‘Of course, we don’t usually kill old ladies like Raskolnikov, but this charm of evil exists in each of us’

Slavist Maria Candida Ghidini on how Dostoyevsky is read in Europe, why the pope cites him and the difficulties of translation of the writer into Italian

‘Of course, we don’t usually kill old ladies like Raskolnikov, but this charm of evil exists in each of us’
Photo: Maria Candida Ghidini’s personal archive

“I always ask first-graders which Russian writer they have read. And Dostoyevsky usually is the only Russian author they have read. They read Tolstoy less, sometimes they do Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. I think Dostoyevsky is very popular. People love to cite him. Our premier cited him several times last year, but which wasn’t relevant, by the way. The Pope of Rome cited him pertinently. Everybody says his phrase ‘beauty will save the world’, relevantly and irrelevantly,” explains Slavist, Professor of Russian Literature at the University of Parma, translator from Russian into Italian Maria Candida Ghidini. In an interview with Realnoe Vremya, she talked about the attitude to Russian literature and Dostoyevsky in Europe.

“I was oversaturated with ideas. This impeded me from seeing Dostoyevsky as a storyteller”

Maria, why did you go into Russian literature?

There are a lot of reasons for my love for the Russian language and culture. I had to choose a faculty I wanted to study in at the age of 18. I wanted to study philosophy and foreign languages, and Russian literature, in my opinion, is the most philosophic one. And I made my choice with recklessness, which is characteristic of youth. Then I met a great teacher, professor, woman. All other subjects at university were just subjects, while Russian literature she taught was life. One day I came to her and claimed that I wanted to do my thesis on Dostoyevsky. She just laughed: “You’re young, you know nothing, the whole world has already said an important word about Dostoyevsky”. In the end, we reached a compromise, she gave me the topic of Vyacheslav Ivanov and Dostoyevsky.

This is how I went into Russian literature, particularly Dostoyevsky, from a perspective of the history of thought and philosophy. This gave me a lot during that period. But as time went by, I was tired a bit, I was oversaturated with ideas and thoughts. This impeded me from seeing Dostoyevsky as a writer, storyteller. And soon I was entrusted with translating Dostoyevsky: I translated The Idiot and other his texts into Italian. It was a new experience for me. Then I studied and worked in Moscow where I got acquainted with amazing specialists.

Could you tell us your personal history of acquaintance with Dostoyevsky?

Dostoyevsky was the first Russian writer I read. Like others, first of all, I read Crime and Punishment. A lyceum teacher advised me, she encouraged me to read Dostoyevsky. I remember that one day in the 70s when I was 14, she invited a priest who chaired the community of Russian Christians to our lyceum. The priest arrived in the school and explained what they did, a bit about the Soviet Union we knew nothing about and about Dostoyevsky.

The first time I read Crime and Punishment was in the garden under a fig tree in summer. I remember this because strange sticking dust was falling from the tree and settled on the pages, it spoiled the book, but I still keep it. Then I read The Brothers Karamazov. It was my mum’s book. It is interesting that when my mum went to the maternity hospital to give birth to me, she took The Brothers Karamazov and read this novel there. Now I can joke that it is fate.

Ilya Glazunov, F. M. Dostoyevsky. The While Night. Photo: umbra.media
Dostoyevsky’s novels are often named idea novels, but I have a different opinion: his content and shape genially come together and they become rather character novels

Like other European philosophers, masters of epiphany, he felt the upcoming crisis of Europe”

What appealed you to Dostoyevsky’s books?

Firstly, it is a mixture of light and darkness, the dark and light in a person. This interested me a lot as a teenager. I felt that the heroes talked about important things. Their words had another level of life, a more conscious life. And I thought that this life was full, deep, it was simply bubbling up on these pages.

The second theme I managed to understand in Dostoyevsky only some time later is an immersion into a person’s dark world, a merciless analysis of evil. Of course, we don’t usually kill old ladies, but many of us can kill their fathers or kill themselves, but anyway, this charm of evil exists in each of us. I call this a complex of bridge or avalanche. For instance, in the novel, Raskolnikov looks down at the Neva River, and this mesmerises him, emptiness attracts him. We find this in Dostoyevsky’s many characters, for instance, in The Gambler. But Dostoyevsky doesn’t speak about it directly. His notebooks testify that he consciously blurs the narration, talks about many things indirectly, deliberately unclearly. The Gambler is full of metaphors of circle and whirlwind, a rapid and fatal upward movement, to the emptiness. I have thought about it a lot. Dostoyevsky’s novels are often named idea novel, but I have a different opinion: his content and shape genially come together, and they become rather character novels. The truth or an idea aren’t manifested directly, a reader himself understands it during the reading, it comes to the surface in relationships between heroes, in their dialogues and actions.

