[L] Tolstoy by Ivan Nikolaevič Kramskoy (1873) [R] Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov (1872)

On the Pleasures of Immersing One’s Self in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in Print and Audio

With maturity, voracious readers may begin to judge which novels are worth precious time, and why. With the works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky also available in audio and e-books , the pleasure is deepened.

One week in college, I sprinted through Anna Karenina for a seminar on literary love and The Brothers Karamazov for a World Classics survey. A few years later, in my introduction to literature courses, I taught Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych to undergrads with far lighter reading lists, who reacted indifferently. A harrowing parable of a middle-aged man’s mortality failed to resonate with youth. I left Tolstoy and his counterpart behind for decades. Until I finished my sporadic march through War and Peace on my Kindle recently, this (almost) totaled the encounters I had with the duo, which Henry James regarded as creating the epitome of 19th-century novels, “large, loose, baggy monsters”.

Oddly, while watching the third season of BBC Two’s Peaky Blinders with its lusty if loony sub-plot of White Russian exiles in England, I decided to meet again those baggy monsters. My plan: as these works merited careful understanding, I’d enhance as well as slow this experience. I’d match an audio book with a translation. Given variety, I might opt for a different recital than what I chose for my Kindle. This parallel activity would enable me to follow end notes and study introductions. I would savor both the recital of the text as interpreted by an actor and as imagined by me, as my eyes kept pace.

This measured two-step strengthened the discipline I needed. I wanted to think more deeply and react less glibly, weary of my wife’s constant CNN chatter and Facebook’s click bait. What I’ve heard phrased as the necessity of refurbishing one’s “mental furniture” with leisure in a well-stocked library, appealed. In my thoughts, twin Russian towers loomed. For a virtual vacation, I booked an extended stay at both. I realized how I’d already (long?) outlived a famous former resident at Chez Tolstoy. Poor Ivan Ilych, marred by a fall while hanging curtains. A domestic failure, marked by his narrator as elderly by 45.

With maturity, voracious readers may begin to judge which novels are worth precious time, and why. At the New Statesman, David Mikics recommends Crime and Punishment as a cathartic process, a method to counter our biases reinforced by our web habits. “A novel has a structure, while the web doesn’t; a novel pushes back, and demands that we stay involved. Sinking into a book and subjecting ourselves to the author is the shock treatment we need to break out of our habit of online distractions, which can numb our capacity to see how human beings develop over time. Without that capacity, we lose the power to identify with the people around us, especially those we find morally troubling.”

I needed this therapy. I hunted around for the best (given my budget) cyber-care. I’d sidle past any spoilers (I already knew how Anna K. and old Mr. K. fared). Curious about how critics and folks reacted to their confrontations with or celebrations of these authors’ achievements, I went online.

Warming Up for the Challenge

As preparation on audio, two possibilities appear. On behalf of The Great Courses (also on Audible), Northwestern professor Irwin Weil devotes a third of his 36 half-hour lectures to the two Russians in his overview of that nation’s literature. Scanning evaluations from consumers, I learned that they appreciated his singing in the language (!) and his enthusiasm. But many expressed disappointment about stodgy content. Plot summaries predominated, along with basic information now procured in a few minutes by search engine. Weil’s approach, honed in the Cold War years, showed its and his age.

Audible along with OverDrive (or perhaps OneClick Digital or Hoopla apps; see below) e-media links through many public libraries provide another choice. The Modern Scholar series presents Columbia University’s Liza Knapp. She spends half of her nearly eight hours with Anna Karenina, Notes from the Underground, and Crime and Punishment. Knapp, a productive Slavic scholar, focuses (with a nod to Woody Allen by way of E.F. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel) on themes of love and death as responses to life’s meaning. Knapp provides undergraduate-level sets of descriptions of the stories and biographies of their authors. (Ivan Turgenev and Anton Chekhov get equal time as fellow “Giants of Russian Literature”.) Professor Knapp reads off her lectures, which are cogent, if delivered in too-halting an elocution. One talk terminated at not thirty but twelve minutes, cut-off in mid-sentence.

For if not Turgenev then Chekhov aloud, Anthony Heald’s vigorous voicing for the Ivan’s Father and Sons and the latter’s short stories (up through 1882) divides listeners. I defend his flexible range as appropriately querulous, reticent, brusque, or baffled. More about Heald when I turn to Dostoevsky.

