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Translation by Constance Garnett; appendix translated by S. S. Koteliansky and Virginia Woolf.
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By Tad Davis on 12-07-17
I’ve tried for years to read this novel but was never able to get through it. There are several dozen characters - more even than usual for Dostoevsky (I think) - and the Russian names, always a daunting task to keep straight, are overwhelming. The novel takes a very long time introducing the characters and setting up the main action. to get started.
Constantine Gregory’s reading (of Constance Garnett’s translation) somehow made most of those problems go away. I had the benefit of my list of names from previous attempts, and maybe that helped. The main story still takes awhile to get moving, but Gregory infuses both narration and dialogue with a liveliness and humor that had escaped me earlier. Some of the scenes that confused me earlier now seem hilariously over the top - in a good way.
Many of the characters suffer from a claustrophobic self-consciousness - practically a trademark of Dostoevsky’s. The narrator is a little odd, partly in and partly out of the action: a member of the community, a friend of Stepan Verkovensky, but sometimes omniscient, and possibly unreliable. Three men in particular dominate the action: Stepan Verkovensky, an aging writer, philosopher, and poseur; his son Pyotr; and Pyotr’s cohort and erstwhile friend Nikolai Stavrogin, an aristocrat whose actions always tend toward the unexpected.
Pyotr Verkovensky is a particularly complex and nasty character. He babbles on endlessly, in the most obnoxious way; yet in his babbling he manages to brutally insult his father, threaten Nikolai Stavrogin, and humiliate the local governor, who claims an awareness of his subversive activities. While he turns out NOT to be the main character, Pyotr is in fact the man who sets most of the action in motion. That action expands to include several murders, arson, a woman beaten to death by a mob, a duel, and several suicides. It’s all in the service of misguided youthful nihilism.
There is an appendix, which is difficult to listen to but should not be skipped. It’s a chapter that Dostoevsky was forced by his publisher to omit because it describes a descent into horror, on the part of Stavrogin, that is no less horrible for its omission of any explicit detail. Dostoevsky was right that it’s essential to an understanding of Stavrogin’s character - thief, poisoner, and child rapist that he is. Omitting it would be like omitting the Grand Inquisitor chapter from the Brothers Karamazov.
Constantine Gregory is a wonderful narrator, always finding what seems to me exactly the right tone to strike in a given scene, and keeping all the characters straight with clear distinctions in pitch and accent. I look forward to hearing his other Naxos readings of Dostoevsky.
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