In the High Peaks

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Part One: Notes from the Dead House by Dostoyevsky (Translation Wars)

 I opted to read Dostoyevsky's  Notes from the House of the Dead, as part of the Back to the Classics Challenge (2019 edition), hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate (see sidebar).
When I first built my list in late December 2018, I thought I would read Dostoyevsky's The Idiot for the "Classic in Translation" category.

But when I picked up The Idiot and started browsing the chronology of D.'s life in the introductory pages, I noticed that he had been imprisoned in Siberia for his political (anti-tsarist) activity and associations. I was then consumed with an interest to read the semi-autobiographical novel he wrote about his experiences in prison. I also was curious to investigate how Siberian prisons of the mid-19th century were like or unlike the 20th-century gulags?
As a result of this mental meandering, The Idiot went back on the shelf (til next year?) and I had another huge decision to make: Which translation of Notes from the House of the Dead would I read?

**This decision proved to be much more complex than I anticipated, for many reasons. For one thing, there has been a tremendous amount of controversy about translations of classic Russian novels since the husband-and-wife team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky began doing translations for Knopf and many other publishers starting about 15 years ago. 

Who knew? I unwittingly became enmeshed in trying to sort through this controversy, when all I wanted was for some knowledgeable power to proclaim "X has written the best translation of the novel to date."  What I learned, to my dismay, is that no choice of a translation is as simple as that, and especially NOT Russian translations. 

As a result, I chose two of the more recent translations of Dostoyevsky's novel. One was the library copy of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky's translation entitled Notes from the Dead House and the other was the Penguin Classic The House of the Dead, translated by David McDuff. Slightly different titles, but the same book. Richard Pevear is American and he and Volokhonsky reside in the U.S.  David McDuff is English and resides in the UK. . 

To make the decision a bit more complicated, I learned from my research that David McDuff was hired by Penguin Classics to translate a number of Russian novels by Dostoyevsky and other Russian classic authors specifically for an American audience. This information prompted me to ask: Are there no American translators of the Russian language that would do?

My next step was to begin reading both versions, and to look for differences as I turned the pages of the first few chapters.
From the start, I noted I was forming a preference for the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation. (I also leaned toward the P&V probably because of Pevear's fascinating introduction to the novel, which surely prejudiced me.) But in the first chapter of the novel, the narrator explains how surprised he was to discover that within the prison, a number of prisoners performed the role of providing (selling)  alcoholic beverages for fellow prisoners.

David McDuff translated the Russian word Dostoyevsky used as "barman." The barman did this, the barman did that, etc. Pevear and Volokhonsky, on the other hand, translated it as "taverner."   I'm sure this seems a minor distinction, but to me, "barman" is awkward. Secondly, if it is a word, it is not in use that I'm aware of, but more important, it has no meaning without a lot of context.  (Of course, "bartender" could not be substituted because a bartender is not usually used to describe a bar owner, or one who is the proprietor of a bar, which these prison  purveyors of alcohol were.  At that point, I wondered, (with dismay), if McDuff used the term "barman" because it sounded more American. I shrugged at this point, read a bit more, and found I preferred the phrasing and the word choices of the P and V. So I tossed the McDuff aside.

I realize that I have grossly oversimplified the complexities of the art of translation. So, if you are interested and can bear it, please read on.
Why did Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky come to receive severe criticism of their translations?
Most critics decry their method, which can be condensed as follows: Volokhonsky translates the Russian text word for word, phrase for phrase, sentence by sentence--she performs a strictly literal translation into English. Pevear, who supposedly does not know the Russian language, (I find this hard to believe, but that is what some critics report. Others say he has a "limited" or "insufficient" knowledge), then takes Volokhonsky's work and reworks it into English prose.
I was taken aback by this assertion about their process. How can Pevear do a viable representation of the original without knowing the intricacies of the Russian language?

