University Boston) will serve as chairs. There will be breakfast, lunch, and a closing reception. If you find yourself in the Boston area, please feel free to stop by for all or part of the proceedings. (See flyer for place, times, details.)

2018 KARAMAZOV flyer

Outstanding Graduate Student Essay Contest

The Readers’ Advisory Board of the North American Dostoevsky Society is celebrating graduate students! We invite members of NADS in good standing to nominate an outstanding graduate-student essay on a Dostoevsky-related topic. (If you are not a member of NADS, you can join at https://dostoevsky.org). Current M.A. and PhD students are also welcome to nominate their own work, NADS membership not required. The winner of the contest will receive: 1) Free membership in NADS for one year, 2) Free registration at the International Dostoevsky Society Symposium in Boston, July 15-19, 2019, and 3) a guaranteed spot as a presenter on the NADS-sponsored panel at AATSEEL, 2020.

To submit a nomination, please send an email containing the student’s name, email address, and institutional affiliation, along with a .doc file of the essay (which should be no more than 8000 words in length and contain no identifying information about the author) to Greta Matzner-Gore at matzner at usc dot edu by September 15, 2018.

We are looking forward to reading your work!

Translating Crime and Punishment: A Conversation with Michael Katz and Nicolas Pasternak Slater, part 3

This past November two new translations of Crime and Punishment were published. Michael Katz’s translation came out with Liveright, a branch of W. W. Norton (link), with an introduction by Katz. Nicolas Pasternak Slater’s came out with Oxford University Press (link), edited and with an introduction by Sarah J. Young. In this series of posts, Bloggers Karamazov sits down with the translators to talk about the experience of translating Dostoevsky’s most famous novel.

This is the last in a series of 3 posts; click here for part 1 and here for part 2.

BK: What is your favorite part of the novel?

katz-coverMK: I have long been a fan of the hero’s dreams. In fact, I wrote a book on dreams and the subconscious in Russian fiction in which I treat those dreams in the context of the novel. I think that the first one, Mikolka and the beaten horse, remains one of the most powerful scenes in all of Russian literature. I read the dream as an allegory of life itself: we are born and have to make our way through the secular world, filled with cruelty and ugliness (Mikolka and the tavern), as we head toward death and ultimate salvation (the church and the cemetery).

NPS: I’m no fan of extreme violence and I thoroughly disapprove of murder. Nevertheless, I am going to choose the account of Raskolnikov’s murder of Aliona Ivanovna and her sister Lizaveta. I think this chapter contains some of the most virtuoso writing not only in the whole of this novel, but perhaps in all that I have read of Dostoevsky. Both the behavior of Raskolnikov – thrown into a state of mental turmoil and confusion by the horror and ugliness of what he has done, and driven more by the inevitabilities of his situation than by any real desire to lay his hands on great wealth – and the reactions first of the old woman and then of Lizaveta when she unexpectedly arrives and is stunned into helpless passivity – are all related with unparalleled psychological insight and a masterly build-up of tension and suspense, culminating in Raskolnikov’s half-crazed bewilderment when he hears steps on the stair and the two visitors start rattling at the door. Dostoevsky dexterously manipulates our feelings so that we are torn between horror at what is going on, some sympathy for the victim (who has never been shown to us personally as wicked or cruel, though described in this way by other characters), unalloyed pity for Lizaveta whom we like – and yet fellow-feeling for Raskolnikov and a desire for him to get away with his deed and not be found out. This last, of course, is achieved by letting us in to the workings of his mind, so that we almost become complicit with him. The whole chapter is a piece of brilliant writing.

 

pasternakslater-coverBK: Why do you think we should read Crime and Punishment today? Why does this novel still resonate with us?

