Wednesday, September 16, 2009

upon which she writes a post that is much too long in response to a book that is arguably so (or, lost in translation)

i just finished slogging through--ahem--reading the brothers karamazov for my book club. our discussion leader last night suggested that maybe some of us had done the work to read it because we felt like it made us better people; indeed, i do feel like an important gap in my literary experience, shameful english major such as i am, has been filled. i can check that one off the list, as it were.

but have you read it? it's hard, hard work. most of us agreed that we wished we had been reading it for a class, led by a no-doubt brilliant professor through the famous "grand inquisitor" poem (poem? really? i didn't notice) or ivan's devilish apparition scene. we all agreed it is in no way beach/airplane/vacation reading, and those there last night who hadn't read it didn't seem eager, at the end of our conversation, to plunge into it.

so why, our leader asked us, does it endure? why is this monster of a book considered a classic and read by high schoolers and college students year in and year out?

why, having barely survived it the first time, do i find myself thinking that i'd like to learn russian and have another go at it?

because i want to know how he did it. dostoyevsky, that is. how did he do it? how, in an eight hundred page work of fiction (and that with rather small print and rather large pages, i might add--who writes that much, anyhow? boys howdy!) that does not ever really describe anyone, just how did dostoyevsky create characters who were so real?

and therein lies the reason i suggest learning russian: because it is about the words. i have experienced this timeless, monstrous masterpiece, this work of incredible words, filtered through someone else's understanding. it was when we compared translations last night--for example, the chapter called "sensualists" or otherwise "voluptuaries"--that i realized how much is lost just in the translation of the words. never mind my utter lack of familiarity with or knowledge of russian culture, which would certainly inform my understanding of the connotation of that russian word for "sensualists" or "voluptuaries"; in english, i would argue, those two words are at least used to mean different things. are you fluent in another language? i can remember speaking french well enough to know words that i couldn't quite translate to my native english without losing some essence of their true meaning. how many such choices over the eight hundred pages did the translators of just my edition make?

you see, some books are about a brilliant plot, a riveting twist, fantastic visual imagery, or heart-rending emotion. i love many of the books i do for just those reasons. but no one loves the brothers karamazov for any of those reasons. this book is about the words. the crushingly long monologues (a seven page paragraph?), the dialogue between a brain-feverish man and the devil only he hears, the novella-length life story of a deceased elder--these moments are the ones that stick with me from this book. i can't tell you what those very characters looked like, where they were, or what these passages had to do at all with the plot, as it were. but they were powerful evocations of apparently-real fictional people.

and i read those people filtered through someone else's understanding. i can only imagine going to the source...

which got me thinking about The Source and the power of words to create. the Lord Himself spoke things into being, and in His image, we create with our words, too. what are we doing when we're writing or speaking or thinking but creating? it's a power that, too often, is corrupted by our sinful desire to maintain the glittering image, to borrow from susan howatch (have you read it? oh, do read it). we're busy creating who we think we want to be or need to be--at least i am--every time we open our mouths, pick up a pen, or sit down at the computer.

do you use facebook to create a profile--favorite quotations, status updates, wall postings--and when you do, who do you make of yourself? do the emails you send to your boss at work look like the ones you send your sister? (does an editor--read here grammar-and-puncutation nazi--write a blog with no capital letters?) who do you envision reading what you write as you pen the journal-that-one-day-may-be-a-memoir?

sweet luke asked me the other day out of the blue--as he is wont to do--why adam named the sandwich as he did, since there's neither sand nor witches in it. our words have power to create and shape, even as adam's words completed, as it were, what God had spoken into being. it's a corrective, i think--at least for me, for whom both work and leisure revolve most often around words--to be careful what i create. someone asked rhetorically last night how long it took dostoyevsky to write this, his ultimate work; and imagine! there was more to come had he lived to complete it. each carefully chosen word to create his we choose carefully the words we use to create?

aside from the few songs i know from my peace child days, i do not expect i'll ever learn russian. as i'm still recovering from the first go-round and really never, ever reread a book (there are so many more good books to read!), i do not expect to venture to skotoprigonevsk with the brothers three (and a half?) again, though i've barely scratched the surface this time. but i will persist in marvelling at what dostoyevksy managed to create, and i will take to heart the reminder of the power of words. (and i will never, ever--and here i'm quite serious--see the movie, which is perhaps a topic for another post).

(and now, having agonized all day over what i've created here and having reluctantly judged it fit for consumption, i'll publish it. but not without concern about what i've created...and in fact, as you may have noticed, deliberately without any quotations from dostoyevsky's masterpiece, for two reasons: 1] i wouldn't want him rolling over in his grave on my account, and 2] i'm not opening that book again.)


Meredith said...

There are many books I feel that way about, especially the translation bit. Swan's Way. Someday I will reread that in a better translation...*sigh*

This post makes me think of semiotics and how we understand the world through words. Fascinating.

PS You knew I would have to respond to this one, right?

Patricia Berman said...

And I am sure you didn't think I would respond to this post. But I have a question....why did I like this book so much?

Daniele said...

Commenting on my own comments? Not sure.

M, I knew you would. Swan's Way? Never read it. Russian?

Mom, I wondered the same thing through all 800 pages. Wow.

Meredith said...

Swan's Way: French. Proust. Brilliant. Incomprehensible.