Interview with Rosamund Bartlett about Dostoyevsky and “The Russian Soul”

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Interview by Karen Langley

Karen: Rosamund, thank you for agreeing to an interview with Shiny New Books! You have a distinguished career as a translator, and also as the author of a number of works focusing on Russian authors and literature. You contributed a very thoughtful piece on Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina to issue 3 of Shiny New Books and have provided the introduction to Dostoevsky’s The Russian Soul which we’re reviewing today.

Firstly, could you tell us when you first encountered Russian literature, and what led you into translating these authors and also writing about them?

Rosamund: It was when I was about 16, and had made the fateful decision to study Russian for A Level at school. Turgenev’s novella First Love, in particular, made a great impression on me. Many years later, after a long period researching and writing about music and Russian modernism, I found myself teaching Chekhov’s stories in English at a university in America.  Frustration with some of the existing translations gave me the idea of producing new versions in which I could bring the modernist qualities of Chekhov’s writing into sharper focus.  The invitation then to write a biography of Chekhov came along by chance.  It was never something I was going to turn down, and my account of Chekhov’s life was deeply informed by my experience translating the stories.  As a result, I was keen to ensure I translated something by Tolstoy when I moved on to writing his biography, which drew on the many new materials that have become available since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It’s true that I hadn’t bargained for the daunting prospect that was Anna Karenina, but that was also a once in a lifetime opportunity. 

Karen: Russian classics came very much to the fore in the early 20th century, particularly with the translations by Constance Garnett. New versions continued to come out during that century, and I wondered which translators from that era you regard most highly or particularly appeal to you?

Rosamund: I have huge affection and reverence for Constance Garnett, who learned Russian independently after completing a Classics degree at Cambridge. She was on the fringes of the Bloomsbury circle, and brought a wonderful literary sensibility to all her English versions.  The translations of her contemporaries Louise and Aylmer Maude, who spent long years living in Moscow, and knew Tolstoy well, have also deservedly stood the test of time.  Rather than an indication of their flaws, the fact that many early 20th-century translations seem dated now is more a testament to the timelessness of the original works.

Karen: I’ve been reading the rather lovely Notting Hill Editions volume of selections from Dostoevsky’s A Writer’s Diary, which you introduce so expertly. It seems to me to show a refreshingly different view of the great author, featuring as it does a mixture of fiction, politics, opinion and general musings, presenting a very chatty Dostoevsky – much as you might find on a modern blog, as you point out. Was this format unusual for his time, particularly in Russia?

Rosamund: The discursive “feuilleton” genre Dostoevsky chose was not entirely new, as he had deployed it earlier during his journalistic career, and it also left its mark on the narrative style of his novels.  But the “Writer’s Diary” is certainly sui generis – there is nothing else quite like it in the history of Russian letters, just as there was no other writer in Russia who wished to enter into public dialogue with his readers about what he felt were the most pressing issues of the time. That he could do so was due to rapidly changing technologies during Russia’s belated industrialization in the 1870s. The new train network, for example, enabled both widespread distribution, and an efficient postal system through which readers could easily correspond with Dostoevsky, as he hoped.

Karen: Bearing in mind the fact that the “Diary” was so popular when it first came out in Russia, why do you think it’s been so overlooked and neglected in the English-speaking world?

Rosamund: There are many reasons.  First of all it’s a very unwieldy work, which in its totality is at least the length of two of his novels put together.  Its strange hybrid genre, mixing fact and fiction, also makes it difficult to place. Most problematic of all are the often unsavoury political views which Dostoevsky trumpets in the “Diary”, in an increasingly shrill voice. But if we want to understand Dostoevsky and the Russian mentality, both past and present, it is a work of seminal importance.

Karen: Did you have any involvement in the choice of extracts and if so, what drove those choices?

Rosamund: The project was the brain-child of the series editor Johanna Moehring, and we worked closely to ensure the anthology would be both appealing to a first-time reader, and representative of the “Diary” as a whole.  It was also important to select extracts that span the decade in which the “Diary” was published and shed light on Dostoevsky’s better known fictional works. We had to make some painful choices about what had to be left out, and Johanna and I had some impassioned debate along the way, but I believe our anthology conveys the essence of Dostoevsky, and also the essence of his message about the “Russian soul”, which lies at the heart of everything he wrote.

Karen: As well as translating so much, you’ve also written widely and again very much focusing on Russians. Which kind of work do you actually prefer – the writing or the translating?

Rosamund: I’m lucky to have had the chance to do both, and believe there can be no better writing school than translating the work of a great author. I probably enjoy translation more.  This is partly because of the unrivalled opportunity it provides for close reading, and partly because, while very demanding, it is still less difficult than writing. Translation is certainly a creative pursuit in its own right, but I would ultimately rather be drawing on everything I have gained from it to follow the tortuous path of writing.

Karen: Finally, if we could take one message away from Dostoevsky and his oeuvre, what do you think that would be?

Rosamund: What remains with me, and continues to be a deep inspiration, is the central underlying theme of Dostoevsky’s greatest masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov, namely that.

“we are all responsible for everything”. 

Whether on the larger plane of politics or ecology, or just in the context of our personal lives, it is a message which we would all do well to heed.

Many thanks to Rosamund for kindly taking time out to answer our questions! 

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Read Karen’s review of The Russian Soul HERE.

Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and think she may well have somehow absorbed part of a Russian soul.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Russian Soul  (Notting Hill Editions, 2017).  978-1910749630, 137pp, hardback.

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