NPS: The novel is at the same time an incomparably gripping and lively story, with a cast of unique and memorable characters, a study in crime and punishment, sin and redemption as moral issues, a treasury of descriptions of the city of Petersburg and its people, a work of social commentary and a religious tract. And more. So what out of all that still speaks to readers in other countries, a century and a half later? For myself personally, I am very interested in the descriptions of the world and time my Russian grandparents were born into; but for the general Western reader, descriptions of deprivation and social injustice are still so prevalent today, from all over the world, that such topics speak less to us now. Of all the many reasons for reading the novel today, I would put the cast of characters at the top of the list. The brilliant portrayals range from Raskolnikov himself – so complicated, tortured, mentally fragile, flung this way and that by sudden irresistible impulses – through the pitiful, hopeless Marmeladov, the saturnine many-sided Svidrigailov, the mephistophelean Porfiry Petrovich, and on to the virtuous characters, the good-hearted but rather comical Razumikhin, Raskolnikov’s naïve but well-meaning mother Pulcheria Alexandrovna, his practical-minded sister Dunia, and the saintly Sonia. Then there are some memorable lesser characters like the maid Nastasia or Lieutenant Gunpowder, and finally a whole cast of walk-on parts, some of whom are sketched out with skill and care in a few pen-strokes (for instance the street girl Duklida who treats Raskolnikov courteously, the drunken teenage girl stalked by a would-be abuser, or the child Polya). Human nature doesn’t change much over the centuries, and these character portraits remain as alive in our day as they were in 1866.

MK: Dostoevsky raises all the right questions, the most important ones that can be asked: the meaning of good and evil, the existence of God, the nature of love, the power of ideas. Even if we reject some of his answers, those questions remain the ones that we struggle with today. Human love and religious faith are his answers.


Michael Katz is the C. V. Starr Professor Emeritus of Russian and East European Studies at Middlebury College. His published research includes numerous articles and two books, The Literary Ballad in Early Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature (1976) and Dreams and the Unconscious in Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature (1984). A prolific translator, he has made a number of works available for English language readers, including prose by Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chernyshevsky, Herzen, Tur, Druzhinin, Artsybashev, Sleptsov, Jabotinsky, and others. His translations of Dostoevsky’s works include Notes from Underground (1989, 2nd ed. 2001), Devils (2010), and Crime and Punishment (2018).

Nicolas Pasternak Slater has a half-Russian background, was brought up bilingual, and studied Russian at school and university as well as during his military service. He spent most of his working life as a hospital doctor and came to translation after retirement. Besides Crime and Punishment (2017), his translations include Pasternak’s Family Correspondence (2010), Lermontov’s A Hero of our Time (2013), Pushkin’s The Journey to Arzrum (2013), Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories (2015), and, most recently, Chekhov’s The Beauties: Essential Stories (2018).

The cover image for this post is a screenshot from Piotr Dumała’s animated adaptation of Dostoevsky’s novel (Zbrodnia i kara, 2000). You can view the full animation here.

Translating Crime and Punishment: A Conversation with Michael Katz and Nicolas Pasternak Slater, part 2

This past November two new translations of Crime and Punishment were published. Michael Katz’s translation came out with Liveright, a branch of W. W. Norton (link), with an introduction by Katz. Nicolas Pasternak Slater’s came out with Oxford University Press (link), edited and with an introduction by Sarah J. Young. In this series of posts, Bloggers Karamazov sits down with the translators to talk about the experience of translating Dostoevsky’s most famous novel.

This is the 2nd in a series of 3 posts; click here for part 1.

BK: The act of translation puts you in intensely close contact with the text. Did you notice anything while you were translating that you had never noticed before? Did your perception of the novel shift in any way?

pasternakslater-coverNPS: When I came to start my translation I had not read the novel for very many years. What I remembered was the skeleton of the plot, and an impression of a gripping but heavy, depressing, chaotic, episodic story. So translating it now enriched my perception in a great many ways. Let me pick just one – Dostoevsky’s humor. He is a brilliant humorist who sees the ridiculous in almost any sphere of life, and in this novel he plays with humor in the most diverse and unexpected situations. When the German Luisa Ivanovna has a verbal set-to with Lieutenant Gunpowder in the police office, their showdown is pure slapstick farce. The meeting between Dunia’s absurdly pompous suitor Luzhin and Raskolnikov’s family who soundly humiliate him is also richly comical, as well as important for the plot. But even the most tragic situations can be injected with comedy. The drunkard Marmeladov’s lengthy confession at the beginning of the novel is funny, with its swathes of biblical language and then the way he revels in his degrading punishment. Or there is the macabre but absurd scene near the end of the book where the demented Katerina Ivanovna drags her little children out into the street in ragged fancy dress to dance and sing for pennies. Even one of the most horrible moments in the whole novel, Raskolnikov’s dream of the horse being beaten to death, has its grim humor – the drunken peasant Mikolka makes himself thoroughly ridiculous when he desperately flogs and beats his little horse, harder and harder, in frustrated fury that he can’t get the poor beast to die.