Robert Whitfield in the audio’s 128 minutes gallops through Paul Strathern’s Dostoevsky in 90 Minutes. Whitfield channels Strathern’s condensation of the author’s essence. Strathern. He hears rants in the less “civilized” Dostoevsky, for whom those in their late teens comprise his fan-base.

For his counterpart, only Simon Parke’s Conversations with Leo Tolstoy featured in online holdings. Part of Parke’s clever series using himself as a slightly hesitant interviewer hosting great thinkers, here Tony Harrison enlivens Tolstoy in his own words. However, this encounter is long after his mid-life conversion which lured him away from literary circles as he pursued his dogged spiritual quests.

In print from Oxford, Catriona Kelly’s Russian Literature, in the idiosyncratic A Very Short Introduction series, expounds on Pushkin. That quirk is of little help here. From Cambridge, Caryl Emerson’s introduction to Russian literature stuffs the two “baggy monster” creators into twenty-odd pages of her 300 allotted. The lively sections open for preview online, unfortunately, leave out this germane content. She does address “the advanced beginner”. I admit I’m still unsure if that means me.

Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?

David Bentley Hart at First Things concludes his verdict favoring Leo Tolstoy: “it seems to me nothing but simple justice to grant the one his prophet’s mantle and his tragic wisdom, but still to grant the other the supremacy of his art.” For Hart, Fyodor Dostoevsky stumbles, with his manic characters not quite “real”. Wryly, such judgments were anticipated by M.S. Mirsky back in 1926. Tolstoy “seems to have been given to the world for the special purpose of being contrasted with Dostoevsky.” Whether this is damned by faint praise or is oblique acclaim for Tolstoy, I still ponder.

Kevin Hartnett also favors Mr. T.’s “ability to see the angles of everyday life” rather than “Dostoevsky’s taste for the manic edges of experience.” On The Millions, this essayist asked eight Russian Literature specialists to weigh in. Among them, Andrew Kaufman expounds: “If Dostoevsky urges us to reach for the heavens, then Tolstoy teaches us by artistic example how we may touch the transcendent here and now in our messy, fleeting world.” Gary Saul Morson situates Dostoevsky within the past century, as predicting totalitarianism. Tolstoy affirms today’s need for wisdom more than ideology. He examines “contingency”, the power of small decisions in our mundane lives.

Author Raquel Chanto counters from a graduate student’s perspective. “Tolstoy’s characters tell me a lot about themselves. Dostoevsky’s characters tell me a lot about myself. If that is not writing of the ultimate importance, I do not know what is.” Two more scholars rest their cases for Dostoevsky; another inevitably waffles. Four academics with varying degrees of conviction tilt for Tolstoy, however guardedly. A commentator on the blog squares Tolstoy with Francis Ford Coppola. Dostoevsky returns as if Martin Scorsese, an apt juxtaposition.

George Steiner, cited often, presaged this online discussion. His 1959 “essay in the Old Criticism” Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, tellingly leaves out a question mark after that title. A brash Steiner places Tolstoy’s Olympian scale next to Dostoevsky’s Shakespearean tragedy. He aligns the former with the pagan, the ordered, and the rational. The latter reveals the Christian, the chaotic, and the untamed.

This corrective, among those coming to the Russians in classrooms, nevertheless has met with less widespread acceptance than Vladimir Nabokov’s curdled disgust for Dostoevsky in his Lectures on Russian Literature, delivered at post-war Wellesley and Cornell. Young Steiner’s mandarin sensibility in his debut book betrayed his lack of fluency in Russian itself, a serious shortcoming. But as a native speaker, Nabokov’s prejudice replaces Steiner’s equanimity. While Nabokov admitted Tolstoy’s penchant for sermonizing, his “mighty” and “epic” talent raised him in the exiled professor’s esteem.

Damning Dostoevsky’s “sentimentality”, Nabokov banishes Notes from the Underground as “bunkum”. Yet his lectures digress and drift into plot summaries. He turns cranky. His bias against Dostoevsky, however entertaining, fails in a rigorous, informed assessment. Still, like that master of epic sweep, he peers down, by the force of his personality, quirks, and relentless erudition, over us.

