Fyodor Dostoevsky

Lending Library copy to decide whose translation to buy

The Possessed


The Devils (Demons)

A Novel in Three Parts

by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Translated From The Russian By Constance Garnett


This copy seems a “print on demand” and is not easy to read because the lines are crammed together and the wide format (7½”) (192 mm) is hard to hold. It seems meant to be on a desk with reader perched on a chair rather than posed on a comfortable daybed or lounge. Dostoyevsky appears on the cover also apparently a mis-spell – most probably publisher error because inside the author-name is as in the heading above, Fyodor Dostoevsky, which the Gutenberg Project (whose web page I cruised through) also would do as per the original.

The translation from Russian by Constance Garnett is good so I gather but due to mores of the time of translation, a chapter had to be omitted and other bits damped down.

I love the opening quote from A. Pushkin:

     “Strike me dead, the track has vanished,
     Well, what now? We’ve lost the way,
     Demons have bewitched our horses,
     Led us in the wilds astray.

     “What a number! Whither drift they?
     What’s the mournful dirge they sing?
     Do they hail a witch’s marriage
     Or a goblin’s burying?”

     A. Pushkin.

and I’m thoroughly enjoying the read. I felt compelled to look up who was in power at the time, what regimes were in force and, various ways of life apart from those encountered in The Possessed .

Initially I intended to buy Constance Garnett’s translation but now am considering Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky‘s. Blurb for their Vintage Classics edition says: “Inspired by the true story of a political murder that horrified Russians in 1869, Fyodor Dostoevsky conceived of Demons as a “novel phamphlet” in which he would say everything about the plague of materialist ideology that he saw infecting his native land. What emerged was a prophetic and ferociously funny masterpiece of ideology and murder in pre-revolutionary Russia.

What are your thoughts on these translations?

Meantime, I’ve got deeper into Constance Garnett’s copy and well-engrossed by the story which does appear to be rather prophetic of 20th Century and perhaps the 21st too.

From a writer’s point-of-view, the portraits of people are wonderful particularly the descriptions on pages 64-66 of this Library copy which will be much farther on in a regular-sized novel.

The complexities of day-to-day matters full with gossip and emotional outbursts in what otherwise should be controlled social order, character manipulations even to marriage along with emerging revolutionaries and suicides, stitch into some “strange friendships” and “vortex of combined circumstances” which see the downfall or declined activity of otherwise celebrated characters.

I like the strength and cunning, plotting and gossiping of the aristrocratic Vavara Petrovna Stavrogina who resides on the magnificent estate of Skvoreshniki. To what end is all that?

Subtle tempters to read on, innocent hints of what may happen next are strewn through the 69 of 394 pages (Vintage Classics stands at 768 pages 5.2″ width) so far I’ve read: like Vavara Petrovna’s matchmaking to cover-up “the sins of others”. She advises young Darya to keep a sharp look-out as Stepan Trofimovitch (idealised romantic poet) may hang himself. A voice whispers in the girl’s head, “Will he really do that? Or just threaten to?” And Vavara Petrovna tells her, “It’s not through strength of will but through weakness that people hang themselves, and so never drive him to an extreme, that’s the first rule in married life.”

(I really must put this book aside until I’ve got through my newly started next round of edits of A Greek Matinee – but I’m compulsive, want to see both to their ends!)

And there’s Pyotre Stepanovitch Verkhovensky (inspired by the revolutionary Sergey Nechayev) sewing dischord and breakdown of society. (Nechayev’s manifesto revolutionaries were encouraged to “aid the growth of calamity and every evil, which must at last exhaust the patience of the people and force them into general uprising”. His murder of Ivanov is the base for Vekhovensky’s murder of Shatov in Demons.)

As I read The Possessed (Demons) although meaning is pretty evident, I have my smart-phone handy with its Bixby Vision because in certain dialogues, French language mingles!… Ouch! We should have studied this book at school and integrated it’s French into those classes. But I suppose for young ladies in our then society a lot of the content would not have been appropriate as noted above, although my schooling was many-many decades after Constance Garnett made her translation and as said, she had to leave out a whole chapter and tone down much else due to social mores of the time.

PS: And on page 65 is the quote Ioana Pârvulescu used at the beginning of her Viitorul începe luni (The Future Begins on Monday): Quote from Demons

“One life is over and another is begun, then that one is over – a third begins.”