MK: The Russian ear tolerates repetition – of long names including patronymics and certain words and phrases. As a translator I noticed the multiple repetitions in the text and had to decide whether they were semantically loaded and needed to be preserved in my translation, or whether they were dispensable and could be replaced by a synonym or a pronoun. Such decisions are not easily made: the translator has to rely on his understanding of the text and his own intuition.

 

katz-coverBK: Which character do you think is the most misunderstood in the novel?

MK: Without doubt, it’s Arkady Svidrigaylov. He appears out of a dream and his mysterious presence seems to haunt the hero. He is alleged to be responsible for the deaths of three other characters (his wife, his servant, and a young girl). He commits acts of cruelty and generosity, and feels neither compunction nor satisfaction. He seeks a relationship with Raskolnikov, but it is unclear why he does so. All in all, he remains something of a mystery.

NPS: I wondered – misunderstood by whom? The author, the other characters, or the readers? But I thought that the most universally misunderstood, perhaps, is Svidrigailov, the man of mystery with a shadowy past who hangs around Raskolnikov like a nemesis. On one reading, he is so enigmatic as almost to make no sense – is he fundamentally good (clearly not), or fundamentally evil (also not), and how do the good and bad sides in his character coexist? On the bad side, he may (or may not) have caused his wife’s death, he is a self-confessed libertine, he tries (or threatens) to rape Raskolnikov’s sister Dunia, and he plans to marry a child for his sexual gratification. Yet he performs many good actions, including saving Katerina Ivanovna’s orphan children and giving Dunia a large sum of money. Perhaps the last of his moral actions is to commit suicide. I think his character actually hangs together quite well: though repugnant, he is an intelligent man with a philosophical bent and humane instincts of empathy and kindness, who is saddled with sexual appetites that he can barely control. This is a paradox we meet often enough in real life (in this day and age, might he have been a charity worker in a third-world disaster area?).  Dostoevsky, of course, must condemn him because none of his humane motivations come from God or religion: he is an amoral freethinker.

Dumala-Svidrigailov

BK: It’s interesting that you both chose the same character! Svidrigaylov is a scoundrel in many of his acts in the novel, and I agree that he remains a mysterious, ambiguous figure. Do you think he is a sympathetic character at all?

MK: He is “charming” and sincere in his despair; I don’t find him sympathetic.

NPS: I have already alluded to the good actions he performs, and while we may suspect his motives when he tries to make a gift of money to Dunia, and certainly when he makes a much more lavish gift to his (no longer) intended child bride, his farewell gifts to Sonia and her little brother and sister are untainted by sinister motives, and the reader is bound to approve of him at those moments. The slug in the lettuce, as it were, is not the action he performs, nor its intended good effect, but his inner thoughts at the time. He is a disillusioned cynic, a moral nihilist, and as a reader I cannot imagine him filled with a glow of virtuous satisfaction even during his most generous acts. No, he is looking at himself almost as an outsider, cynically weighing himself up and devaluing whatever looks virtuous and kind. There is no path he can take now save that of self-destruction. As a reader, I can feel sorry for him, I can feel glad about his good actions, but I cannot have fellow-feeling for such a self-annihilating person.

 

click here for part 3!


Michael Katz is the C. V. Starr Professor Emeritus of Russian and East European Studies at Middlebury College. His published research includes numerous articles and two books, The Literary Ballad in Early Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature (1976) and Dreams and the Unconscious in Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature (1984). A prolific translator, he has made a number of works available for English language readers, including prose by Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chernyshevsky, Herzen, Tur, Druzhinin, Artsybashev, Sleptsov, Jabotinsky, and others. His translations of Dostoevsky’s works include Notes from Underground (1989, 2nd ed. 2001), Devils (2010), and Crime and Punishment (2018).

Nicolas Pasternak Slater has a half-Russian background, was brought up bilingual, and studied Russian at school and university as well as during his military service. He spent most of his working life as a hospital doctor and came to translation after retirement. Besides Crime and Punishment (2017), his translations include Pasternak’s Family Correspondence (2010), Lermontov’s A Hero of our Time (2013), Pushkin’s The Journey to Arzrum (2013), Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories (2015), and, most recently, Chekhov’s The Beauties: Essential Stories (2018).

The cover image for this post is a screenshot from Piotr Dumała’s animated adaptation of Dostoevsky’s novel (Zbrodnia i kara, 2000). You can view the full animation here.