Nabokov, despite his antipathies, knew his primary sources. Raised with also French and English, this author’s clever command of rhetoric makes him, as many readers of his lectures still encounter, an expert difficult to deflect. All the same, informed generations after him have delved deeper into the veracity of Steiner’s supposed dichotomies distinguishing these two Russian writers. Rendering their works into our own tongue, on audio books and in e-book versions and in print, native speakers as well as foreign academics present fine alternatives to two translations which dominate the market, on the web, as streamed, at the library, or jostling each other at a decent bookstore. One’s new, one’s not.

The translator into English of over 70 Russian texts, including nearly all of Tolstoy’s major works and all of Dostoevsky’s novels, Constance Garnett worked rapidly. David Remnick, in his 2005 feature in The New Yorker “The Translation Wars” recounted her technique, as reported by her friend D.H. Lawrence. Garnett was “sitting out in the garden turning out reams of her marvelous translations from the Russian. She would finish a page, and throw it off on a pile on the floor without looking up, and start a new page. That pile would be this high—really, almost up to her knees, and all magical.” Certain critics detect hints of condescension in Lawrence’s vignette. But he captures the image that persists, of an indefatigable one-woman cottage industry combined with a steady production line. Nabokov hated her results, and as with Dostoevsky so with her; his vitriol persisted.

Garnett’s fatal flaw? Her tendency to skip over or elide what confounded her in the original. The dominant critique nowadays prevails that she blended Tolstoy’s and Dostoevsky’s distinctive registers as if both generated far too congenial a stack of Victorian triple-deckers. Yet, her legacy endures. Perhaps not for its elegance, although her pleasant style introduced me as she did many students to The Brothers Karamazov in a Modern Library white with blue-stripe, plain-wrap paperback. Garnett persists as popular for two reasons. First, she smoothes out those rough spots. Schooled on Dickens, Trollope, and George Eliot, Edwardian audiences welcomed her amenable tone and accessible adaptations.

Second, Garnett’s “pile on the floor” persists. If you seek out an audio book, or look up a download, odds are good it will be credited (or maybe not) to Constance Garnett. Of course, certain readers like her genial tone, and for many of us, out of copyright her versions communicate the first voice of Anna or Alyosha Karenina. that we may “hear” as we open these venerable texts or click on free files.

For years, little changed if one was assigned these books or one sought them out. David Magarshack, “one of Garnett’s epigones” in Remnick’s phrasing, found a niche in the ’60s at Penguin Classics as an alternative. My college bookstore sold me the required text of another Penguin publication, the Rosemary Edmonds 1954 edition in workaday prose, for Anna Karenina. Until the millennium, a few Bantam, Random House, or Penguin paperback choices were the most likely choices for many of the two authors’ works. As was the competition to Garnett, from Fabian socialists Aylmer and Louise Maude for Tolstoy’s twin tomes. Garnett fought her rivals for rights and royalties, but Tolstoy authorized that husband-and-wife team. Louise had been born in Moscow; she handled the fiction while Aylmer took up the philosophical treatments. Their achievements survived the past century with more respect than Garnett’s. Next, I’ll examine recent accomplishments, in e-book and on air.

I choose both media, for I have not found online attention given to audio book versions outside of reactions compiled at Audible. This essay shares my own responses, both to the samples of e-books and those of audio, as a guide to assist others who, intrigued by Tolstoy and/or Dostoevsky, wonder which versions to download or borrow, and which ones might please best one’s contemporary tastes.

​War and Peace [Translator: Anthony Briggs]


Oxford University Press commissioned the Maudes’ centenary edition of Tolstoy’s oeuvre (1928-37). Revised and updated versions of their Anna Karenina (1918) and War and Peace (1922) continue in the World’s Classics series. Having started the latter through a Penguin Classics successor by Anthony Briggs (2005), I found few substantial differences between his steady production and that of the Maudes, easily found online without charge. Beginning with Briggs’ explanations and glossaries until I felt comfortable with the contexts, I then relied more on the Maudes’ once I caught the flow.

The trek will grind down any greenhorn, no matter how well-armed to join this literary campaign across Russia and back again. My report eschews plot summaries or critical dissections. Suffice to say that my concentration sharpened and slackened, as I needed to keep the intricate actions of 580 characters (and those names) straight. Don’t worry. Life’s forces here carry you down many streams.

