December 17, 2005

Conan Doyle in Russian

In a way, the title ought to have been “Sherlock Holmes in Russian” but some reference to the other works, particularly the Professor Challenger stories, might serve a purpose.

For once, I’d like to start with a personal reminiscence. I had heard of Sherlock Holmes, mentioned as he was in children’s books, but I first read the stories at the age of 11, when on a visit to my Russian grandmother in Moscow.

Let me describe the conditions in which people such as my mother’s family lived in those days. Both my grandparents were eminent doctors, my grandfather, in particular, a leading epidemiologist in Moscow. For all of that, they, together with their two children had lived most of their lives in two small rooms in a communal flat, sharing the kitchen and bathroom with three other households. Because of my grandfather’s work, they had a separate telephone line.

By the time of this visit my grandfather had died but my great-grandmother, who was, alas, suffering from senile dementia had moved in. My mother had clearly left with her husband and child but her brother, having grown up and married, remained in the two rooms with his family. During our visit there were various re-arrangements to give us all some sleeping space, but the place remained somewhat crowded. It was in those circumstances that my grandmother gave me her copy of a selection of Sherlock Holmes stories to read.

I can still recall the very first story in that selection: “The Red-Headed League”. There were several others: “The Blue Carbuncle”, “The Speckled Band”, which terrified me beyond belief, “The Second Stain” and so on. The second part of the volume was taken up by “The Hound of Baskervilles”. I have read and re-read the entire Holmes oeuvre since then but nothing can possibly compare to that first entry into the magical world.

In a way, the title ought to have been “Sherlock Holmes in Russian” but some reference to the other works, particularly the Professor Challenger stories, might serve a purpose.

For once, I’d like to start with a personal reminiscence. I had heard of Sherlock Holmes, mentioned as he was in children’s books, but I first read the stories at the age of 11, when on a visit to my Russian grandmother in Moscow.

Let me describe the conditions in which people such as my mother’s family lived in those days. Both my grandparents were eminent doctors, my grandfather, in particular, a leading epidemiologist in Moscow. For all of that, they, together with their two children had lived most of their lives in two small rooms in a communal flat, sharing the kitchen and bathroom with three other households. Because of my grandfather’s work, they had a separate telephone line.

By the time of this visit my grandfather had died but my great-grandmother, who was, alas, suffering from senile dementia had moved in. My mother had clearly left with her husband and child but her brother, having grown up and married, remained in the two rooms with his family. During our visit there were various re-arrangements to give us all some sleeping space, but the place remained somewhat crowded. It was in those circumstances that my grandmother gave me her copy of a selection of Sherlock Holmes stories to read.

I can still recall the very first story in that selection: “The Red-Headed League”. There were several others: “The Blue Carbuncle”, “The Speckled Band”, which terrified me beyond belief, “The Second Stain” and so on. The second part of the volume was taken up by “The Hound of Baskervilles”. I have read and re-read the entire Holmes oeuvre since then but nothing can possibly compare to that first entry into the magical world.

Like all children brought up within the Russian cultural sphere my childhood reading included an astonishingly large number of English and American books in translation. It was considered to be wholesome fare, unlike French literature (except for Alexandre Dumas and Jules Verne) and the translations were extraordinarily good. The explanation for that is two-fold.

On the one hand, reading western literature in the original or in translation was always considered to be an essential part of being educated in Russia. (As it happens, the same is true for much of Central Europe, but that is a separate story.) In an odd sort of way, translated English and American books were almost considered to be Russian, though clearly they described a very different world.

Secondly, many of the best Russian writers found it prudent or simply unavoidable to retreat into writing children’s books or translating. It was not until I re-read many of the books in English that I realized just how high the standard of those translations was. Just to give one example: coping with Lewis Carroll’s scintillating language in “Alice in Wonderland” is no joke. Yet my copy (with Carroll’s rather than Tenniel’s illustrations) was undeniably a Russian book that, nevertheless, managed to convey the twists and turns of the original astonishingly well.

So we all read Dickens, Mark Twain, Lewis Carroll, Thackeray later on, Fenimore Cooper and Captain Mayne Reid, H.G.Wells, Jules Verne, in many ways an honorary Anglospherist (theme for another posting, perhaps) and various others. But nothing can compare with the overwhelming, immense popularity of Conan Doyle’s books, particularly the Sherlock Holmes stories.

