On First Words

Richard Pevear has a foreword to his collaborative (with Larissa Volokhonsky) translation of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground in which he offers some rationale for using the word “wicked” to translate the Russian злой (zloi) in the first line: the book is not about psychology, as is sometimes thought, he claims; it’s about morality, and to convey this idea “wicked” is better than the other words that translators have used such as “nasty,” “mean,” and, especially, “spiteful.” It’s a smart interpretation, clearly available among the many possible approaches to the book, and one I have pointed out whenever I’ve taught the book to students. It’s also one of the very first choices a translator is faced with, as the first line announces.

Я человек больной… Я злой человек.

It’s a nasty opening, with an inversion of the adjective and noun in the first sentence, an ellipsis that has been the subject of plenty of interpretive debate, the use of the standard Russian word for “person,” which has almost invariably been translated as “man,” and then the wonderfully wicked “zloi,” which could in fact mean wicked or evil, but might also be interpreted in other ways, particularly as it gets elaborated later in the opening passage through the phrase со злости (so zlosti), which has most often been translated as “from/out of spite” (as in “I did X from spite”) and which is pushed a bit willfully, it seems to me, when rendered as “from/out of wickedness” or “from/out of evil.” For this reason, I believe “spite” is the better choice for the phrase со злости, but I still like “wicked” or perhaps even more “evil” for злой on its own. There’s no reason these have to be mutually exclusive. I will certainly return to this in a subsequent post.

As the opening is a monologue, I have found the most convincing interpretations of the passage among those who see it, or rather hear it, as a performance of sorts, akin in some measure to the performance of Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, with similar shifts of tone, register, and point of view. This is a narrator who is practically dancing around the page, his face contorting, nose crinkling, eyes filling with tears and then, in quick magical turns, beaming with apparent joy or twisted with irony and derision. It could be set up effectively as a dialog or a multi-voiced drama, and I have seen good adaptations do precisely this.

There’s much more to note in this first paragraph, but I admit to being a bit anxious to show my first try:

I am a sick man…. I’m an evil man. I am not an attractive person. I believe my liver is ailing me. Of course I don’t give a damn about this illness of mine and don’t know for sure what’s wrong. I don’t go for treatment and never have, though I respect doctors and respect medicine. I’m also extremely superstitious, or at least enough to respect medicine. (I’m educated enough not to be superstitious, but I am superstitious.) No sir, it’s out of spite that I won’t go for treatment. Probably you won’t understand that. But I do. It goes without saying that I won’t be able to explain to you exactly who it is I am spiting through this spite of mine. I know very well that I can’t “get back at” the doctors by not going for treatment, and I know better than anyone I’m only hurting myself with all this, no one else. Still, if I’m not going for treatment, it’s from spite. My liver hurts. Well, let it hurt even worse!

I’m reading this aloud dozens of times as I work on it, shifting and playing with the tone and emphases each time. It can be read in many ways, and that opening ellipsis, as I recall reading somewhere, seems best as something of a trial, announcing something to see what the response might be, looking around at an audience that is actually only imagined. A performance for oneself. (Think Taxi Driver.)

These are actually not the first lines of the book, however. Those are in a footnote from the author, or at least signed by “Fyodor Dostoevsky.” The tone there makes it clear that the tone here is different, but that topic I will save for post number two in this new category of this now old, or at least oldish, blog: “Notes on Translating Notes (from Underground).”

Feel free to drop me a line if you have comments.

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In Paperback!

New In Paperback Spring 2016

The Woman in the Window manages to cross numerous boundaries with enviable ease. The result is not just intellectually stimulating, but eminently readable.” —Eliot Borenstein, Russian and Slavic studies, New York University

“Provocative and wide-reaching, The Woman in the Window: Commerce, Consensual Fantasy, and the Quest for Masculine Virtue in the Russian Novel seeks out sometimes distant and unexpected contexts in which to reread Russian classics. This point of view is refreshingly original, and these juxtapositions, often not obvious at first, are explained pithily and convincingly.” —David Herman, Slavic languages and literatures, University of Virginia

In The Woman in the Window: Commerce, Consensual Fantasy, and the Quest for Masculine Virtue in the Russian Novel, Russell Scott Valentino offers pioneering new insights into the historical construction of virtue and its relation to the rapidly shifting economic context in modern Russia. This study illustrates how the traditional virtue ethic, grounded in property-based conceptions of masculine heroism, was eventually displaced by a new commercial ethic that rested upon consensual fantasy. The new economic world destabilized traditional Russian notions of virtue and posed a central question that Russian authors have struggled to answer since the early nineteenth century: How could a self-interested commercial man be incorporated into the Russian context as a socially valuable masculine character?

With chapters on Gogol, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky as well as Pasternak and Nabokov, The Woman in the Window argues that Russian authors worked through this question via their depictions of “mixed-up men.” Such characters, according to Valentino, reveal that in a world where social reality and personal identity depend on consensual fantasies, the old masculine figure loses its grounding and can easily drift away. Valentino charts a range of masculine character types thrown off stride by the new commercially inflected world: those who embrace blind confidence, those who are split with doubt or guilt, and those who look for an ideal of steadfastness and purity to keep afloat—a woman in a window.

In NY later this week (for a man and a woman)

I’ll be participating in The University of Rochester’s Reading the Word series this Thursday for the launch of The Man Between. Man_Between-front_largeThen to NYU’s Jordan Center on Friday afternoon for a presentation drawn from The Woman in the Window.

