Conrad’s Dostoevsky

I’ve been listening to (not reading) Under Western Eyes, Joseph Conrad’s Russian novel. It includes (long before Eric Hoffer) a brilliant portrayal of the spiritual sickness that characterizes the Revolutionary temper. But that is not what I’m interested here, which is this:

Joseph Conrad did not like Russia. Joseph Conrad apparently did not like Dostoevsky, either. I learned this from Wikipedia.

That great site directed me to a letter that Conrad wrote to Edward Garnett, husband of the prolific translator of Russian literature Constance Garnett, in May of 1912 (the year after Under Western Eyes was published). It is extremely catty, and I reproduce it below.

Dearest Edward.

I do hope you are not too disgusted with me for not thanking you for the “Karamazov” before. It was very dear of you to remember me; and of course I was extremely interested. But it’s an impossible lump[?] of valuable matter. It’s terrifically bad and impressive and exasperating. Moreover, I don’t know what D stands for or reveals, but I do know that he is too Russian for me. It sounds to me like some fierce mouthings from prehistoric ages. I understand the Russians have just ‘discovered’ him. I wish them joy.

Of course your wife’s translation is wonderful. One almost breaks one’s heart merely thinking of it. What courage! What perseverance! What talent of–interpretation let us say. The word ‘translation’ does not apply to your wife’s achievements. But indeed the man’s art does not deserve this good fortune. Turgeniew (and perhaps Tolsto├») are the only two really worthy of her. Give her please my awestruck and admiring love. One can be nothing less but infinitely grateful to her whatever one may think of or feel about D. himself

Tell me, when you have a moment to spare, what sort of reception had your Spanish play. I reckon it is due for performance from what you told me. I haven’t seen any papers for a week. I am trying to start a long short story and these beastly things put me off completely. I know that there is another strike and that’s all. But that sort of thing is growing monotonous, and having no particular respect for either of the three parties I am not exciting myself over the same unduly.

Yours ever

J. Conrad

The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad, ed. Frederick R. Karl and Laurence Davies, vol. 5 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 70-71.

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