There seems to be a sort academic predisposition of hatred towards Pavear and Volokhonsky. It’s a strange thing, one I neither understand nor want to. People seem utterly baffled by a literal translation that forces one to endure turns of phrase they aren’t usually accustomed with. The tumultuous burden of the translator isn’t just in conveying the idea, but the aesthetic as well. If something is true, if something is truly human it will bear the markings its of age without burden. It will have its crevasses, places where time has rusted what used to be sterling, but humanity, humanity doesn’t change in nature. Not in centuries, arguably not in millennia. We are steadfast, creatures as cantankerous as we are divine and the truth of that, no matter how muddled in archaisms. Short of learning the language of the classics we love, a literal translation is the only one that makes any sense.
But I digress…
Notes from a Dead House highlights Dostoevsky’s life in a Siberian penal colony and as such offers a hard, often unpleasant look at the nature of humanity. It is so very rare for a writer to have written a book in the midst of their own intellectual awakening. Yet, that is exactly what has happened here. Usually change is a subtle thing, a slow coagulation of thought into understanding or, as need be, faith. In this book we see an artist fumbling with the experiences that would define his work and his entire life. It is absurd, beautiful, and, at times, utterly discomforting, everything a Dostoevsky should be. This is an often overlooked work by a man who understood what it is to be human, and while it may not quite hold a candle to the likes of what he would create later in life, it is a portrait of a place where there are no half measures and the shape of things seems both familiar and very, very different.
“Tyranny is a habit which may be developed until at last it becomes a disease. I declare that the noblest nature can become so hardened and bestial that nothing distinguishes it from that of a wild animal. Blood and power intoxicate; they help to develop callousness and debauchery. The mind then becomes capable of the most abnormal cruelty, which it regards pleasure; the man and the citizen are swallowed up in the tyrant; and the return to human dignity, repentance, moral resurrection, becomes almost impossible.” ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The House of the Dead