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Dostoevsky's dowager

Martin Ebel has paid a visit to Svetlana Geier, the Grande Dame of Russian-German translation.

I wrestled with this book, almost despaired over it, and was tempted more than once to fling it into the corner of the room in sheer frustration. But I never succeeded in extricating myself from Dostoevsky’s penultimate novel. "The Adolescent" (known in German as "Der Jüngling") is truly an effrontery. Svetlana Geier is delighted with my response to the book, saying: "You are the ideal reader!" How so? My experiences of confusion, frustration, and seduction were fully intended by Dostoevsky, she explains. This elderly woman is uniquely qualified to speak in the writer's name. She just re-translated the novel, giving it a new German name, "Ein grüner Junge." Having done so, she concluded a project that lasted 20 years, the re-translation of the five major novels of the great Russian author for Zurich's Ammann Verlag. She is not only fully capable of analysing his world with philological precision, but also of probing and exploring it from within.

Svetlana Geier. © Niklaus Stauss

She speaks of Dostoevsky as though he were a colleague with whose views she has grown quite familiar, and about his protagonists as though they were intimate friends. Visitors to her home in Freiburg-Günterstal - a locale remote from the racket of the town, where the suburbs merge with a forest that rises into the distance - will feel as though they have been transported from the present into another world, one with no room for the hubbub of everyday life. Here each word counts - whether the words are those of Dostoevsky's original texts, or those of the present conversation.

Svetlana Geier is small in stature, and is bent when standing. At the moment, she is suffering from a bad cold, which causes her to break out regularly in bouts of coughing. But she has great strength, indefatigable attentiveness, and an intensity in conversation that can only overwhelm most of her visitors, a quality presumably attributable (how else to explain it?) to the inexhaustible fund of spiritual sustenance she derives from world literature.

There is no television set in this house, the walls are hung with icons, the ancient furniture is sombre, the lighting muted: the sense of concentration prevailing here is almost physically palpable. The translator's large, luminous eyes beam out at the visitor, involuntarily enjoining him to dedicate himself with the same intensity to the genuinely important things of the world.

Svetlana Ivanov was 18 years old when the Germans marched into Kiev (she acquired the name Geier later from her husband, a violinist). Although these events were the prelude to great suffering for countless subjects of the Soviet Union, it was a time of great promise for the young woman. Like others willing to work for the Germans for a one-year period, she was eligible to receive a scholarship to go to Germany. Having received private lessons in French and German from childhood, she was able to work as an interpreter for a Dortmund construction firm that was erecting a bridge across the Dnieper River.

Svetlana and her mother – who came from a family of tsarist officers - were victims of Stalinism. Svetlana Geier still recalls watching as a small child while her grandmother cut up family photos into tiny pieces with manicuring scissors: under the Communist regime, their possession could have been dangerous. Her father, a plant breeding expert, was interned during the purges of 1938. He remained in prison for 18 months, was interrogated and abused, but nonetheless eventually released. The following year, he died from the after-effects of imprisonment. Still ostracized even after his release, he spent his final months in a dacha outside of town, cared for by his daughter.

In the eyes of the young interpreter’s countrymen, her work for the Germans had discredited her: "As far as they were concerned, I was a collaborator." After Stalingrad, she could easily imagine what awaited her under Soviet rule. She took advantage of an offer to enter the German Reich with her mother, somewhat starry-eyed, and still hoping to receive a scholarship. That she, a "worker from the east" (her automatic classification in Nazi Germany) actually received it - one of two Humboldt scholarships reserved for "talented foreigners" - borders on the miraculous. Playing benevolent roles in her lengthy and stirring account of these events are a generous entrepreneur, an alert secretary, and a pair of good-natured assistants at the Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories.

In order to avoid the parallel scrutiny of the Gestapo, the freshly appointed scholarship holder ("300 German Marks, unbelievable") quickly relocated from Dortmund to Freiburg, where she and her mother were allocated a small attic apartment in Günterstal, the same part of town where she still lives today.

Now, a year before the end of World War II, Svetlana Ivanov began her literary studies. She recalls the very first lecture she heard, Walter Rehm's "The Essence of the Tragic," which she attended in the company of her fellow students, all of them men with war injuries. She still has her notes. She found her studies wonderful, and from that point on never doubted "that I belonged here: I had found myself." She has been to Russia only a few times, including a trip to St. Petersburg that allowed her to survey the setting of "The Brothers Karamazov" (she discovered that Dostoevsky had intermingled two different places), and once in order to deliver lectures; she never returned to Kiev.

