TOLSTOY OR DOSTOEVSKY?

As Paul, who sent me the link, wrote, “To me this is asking : which is better eating, poulet de Bresse roasted with herbs or prime New York strip perfectly char-grilled ?” And of course he’s right, and everyone involved in this poll at The Millions agrees, but it’s still an ever-enjoyable question to chew over, and the eight Russian experts asked for their opinions by Kevin Hartnett provide an enjoyable variety of answers. (An irrelevant remark: Duke University has a Professor of the Practice of Russian? I wonder how that odd title came about.) Myself, I will have no opinion until I’ve read more of each writer in the original, and even then I’m pretty sure my answer will be “They’re both great, and which I prefer depends on my mood that day.” I must say, though, that the respondents who come down on Dostoevsky’s side tend to write more entertainingly than the Tolstoyophiles, and the latter occasionally evidence a certain pomposity; when Andrew Kaufman says of Dostoevsky “What he doesn’t do, however, is make you love life in all its manifestations,” my response is “You shouldn’t need a novelist to make you do that, and that’s not what literature is for anyway.” I liked Chris Huntington’s conclusion:

In any case, I realize that the “competition” between Dostoevsky and Tolstoy is just an exercise in love. No one really has to choose one or the other. I simply prefer Dostoevsky. For my last argument, I will simply cite an expert far older and wiser than me:
  Just recently I was feeling unwell and read House of the Dead. I had forgotten a good bit, read it over again, and I do not know a better book in all our new literature, including Pushkin. It’s not the tone but the wonderful point of view – genuine, natural, and Christian. A splendid, instructive book. I enjoyed myself the whole day as I have not done for a long time. If you see Dostoevsky, tell him that I love him.
  -Leo Tolstoy in a letter to Strakhov, September 26, 1880

Comments

  1. Bathrobe says:

    It’s a bit like the old 60s thing: Do you like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones?

  2. It groups as [Professor of the Practice] of Russian, not Professor of [the Practice of Russian]. Googling for “Professor of the Practice” shows that it’s a non-tenure title given for a limited period to someone who is expected primarily to teach rather than to do research. Here’s the University of Maryland’s definition:

    This title may be used to appoint individuals who have demonstrated excellence in the practice as well as leadership in specific fields. The appointee shall have attained regional and national prominence and, when appropriate, international recognition of outstanding achievement. Additionally, the appointee shall have demonstrated superior teaching ability appropriate to assigned responsibilities. As a minimum, the appointee shall hold the terminal professional degree in the field or equivalent stature by virtue of experience. Appointees will hold the rank of Professor but, while having the stature, will not have rights that are limited to tenured faculty. Initial appointment is for periods up to five years, and reappointment is possible. This title does not carry tenure, nor does time served as a Professor of the Practice count toward achieving tenure in another title.

    The are also Associate Professors of the Practice in some institutions. Here’s a 2004 Chronk article about the idea.

  3. David L says:

    It’s a bit like the old 60s thing: Do you like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones?
    Then the Who = Gogol? Turgenev = the Dave Clark Five?

  4. I have always disliked Dostoevsky and loved Tolstoy. Well after this opinion had already been formed I read Nabokov’s lecture on Dostoevsky (in the wonderful Lectures on Russian Literature) and agreed with almost all of it. Nabokov perfectly articulated sentiments that had been brooding in me for quite a while.
    So far, I’ve met only one other person who shares my distaste for Big D.

  5. J.W. Brewer says:

    So I suppose the punk rock perspective would be “No Elvis, Tolstoy, or Dostoevsky / In 1977″?
    Who are the Russian lit equivalents of the Hollies and the Pretty Things (taking the view that on a good day the Hollies did the admirable parts of the Beatles’ gestalt better than the Beatles themselves, and the Pretty Things ditto for the Stones)?

  6. “Notes From The Underground,” and “Crime and Punishment” are some of my all time favorite books. I remember reading “A Spark Neglected Burns The House,” in my school days and I loved it. Tolstoy is more of a saint and Dostoevsky more of a genius in my humble opinion.

  7. Chris T. says:

    I believe John has it right. I got my MBA at Duke and took classes from one or two Professors of the Practice at the business school. They tended to be people who have worked in industry and gone on to higher ed to share the insights gained there.
    Not always a temporary position, at least at Duke, but usually without tenure and the research expectations are different (more practically oriented, less focused on peer-reviewed journals).

  8. For those who follow current Russian debate, there is a wonderful gem in the Millions piece – that Hillary Clinton’s favourite novel is the Brothers Karamazov. In the eyes of Russia’s more paranoid commentators she is Russia’s enemy no.1 who finances the ongoing protests. But, according to New Yorker, Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton take opposing views of what the Grand Inquisitor means.