As a result, I didn’t pair War and Peace with an audio book. (The brave can take the long march accompanying a prim and fussy Frederick Davidson, channeling Garnett.) Surpassing 60 hours, that duration, I calculated, could be spent simply face-to-face with the text. Finally, when a storm had blinked out power in my neighborhood, I had no excuses left. I reached the conclusion in a prolonged sitting. More relieved than ecstatic, that I reached the end zone became its own reward. My fellow readers report on sites often how completing a Tolstoy saga satisfies for its own sake. For Dostoevsky, this consensus tilts to relief or exhaustion of having stumbled through a marathon.

That being said, abridged dramatizations may entice those such as myself to return to the action. This is not a choice recommended for beginners. In 1997, the BBC produced a ten-hour radio play. From the sample on Audible, this rushes past as if a Reader’s Digest condensed book. It can be hard to hear. The latest attempt, also on Audible, was adapted by Timberlake Wertenbaker. Released in 2017, this aired on Radio 4 on New Year’s Day 2015. Featuring the late John Hurt, some of its scenes were recorded during a re-enactment of battle in the Czech Republic. Both versions convey a “live” drama.

Anna Karenina [Translators: Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky]


As with War and Peace, so with Tolstoy’s next achievement. Cramming historiography and philosophy into his reaction to Russia’s massive war of 1812, Tolstoy exceeded fictional boundaries. With Anna Karenina, he toyed with the confines of the novel itself. He even enters a hunting dog’s mind. His doomed titular protagonist gains the attention of the likes of Oprah’s Book Club and whomever designs the covers for its countless editions. Yet, the happier couple of Levin and Kitty deserve respect. As with War and Peace, Tolstoy contrasts protagonists, and expands fiction’s scope.

What Rosamund Bartlett labels as his command of “coiled energy” proves how Tolstoy, within an elastic narrative, surpassed nearly all rivals. Or bested them all. This novel arguably reached the apex of what fiction can accomplish. Also his 2010 biographer, Bartlett realizes the difficulty of conveying Tolstoy’s worldview (which continued to evolve towards what Simon Parke amplifies as his defiant Christian dissidence) by means of his prose. She challenges Garnett’s preferences. “Tolstoy’s limpid simplicity is deceptive, and his artistry of a high order, despite his apparent artlessness and eschewal of traditional rhetorical devices.” Bartlett renders bumpier rhythms within Russian sentences that can exceed a hundred words. Her Oxford World’s Classics (2014) heightens Tolstoy’s hesitation. So does the translation I bet on in a photo finish.

It’s not, on the other hand, the one you may expect. By now, it’s a truism that for a posse of “baggy monsters”, their polyphonic chants will be heard in English thanks to the prolific team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (hereafter in common parlance P/V). New Yorker editor David Remnick, in the article quoted from above, provided what stands as the definitive vignette for the couple’s means of production. What D.H. L. did for Constance Garnett, so D.R. does for P/V. And it pings back to C.G.

Dissatisfied with Bartlett’s The Brothers Karamazov, sometime back, at least three decades, P/V collaborated on their own translation. Whereas the Maudes had split duties for Tolstoy between them depending on the genre, for P/V, as Remnick explained, they worked in tandem. “Their division of labor was—and remains—nearly absolute: First, Larissa wrote out a kind of hyperaccurate trot of the original, complete with interstitial notes about Dostoyevsky’s diction, syntax, and references. Then, Richard, who has never mastered conversational Russian, wrote a smoother, more Englished text, constantly consulting Larissa about the original and the possibilities that it did and did not allow. They went back and forth like this several times, including a final session in which Richard read his English version aloud while Larissa followed along in the Russian. Their hope was to be true to Dostoyevsky, right down to his famous penchant for repetition, seeming sloppiness, and melodrama.”

What emerged, first published in 1990 by now-defunct North Point Press, generated adulation. In The New York Times, Andrei Navrozov marveled that “the English reader of The Brothers Karamazov is assured of hearing Dostoyevsky’s music for the first time.” Commendations ignited a burst of P/V translations. Oprah Winfrey (although it is rumored she may have not read P/V’s Anna Karenina, but chose it due to its mass-market ubiquity) gave P/V’s 2000 edition her stamp of approval. WNYC extols these “translation superstars”. Most amateur reviewers agree. Even if Gary Saul Morson in Commentary opined that the couple “take glorious works and reduce them to awkward and unsightly muddles.”

