Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Dostoevsky's Greatest Line (from "Operation Shylock")

From Operation Shylock, p 111-12 of the paperback edition.

Smilesburger has just given Philip Roth a check for a million dollars, and Roth hands the check to his friend, the writer Aharon Appelfeld:

"That makes me think," I said, . . . . "of Dostoevsky's very greatest line."
"Which line is that?" . . . .
"Do you remember in Crime and Punishment, when Raskolnikov's sister, Dunya, is lured to Svidrigailov's apartment? He locks her in with him, pockets the key, and then, like a serpent, sets out to seduce her, forcibly if necessary. But to his astonishment, just when he has her helplessly cornered, this beautiful, well-bred Dunya pulls a pistol out of her purse and points it at his heart. Dostoevsky's greatest line comes when Svidrigailov sees the gun."
"Tell me," said Aharon.
"'This,' said Svidrigailov, 'changes everything.'"

It's not surprising that Dostoevsky is quoted, in a novel that owes so much to his themes and to the manic intensity of his plots, but it's odd that this line is declared his greatest. Here's how it goes in the original Russian:

--Ага! Так вот как! --вскричал он в удивлении, но злобно усмехаясь,--Ну, это совершенно изменяет ход дела! (Book Six, Ch. 5)

"Aha, so that's how it is!" he screamed in amazement, but smirking maliciously. "Well, that completely changes the way things are going!"

The Jessie Coulson translation has it, "Well, that entirely changes matters!" Not much here in the nature of a great line.

Another interesting thing about the passage cited here. It is a perfect illustration of the kind of scene that so put off so many Russian writers when they read Dostoevsky (Chekhov, Bunin, Nabokov). They could not take seriously a writer whose works were roiling with such incessant melodrama.Then again, the scene has another problem. Given her fiery but masochistic nature, self-abnegating Dunya would be much more likely to yield to Svidrigailov, if she had to do this to save her brother.

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