  9. Bathrobe says:

    When I checked the New Yorker, I found a recent article on Lost in Translation: What the First Line of “The Stranger” Should Be, in which Ryan Bloom faults all past translations of Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. You have to read to the end of the article to find out what he believes is the correct translation.

  10. It’s interesting that, in 1880, Tolstoy is still talking of the 60 preceding years of Russian writing as ‘new literature’.
    I’ve recently reread much of both, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. What strikes me about Tolstoy, when you read him parallel to Dost., is how few lower-class characters there are in his novels. He sees the world through the eyes of an upper-class, well-off person. And when he tries to get into the heads of simple people he fails. I’ve constantly felt Tolstoy’s condescending, patronising attitude to characters who are not of his class.
    Dostoyevsky, an officer and a nobleman like Tolstoy, doesn’t have this attitude. He explores the farthest corners in people’s heads, both upper class and the lowest of the low, with the reach and power that, to me, Tolstoy is simply incapable of.
    Dostoyevsky, of course, had a life very different from Tolstoy. He suffered from epilepsy, Tolstoy form syphilis, D. went through a mock execution and years in forced labour camps, Tolstoy went to war, Dostoyevsky was bankrupt himself and took on his brother’s debts, Tolstoy never really had to worry how to feed his family. I think these differences show in their writing.
    Comparing Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, I often think of their two first editors – Sophia Andreyevna and Anna Grigoriyevna. Sophia A., it seems, is a stronger editor. Tolstoy’s writing is easy-flowing, smooth, there’s hardly ever a splinter or a gap. Dostoyevsky isn’t as polished but there is more raw energy, passion in his style.
    Maugham, in Great Novelists and Their Novels, 1948, puts both T. and D. on the top ten list. To him, War and Peace is the world’s greatest novel, The Brothers Karamazov is number nine.

  11. dearieme says:

    I’d saved up The Russian Novelists for retirement, but now I’m inclined not to bother – it’s too late for me to learn Russian.
    Perhaps I should get my French working again – I found La Peste pretty good when I was seventeen.

  12. marie-lucie says:

    Bathrobe: I found a recent article on Lost in Translation: What the First Line of “The Stranger” Should Be, in which Ryan Bloom faults all past translations of Aujourd’hui, maman est morte.
    Thanks for this reference. The reader’s comments are also interesting. There are three points: word order (whether to place “today” first, as in Camus’s sentence, or last); how (and whether) to translate maman (Mom, Mother, my mother ?); the significance of the tense (present or past?).
    - place of the adverb: As written, the sentence could answer the question “what happened today?” (and Meursault lives in the present); moving the adverb to last place answers “when did Mother die?”, which is not the point. The next sentence deals with the time: she may have died the day before. In the first sentence, the death is new information, not what day it occurred, which is the topic of the second sentence.
    - maman: I think “Mother” is best. “Mom” is too American, “Mum” too British, “Maman” too French. (A reader thinks maman = ma ‘my’ + man ‘mother’; this is incorrect: the form is reduplicative, like “mama” and “papa”; there is no word man).
    - maman est morte: this is definitely a past tense, not a present, in the context of the sentence, which includes a time adverb. This is an answer to “What happened today?”, not to “How is your mother?” The next sentence (which is incomplete and could have been part of the first one, if that had been Camus’s style) includes another time reference, confirming the past interpretation. The verb phrase est morte could be a present in the context of answering the second question, for instance maman est morte depuis longtemps ‘Mother has been dead for a long time’ (and of course she still is).

  13. It groups as [Professor of the Practice] of Russian, not Professor of [the Practice of Russian].
    Ah, so it’s the same kind of confusion as with the Nippon Ham Fighters (who have apparently now changed their English rendering to “Nippon-Ham Fighters” to avoid the problem).

  14. “Mom” is too American, “Mum” too British
    Well, you have to translate into a particular version of English if you want to avoid the dreaded International Translationese. That said, however, I agree with the reader who preferred “My mother died today”; I think that’s an excellent solution. You shouldn’t have to import a French word to avoid the problem (and “remind readers that they are in fact entering a world different from their own,” forsooth!).
    [A reader thinks maman = ma 'my' + man 'mother'; this is incorrect: the form is reduplicative, like "mama" and "papa"; there is no word man
    Where are you seeing this? I think you may have misread the comment I'm referring to (Posted 5/16/2012, 9:48:45pm by mfarr).] (Never mind, I missed it; see below.)

  15. Bathrobe says:

    Today, my mother died. In “maman”, “ma” is “my” and “man” is mother. What a waste of time!
    Posted 5/16/2012, 12:37:11am by LDubois

  16. Sashura wrote: “Dostoyevsky, an officer and a nobleman like Tolstoy, doesn’t have this attitude. He explores the farthest corners in people’s heads, both upper class and the lowest of the low, with the reach and power that, to me, Tolstoy is simply incapable of. ”
    @Sashura: You have so eloquently expressed it. Existentialism. The Brothers Karamazov is one of the best three fiction books in opinion of Freud as well!

