Book Four: A Russian Companion

Russian classroom-1Reached the end of Book Four, and the book is continuing to be readable and enjoyable.

I had a revelation when I was reading this section, which came from this footnote:

chërny (pronounced chorny) is Russian for ‘black’; kara means ‘black’ in Turkish; maz comes from the Russian mazat’, to smear, to stain; conflating these concepts, one may interpret ‘Karamazov’ as ‘Blackstain’, ‘Blackman’. ‘Karamazov’ is not an established Russian surname; it was made up by Dostoevsky along the lines indicated above.

I had been reading the book assuming Karamazov was a Russian name…like you could wander through Moscow and meet some guy named Karamazov.  As you can see above, that would not be possible.  (This is a device probably most associated with Dickens, a contemporary of Dostoevsky’s.)

Beyond that, though, I had the revelation that I would never be able to read this book like somebody picking up the Russian Messenger in January of 1879.  Yes, that’s language in part, but it’s not just that.  Like any other book, there are contemporary references laced throughout the narrative and these things can literally not make sense to someone living in Ohio in 2018.

Our own books are the same.  I’m reading Ohio right now, and the section I am on right now is describing the difference between the original Wal-Mart in their town and then the new Wal-Mart, a detail that’s completely clear to someone who witnessed the same transition in Bowling Green, Ohio, but is not likely to do much for someone reading Ohio in 130 years.

I began to think about this idea when I read The Year of Learwhich looked at that plays (and others) from the lens of a contemporary audience.  It was utterly fascinating and a new way to read Shakespeare and one, I might contend, would make Shakespeare more accessible in the classroom.

This idea came to fruition when I checked out A Karamazov Companion from the local library.  In our first two reading challenges, we resisted doing that.  As Robert DeNiro says in Analyze This, “a hard-on should be gotten honestly or it shouldn’t be gotten at all.”  If you’re going to read the book, read the book.

The companion does make it more interesting.  It’s a little awkward because it is mated with a different translation than the one we are using, but even so, it provides some additional context at the detail level.  For example, at one point someone is referred to as a seminarian, which means one thing at face value and another when you know that in Dostoevsky’s time that also meant the person was from the lower classes.

Naturally, I’m not saying this book shouldn’t be read outside its time, because inside those timely references is a book that focuses on some of the most timeless struggles humans face.  But I do think (now) that you’re selling yourself short if you try and gut it out without taking some time to bridge the gap of time and culture.

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