In this, Morson’s 2010 critique “The Pevearsion of Russian Literature“, the scholar reminds us of the Potemkin village. P/V’s stage sets betray the same shoddy craft. “These are Potemkin translations–apparently definitive but actually flat and fake on closer inspection.” He introduces the e-book version of Anna Karenina. I chose (Yale U.P., 2014). Marian Schwartz’ approach complements Bartlett’s.

Yet, I opted after reflection for Schwartz. The saga’s first sentence demonstrates why. Rosamund Bartlett opens with the now-proverbial “All happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Schwartz prefers: “All happy families resemble one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The Maudes also settled on “resemble” as the pivotal verb. Choices may stay subtle, but to my first-generation American sensibility (as tested below), Schwartz compliments the manner in which I imagine, with and despite my limitations, how this novel “seems”.

Translations, after all, meet the needs of not linguists but those of us unable to comprehend the original. Just as Garnett and the Maudes for D.H. Lawrence, so for those today every bit as ignorant of Russian. Bartlett borrows from the wider lexicon of English for variations on the Russian; Marian Schwartz in an interview at the Yale press blog emphasizes repetition and hints of humor. She refers to an 1872 letter where “Tolstoy professed his love for language that was ‘precise, clear, beautiful, and temperate.’ I couldn’t wait to write an English translation that possessed these same qualities.”

Janet Malcolm dismisses P/V, but she sniffs at Schwartz. In The New York Review of Books, Malcolm (who only “first heard of P/V in 2007”) defends Garnett against all these fecund upstarts. “Arguably, Schwartz’s attempt to ‘re-create Tolstoy’s style in English’ surpasses P&V’s in ungainliness.”

Quibbles proliferate. For those who confess no familiarity with Russian, translations hover between those aiming for accuracy and those allowing for aesthetics in the second language. Schwartz and Bartlett skirt what for me weakens P/V. That couple replicates a student’s “crib”. I rarely sense that Pevear’s American ear or eye improves on Volokhonsky’s literal equivalents for her native tongue.

A decade ago on vacation, I took along their The Brothers Karamazov, confident I’d delight in a re-read. I gave up by page 350. What Garnett for all her faults had made sparkle to my youthful vision, here dimmed. On that telling point, Malcolm and I concur about what she scorns as P/V’s “flat, awkward English”.

Fraternal debates droned; I slogged through P/V’s dutifully convoluted, clotted phrases. Later, I missed in their 1997 Penguin Classic whatever allusive, elusive wordplay enlivens, the Russian-fluent harrumph to us, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. I may try M+M dramatized by a jocular Julian Rhind-Tutt, translated in 2006 by Michael Karpenson. Perhaps its vocal riches resonate, despite the fact that Bulgakov died with his Stalinist satire incompletely edited. Audiences applaud his fable’s Faustian layers of magic realism. Innovating earlier realism, Tolstoy long labored.

Anna Karenina [Narrator: David Horovitch]


Listening to Anna Karenina highlights the dazzle of Tolstoy’s best novel-as-novel. Using Audible as my reference, 17 choices appear. Audible boosts its own celebrity reading first, “performed by Maggie Gyllenhaal”. This item is credited to “public domain”, so I reckon it’s Constance Garnett by default (as I will for subsequent audio book listings if no other name is given). Sampling Gyllenhaal, I opted with no hesitation for entry number two. David Horovitch, a veteran declaimer of Dickens, brings his plummy vocal array to energize the Maudes’ version. He glides three hours longer in his stroll than what Gyllenhaal circumnavigates in her slighter stride. The slower reader tends to be the better gamble, as too many performers rush along or compress articulation and pauses. Whomever you settle on, estimate nearly forty hours in the company of a narrator one is well advised to court before committing to.

Yes, abridgments appear, one less than half an hour (by Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck) and others between two-something and five-or-so. At over three hours, BBC Radio 4 enacted a condensed play in 2014 which may entice the hesitant. Try to find your own “voice” suited to how you imagine these tales. The time taken to attend to this winnowing for each of these Russian novels, considering length and depth will be worth it. Check out various versions for a five-minute test drive. As with a car, you will live with your decision for a while. Sifting through reviews assists in judging how other non-experts reacted in turn. As with any online source, acumen therein ranges from scant to smart, so scroll down.