  17. Brian – do you often meet with people who agree with Nabokov’s criticisms but nevertheless love Dostoevsky? I’m one!

  18. How did I miss that? Bah. Apologies to m-l!

  19. marie-lucie says:

    No problem, LH!
    I disagree with “my mother”. The book is written by the main character almost as if he was keeping a journal of day to day events. He would not use ma mère in writing for himself, but refer to her the way he always called her: maman. In terms of formality or closeness/remoteness, maman is in between (or overlaps with both) “Mother” and “Mom/Mum”.
    I had a French colleague (in Canada) who often talked about his mother, who was still living in France. He was very close to her, and in talking about her never said ma mère but always maman.

  20. maman est morte depuis longtemps
    This brings on the dreadful thought of a Proust/Camus (posthumous?) collaboration….
    These mama-words are very individualized. Until her death when I was 18, I called my mother Ma in direct address, but my mother in 3rd-party reference. I could easily have written My mother died today in a journal if I had been keeping one then, with no particular sense of distance. My wife, on the other hand, uses Mother in both direct address and 3rd-party reference. Her mother (who is still living) objected vehemently to the use of Ma or Mama ~ Momma; I think my wife used Mommy as a child and then switched to Mother in her teens. I could no more address my mother as Mother than I could address my wife as Wife. (When I used to answer the phone at home and the caller asked for “Professor Cowan”, as often happened, I would reply “Professor Thomas, or Professor Marianne?” My mother thought this question unsuitable for a child, and wanted me to say “Do you want my mother or my father?” — but I rejected this as obscurely beneath the dignity of a proper telephone receptionist.)
    I like the fellow who says the comma after Today ruins the rest of the translation. Recap here my fulminations against the cult of the sentence: the effect of a prose work depends on the collective working of all its sentences. Doubtless a certain well-known English novel would have suffered for lack of its last sentence (“My Master,” he says, “has forewarned me. Daily He announces more distinctly, — ‘Surely I come quickly!’ and hourly I more eagerly respond, — ‘Amen; even so come, Lord Jesus!’”), but how much?

  21. I disagree with “my mother”. The book is written by the main character almost as if he was keeping a journal of day to day events. He would not use ma mère in writing for himself, but refer to her the way he always called her: maman.
    You are making the common error of thinking primarily in terms of the original language and basing your decisions on the options available there. This is very hard to avoid and infects many, perhaps most, published translations, but it is still an error. Whether the main character would use “ma mère” in French is irrelevant; the question is what English word or phrase best conveys the sense of the French, and I think that is “my mother.” It would be better to use “Mom” if that were universal in English, or even widespread enough to be credible for most readers, but alas, it is not, and since there is no acceptable affectionate/diminutive form, “my mother” is the least bad alternative. I agree with John: “I could easily have written My mother died today in a journal if I had been keeping one then, with no particular sense of distance.”

  22. Heh. I’m in the middle of Solzhenitsyn’s Раковый корпус (Cancer Ward), and I just opened it to start Chapter 19 to find that the first sentence was: “Не всякий называет маму — мамой, особенно при посторонних.” [Not everyone calls his mom "mom," especially among outsiders.]
    It would be interesting to do a cross-cultural study of how people use such affectionate/diminutive terms.

  23. marie-lucie says:

    JC, LH, thank you for your valuable comments.
    I used “Mother” to translate maman because it seemed to me to be the best available choice in English (“Ma” did not occur to me, but I would associate it more with a rural family). Many adults call their mother “Mother”, like JC’s wife, while in French Mère sounds extremely old-fashioned. As a term of address or reference I only know it from older novels, otherwise maman is general for all ages.
    I agree that there is no need for a comma after Today if it begins the sentence, but traditional French uses commas more than English. (I say “traditional” because current French prose is imitating English in this respect).
    For word order, there is (as often between French and English) a question of how sentence structure interacts with intonation. In English the same sentence can be said with different intonations, allowing emphasis on different words. “Mother died today” would work for me if the main stress was on “died” (= what happened today), not on “today”. French intonation especially stresses the final word, here morte, which is the most important one in the sentence. The first word, aujourd’hui, is also important but not as much. Maman est morte aujourd’hui would emphasize the date rather than the event.
    JC, I admit that I don’t remember your “fulmination against the cult of the sentence”, and I don’t know the well-known novel you allude to.

  24. Bathrobe says:

    I tend to say ‘my Mum’ and ‘my Dad’ in more informal settings (chatting with ‘ordinary people’), and I think that’s pretty common in Australia (not that I actually live there any more).