She had, however, brought Russian culture with her to Germany. For decades, she has trained teachers of Russian, prepared Russian lesson plans for Waldorf schools, taught at the university, advised publishers. At 83, she still travels weekly to Karlsruhe to teach. She shows me the latest gift from her students, a pine cone with two rubber frogs: "It's a literal translation of a Russian proverb." And she raised two children, as well as providing and caring for her mother, who reached a venerable old age.

But the "main thing," the summit of a life dedicated to Russian literature has been first and foremost translation. "Hold your nose high," a teacher once advised her, and she followed his counsel to great advantage. He meant that she should avoid getting caught up with individual words, instead focusing on the whole, should hold within her gaze at least an entire sentence – and in principle the work as a unity. And even more importantly: in her ear. Svetlana Geier’s method, if one can call it that, is an acoustic one. She immerses herself in the text until she has absorbed it completely, is able to hear its unique tenor, or as she says, "its melody." Then she induces it to resound in German, and this again takes place acoustically, for Geier dictates her translations. They ring out aloud before ever becoming fixed on paper.

Her Dostoevsky translations have received extraordinarily praise for this "sonorous" character in particular. Finally, it is said, the divergent voices of Dostoevsky’s protagonists have become distinguishable. Regardless of all of the other works she has rendered into German (and there are enough of these, including works by Sinyavsky, Bely, Bunin, Solzhenitsyn, Platonov and Afanasiev), her name will always be associated with the five "elephants", the quintet of great novels by Fyodor Dostoevsy, to which she has afforded readers renewed access.

Five great novels? No one would think of disputing the rank of "Crime and Punishment," nor of "The Idiot," nor of "Bösen Geister" (or Wicked Minds, her new title for the novel of terrorism known variously in English as "Demons", "The Devils" and "The Possessed"), nor, needless to say, of "The Brothers Karamazov." Even in their older translations, each offers one of the most compelling experiences available to lovers of literature.

But what of "The Adolescent"? Even in the specialist literature, it is not taken entirely seriously, being deemed by the experts as excessively muddled. And in fact, a muddle is precisely what the fictional narrator, Arkady Dolgoruky, just 20 years old, sets on paper as he describes events taking place half a year earlier. In contention are a pair of documents in Arkady's possession, documents which the remaining protagonists are keen to acquire, and which hence endow him with a degree of power; they collide, moreover, with his social impotence and inner insecurity.

Arkady is an illegitimate child, and was raised by his father together with a servant woman. He idealizes his father, a rather dubious character, who – as Arkady concedes - is in love with the same woman he is himself, an unattainable noblewoman. Arkady's declasse social position - which simultaneously prepares him for and provokes various humiliations - combines with the damaged identity of a neglected child to form an explosive and hysterical mixture. The goal of his actions - probably unbeknownst to him - is to reunite his family in the spirit of a bourgeois melodrama. Instead, the action culminates in a spectacular denouement involving pistol shots and three prone figures.

It could be said that the novel suffers from the way in which various plot strands are presented from the beginning onward in all of their intertwined interdependency, and that the reader sees everything solely through the eyes of the first-person narrator, whose vision is clouded by ignorance, immaturity of judgment, and continuous projections. Just who knows exactly what, what he does with that information, and which aspects of it are even accurate: these questions perpetually preoccupy the hero, although he never succeeds in mastering the narrative.

He tries to adhere to a chronological narration, yet leaps continuously into the past. He wants to come to the point, yet perpetually fails to do so. He wants to be brief, but instead runs on for 800 hundred pages.

An impertinence indeed. But a failed novel? For Svetlana Geier, the reverse is the case. In her view (one she advocates with great conviction, and through references to Nietzsche, Pascal, and the mystic John Klimakos's "Ladder of Ascent"), Dostoevsky's penultimate novel is the most modern of them all. A novel at the summit of our epoch, the "Age of Suspicion" (as Nathalie Sarraute once called it). There is no certainty. No information, no relationship, not a single person can be relied upon. The hero perceives the entire world only through a narrow slit, and the walls that limit his viewpoint are the wounds of his own ego. Thus is a radically subjective novel of the kind that would reappear only much later. Is it also Svetlana Geier’s favourite? She closes her eyes, considers at length, looking within. "I'm not finished with it yet," she replies, and for a moment she calls to mind Sesemi Weichbrodt, the enthusiastic "prophetess" of Thomas Mann's "Buddenbrooks".


The article originally appeared in Die Welt on January 13, 2007

Martin Ebel is a freelance literary critic.

Translation: Ian Pepper

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