Dostoyevsky’s Demons

I’ll raise some questions that have come up for me in the first few chapters, but here first is the opening, as translated by Constance Garnett:


IN UNDERTAKING to describe the recent and strange incidents in our town, till lately wrapped in uneventful obscurity, I find myself forced in absence of literary skill to begin my story rather far back, that is to say, with certain biographical details concerning that talented and highly-esteemed gentleman, Stepan Trofimovitch Verhovensky. I trust that these details may at least serve as an introduction, while my projected story itself will come later.

I’d be interested in how this compares with the more recent P&V translation, which I haven’t yet got my hands on, but some things strike me as likely to remain, being the voice of Dostoyevsky himself. One is the sarcasm, or at least irony, of that opening description. Perhaps it’s only ordinary to introduce any man as “that highly respected gentleman”, but to follow tht with “talented and highly esteemed” seems to be gilding the lily, without even describing the man. And in the chapters that follow it’s hardly true that Verhovensky is revealed to be highly esteemed, respected, or talented. In fact, he’s something of a buffoon, isn’t he? Or at least a dandy? Perhaps the rest of the novel will reveal him as something different, but that’s my impression so far. Another element is the self-deprecation, especially with regard to the actual writing: “I find myself forced in absence of literary skill…” Few would agree (Nabokov being a notable exception), and the comment itself seems disingenuous, as the narrator decorates these sentences with more than a few formalities. Some of them might be quirks attributable to a middling type of writer Dostoyevsky might mean to parody, others are less likely so. In the sentence, “I trust that these details may at least serve as an introduction, while my projected story itself will come later”, he reveals something of a plan.

And who is this narrator? What exactly is his point of view? He’s a resident of the town in which strange incidents have taken place, but what relation does he have to those incidents? Could he be drawing such a careful portrait of Verhovensky to avoid scrutiny of himself? What does the narrator share with Dostoyevsky? Assuming he isn’t simply Dostoyevsky. Is there an explanation for his awareness of the intimate details and conversations of other characters that follow, or should the story presented be simply understood as fiction?

More generally, what is the relation or correspondence between the Demons in the story from the gospel of Luke (in the epithet) and the Demons in the novel? As I understand it, Dostoyevsky believed in a kind of Messianic version of Russian Orthodoxy; is this what he thought would save Russia, as Jesus saved the man possessed by Demons? Assuming this is true, what would Dostoyevsky think if he saw what has become of Russia today?


  1. Rufus McCain says
  2. Rufus McCain says

    The Garnett translation, of this paragraph at least, is more elegant and flows more smoothly than the P&V. One problem with new translations is that the translators often seem to self-consciously feel obliged to use different words and sentence structures than those of the earlier translator even if (maybe especially if) the earlier translator (Garnett, in this case) hit upon the perfect word and/or sentence structure.

  3. Rufus McCain says

    Here’s the P&V translation:

    “In setting out to describe the recent and very strange events that took place in our town, hitherto not remarkable for anything, I am forced, for want of skill, to begin somewhat far back — namely, with some biographical details concerning the talented and much esteemed Stepan Trofimovich Verhkhovensky. Let these details serve merely as an introduction to the chronicle presented here, while the story itself, which I am intending to relate, still lies ahead.”

  4. Rufus McCain says

    Had to go look up Nabokov’s dissing of Dostoevsky, which I found referenced here. I think I prefer Dostoevsky to Tolstoy for the same reason Nabokov doesn’t. Same reason I prefer Percy to Updike and O’Connor to Welty. Although I see where Nab is coming from.

  5. Quin Finnegan says

    Many thanks, Rufus, for all of this. Those lectures on literature, by the way, are worth their weight in gold. Worthier.

    After a while, I think Nabokov got tired of having to answer for his criticism of Dostoyevsky. In his commentary to Eugene Oenegin he references him once with a single sentence, “A minor Gothic writer”.

    O’Connor, incidentally, was a great fan of Nabokov.

    I’ve always preferred Tolstoy (specifically Anna Karenin and Hadji Murat), but I’m enjoying The Possessed very much this time around. Perhaps it is the humor.

    And the P&V translation strikes me as simply awful.

  6. Anonymous says

    Obviously you all don’t read Russian! If you did you would see that the Garnett translations are absolutely pathetic. Pevear and Volokhonsky and Michael Katz are much closer to the actual style and writing of Dostoevsky.

    If you are going to say that a translation is good or bad, you should really be knowledgeable about the original text before making judgment.

    And as I am in a graduate course on Dostoevsky where we read the original Russian besides English translation I can tell you that all of us (including the Professor) laugh out loud at how truly inaccurate and distorted Garnetts translations are.

  7. Rufus McCain says



    Well, maybe you’re right. Maybe Dostoevsky really was a lousy stylist and P&V have captured that.

    From the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:

    “Constance Garnett’s requirements for a good translation were sympathy for the author and a love of words and their meanings. She herself had faults: her dialogues are sometimes stiff; her transliteration of Russian names is illogical and inconsistent; she makes many errors. But the speed at which she worked, which was partly to blame for these, allowed her to maintain stylistic unity. Her descriptive passages are often exquisitely done and she eschews linguistic fads or slang. Conrad, for whom Turgenev was Constance Garnett, compared her to a great musician interpreting a great composer. For Katherine Mansfield, Constance Garnett transformed the lives of younger authors by revealing a new world. Without her translations, H. E. Bates believed, modern English literature itself could not have been what it is (Bates, 120).”

  8. Rufus McCain says

    Here‘s an interesting discussion of a 2005 New Yorker article on this topic.

  9. Quin Finnegan says

    Hey Mr. A,

    Well, you’re in good company – Nabokov’s in particular. Whom I esteem above all other writers. And we craven few (me craven, anyway) here at Korrektiv bow before the truly awesome intelligence of all of you: Nabokov, your teacher, and all those graduate students, including you.

    But I’m sticking to the Garnett. I like the cover.

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