To this day, the best suggestion you can make to almost any Russian visitor (apart from Madame Tussaud, maybe, which usually disappoints) is a glimpse of Sherlock Holmes’s and Dr Watson’s sitting room as reconstructed above the Sherlock Holmes pub near the embankment. Russians will discourse about the stories and will assure you that the TV series made a few years ago was far superior to anything that could have been done in any other country. (Actually, that opinion is based on no knowledge whatsoever. Hardly any of them would have seen the British TV series.)

Some of it can be explained by the constant and half-formulated Russian assumption that, as Dostoyevsky said:

“The Russian spirit alone is all-human, it alone has the future mission of comprehending and unifying all the diverse nationalities and eliminating all their contradictions.”

There is also the fact that the Sherlock Holmes stories and, to a lesser degree, the Professor Challenger ones, have captured the imagination of readers all over the world.

This phenomenon has never been easy to understand. But, let us see, if we can do it, looking at it from the Russian point of view.

In the first place, of course, there is the sheer cosiness of the stories: the astonishingly well created world of London and the English countryside, of the rooms in Baker Street, of the main characters and the relationship between them. Despite the villainy of the life around Homes and Watson, the world is a steady, solid one. People know their place in life, are certain about the present and the future. (The one exception to that is “His Last Bow”, an unsatisfactory tale of espionage and derring-do.)

This has always had a tremendous appeal to a Russian audience to whom the notion of “normal life” has become a kind El Dorado, an unattainable oasis in the desert of its reality.

The detective story in its classical form developed in the Anglo-Saxon or, perhaps one should say, Anglospheric world, first in Britain, then the United States. There are various reasons for this, but the most obvious ones are the basic solidity of the society, the general acceptance of moral standards and the importance of private property. Many of the early detective stories are not about murder but about theft, embezzlement, robbery – crimes against the property rather than the person.

The detective story is based on the assumption that an individual crime, whether of violence or not, matters. Its perpetration tears the social fabric, upsets moral and social assumptions and these are not mended until the perpetrator is brought to some kind of justice. It is not hard to see why this point of view should appeal to people whose own history, especially in the twentieth century, does not provide any of these certainties.

In parenthesis let me note, that I heard recently that dramatizations of Agatha Christie stories were performed in one or two of the Nazi death camps. One can see the yearning for the moral order in those horrific circumstances. Christie’s novels have now been translated into Russian, where they are also very popular.

Then there is the police in Conan Doyle’s stories. Not particularly bright and not at all imaginative (with one or two exceptions), they are nevertheless, honest and well-meaning. Lestrade, Gregson, Athelney Jones and, even Stanley Hopkins, may get the wrong man, but they do so by mistake and, one assumes, release him as soon as Holmes convinces them of their errors. Not for them the famous NKVD saying: “Give us a man and we’ll have a case.” England is a country where the police obey the law, protect individuals and their property and pursue malefactors, while staying within rules. A society of that kind, as described by Conan Doyle, has always had an irresistible fascination for those unlucky enough to be outside it.

All that is true for most Victorian and early twentieth century detective stories. But there is something more to Conan Doyle’s heroes (apart from the author’s superior writing talent). They are within an orderly and morally coherent society but they are also individuals who do not necessarily obey its rules. While Challenger is an eccentric and wilful explorer and scientist, Holmes comes close occasionally to a superman, not just by his extraordinary abilities but because of his assumption that he has the right to make decisions about the criminals he apprehends without necessarily referring back to any higher power. His decisions usually err on the side of mercy. This combination of a well-regulated social structure and individual assumption of responsibility retains an unparalleled attraction for non-English, above all, for Russian readers of the Holmes stories.

Posted by Helen Szamuely at December 17, 2005 06:05 PM
Comments

Whether or not Jules Verene is an honorary Anglospherist, he is an underappreciated member of that small but illustrious club of perceptive and prescient foreign observers of the Anglosphere, among whose number the French predominate. Montesquieu, Tocqueville, Crevecoeur, and Verne clearly perceived the water in which the Anglospheric fish swam unaware.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at December 17, 2005 09:34 PM

One might note that Rex Stout's novel _The Doorbell Rang_, where his heroes went up against the FBI, had a similiar greeting in Russia. Perhaps not as popular as Holmes, but the final scene where Wolfe and Archie leave J. Edgar Hoover on the front doorstep futilely ringing their bell....

Posted by: Tony Zbaraschuk at December 17, 2005 10:02 PM

Well, you can quite see how that final scene in "When the Doorbell Rang" should appeal to Russians. As I recall, though the FBI is villainous, the crime is not committed by them. What I said about Holmes applies to Wolfe, even the rather cosy description of the house in West 35th Street. (oops, have I got that right?)

Posted by: Helen at December 18, 2005 03:58 AM
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