The following is an excerpt from critic Janet Malcolm's June 2016 article in The New York Review of Books: Her viewpoint is typical of people who view P and V's "takeover" of the Russian translation market as a "disaster."
"..[A] sort of asteroid has hit the safe world of Russian literature in English translation. A couple named Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky have established an industry of taking everything they can get their hands on written in Russian and putting it into flat, awkward English. Surprisingly, these translations, far from being rejected by the critical establishment, have been embraced by it and have all but replaced [Constance] Garnett, Maude, and other of the older translations. When you go to a bookstore to buy a work by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol, or Chekhov, most of what you find is in translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky."

Another fascinating article that discusses the negative aspects of P and V's translations are discussed in "The Pevearsion of Russian Literature," (follow the link) published in Commentary in 2010, by Gary Saul Morson, a professor of literature at Northwestern University. He compares P and V's process of translation to this: "Imagine someone translating Paradise Lost from English into Russian who had somehow missed that Milton was a Christian." Hyperbole to the extreme, I'd say.

And don't miss the article, "Translation Wars," by David Remnick, published in The New Yorker in 2005. In it, P and V get their chance to explain what they're doing.

I'm not as troubled by the fact of lots of P and V translations. But I am perplexed that because many, many publishers have invested so much in them,  publishers, critics, and readers say that it is highly unlikely that there will be new Russian translations into English for at least a generation to come. This is indeed serious, that one translation team can so dominate the market.

I have barely scratched the surface of this issue. Part Two will be my review of the actual novel.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Back to the Classics Challenge Blunder, Spencer-Fleming, and Books Read This Week

The good news first. I read the last page of The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins with a flourish and a huge sigh this afternoon. How sad it is to turn the final page of a beloved book, but...I can always read it again. So thrilling! The  second time around I would probably read it a bit more slowly, capturing more of the details, I'm certain. I'm very, very happy to have spent the month of March with this sensational book. Now I need to write the review.

Today I also finished The Girls at 17 Swann Street, which I described in my last post. It was a quick read, and a good one, though 4 stars, not 5.

On Tuesday, I found online confirmation of Julia Spencer-Fleming's next installment (#9) in the Claire Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne mystery series set in the Adirondacks of New York, expected to be published later in 2019. That news was stated in December 2018, about six weeks after the death of Spencer-Fleming's husband. I think there may be a slightly longer wait for #9, but at least there's one that's in the works. With that news, I felt free to start reading #8, Through the Evil Days. Claire and Russ are trying like mad to get away for a week's honeymoon, but huge problems beset them from all sides. This novel is quite a bit longer than the rest in the series, which is fine with me. I luxuriate in time spent in Claire's and Russ's company.

And  a silly blunder with my Back to the Classics Challenge list. What next? Somehow or other I listed Snow by the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk as my Asian, etc. book, totally neglecting to realize that this classic was published in 2005! The Challenge requires books to be published in 1969 or earlier! Yikes. I'm at a loss to explain how I overlooked that, but at least it's sorted out now.
Now I have a scramble to find a more time-appropriate Asian or African classic. I think I have one. Right now I'm gravitating toward Nectar in a Sieve, the Indian novel by Kamala Markandaya, which was the pseudonym of Kamala Purnaiya Taylor,  an Indian novelist and journalist. I've always wanted to read it, so I'll move ahead with this one. It was published around 1954. I'd like to start reading it very soon.

Friday, March 22, 2019

New Books, Reading Update, Snow, and Movies

A wet snow is falling as I write this evening. It snowed several inches last night, turned to slushy rain at midday before changing back. Not a big storm. Good. It will be cold tomorrow, which might make for some excellent snowshoeing. We still have 2+ feet of snow.

An excellent reading week with The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. I just love the twists and turns--what a rollercoaster of a book. I'm likely to finish  early next week. Every afternoon I have curled up and read another large chunk for about 2 hours. Insanely delicious. Where has this book been all my life? Do you ever have that feeling about a book?