The third thing that attracted me was his storytelling mastery. He has a lot of stories inside other stories, small cameos. And you have a feeling that it is such a multi-storeyed way of narration: to say something different, which isn’t the case. It is his amazing ability to work with the myth and archetypes that influence us in a hidden way.

In the blurb to your book Dostoyevsky you write that “his art assumes prophecy in a strange and indirect way”. What prophecies of Dostoyevsky became a reality? For instance, famous intellectual Jordan Peterson says that in Crime and Punishment Dostoyevsky showed what happened to a person who decided to violate God’s laws, reject a moral principle and indirectly predicts what would happen to the whole society in the 20th century when it decided that “God died”.

When I wrote about Dostoyevsky’s prophecies in my book, I didn’t mean the prophecies in the historical context. It is a very debatable and dangerous issue. I talked about his special view on the reality that is never exhausted by empiricism. On the other hand, his ability to analyse a person’s inner world allowed him to enter a historical reality too. He could read between the lines and foresee the end of totalitarianism up to a point only because he interpreted and studied his era. He saw and understood its roots in society and history. He inexorably studied history, economics and social sciences. It is not accidental that he actively participated in a public discussion from the very beginning and suffered from it. Deep roots of his art in his era allowed him to foresee what happened in the 20th century.

Raskolnikov in his room, illustration by I. Glazunov for Crime and Punishment. Photo: umbra.media
Dostoyevsky’s ability to analyse a person’s inner world allowed him to enter a historical reality too. He could read between lines and foresee the end of totalitarianism up to a point only because he interpreted and studied his era

Dostoyevsky’s ability to bundle up different dimensions attracts me a lot. I saw that you published an interview with Guido Carpi, he wrote a great book about Dostoyevsky as economist and presented the novel The Idiot as a great analysis of financial aspects of that period. This specific layer is linked with damned issues related to humans and space. It is marvellous.

But Dostoyevsky isn’t isolated. It is a great Russian man, but he is a part of European culture too. Like other European philosophers, masters of epiphany, he felt the upcoming crisis of Europe, its culture and public system. He lived intensively and interpreted his era, this is why he managed to predict the events.

In my opinion, literature always, especially in Russia, has analysed and foreseen many events. This is why Dostoyevsky, and not only he, was interested in the threat of ideological terrorism, and he managed to predict what military analysts didn’t dare to imagine.

For instance?

Raskolnikov kills the old lady. Why? There are a lot of motives, and Dostoyevsky describes them leaving some uncertainty. But probably the first motivation is that he wants to persuade himself that he can completely control his actions. But it turns out that he is a captive of a terrible mechanism inside, he is a puppet of a terrible machine we could name fate or human state. But Dostoyevsky shows that Raskolnikov is also a puppet of historical circumstances, injustice and exploitation.

He is also concise and topical when talking about women. For instance, the exploitation of the female body, the power of money over the body. It is the most horrible form of violence and mortification. Same Netochka Nezvanova. There is a powerful scene when little Netochka takes money from her stepfather, hides it in the chest, and it burns her skin. Or Grushenka… All this is the topic of violence. Great philosopher René Girard who dealt with violence all his life was so keen on Dostoyevsky and wrote about him for a reason. Violence and mortification are the things that are opposite to building and creation: a real demonic act, which is opposite to the act of creation. And it is a big topic, especially in Dostoyevsky’s late period: the creation of himself by creating peace around himself.

“He was one of the first people who managed to express the state of uncertainty a contemporary person lives in”

What did Dostoyevsky do first or one of the first around the world?

A phrase by Camus that Dostoyevsky used throughout his life amazed me. He said that he admired Dostoyevsky first because he talked about human nature amazingly. Later, when Camus began to live the drama of his era, he loved Dostoyevsky because he managed to express the historical essence of his time. I think that precisely Dostoyevsky was one of the first people who managed to express the state of uncertainty a contemporary person lives in — inner and external. However, they are closely connected as Camus shown in Les Justes.

Another important is that all Russian philosophers of the early 20th century admitted after Dostoyevsky that violence is a consequence of groundlessness when a person rushes and can’t find his or her roots. This goes back to an ancient myth about the half-god Antaeus who lost all his power losing the connection with Gaia, the earth. And Hercules wins him by simply raising him above the earth. This is the way a person is. He loses the point of support on the earth and loses his face. It is a metaphor of loss of integrity of humane “me” that happens in modern history. From this perspective, Dostoyevsky was a great interpreter of modern time.

This also was reflected in the fact he was a reformer of such a genre as a novel. The big form was in a crisis at that time. Dostoyevsky made up a new form. He seems to be writing not a novel all the time. For instance, he inserted life stories of saints, philosophic stories, legends, folk tales into The Brothers Karamazov as if he wanted to destroy the form of the novel. Dostoyevsky’s novel wants to be bigger than it is. It is Florensky and Bakhtin’s famous formula: “Existence isn’t equal to itself, it is always bigger than itself”.