  25. I don’t know the well-known novel you allude to
    A Google search reveals that it is Jane Eyre.

  26. marie-lucie says:

    Jane Eyre! I read it too long ago. Thank you, Ø.
    Actually I must have read it in French, so it has been a very long time. I remember being annoyed that when Jane arrived to take up her position, people were referring to her as “la jeune dame”, obvious a literal translation of “the young lady”, instead of the la demoiselle or la petite demoiselle which would have been the idiomatic equivalent (cf German das kleine Fräulein). The use of la dame in French would have implied that she was a married woman.

  27. Bathrobe says:

    “Dear Reader, I married him” seems to be better known.

  28. No “Dear”.

  29. Bathrobe: Indeed. It’s probably the best-known sentence in the book, and people often think it’s the last, but it’s really the first sentence of the last chapter.

  30. marie-lucie says:

    “Reader, I married him.”
    That one I do know!

  31. Bathrobe says:

    Oops

  32. Bathrobe says:

    Japanese Wikipedia has an article on “L’Étranger”. It mentions the famous translation of the initial sentence by 窪田啓作 (Kubota Keisaku): きょう、ママンが死んだ。(Kyō, maman ga sinda). And guess what? The Japanese translation (1) puts きょう kyō ‘today’ at the start, its most natural position, and (2) translates maman as ママン maman, in katakana. Needless to say, this is not the Japanese word for ‘mother’ or ‘Mum’.

  33. I wonder how ママン would strike the average Japanese reader.

  34. I wonder how ママン would strike the average Japanese reader.
    i bet they would perceive the mother as being a French mother
    i recalled reading a historical novel, forget its title, so a traveler from England in the early 19th? century (forget) travels to Japan to get some precious silk worms and his adventures, so he gets captured and lives there for almost twenty yes, marries a Japanese wife and in the final chapter is about to go home and leaves behind as he say his “Japanese” son!! i thought, what racist, to label his own son by the nationality, very strange, the writer’s attitude or would the narrator really think of his son as Japanese son as opposed to his English family?

  35. Bathrobe says:

    Well, the Japanese are quite forgiving of an ‘exotic flavour’ in their translations. The holy grail of ‘naturalness’ — so natural that you can hardly tell it was originally written in a foreign language — is less important. They are used to awkward literal translations and expect novels by foreigners to have touches of ‘local colour’.
    Many Japanese are also culture snobs. There is a great appreciation of Europe (especially France) among certain cultured circles in Japan, and putting in a French word would be regarded less as a failing of the translator than as an embellishment.
    I’m not sure that the Japanese reader would understand it, but ママン might be preferable to お母さん, which probably has associations with miso-shiru for most Japanese readers. For a French guy shooting an Arab to be talking about a ‘Japanese-style mother’ might be felt to be a little incongruous.
    At any rate, that is how I see it. All we need is for Matt to dig up three or four Japanese translations using お母さん and my theory is shot to pieces :)

  36. not English, he was Dutch, this one http://www.amazon.com/dp/0812976363/ref=rdr_ext_tmb
    a stupid book, with babies eating cults

  37. John: I think my wife used Mommy as a child and then switched to Mother in her teens. I could no more address my mother as Mother than I could address my wife as Wife.
    I noticed a long time ago that US (white, middle & upper-class) women address their mother as “Mother” and their father as “Dad” or “Daddy”, whereas men mostly use “Mom” & “Dad”. It seems much more consistent to me than British forms of address, maybe that’s why I noticed it.

  38. My wife calls her mother “Mum”. My sisters call our mother “Mommy”, or in recent years “Momma”. Or perhaps “Mama”. And also “Mom”. I just call her “Mom”. We might use “Mother” for humorous emphasis.
    I sometimes call my wife “Momma” when speaking of her to one of my children. My children call my mother “Grandma Barb” to distinguish her form their other grandmother. I sometimes fall into referring to my mother by her name, since people around me do, but I almost never address her that way.

  39. My wife’s been visiting her parents and sister for the last two days. She’s not only switched to talking Southern, she’s switched to referring to her mother as Mommy — as her sister has continued to do throughout her life.
    When it comes to language use, environment is almost everything.

  40. Gale has returned to normal.

  41. marie-lucie says:

    AJP: I noticed a long time ago that US (white, middle & upper-class) women address their mother as “Mother” and their father as “Dad” or “Daddy”, whereas men mostly use “Mom” & “Dad”
    Could the avoidance of “Father” for addressing one’s own father be explained by the use of the term to address ministers of religion?

  42. I noticed a long time ago that US (white, middle & upper-class) women address their mother as “Mother” and their father as “Dad” or “Daddy”, whereas men mostly use “Mom” & “Dad”.
    My father and his siblings called their father “Pop”. Was that common in the ’40s and ’50s or a weird idiosyncracy of my family?

  43. I think it was pretty common.

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