Friday, 3 January 2014

The Russian Point of View, by Virginia Woolf.

To start the Russian Literature 2014 event, I wanted to write a little about Virginia Woolf's 'The Russian Point of View' (a short essay from The Common Reader First Series which you can read here).

In 1912, Constance Garnett (the mother of David Garnett, who married Angelica Bell, Virginia Woolf's niece) translated The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It was the first highly regarded translation (the very first translation was by Marie von Thilo in 1881), and in total, Garnett translated 71 Russian works, and she was also one of the first translators of Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov as well as Dostoyevsky. The Hogarth Press, the publishers founded in 1917 by Leonard and Virginia Woolf, published many Russian works and Woolf reviewed thirteen between 1917 and 1927, so it's of no surprise that Virginia Woolf was well-read in Russian Literature. In fact, Woolf explored Russia through its literature and she went on to write several essays on the subject, such as 'The Russian Point of View' and 'Modern Fiction' (both published in The Common Reader First Series, 1925).

The Brothers Karamazov translated by Constance Garnett marked  a revival in interest in Russian Literature, and its publication date was around the time Virginia Woolf retrospectively remarked that "in or around December, 1910, human character changed". In fact, Russian Literature helped shape Virginia Woolf's own writing style, showing her preoccupation with the metaphysical; the 'inner life' and 'soul'. Such was Woolf's admiration of the Russian novelists, she came close to arguing the merits of Russian Literature far surpassed the English tradition, writing in 'Modern Fiction',
... if the Russians are mentioned one runs the risk of feeling that to write of any fiction save theirs is waste of time. 
Certainly she claimed in 'The Russian Point of View' that Tolstoy was the greatest of all novelists: "for what else can we call the author of War and Peace?" She believed that "Nothing seems to escape him. Nothing glances off him unrecorded."

In The Russian Point of View, Woolf wrote,
... it is the soul that is the chief character in Russian fiction. Delicate and subtle in Tchekov, subject to an infinite number of humours and distempers, it is of greater depth and volume in Dostoevsky; it is liable to violent diseases and raging fevers, but still the predominant concern... The novels of Dostoevsky are seething whirlpools, gyrating sandstorms, waterspouts which hiss and boil and suck us in. They are composed purely and wholly of the stuff of the soul. Against our wills we are drawn in, whirled round, blinded, suffocated, and at the same time filled with a giddy rapture. Out of Shakespeare there is no more exciting reading.
It is this, which she called "a new panorama of the human mind" that excited her, and within it dichotomies were broke down: there was no "good" or "bad", no one or the other, but the two merged together,
Men are at the same time villains and saints; their acts are at once beautiful and despicable. We love and we hate at the same time.
Social barriers are broken down also. Referring to Dostoyevsky, she wrote,
It is all the same to him whether you are noble or simple, a tramp or a great lady. Whoever you are, you are the vessel of this perplexed liquid, this cloudy, yeasty, precious stuff, the soul. The soul is not restrained by barriers. It overflows, it floods, it mingles with the souls of others.
Russian Literature was markedly different to the pre-modern novels of the 19th Century, which was why Woolf suggested,
Perhaps that is why it needs so great an effort on the part of an English reader to read The Brothers Karamazov or The Possessed a second time. The “soul” is alien to him. It is even antipathetic. It has little sense of humour and no sense of comedy. It is formless. It has slight connection with the intellect. It is confused, diffuse, tumultuous, incapable, it seems, of submitting to the control of logic or the discipline of poetry. 
And there were further problems: it wasn't just 'the matter' that would confuse the English reader, but also the style.
Our first impressions of Tchekov are not of simplicity but of bewilderment. What is the point of it, and why does he make a story out of this? we ask as we read story after story.
Stories remain, from our English perspective, unfinished. There is no tidiness, no neat conclusions.
We have rather the feeling that we have overrun our signals; or it is as if a tune had stopped short without the expected chords to close it. These stories are inconclusive, we say, and proceed to frame a criticism based upon the assumption that stories ought to conclude in a way that we recognise. In so doing, we raise the question of our own fitness as readers. Where the tune is familiar and the end emphatic — lovers united, villains discomfited, intrigues exposed — as it is in most Victorian fiction, we can scarcely go wrong, but where the tune is unfamiliar and the end a note of interrogation or merely the information that they went on talking, as it is in Tchekov, we need a very daring and alert sense of literature to make us hear the tune, and in particular those last notes which complete the harmony. 
Furthermore, Russian Literature presented the insurmountable problem for the non-Russian speaking reader, that is the language barrier. Virginia Woolf attempted to learn Russian, but, despite collaborating on a few translations, her endeavour was unsuccessful, and so she worried about this barrier.
What we are saying amounts to this, then, that we have judged a whole literature stripped of its style. When you have changed every word in a sentence from Russian to English, have thereby altered the sense a little, the sound, weight, and accent of the words in relation to each other completely, nothing remains except a crude and coarsened version of the sense. Thus treated, the great Russian writers are like men deprived by an earthquake or a railway accident not only of all their clothes, but also of something subtler and more important — their manners, the idiosyncrasies of their characters.  
Today, even without being greatly familiar with modern writers such as Woolf, Joyce, or Proust, I don't think the difficulties Russian Literature presented to the English reader in the early 20th Century are quite as great, and Virginia Woolf, despite her doubts, shows that English translations of Russian Literature may still inspire and change a reader or writer's direction. I wrote a few weeks ago about intimidating literature, and the Russians fall into that category partly because they're so unfamiliar, and it feels as though one has to prepare oneself somehow before opening the book. This is why I wanted to host the Russian Literature 2014 event: to overcome that fear or unease, and to move forward. Virginia Woolf, in 'The Russian Point of View' proves that whatever doubts or problems there may be, the attempt is certainly worth it. Sign ups are still open, so if you decide to join leave me a comment on this post!