Mother’s Death, illustration of I. Glazunov for Dostoyevsky’s novel Netochka Nezvanova. Photo: umbra.media
All Russian philosophers of the early 20th century admitted after Dostoyevsky that violence is a consequence of groundlessness when a person rushes and can’t find his or her roots

How does Dostoyevsky solve the problem of evil inside a person, his fascination with evil?

I began to say that a mixture of light and darkness attracted me to Dostoyevsky. Most of the researchers in the 20th century agreed that Dostoyevsky described mainly the darkness as if all good things he said didn’t have an exit, outcome. All the good wasn’t taken into consideration or was supposed to be fake to a certain degree. For instance, Bakhtin interpreted the final of Crime and Punishment as something unreal, artificial. But if there isn’t such an epilogue, many things don’t have a meaning in the novel. For instance, when Sonya reads Gospel about raising of Lazarus to Raskolnikov, there are direct, textual links with the final, and they are very consecutive.

I think that the most horrible thing for a person, in Dostoyevsky’s opinion, is hiding in oneself, this hopeless immersion into oneself when a person becomes like a mouse that always nibbles something, and in the end, it eats itself from the inside. One has to leave this vicious circle. But the character of Notes from Underground can’t leave. He has an opportunity when he meets with Liza, he makes an attempt at leaving, tells her that he will help her. But it is only words that help him get power over her.

It is a game of victim and torturer that Dostoyevsky always accurately describes. But a person can’t leave the underground. One can leave oneself only to meet the Other. A person needs help from the outside. And Raskolnikov receives it from Sonya. It is a red thread we find in The Brothers Karamazov too. It is an amazing dream about the universal fraternity that is specified in the community (Alyosha Karamazov’s friendship with children). But it can become dangerous if we start to interpret it not from a perspective of personal salvation but as a political and social idea.

“His conception of war makes me be on Tolstoy’s side”

Here it is appropriate to ask about Dostoyevsky’s political views.

There isn’t one Dostoyevsky. He is different at different stages of his life. At the end of his life, he was included to “conservative utopia”, I use the term that Andrzej Walicki invented for Slavophils. Thank God, we read Dostoyevsky not for his political views. One can see hidden racism, anti-Semitism in his novels. His conception of war especially at the end of his life expressed in A Writer’s Diary makes me be on Tolstoy’s side. It is another side of his search for universal land on which it is possible to create a fraternity for all humanity. But it is dangerous because a fraternity instead of a civil agreement is risky. And this great amazing utopia contains a risk because we see that the idea of fraternity in history outside certain legal frameworks was easily deformed and used for evil.

And Dostoyevsky understood this, in my opinion. He inserts these ideas into Shatov’s mouth, one of the demons, for a reason. Dostoyevsky has oscillations of the thought, polarisation, he creates an occurrence and then its opposite. It isn’t relativism, he knows where it is correct and where it isn’t, but he provides you with both poles.

How is Dostoyevsky’s art considered in Europe both by students and scientists and laymen?

I always ask first-graders which Russian writer they have read. And Dostoyevsky usually is the only Russian author they have read. They read Tolstoy less, sometimes they do Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. I think Dostoyevsky is very popular. People love to cite him. Our premier cited him several times last year, but which wasn’t relevant, by the way. The Pope of Rome cited him pertinently. It was dedicated to the international day of journalist two years ago. The Pope was talking about fake news and cited The Brothers Karamazov: when you tell a lie, it isn’t just words, not just a certain episode of your life, it has ontological consequences for your existence. He cited Zosima’s words to Fyodor Karamazov. And this year he said that we were people, the creatures that were narrative, that’s to say, we needed stories and narration, and he cited Dostoyevsky.

I mean Dostoyevsky is present in the public discourse. Everybody says his phrase “beauty will save the world”, relevantly and irrelevantly.

Nastasia Filippovna, illustration of I. Glazunov for The Idiot. Photo: umbra.media
I think that the most horrible thing for a person, in Dostoyevsky’s opinion, is hiding in oneself, this hopeless immersion into oneself when a person becomes like a mouse that always nibbles something, and in the end, it eats itself from the inside, when it is relevant and irrelevant

What difficulties did you face when translating Dostoyevsky?

It was considered until recently that Dostoyevsky wrote in a confusing and chaotic way, and that translators of his book tied up any loose ends. However, the confusion is his style, sometimes conscious enough. For this reason, for instance, I decided to leave repetitions of words. However, editors thought I didn’t know Italian synonyms, couldn’t find other words, and they simply deleted all repetitions without even letting me know. It was very hard to edit my translation, we debated. Now translators treat Dostoyevsky’s style more consciously and with great respect.

There were difficulties with the translation of addresses, patronymics that don’t exist in Italian. Because we can’t write simply Nastya instead of Nastasia Filippovna. But Italians are tired of the complicated Russian way of the denomination. I had to look for compromises.

By Natalia Antropova