Thursday, 1 March 2012

A Double Dash of Dostoyevsky (with a Garnett chaser)

It's been a while since my last Dostoyevsky read, so I thought it was time to crack open a book I've had sitting on my shelves for far too long now.  As you can see from the photo, my Wordsworth Editions purchase actually contains two of the great man's works, collected together for a very good reason - namely that they are both extremely autobiographical...

The House of the Dead is a collection of reflections about time in a Siberian prison, penned by an upper-class political prisoner who has been sentenced to ten years' incarceration.  Preceded by a introductory chapter explaining where the notes come from, the book is a rather sobering description of life inside a typical Siberian labour camp.

The notes start with the arrival of the writer, a certain Aleksandr Petrovich Goryanchikov, in Siberia, and dwell chiefly on his first year in the prison.  As a 'gentleman', he finds it hard to settle in the prison, only becoming grudgingly accepted by the peasant majority as his term wears on.  Despite his initial difficulties, the conditions in the prison are made to sound fairly acceptable: good food can be had for a price (as can vodka!); the work, while difficult, is fairly relaxed; and the inmates tend, on the whole, to avoid any kind of physical violence.

However, it's not all fun and games behind bars.  The barracks the prisoners stay in are covered in filth, and the cold Siberian winter leaves its mark on the poor wretches huddling under their greatcoats.  Worse than the physical suffering though is the mental torture the prisoners must endure.  Even if there is no immediate threat to their lives, the reality is that they are prisoners - and they won't be getting out for a long, long time...

While The House of the Dead can be a bit of a depressing read, The Gambler is anything but.  It's only half the length of its partner novel, but it seems even shorter as the reader is swept along by the energetic pace and irresistible energy of the characters.  It takes place in the (imaginary!) German resort of Roulettenburg, a town where high society from all over Europe comes to take the waters and gamble their money away.

Our main man here is Alexei Ivanovich, a young tutor attached to a family of Russian nobles.  His employer, the General, is passionately in love with a beautiful young Frenchwoman (and badly in debt to a suave Frenchman), and his stay in Roulettenburg is spent waiting for news about the health of the General's rich aunt.  With so much riding on 'Granny' shuffling off this mortal coil as soon as possible then, you can imagine that her arrival in Roulettenburg is not a welcome one...

The chapter depicting Granny's arrival steals the show, her triumphant entry set to the sound of dropping jaws an example of the writer's genius.  However, The Gambler, as the title suggests, is not about family matters, but about the dangers of the roulette wheel and the near impossibility of escaping from the casino with both wallet and soul untouched.  Spurred on by both Granny and Polina, the woman he loves but can never attain, Alexei succumbs to the temptation to risk his luck.  The consequences?  Well, that would be telling ;)

It might be difficult to believe that one man could experience both of these lives in the space of one existence, but Dostoyevsky did.  The House of the Dead is based on his own experiences in a Siberian labour camp, where he spent four years of his life imprisoned and isolated from society.  Later, in the middle of a gambling mania in Wiesbaden, and under extreme time pressure to deliver a novel he had promised, he dictated The Gambler to the woman who would later become his wife.  He definitely wasn't one for a quiet life...

Of the two, I much preferred The Gambler.  It has that page-turning quality which can make a classic novel into a thing of beauty, marrying great writing with a plot you can't wait to unravel.  The House of the Dead, by contrast, seems a little leaden and doesn't really go anywhere.  It's a collection of impressions, loosely bound together, and it's tempting to think that were it not for political constraints, it may have become a slightly less sanitised work of non-fiction.

Of course, there is one more factor that must be considered when evaluating this book, and that is the (in)famous translator, Constance Garnett.  Garnett polarises opinion, with many readers loathing her rendering of Dostoyevskian dialogue into incomprehensible, pseudo-Cockney rambling, while others like her (dated) style.  I would have to say that the translations probably played a large part in my opinions here: parts of the conversations in The House of the Dead were virtually unreadable.  For example:
"You great sow!... He's grown fat on the prison bread.  Glad he'll give us a litter of twelve suckling pigs by Christmas."
"But what sort of queer bird are you?" he cried, suddenly turning crimson.
"Just so, a bird."
"What sort?"
"That sort." pp25-6
This goes on for a while, until one of the men finally declares himself a "cocky-locky", at which point I looked to see how much more of the novel I had to read...

The Gambler, however, seemed to fly by much more smoothly, and I hardly noticed any glaring conversational wonders, often the sign of a good translation.  There was one problem with the language in The Gambler though; anyone whose French is not quite up to scratch may wish to consider investing in a dictionary before reading it.  My edition had no notes translating the frequent French comments into English :)

So, at the end of a post which has become a lot longer, and much less coherent, than I would have liked, let's summarise today's findings:

1) I liked The Gambler better.
2) Constance Garnett's translations are not for everyone, so you may want to find another edition.
3) Especially if your French isn't much good.
4) Prisons in nineteenth-century Russia weren't very clean.
5) Dostoyevsky had a very, very interesting life.

You're welcome :)