Mag­nif­i­cent strange­ness

Ge­ordie Wil­liamson

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

NIKO­LAI Go­gol has not al­ways been well served by his English trans­la­tors. As late as 1944, Vladimir Nabokov, in his bril­liantly ec­cen­tric book Niko­lai Go­gol , about ‘‘ the strangest prose-poet Rus­sia ever pro­duced’’, com­plained that ‘‘ all trans­la­tions of Dead Souls into English are worth­less’’.

Obliged to do his own ‘‘ English­ing’’ of Go­gol, the great nov­el­ist and ac­com­plished trans­la­tor of Ler­mon­tov and Pushkin ad­mit­ted his ef­forts were ‘‘ the best my poor vo­cab­u­lary could af­ford, but even had they been per­fect as those I hear with my in­ner­most ear, without be­ing able to ren­der their in­to­na­tion, they still would not re­place Go­gol’’.

The prob­lem lay in the spe­cial na­ture of Go­gol’s ge­nius which, Nabokov ex­plained, is ‘‘ a phe­nom­e­non of lan­guage and not one of ideas’’. Of course, Dos­to­evsky and Tur­genev also of­fer dif­fi­cul­ties for the trans­la­tor. But the real-world sub­stance of those Rus­sian writ­ers, the uni­ver­sal so­cial ques­tions ad­dressed in their work, of­fers some cross-cul­tural pur­chase: if we can’t get the tex­ture of their prose, we can at least com­mu­ni­cate its con­tent.

Go­gol’s writ­ing is dif­fer­ent. Scholar An­drei Sinyavski has writ­ten of how it ‘‘ shifts from the ob­ject of speech to speech as a process of ob­ject­less in­tent, in­ter­est­ing in it­self and ex­hausted by it­self’’. Go­gol’s lan­guage, he sug­gests, gazes into its own navel. Be­hind the fab­u­lous imag­in­ings and con­vo­luted plots for which the Rus­sian is cel­e­brated, is ‘‘ speech in a pure sense about noth­ing’’.

Nev­er­the­less, in 1996, the hus­band-and-wife team of Richard Pe­vear and Larissa Volokhon­sky, fol­low­ing their early trans­la­tions of Dos­to­evsky and be­fore their ver­sions of Tol­stoy’s big nov­els, took on the ap­par­ently im­pos­si­ble task of ren­der­ing Dead Souls into English and came through, tri­umphantly. Nov­el­ist William Boyd, in choos­ing it as his book of the year, claimed that for the first time in English one re­ceived a pal­pa­ble sense of the idio­syn­cra­sies of Go­gol’s Rus­sian — its mag­nif­i­cent strange­ness, its mad­ness — ren­dered through no pedan­tic lit­er­al­ism but in a vi­va­cious English prose that is al­most sui generis, Go­go­lian, in fact. A gen­uine tri­umph, I think, one of which even Nabokov would have ap­proved.

Two years later came this, their equally ad­mirable col­lec­tion of Go­gol’s short fic­tion, con­tain­ing the early Ukrainian tales, most of them from the 1831-32 vol­umes Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka and the later, St Peters­burg­based sto­ries, beginning with Nevsky Prospect in 1835 and end­ing with the spec­tral ge­nius of The Over­coat , from 1841.

Com­ing af­ter the enor­mous crit­i­cal and pop­u­lar suc­cess of Pe­vear and Volokhon­sky’s trans­la­tions of Anna Karen­ina and War and Peace , the reprint­ing of Go­gol’s Col­lected Tales as an Ev­ery­man’s Li­brary clas­sic is con­fir­ma­tion, if it were needed, of the cou­ple’s pre-em­i­nence as trans­la­tors from the Rus­sian, an au­thor­ity com­pa­ra­ble only to that held by Con­stance Gar­nett in the late 19th and early 20th cen­turies.

But as the Tales show, Pe­vear and Volokhon­sky are un­like Gar­nett in sig­nif­i­cant re­spects. Where the Ed­war­dian trans­la­tor was slip­shod and wooden in her ren­der­ings, blithely an­gli­cis­ing ev­ery Slav­ism she hap­pened across, Pe­vear and Volokhon­sky are stick­lers, con­cerned to pre­serve as much of the lin­guis­tic and cul­tural ma­trix in which the tales un­fold as they can, without sac­ri­fic­ing co­her­ence. The ef­fect is at once coarser and more so­phis­ti­cated: Go­gol’s prose has been de­bowd­lerised and rein­vested with its orig­i­nal ex­u­ber­ance, its ex­trav­a­gant ab­sur­dity, its in­cor­ri­gi­ble strange­ness. Take this de­scrip­tion of the clerk from The Over­coat in an ear­lier trans­la­tion: short of stature, some­what pock-marked, red-haired, and mole-eyed, with a bald fore­head, wrin­kled cheeks, and a com­plex­ion of the kind known as san­guine. The St Peters­burg cli­mate was re­spon­si­ble for this.

And com­pare it with Pe­vear and Volokhon­sky’s: short, some­what pock­marked, some­what red-haired, even with a some­what near­sighted look, slightly bald in front, with wrin­kles in both cheeks and a com­plex­ion that is known as hae­m­or­rhoidal . . . No help for it! The St Peters­burg cli­mate is to blame.

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