Here are the details:

Event No. 1: Michael Henry Heim was one of the greatest literary translators, and translation advocates, of the 20th century. His impact – on the study of translation, the funding of translation, the introduction of the phrase “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” into English – is immense, varied, and inspirational. Come hear the editors – Esther Allen, Sean Cotter, and Russell Scott Valentino – of The Man Between: Michael Henry Heim & A Life in Translation talk about this exciting new book, the many contributions within, Mike himself, and the art of literary translation.

Thursday  |  April 2, 2015  |  5:00 p.m.
Welles-Brown Room  |  Rush Rhees Library
University of Rochester
Rochester, NY 14627

And Event No. 2: The Woman in the Window: Commerce, Consensual Fantasy, and the Quest for Masculine Character from Dostoevsky to NabokovThe Woman in the Window

Valentino’s lecture rests upon notions of how the traditional virtue ethic, grounded in property-based conceptions of masculine heroism, was eventually displaced by a new commercial ethic that rested upon consensual fantasy. The new economic world destabilized traditional Russian notions of virtue and posed a central question that Russian authors have struggled to answer since the early nineteenth century: How could a self-interested commercial man be incorporated into the Russian context as a socially valuable masculine character?

With examples drawn from the works of Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pasternak, and Nabokov, Valentino argues that Russian authors worked through this question via their depictions of mixed-up men, charting a range of masculine character types thrown off stride by the new commercially inflected world: those who embrace blind confidence, those who are split with doubt or guilt, and those who look for an ideal of steadfastness and purity to keep themselves afloat – a woman in a window.

Start: April 3, 2015 3:00 pm

Venue: NYU Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia

Phone: 212.992.6575

Address: 19 University Place, 2nd FloorNew York, NY10003

Hope to see you there (or there)!

Dangerous Post-Project Time

I’m remembering a passage from Notes from Underground that I’m choosing right now not to go look up because I’m writing and have put a do-not-disturb sign on my door (which means you, too, Dostoevsky!) in which the U-man wonders if maybe people sometimes put off finishing things on purpose, maybe out of fear, as if completing something might mark the beginning of the end somehow. This struck me as true when I first read it as a youngster, and I still think it is, but like so much else, you see that it’s not that simple when you’ve lived a little more. The Woman in the Window took me a long time to finish, but I also never struggled to do so; I worked on it steadily, turning it this way and that, refining and shifting until I thought it was right and what I had was a shaped whole.

Still, the most difficult time, I think, if not to say the most dangerous one for the project itself, was when I thought I could see the end. Was this on some deep level due to fear? I don’t think so, but it’s not easy to remember everything one feels over, oh, say, a decade or so. What I do remember is the feeling that, at certain moments in the middle, I knew what I was going to write, what I needed to write, that the argument was in a sense laid out in front of me and all I needed to do was “write it up,” as some social scientists sometimes refer to the final part of their research when the data is in, and they just need to conjure up some prose to present it. This is the most wrong-headed idea about writing there ever was, and I certainly wasn’t right in thinking that the argument and the words were somehow out there already and just needed to be put to paper (screen). But it was a palpable sense, and in that way, very dangerous because once you have an inkling of that sort of feeling, it is just a tiny step more to stop writing altogether: the outcome feels known already so why put it down, why go to all that work to slog through putting down something you already (think you) know?

As I say, you don’t know, and it’s a false feeling, and it’s wrong-headed from the start to think of writing as something you use to put down a finished thought and not, what it is, a way of working through the thoughts themselves. This means that a thought, the thing you think you’ve come to understand, changes, develops, matures with each phrase and punctuation mark that you use to try and express it, that the answers to the questions you are working through are never formed until the last revision of the last draft of the last sentence is done. That is your best answer because you’ve finally finished the writing and revising, and you can’t work on it anymore.

Not without a reprint, at least. Or a second edition. Oh, God, will this never end?

The jacket cover, etc.

I’ve just sent a suggested revised version of the short description that will go on all the promotional materials for the book, and here it is:

In The Woman in the Window: Commerce, Consensual Fantasy, and the Quest for Masculine Virtue in the Russian Novel, Russell Scott Valentino offers pioneering new insights into the historical construction of virtue and its relation to the rapidly shifting economic context in modern Russia. This study illustrates how the traditional virtue ethic, grounded in property-based conceptions of masculine heroism, was eventually displaced by a new commercial ethic that rested upon consensual fantasy. The new economic world destabilized traditional Russian notions of virtue and posed a central question that Russian authors have struggled to answer since the early nineteenth century: How could a self-interested commercial man be incorporated into the Russian context as a socially valuable masculine character?

With chapters on Gogol, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky as well as Pasternak and Nabokov, The Woman in the Window argues that Russian authors worked through this question via their depictions of “mixed-up men.” Such characters, according to Valentino, reveal that in a world where social reality and personal identity depend on consensual fantasies, the old masculine figure loses its grounding and can easily drift away. Valentino charts a range of masculine character types thrown off stride by the new commercially inflected world—those who embrace blind confidence, those who are split with doubt or guilt, and those who look for an ideal of steadfastness and purity to keep afloat—a woman in a window.

Now some of this was culled directly from the reader reports solicited by the press (I won’t say which parts), but other parts have come into focus — it’s amazing how this can still be slowly clarifying itself in my head–only recently, namely, when I was composing the rest of the above statement.