Pynchon, DeLillo, Atwood, Dostoyevsky, DeLillo.

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Never in my whole life have I read a more engrossing and elemental work, and at the time I had never read such a long one. It had the effect of a powerful drug, and for a time I was totally absorbed by it. For some time after my return home I refused to read another book, fearing that I might be plunged headlong into the deepest disappointment. For weeks I refused to read anything at all. The monstrous quality of The Demons had made me strong; it had shown me a path that I could follow and told me that I was on the right one, the one that led out. I had felt the impact of a work that was both wild and great, and I emerged from the experience like a hero. Seldom has literature produced such an overwhelming effect on me.

— Thomas Bernhard, Gathering Evidence

Steve Donoghue takes a look at a brand new translation by husband-and-wife team Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from a Dead House. Design: Peter Mendelsund.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from a Dead House. Design: Peter Mendelsund.
It was for a perhaps peripheral participation in the “Petrashevist” movement that Fyodor Dostoevsky was arrested in 1849 and sentenced to four years of hard labor followed by four years of military service in Siberia; he’d circulated a letter and supported the establishment of a subversive press, all done in resistance to the established imperial power structure with the Church and Tsar Nicholas I at its head.

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Rendering Russia’s literary masterpieces into English

Orlando Figes

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky have begun a quiet revolution in the translation of Russian literature. Since the publication of their acclaimed version of The Brothers Karamazov in 1990, they have translated fifteen volumes of classic Russian works by Dostoevsky, Gogol, Bulgakov, Chekhov, and Tolstoy, restoring all the characteristic idioms, the bumpy syntax, the angularities, and the repetitions that had largely been removed in the interests of “good writing” by Garnett and her followers, and paying more attention (in a way that their predecessors never really did) to the interplay or dialogue between the different voices (including the narrator’s) in these works—to the verbal “polyphony” which has been identified by the literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin as the organizing principle of the novel since Gogol.

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Lydia Davis
Lydia Davis
From an interview between Dan Gunn and the writer and translator Lydia Davis, published in The Quarterly Conversation

Dan Gunn: Proust’s narrator deduces that, to convey the priority of sense-impressions over pre-formulated conclusions, he needs to write à la Dostoevsky. When I read your work I am, in fact, made to think less of Dostoevsky than of Kafka, and of the way in which the familiar becomes strange in his work—his story “Hands” for example, where his narrator’s two hands appear suddenly to be alien and potentially at war with one another. If one may provisionally call such writing “phenomenal,” do you feel that part of your own work which is “phenomenal” to be working within a tradition? Or is it rather something that you developed privately and intuitively?

Lydia Davis: I think influence is a complicated thing. I am influenced by a kind of writing because I am drawn to it, open to it. I am drawn to it because there is already an affinity between my own sensibility and sense of formal structure and those of the author I am reading or studying. I would not be influenced by a writer alien to me. I really see an ongoing process that starts in earliest childhood. The very first picture books and nursery rhymes have their effect, as do songs and the lyrics of songs. My sensibility as a child is affected by these and then my changing sensibility and sense of structure show in my writings, even the stories written as assignments in grade school. And of course the influences of interactions with family and friends and teachers continue to have their effect. (more…)

David Lean on location for Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
David Lean on location for Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
The Criterion Collection profiles the many sides of the epic filmmaker
For many cinephiles, the name David Lean signifies grand moviemaking—sweeping epics like Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. But the long and eclectic career of this legendary British director encompasses arresting intimacy as well, as evidenced by the films of his in the Criterion Collection. Among those are pictures that he was responsible for editing, early on in his work in film: some of his national cinema’s greatest hits, including Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard’s Pygmalion, Gabriel Pascal’s Major Barbara, and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 49th Parallel. In the forties and early fifties, having moved to directing, he made several luminous films, including adaptations of such classic and important contemporary works from the stage and page as Harold Brighouse’s Hobson’s Choice, Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit and Still Life (Brief Encounter, in the film version), and Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. All are graced by evocative, shadowy black-and-white cinematography and elegantly restrained compositions. Summertime, his gorgeous 1955 Technicolor trip to Venice with Katharine Hepburn, marked a turning point in his career: the sun-dappled location shoot was galvanizing for Lean, and the remainder of his films, from The Bridge on the River Kwai to A Passage to India, could be considered outdoor spectacles. Yet Lean’s deep interest in complex characters, his brilliant way with actors, and his classic sense of storytelling were never trumped by scale. [More at The Criterion Collection]

Ilya Repin, Portrait of Vera Repin, the Artist's Wife (1878)
Ilya Repin, Portrait of Vera Repin, the Artist’s Wife (1878)
Rosamund Bartlett (The Guardian) on her translation of Anna Karenina

Do we really need another English translation of Anna Karenina? This is a bit like asking whether we need a new recording of Beethoven’s Ninth. There is no English translation of the 1970 Academy of Sciences edition of the novel currently in print. This version contained a host of small differences from earlier versions; these may not amount to much individually, but cumulatively they add up to a new reading. And just as conductors and performers can produce revelatory new interpretations after intense listening, so translators have the potential to allow the author to speak more clearly. It’s all about the detail.

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Why read a ‘difficult’ book?
Emily Temple (Flavorwire) has compiled a list of ’50 Incredibly Tough Books for Extreme Readers’. Their toughness varies from the sheer bulk of the volume (eg. Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Stein’s The Making of Americans), to their stylistic virtuosity (Finnegans Wake, anyone?). But despite their daunting reputations, there can be something special about reading a ‘difficult’ book.

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