Apart from this Audible-Amazon monopoly, affordable alternatives exist. In e-media linked to my largest local public library, three venues occasionally overlap. OverDrive delivers the most e-book and audio book downloads through the smartest interface. A drawback will be that it forces patrons into a queue; each title may in many cases be checked out by one user at a time. For Tolstoy, if less so for Dostoevsky in my observations, a virtual waiting line portends. Recorded Books presents OneClick Digital, with a far smaller inventory. It and Hoopla, a multi-media app, arrange titles less adroitly. Still, both competitors allow multiple patrons to claim titles for three weeks simultaneously, with easy renewals. At another library system, Cloud Library channeled fewer e-media, with skimpy picks of any “classics”. (OneClick blocks Kindle Fire from e-book access. Only OneClick’s audio books will arrive.)

Browsing shelves online or in person, a consumer encounters for Anna Karenina as distinct from these other “baggy monsters” a revealing promotional strategy. Every cover features a female. The assumption, as both image and usually actor will perpetuate, implies that this is a woman’s narrative, by which actors bond with audiences. Title plus marketing play this up, before and after Oprah’s sponsorship.

My “cover girl” vote ties between two newcomers: the Oxford Bartlett edition with John Edward Millais’ 1879 portrait of the thrice-wed British artist Louise Jopling and the Yale Schwartz with an elegant lady half-seen at straight on, furred, hatted, with strands loosened of thick sandy hair. Looking past us, she evokes the eroticism delineated within the art of Klimt or Schiele, with desire confronting sudden danger, or fatal fear. These images enhance expectation of release and revelation.

This novel’s sales pitch holds as steady: here’s forbidden love and bold passion. True, but patient readers discover more. For Kitty, there will be Levin; for Anna, Vronsky. Along with Alexei, they’ll all star. Therefore, my Horovitch nomination is not chauvinistic. He conveys class-based registers and modulations of dialect which Tolstoy denotes. This accords with Schwartz’ intention to narrow Tolstoy’s “judicious cliches” through his raw, at times repetitious, rhetoric. She avers that Tolstoy’s aim “was to bend language to his will, as an instrument of his aesthetic and moral convictions.”

Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time [Author: Joseph Frank]


Pursuing the other “baggy” Russian, as ambitious as Tolstoy if born comparatively less privileged, driven by morality and truth, I begin with Dostoevsky’s account “based on a true story” of his Siberian exile. The harrowing incident of Fyodor facing his (mock) 1849 death sentence for his membership in a utopian socialist reading circle is well-known. (This also motivated Demons, which I will cover shortly.) For resolute inquirers into this series of unfortunate events, Joseph Frank serves as Dostoevsky’s ideological interpreter; This Stanford scholar’s five-volume study even in abridged version nears a thousand pages. His study’s second phase covers Fyodor’s arrest, four-month trial, conviction, and incarceration, in Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859 (Yale U.P., 1984).

Under Frank’s guidance, Mary Petrusewicz condensed and edited his quintet into Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time (2009). His life’s work generates a literary biography compared by Bruce Weber in Frank’s NYT obituary to Leon Edel on Henry James, Walter Jackson Bate on John Keats, or Richard Ellmann on James Joyce. This tribute echoes that by David Foster Wallace. In a 1996 Village Voice he lauded Frank’s first four installments’ “detailed understanding of the cultural circumstances in which his books were conceived and to which they were meant to contribute.” Despite Dostoevsky’s pioneering contribution to the genre of prisoner autobiographies, many readers since sidle away from this melange of speculation, fact, digression, and incident. As Wallace lamented in his appraisal, his fellow writers avoided ideological investigation. Unless cloaked by a “veil of irony”, our “serious” fiction quails. Dostoevsky’s insistent scrutiny of the assumptions of modern sensibility unsettles us.

Confirming this, few translations surface, let alone online. Jessie Coulson’s Oxford World’s Classic Memoirs from the House of the Dead (2007; no e-book) faltered as “too British”. Boris Jakim (Eerdmans, 2013) overtakes his predecessor. Available as are his two other translations of Dostoevsky’s earlier efforts as e-books, Jakim expresses “jottings” by the narrator of the brutal or sexual banter of convicts shunted to Siberia. Jakim in all three endeavors takes bold chances, with equivalents in “coarse, colloquial American English.” Otherwise, it’s one more stock P/V option.