  1. A profound post.

    I thoroughly enjoyed Garnett's translations of Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment. But I always read that her translations are not the best. Nonetheless, my first Russian novels were so pleasant to read that I looked for her translation of War and Peace and bought it. I'm hoping to read it this year.

    Woolf is complex to me, but I appreciate her commentary that you include in your post, and I have to agree with her.

    Next time I am thinking about another book to buy, I won't pass up The Brother's Karamazov again.

    1. Perhaps the translations were once the best but they've dated. I'm still curious - if one shows up I think I'll buy one!

      Woolf is very complex, but she's surprisingly accessible as well. And her essays are wonderful. I don't always agree with her, but she writes so beautifully :)

      I LOVE The Brothers Karamazov!

  2. Oh my, despite my great obsession with Virginia (yes, we are on a first name base for some reason sometime in my teens I decided we should be friends and she had no choice) and her brilliant mind, I have read little nonfiction of hers. Thanks for making me more aware of this.

    One of my favorite Romanian writers also happened to translate Dostoevsky (which influenced him greatly) sometimes in the sixties or seventies. I prefer Russian lit translated into Romanian because I just feel that although it is a latin language it has enough slavic influences to emulate some of the original Russian.

    Translation is truly an art in itself! If we were to be put off by the fact that we cannot read a book in its original form, we'd have a pretty narrow view of literature and the world.

    1. I love her essays, and I think I've read a fair amount, but they're all worth re-reading. I think I'll be blogging about a few more in the next year.

      And I agree with what you say about translation - it must be an art form, and I do wish I could read a lot more in the original language, but I can't, so I either accept that or I close myself off to the rest of the world's literature. And that's not much good at all!

  3. Wonderful post! Bookmarked and will definitely be sharing and coming back to it :) I never knew that Woolf attempted to learn Russian.

    Thank you also for the further reading!

    All the best for 2014,
    Lucy at Tolstoy Therapy

    1. Actually, I didn't know she tried to learn Russian either! I have read quite a few biographies, but either I didn't notice it, or maybe it was a vague attempt that wasn't worth mentioning... I don't know the answer, but I'm planning on reading a biography by Whitworth - I'll see if there's any mention in there! :)


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