I'm also reading a fast-paced novel, recently published: The Girls of 17 Swann Street by Yara Zgheib, about a young married woman who is being treated for severe anorexia--not in a hospital, but in a residential treatment center in St. Louis, where she lives with her husband. I'm a third of the way through, and her condition is still very serious. She is eating again, but is not gaining any weight, which can be an alarming sign of an  effect from long-term starvation. It is interesting--the primary focus is her struggle, rather than on lots of characters, and a solemn probing of the situations prior to her marriage that prompted her to stop eating.

I should look back to see the comment a fellow blogger made about a new book to come by my favorite serial mystery author, Julia Spencer-Fleming. She is expected to have a new book out later this year. When I searched online last night, I wasn't able to locate that bit of news, but I did come across an article in a Portland, Maine newspaper indicating that her husband died of cancer at the age of 59, late in 2018.  That is sad news indeed. My very best wishes to her and their three children.

Movies: We watched one from 2009 on Netflix last night that had us in stitches. Did You Hear about the Morgans? stars Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker, husband and wife, both devoted Manhattan residents, who must go into the witness protection program to western Wyoming. Cute, funny, the perfect diversion. Mary Steenburgen is their host/protector in Wyoming.

Just to keep me honest:
1. I am in the midst of writing the review of my saga of my reading of Notes from the Dead House by Dostoyevsky.
2. I must write a  review of The London Train by Tessa Hadley, because I read it for the 2019 TBR Challenge. It is a rather complex book, so I will hope to vastly condense my thoughts about it before I actually write it. help.
I am behind with both reviews.

Monday, March 18, 2019

A Brief Note about Lots of Books

March is proving to be a wonderful reading month after a dismal month of reading in February.
Perhaps because I am still wobbly and am still hacking away from the remnants of this cold, I find myself in between shirking my household jobs and half doing them,  feeding the birds, doing my exercises, and then gladly retreating to the loft bed to read the following:

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins--such enjoyable reading! Wow! I'm just loving it. I'm in at 200 pages with 400 pages to go. What I appreciate most is that there is never a dull moment in this Victorian grand-scale ultra-mystery. It's perfectly thrilling, with fascinating characters. Oh, gosh--so great. If only there were more books just like this one. I keep thinking--maybe I should slow down, savor it more. But I can't stop myself from moving forward. I heartily recommend this classic!

The Radetsky March by Joseph Roth  continues--I'm almost at the end of Part One, which I need to have read by April 1st for the Readalong. I'm continuing to enjoy it, and better yet, I'll be finished with Part One in plenty of time.

As a side read, I've been fascinated by a puzzling work of recent history The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire by Kyle Harper (2017) Princeton U. Press, yet another book that reconstructs the past through the lens of rapid climate change and its effects on societies. Harper (no relation) has not convinced me yet that climactic upheaval occurred during the Roman Era. Without that  fact  in place, the rest of his premise caves. But I haven't read enough to form a judgment.

Certainly, there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that climatic change in the 17th century changed societies and cultures the world over, due to what  has been called,  in the  past, "The  Little Ice Age." I love this kind of stuff!
So Ken just brought home for me the book Nature's Mutiny: How the Little Ice Age of the Long Seventeenth Century Transformed the West and Shaped the Present  by Philipp Blom. Glancing through this one, I see it is not as well developed as other, much more deeply-researched books on this topic, which is of enormous fascination for me.

I bought another book for my Nook as a rest from these more demanding tomes. More later!

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Weekend Diversions: Books and Movies at Home

Friday evening Ken and I watched a huge chunk of the fairly recent movie, Mary Queen of Scots. Both of us thrilled to the rugged, awe-inspiring landscapes of Scotland--they seemed other-worldly to us because our rugged landscape is so different.
We don't have much further to go with the  movie, really, but I'm a bit disappointed that the viewer isn't offered more insight into many of the characters--most of the insights come from the characters' reactions to events, catastrophes, and the like. And I must say the only character of consequence, the only character that the camera really focuses on is Mary. And perhaps Elizabeth, though secondarily. Of course we're not meant to care about her.
I'm surprised that so few characters close to the queens are identified or easily identifiable. I would have appreciated a fuller picture of the cast and characters involved. But still, the film  is entertaining, Scotland is such a huge presence, the costumes are grand, and Mary herself is something to see.

