- The Brothers Incandenza:Translating Ideology in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest
Should I find it depressing that the young Dostoevsky was just like young U.S. writers today, or kind of a relief? Does anything ever change? —David Foster Wallace("Feodor's Guide," 28 n. 21).
I. Ideology, Belief, and Translations
In his Understanding David Foster Wallace (2003), Marshall Boswell contends that the contemporary American novelist David Foster Wallace, in his novel Infinite Jest, makes "overt" the theme of
artistic patricide through the novel's intricate allusions to two primary texts of patrimonial anxiety, Shakespeare's Hamlet and Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. The Hamlet references are ubiquitous, beginning with the novel's (and film's) title . . . while the Dostoevsky references are a bit more muted and hence less important.1
I disagree with Boswell simply based on the poor logic of the claim that the Dostoevsky allusion is insignificant because it is the more subtly embedded of the primary intertextual allusions. Second, I contend that Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov is much more important to Wallace's overall aesthetic agenda than the more obvious Shakespeare allusion. Wallace has patterned Infinite Jest so meticulously after Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov (1880) that in many significant ways, Infinite Jest is a rewriting or figurative translation of The Brothers Karamazov into the contemporary American idiom and context.2 First, it is clear from Wallace's [End Page 265] essay, "Feodor's Guide"—a review article of Stanford scholar Joseph Frank's multivolume biography of Dostoevsky—published in the Village Voice Literary Supplement (1996) just three months after the release of Infinite Jest (January 1996), that Wallace aligns himself with the Dostoevskyean tradition.3 Next, there is a real similarity between the fiction of Dostoevsky and Wallace, in terms of plot, themes, stylistics, and in the correspondence between both artists' unflinching eschatological depiction of debased and despairing human nature toward a redemptive end.4
In "Feodor's Guide" Wallace comments on the "excruciatingly Victorianish translations" of Constance Garnett (26 n. 5) and also critiques the then-recent translation of Crime and Punishment by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky by quoting from their translation:
"'Now is the Kingdom of reason and light and . . . and will and strength . . . and now we shall see! Now we shall cross swords!' he added presumptuously, as if addressing some dark force and challenging it." Umm, why not just "as if addressing some dark force"? Umm, can you challenge a dark force without addressing it? Or is there, in the Russian, something that keeps the above from being redundant, stilted, bad? If so, why not recognize that in English it's bad, and clean it up in an acclaimed new Knopf translation? I just don't get it.(26 n. 5, author's emphasis)
Wallace then questions what the ubiquitous Dostoevskyean phrase to "fly at" somebody really means: "it happens dozens of times in every FMD novel. What, 'fly at' them in order to beat them up? To get in their face? Why not just say that, if you're translating?" (26 n. 6). Wallace is not being mean-spirited toward the valuable work of Pevear and Volokhonsky, and it is clear that he deeply admires Dostoevsky's works; it is precisely because he reveres Dostoevsky that he finds it lamentable that his thematic and stylistic brilliance do not translate well into millennial American English. As neither a fluent speaker of Russian, nor an expert in Russian literature, Wallace is clearly in no position to translate Dostoevsky's works; he is, however, in a unique position to translate in a more figurative sense. What Wallace achieves with Infinite Jest, however, is a transposition of The Brothers Karamazov into the specific ideological environment of contemporary America. Just as Dostoevsky's "particular foes were the Nihilists, the radical progeny of the '40's socialists" (29 n. 23), Wallace's "foes" are the contemporary literary ironic nihilists, the type that refuses to countenance or confront serious moral issues through art, according to Wallace.Wallace tempers his nihilistic conception, however, when he concedes that it is inaccurate to claim that we have rejected...