Stefan Rudnicki declaims that 2015 P/V contribution as if a stentorian automaton. This may imitate its blunt bitterness. Rudnicki rumbles in a Spock-like baritone, but it beats the 1986 Walter Covell one. As with Dostoevsky’s “lesser” works, choices wind up scant. My reaction to Rudnicki: so-so. The audio spans thirteen hours and feels it.

Notes from the Underground [Translator: Natasha Randall, Narrator: DBC Pierre]


This harbinger of existentialist anguish stays briefer and blunter. Boris Jakim repeats his e-book success. From 2009 (Eerdmans), he outdoes P/V (2011), and a duo of “too British for me” competitors: the Oxford submission by Jane Kentish (1999) and Coulson again, this round as a Penguin Classic (1972). Energized by Jakim’s calculated moves, Dostoevsky’s style jolts and jars. It veers, dashes forwards, and stumbles often. His agonized, self-preoccupied, perhaps unreliable narrators betray themselves, their God, and their corrupt society. This novella galvanized generations.

While Whitfield, Dick Hill, Anthony Heald, and Simon Vance tempted me among eight contending via Garnett’s rendition, for five hours plus, I gambled on DBC Pierre. This conman-satirist befits “a radical new translation by Natasha Randall.” Pierre introduces too the print edition from Canongate (2013). Surprisingly, his introduction flowed smoother than the text, which clattered on erratically. I found it difficult to remain engaged with the characters and the storyline, frankly. Randall’s purportedly daring take scans better than others. Still, it’s more muted than Jakim.

The Idiot [Translators: Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky]


Nicked by Iggy Pop to name his first solo LP. Repeated by Elif Batuman for her debut 2016 novel (if “resembling” her own coming of age; she borrowed the Garnett slip-up The Possessed to designate her loose, baggy 2010 memoir of graduate studies and follies in Russian Literature). Here comes truth in advertising. Put-upon Prince Myshkin serves as Christ-figure, although his angst may irritate a reader less patient with a tragicomedy of errors along this chilly Via Dolorosa. Albeit a couple of hundred pages shorter than Demons, this by no means races by. For the e-book, Alan Myers’ 2008 contribution for Oxford’s World Classics overtakes the 2004 Penguin Classic from David McDuff. If in this contest two learned subjects of the Crown contended, only the latter came off as “too British”.

Liza Knapp reminds listeners to her series that around the time of this novel’s composition, a widowed Dostoevsky met his second wife. Hired as his stenographer, 20-year-old Anna Grigoryevna Snitkina assisted him. He dictated to her and then revised from her manuscripts. Knapp reasons that this method fits the narrative voices in his later novels and stories, filled with qualifiers.

And yes, his successors as Team P/V delivered this in 2014. On audio, alternatives abound. The L.A. Theatre Works somehow cuts this plus Crime and Punishment below four hours. (I found, by the way, the LATW enactments in full of Babbitt and McTeague, as well as plays by Shaw and Wilde, entertaining on road trips. I prefer Tolstoy and Dostoevsky heard closer to my ear, coupled with e-books as companionable consultation.) Michael Sheen narrates an abridgment of about equal length.

Deploying Garnett, Alastair Cameron, Robert Whitfield, and Constantine Gregory vie in a twenty-hour plunge into what many listeners react to as a demanding and discursive allegory. I liked best the dignity of Simon Vance albeit for this as with Crime cutting nearly half of the text. Bound to full fidelity, I accepted the spare, understated attitude that Jefferson Mays brings to Alan Myers’ accomplishment.

Devils [Narrator: George Guidall]


Entering the arena as the second of Dostoevsky’s heftier beasts, this tops the scale at nearly 900 pages in a 2008 Penguin Classic. Robert Belknap completes Robert Maguire’s translation. Readers-as-critics sigh over the stamina demanded to survive this tale of terror unleashed by student revolutionaries. As with Notes from a Dead House, Dostoevsky bases this on his involvement in anti-tsarist “conspiracy”. Garnett translated its title wrongly. This mistake (if an inspired error) repeats in reprints. The effort expected to keep up herein, twinned with the demands of The Idiot, nudges those less smitten with Dostoevsky to fall out. I’d suggest a revival of its stark appeal, given its relevance to “wars on terror”.