Book Encounters – Lela and Péter Esterházy

Lela seemed paranoiac, as if a Party-State black Volga would edge down the street, pull-in close, from its curtained interior a chill-complexioned thug make for…

Romancing with Lela, Péter Esterházy and Fyodor Dostoevsky at Central Station
Encounters with Lela
p42 Lela Celestial H Not Art 300       

In the concourse of Central Station I met a woman from Roumania. Outside rain poured heavily. Extremely so. It was the season for that. We had coffee together confident within an hour the storm would be passed. I began to suspect Lela’s internal ones never would.

When people of a certain race pressed in, munching hamburgers, gulping coffee, licking ice-creams and yabbering loudly, she turned her back to them, huddled closer to me. There was good reason, they coughed and spluttered without using a tissue or handkerchief to cover their sprayings. That was eighteen months ago. Now it’s mandatory to wear a mask in public places and particular spaces. Were these people never taught as children, as we were, to cough or sneeze into a handkerchief (which Mother boiled up in a copper with great quantities of salt, much rinsing then hanging up in the sun to dry) or use a disposable cloth which was burnt? Wash hands after… you know what! and before handling food?

But it was more than that. Lela warily scanned beyond the young people, her eyes seeking out darkest nooks and crannies and sifting amongst bodies pouring off the escalators.

And I suspected Lela was not her true name.

Her last name sounded Hungarian but she muttered it so softly I could not catch it. And it was so foreign to my ears and long, I would not have remembered it. She would not repeat it, nor would she write it when we exchanged telephone numbers.

We arranged to meet a month later closer to our homes – we’d both travelled far, her to go to the cathedral, me for a Sunday lecture up-river at the university.

Four weeks passed with intermittent telephone calls and definite arrangements. We met at a club with a large dining hall and several small casual-eating areas comfortably appointed with well-padded chairs and lounges ninety minutes from our respective homes. A half-way mark.

My new friend was in a beautifully embroidered white sunfrock. Utterly unlike anything I had seen before. I wore black jeans and jacket with a bright scarf draped about my neck. Despite her smiles and boisterous greeting, she seemed paranoiac, a trait I had begun to suspect when we first met… as if a Party-State black Volga would edge down the street, rein-in close, from its curtained interior a chill-complexioned thug make for her.

Despite her long drive she would not eat, nor take coffee. I said it was my treat but still she refused and we both drank water only. We shifted to a more intimate booth where she pulled a book from her basket and clutched it close to her chest.

Before allowing me to look at it, she glanced around. Glanced? No, she scrutinised the area in a practiced way though as covertly as she could.

Warily, she asked me again why was I going to Roumania. Why Transylvania. What was my purpose?

As if in a clandestine meeting in a cloak-and-dagger novel, she bade me draw my chair closer. She put the book on the table (it was sizeable) along with another, opened the first at a series of pictures. Old photographs. Great forests and mountains. Fairy-tale castles and carriages. Men, elegantly attired.

‘That is my grandfather,’ she said. ‘He is now dead. They got him. Some of us escaped. I returned last year when my grandmother was dying. Decades had passed. I missed her by a day. All our jewellery is gone. Stolen. And our estates.’

As a group of people came close, she darted furtive glances, closed the book, hid it in her basket. I never saw it again. Nor the other titled Once Upon a Transylvania.

I’m glad I’d been reading Péter Esterházy’s Celestial Harmonies. I had a handle on her behaviour. That fear that never seems to leave her. The old families of the East European Bloc when the big changes came, could not even trust one another. I’d seen it in the eyes of friends of my family when I was young. And our neighbours who were Polish. I remember a day when census officials were calling door-to-door. Mrs K had spotted them, leapt the fence, rushed up our twenty back stairs calling to my mother, ‘Quick, quick, police! They’re coming. Hurry! Come! Bring children. Quick! Must hide!’

I’m still reading Celestial Harmonies, I’m a slow reader, appreciating every nuance, every word and, it’s a big book at 841 pages (and admittedly I do break to take in other books).

Judith Sollosy translated Celestial Harmonies from Péter Esterházy’s Hungarian. She said, ‘Panic, too, can be a formative part of the translation process, an unwelcome source of inspiration … For Esterházy, style and content are inseparable, and the medium is the message … I had to bend a close ear to the text in order to distinguish the Esterházy from the pseudo- Esterházy … As his translator, I wanted to get inside Péter Esterházy’s head.’

And I’m reading Péter Esterházy’s Not Art.

Both books make one consider what else a novel can be. Just as Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Demons does (or, The Possessed as Constance Garnett in 1913 translated).

All three made me look up histories of Russia, Roumania and round-abouts.

Re-aligning my understanding of the politics of the time, how those came about and ways of life beyond those novels gave me deep insight to the characters and indeed the authors (both men were genius writers), and of course Lela.

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