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.

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.


Looking up to her window

In looking for images for the book cover for The Woman in the Window, The Woman in the WindowI stumbled upon something both surprising and depressing at the same time. Most of the images that come up through the various major search engines if you enter “the woman in the window” are of a particular sort. I’m not talking about pornography.

What I was looking for were images in which a man is standing before an imposing facade, probably stone but at least tallish and dark and rather cold looking, from which a woman looks out from a window above. Or there might just be a window but no woman, but we all know that she’s back there somewhere, just as we all know this image in our mind. It’s at least Shakespearean, maybe Medieval, and if you start trying to think of examples from various famous and non-famous books, and then films on top of that, it’s hard to stop. This is where the title of the book comes from.

But it’s hard to find images from that angle. Most of them aregirl-in-window of women at a window but seen from inside, by someone in the room with her. This is not at all the same thing. This was the surprising part.

Why it should be depressing comes from the analysis of one of the treatments of the woman-in-the-window trope that I explore in the book. When Humbert Humbert looks at Lolita at the window, he is in the room with her, swoman-window-24595030pying on her, noting down aspects of his perverse infatuation in tiny scribbles in a notebook that he keeps hidden and locked inside his desk. He looks at her as she leans over the casement, talking with Kenneth Knight, a boy from her class who has exactly the right sort of name to be standing below her window in the traditional pose, and he realizes that he (Humbert) is seeing her somehow incorrectly. It was as if, he admits, he were seeing her through the wrong end of telescope.girl,window,inspiration,back,dark,hair,woman-8e148f1b9d41d95791a0ae830037b577_h

Nabokov was a very smart writer. He knew how to work a trope. He also understood what was gathered up inside this particular one. And he destroys it and all that’s supposedly inside it in his lovely and terrible book. What does it say about our society that looking at her through the wrong end of a telescope, spying on her in effect from inside her room, is no longer perverse but utterly mundane?