Under 30 hours tally up for this audio. Avoid Patrick Cullen. Left with the avuncular George Guidall versus the oracular Alastair Cameron, it’s once more whether one prefers the staid Yankee or the jittery Brit. Cameron has never won in any contest in my audio sampling, while Guidall in his oratorical phrasing, with its heartland thespian elocution, elucidates these dark materials efficiently. Still, I found it hard to keep up, and I abandoned the attempt and wait for my renewal of curiosity. The complexity of the plot and the density of the dialogue eluded me as a listener.

Crime and Punishment [Translator: Oliver Ready, Narrator: Constantine Gregory]


On e-book, the spirited and sly Oliver Ready translation (Penguin Classics, 2016) wins. The first of Dostoevsky’s two most honored novels spawns a swarm of free e-books perpetuating Garnett’s text. (Oxford promises a fresh variant in November 2017, from Nicolas Pasternak Slater, as a download of its Hardback Classic.) Spend a few dollars more to appreciate Ready’s craft, on paper or on a screen.

A.N. Wilson, who demystified Tolstoy in a giant 1988 biography, in The Spectator praised Ready’s “punctilious” prose. Wilson, a London columnist, critic, and novelist himself, lauds Crime and Punishment. He elevates it, alongside Dickens and Shakespeare’s Falstaff, as if perched on a “knife-edge between sentimentality and farce”. Wilson savors gallows humor in Ready’s nimble chronicle.

Almost 30 audio choices appear at Audible. Constantine Gregory proves capable once more. He uses the Garnett, and as far as I can discern, so may his colleagues. Among a cadre of worthy teammates, I would have drafted Gregory (or Guidall) if not for Anthony Heald. I remembered his wise presentation undermining the stereotype of another restive soul, Elmer Gantry. As with Simon Vance’s abridged depictions, so with Heald over the far stretch: these talented actors swoop in to energize their narratives. Both beckon listeners, engaging what can daunt in print. Heald sprints over twenty hours in an unabridged recital, contrasted with five more hours by others nearly as dynamic. Here my earlier advice to go with the casual flow gets reversed.

The Brothers Karamazov [Constantine Gregory]


The Olympus that rises alongside Tolstoy’s twinned colossus. Crime and Punishment, for all its histrionic diatribes jibes with crime-thriller temperaments, and it moves, as Heald and Ready prove, at a clip. Having described my mature abandonment of P/V and my innocent commitment to Garnett, what remains for those like me, willing to consent freely to, rather than to finish dutifully, its successor? This glowers over its competition, a century and a half hence, to retain its stature among ultimate novels of ideas.

Latvian-born, a bilingual emigre to England, the splendidly monikered Ignat Avsey can rest his laurels on two translations. His Idiot (Alma Classics, 2014) does not feature among e-books in most American libraries. Otherwise, Avsey might have crossed that earlier finish line with a silver medal. In this final race, his 2008 Oxford World Classic gets the gold as a download. Curiously, he reversed that title to The Karamazov Brothers. This may explain Professor Avsey’s comparative obscurity. Once more, P/V’s publicity juggernaut shoves aside worthy competitors. With a verve and a knack for idiom, Avsey’s distinguished effort merits wider acclaim. I rapidly re-read considerable stretches of this tale with unanticipated ease, once I got acclimated. Avsey’s skill turned this tome into a lively narrative, and I found myself dashing through it so briskly I’ve set it aside to savor on long journeys, not wanting it to end.

A strong contender for The Idiot and Crime and Punishment crown, Constantine Gregory leads a pack of pursuers who compete by doing the Garnett in different voices. Gregory trots. Tim Pigott-Smith saunters, calmer in a transatlantic timbre. The skilled Simon Vance enlivens this, trimmed down to 60 percent of the source. Debra Winger’s six-hour compression of P/V may find recruits among the impatient, or exam crammers. One might try Vance’s trimmed-down workout, and then, if in shape, go the distance with Gregory or P-S. That immersion, unabridged, ambles for over three-dozen hours.

The Long Run

This completes my fantasy tag-teams of translators accessible via Kindle and the Audible options. Libraries allow free entry to wander among this eager field of guides into Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Constance Garnett and/or Aylmer and Louise Maude live on in open-access e-books. As far as I can tell, many audio actors voice these. No matter the medium, anyone can attend this amazing race.

Of course, these are only the qualifying rounds. For an exciting competition comes next. You’ll hear and read seriously “baggy monsters” side by side, neck and neck. As with Steiner’s title as Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, a showdown awaits. Between these two iron men of fiction, there need not be only one victor.