Tonight after finishing Mary, we will watch Vice, the film that skewers the former Vice-president Dick Cheney and others in the GW Bush administration. It's supposed to be funny. If only it weren't so horribly sad. But funny is great from where I sit. Have you seen it?

Today I settled back into The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins again, reviewing the 50 pages I had read, and then reading 50 more pages. I'm deeply sunk into it now. I'll enjoy resuming tomorrow. I'm enjoying this one for the Back to the Classics Challenge (in the "Very Long Classic" category), the TBR Challenge, and the Chunkster Challenge.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Mucho Reading on the Ides of March! What Would Brutus Say?

Might Julius Ceasar have avoided his fate if he had stayed at home reading? Or if Brutus had?

Today, Friday, I read a great deal, as I have the other days of this week. I finished reading Tessa Hadley's The London Train, which I started on Tuesday, I believe. It's on my list for the 2019 TBR Challenge that Alex at Roof Beam Reader is hosting. (His blog is listed in the sidebar.) This weekend, I must write the review for it. I liked it, but there is much, much more to say about a book by Tessa Hadley than "I liked it" or "I didn't like it." 

Daily this week I've been reading chapters of The Radetsky  March by Joseph Roth, the 1932 Austrian novel, following members of the Von Trotta Family from the late 18th century to the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the empire of the Hapsburgs, in World War I.
I am  finding this one to be powerful and extraordinarily well-handled. There is so much that I could say about it, but I will wait until the 3-part, 3-week-long roundup of the book takes place in April. I'm so grateful to have been made aware of this classic, thanks to Lizzy and Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat. (See sidebar).

Today I devoured a children's novel (ages 10-14) by one of my favorite children's authors, Ruth M. Arthur, entitled My Daughter, Nicola. Most of Arthur's books are set in  remote locations of England and Wales, but this one is set in the Swiss Alps, probably sometime in the early 20th century.  Arthur wrote most of her books from the early 1960s through the late 1970s. During her adult, married  life she lived in Surrey, England, but evidently she once attended school in Scotland.  A number of her books have somewhat supernatural elements in them, related to ancient times in Briton. It can be hard to find her books now, but I've been collecting them for the past 30 years or so, one by one, from used book sellers and rare book dealers. They captivate me in the way few books do. The young heroines almost never have a full set of normal parents. They live with a kind aunt, or an uncle, or a grandparent, leaving them a bit untethered and able to interact with the universe a bit more freely. I simply adore them because the questing of these heroines speak to me, as well as their vulnerabilities.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

The Wolves of Winter by Tyrell Johnson

I started reading The Wolves of Winter yesterday afternoon and finished it today at around 3 pm. Perfecto!! It was the parfait book for the state my brain is in (think Montana or Idaho!).  Gosh--no disparagement intended to those two beautiful states. What I tried to convey in my dithered state is that, because I live in northern New York, my brain is somewhere far away.

I purchased this book very early in 2019 or late in 2018 after reading an article about "the stellar suspense/thriller/adventure debut novels of 2018." I do remember it was the only one in the list that intrigued me.

The Wolves of Winter is set in the Yukon wilderness (I do have a fondness for novels set in true wilderness), it's a post-apocalyptic novel (I occasionally succumb to that genre), and was critiqued as having compelling characters, not to mention a great dog.

The suspense of this family trying to survive a nuclear winter in one of the coldest places on Earth was mind-blowingly fascinating, and then the complications arise: Strange people arrive on the scene. What do they want? Who are they? Where did they come from? How do they fit in with the end-of-the-world scenario?  Important questions for their survival.
I could not stop reading today, partly because I would have to take leave of the book's spell and suffer mentally the full consequences of my litany  of  "this is the most horrendous cold I've had  in years" symptoms. Just don't go there.  (Ken informed me this afternoon that the grocery stores are totally out of boxes of  tissues, the shelves are EMPTY except for a few boxes of the terrible brands that are no good.)

