Posts Tagged ‘fiction in translation’

Tolstoy: Resurrection

January 22, 2022

     Tolstoy tiresome and tedious: I never knew I’d find myself writing that one day, but in the end that is my considered verdict on Resurrection. I just about kept going through its 500+ pages, prepared for ultimate disappointment, and was…

The idea of a worthless man being saved by his loved for a woman had been done rather better 30 years previously by Dostoevsky in Crime and Punishment; the plot of Resurrection is a vague approximation, on first sight. Raskolnikov our hero isn’t. No murderer, just a useless Russian aristocrat with nothing to do other than live a pointless life off his estates, he thoughtlessly seduces a servant girl, gives her money as if she’s a prostitute and disappears. She falls pregnant, and her life degenerates into prostitution and pointlessness… until he finds himself, ten years later, on jury service where she is on trial as one of the co-accused of a murder. He is conscience-stricken, and determines to follow the unjustly convicted woman to Siberia and hard labour, whether she wants it or not.

Very quickly, the problem becomes the author’s moralising tone as he tells the reader what to think about every evil of contemporary Russian society – and we are given a very thorough tour of it all. It’s particularly annoying when we have to endure pages of this just in order to see how the plot will move on.

The hero’s psychology and his introspection as he reconsiders his life, and ponders the evils of society and how they might be remedied, are interesting enough, though obviously not as dramatic as in Dostoevsky’s novel. But in the end both the psychology and the introspection feel rather too saccharine, too mealy-mouthed and goody-goody, perhaps because conveyed through internal monologue, though again I remember Dostoevsky managed to carry this off very effectively.

The plot rambles seriously, losing itself in an interminable examination of the Russian justice and penal system, and I did find myself wondering where on earth Tolstoy was going with all this. The characters fade almost into cardboard cut-outs amid Tolstoy’s didacticism. Certainly we are provided with a scathing indictment of everything that is wrong in that society, but I had thought I was meant to be reading a novel… And I found myself also thinking that nothing much seemed to have changed in the intervening century or more, as far as Russia and the Russians are concerned. The country just felt too large to ever be able to function fairly and efficiently.

So, a social novel, then. I did find myself admiring the hero’s determination to follow through his attempts to right his initial wrong – the seduction – and his encounters with the criminal and revolutionary classes of his day, and his attempts to use his privilege and influence as an aristocrat to help people, were also interesting, but the author’s heavy hand weighs too much for us not constantly to be aware of it.

The ending is most unsatisfactory. Having been scathing about the church in his society – one of the most extraordinary chapters is Tolstoy’s savage attack on the Orthodox Mass, which he depicts almost as a circus activity – we are left with the hero realising that the woman has saved him by determining she will not marry him, and that the answer to all the evils and problems of his society and the world are to be found in the aphorisms presented in Matthew’s gospel. Not that I reject that gospel, but it was an almighty cop-out.

Anthony Brigg’s translation is excellent, flowing well and managing, for this reader at least, to smooth out some of the awkwardnesses that can occur in Russian literary style. His endnotes are very useful, too.

Olga Tokarczuk: Flights

July 21, 2021

     I’ve lately grown rather despondent about fiction written in English; either I’m not encountering interesting and innovative approaches, or there aren’t any. Certainly I find much greater satisfaction reading novels from other lands, normally in translation. For my money, Olga Tokarczuk really deserved the Nobel Prize: she pushes the boundaries. I returned to Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of the Dead recently, and now I’ve just re-read Flights. That’s not a particularly good translation of the title: the Polish title translates as ‘Extremes’ in the sense of from one place to another, and the French version is called ‘The Pilgrims’, which doesn’t really cut it either…

It’s about travel, movement, in place and time, physical and metaphysical. Much of it is fiction, some is digression, philosophical musing, if you like, some is historical documentary, almost. There’s no clear line from A-Z through the book; the sections are feel associative, if anything. And it’s fascinating! There is a goodly selection of weird maps illustrating or intervening in the text; I was astonished to discover that they came from the Agile Rabbit collection, which I was given for Christmas many years ago.

It takes a bit of work, because you don’t really have a framework or pattern to slot the book into from the start. It’s a challenge; it’s not compulsive, page-turning reading, yet you’re intrigued enough to carry on, rewarded enough mentally, curious enough to find out where Olga’s going with this one. Do the digressions intervene in the story-telling, or is it the other way around? The psychology of the fictional characters is certainly compelling enough. Where does the stuff about the plastination of bodies, or about dissection in the eighteenth century, actually fit in?

So, Olga Tokarczuk has done something new with the ‘novel’ here, with fiction, with writing itself, I think. This is welcome in the days when, as I said earlier, the form feels rather tired and hackneyed, and there seems to be a dearth of writers prepared to experiment and take risks with doing new things. Here is originality of form and approach, here is mental stimulus and thought-provoking, here is good writing, well-translated, demanding the reader’s input, engagement and attention.

Flights is enigmatic, indefinable, marvellous… definitely worth your eyeball time!

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