I'd love a good night's sleep, but if that fails, I have some good books on hand, of the uncomplicated, suspenseful sort.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Succumbing to Columbella by Phyllis Whitney

This is the second of two posts for today--Sunday, March 10th. I've been a bit behind--hence the two entries.

Columbella was published in 1966, at a time when Phyllis Whitney was at the height of her best writing of mysteries/ romantic suspense novels. I purchased it for $1.99 from Early Bird Books for my Nook, and today, in the grips of languishing from a vicious cold, I managed to enjoy finishing it.

Like many of Whitney's novels, Columbella is set in a somewhat exotic locale--in St. Thomas,  in the U.S. Virgin Islands. No, this is most assuredly not Elin Hilderbrand's USVI of the 21st century, St. John.
Whew--what a time warp! Columbella is set at a time at least 50 years before Hilderbrand's  Winter Paradise. Yet, like Hilderbrand's novel,  most of the action in Columbella takes place in a grand household on a great hill overlooking St. Thomas, just as Hilderbrand's novel is set in a resplendent mansion overlooking St. John. I much appreciated Whitney's attention to the details of St. Thomas's capital city Charlotte Amalie and even more by the plants and the vividly depicted scenery which made the settings in Columbella so  intensely vibrant. Whitney had a genuine strength in the depiction of setting--she visited the locales she wrote about, did loads of research in the libraries of the places that were her settings.  I enjoyed this one, and as I was feeling quite out of sorts physically, it soothed and distracted me, as I hoped it would.

If today is any measure of how I'm faring with this idiotic cold, I'll be able to enjoy at least another day or two of intensive reading.

I have started reading The Radetsky March by Joseph Roth, the novel that encapsulates the downfall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire through WWI. A riveting and completely unexpected first chapter has me poised to venture forward quickly into the reading of this novel.

Thoughts after Reading Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Life

Here it is the tenth of March, and it's my first post of the month. Time has been swallowed up by household disasters, which are now (finally!) resolved, at least for the time being. So very grateful.

Due to a vicious cold, I'm more or less grounded at home right now, which has given me the chance to catch up with reading.
I've finished the audio of Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Life by Jane Sherron De Hart (2018), which in book form is about 732 pages. It's an academic work, but it really answered many of my questions and expanded my view, especially of cases in the mid-20th century.
What I liked best is that I learned a tremendous amount about the prominent progressive legal cases of the mid-late 20th century, the ultra-conservative backlash from the late 20th century, and its solidifying presence in the 21st century (think lard or concrete). I never thought I'd live to see Supreme Court justices so conservative (so reactionary, as progressives labeled ultra-conservatives in the late 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s) that they would regard and interpret the Constitution literally, analyzing the text, word by word, according to what each word literally meant in the late 18th century. That's Clarence Thomas. Neil Gorsuch. Samuel Alito. Chief Justice Roberts.
Think of that. That our Constitution should be used as a tool to reframe issues of the 21st century according to the values of the late 18th  century. Really. When the term man or men meant only white men of property. 
No wonder we are in such a mess right now, and I would have liked to have used harsher terms. The Supreme Court, in 2019, is no longer an institution to redress grievances for beleaguered citizens fighting oppression, but serves only corporations, powerful white men, and powerful religious leaders and groups. Analyze the cases they are hearing, the oral arguments, the decisions, and the dissents.

As a result of the current situation, dozens of recent and current cases that might have been appealed to the Supreme Court in the past, will no longer seek redress there. Because they know now they will lose.

So we now have all three branches of the federal government in disarray--executive, judicial, and legislative. What concerns me most is how the Supreme Court will respond to cases in which the rights of voters have been nullified due to conservatives' efforts to eliminate their votes. (Sorry about that last sentence. I couldn't get the wording just right.)