By Fyodor Dostoevsky

Translated from the Russian by

Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

North Point. 796 pp. $29.95

"ABNORMAL," "morbid," "filthy," "unhealthy," "improbable," "impossible" are some of the terms Russian reviewers regularly applied to Dostoevsky's novels in his lifetime. How long has it been since any serious reader in America would employ any of them to fault a book of fiction?

Dostoevsky, who died in 1881, had to wait until the 20th century to come into his own -- not at home, where ideological considerations limited public discussion of his work and even its availability (to my knowledge neither Notes From Underground nor The Possessed has ever been separately published in Soviet Russia) -- but certainly in Europe and America.

He is the one essentially 20th-century writer among the 19th-century classics. Particularly since 1912, when Constance Garnett's translation of The Brothers Karamazov stunned the English-speaking world, novelists have poured through the doors he opened, critics have produced thousands of books and articles on his work and generations of enthusiastic readers, inside and outside our universities, have confirmed his continuing preeminence.

In part this is so because of the uncanny way his concerns anticipate our own. One way or another, his late novels center on trends he was among the first to sense and dramatize: the collapse of the "normal" at every level, the breakdown of belief in general rules, the proliferation of the kind of family he called "accidental."

Scanning the life around him, Dostoevsky looked not for what could be recognized as "typical" but for harbingers of the future, and he turned out to be uncannily prescient. As V.S. Pritchett observed some years ago, "he is still the master" because "he moves forward with us as the sense of our own danger changes."

All the same, it would be a mistake to explain this solely by reference to Dostoevsky's peculiarly modern themes -- the problematic nature of selfhood, the anomie in urban life, the nature (and very value) of happiness, the power of ideology, the sources and implications of terror, crime, punishment, belief and unbelief. Merely listing them, however, may already suggest that Dostoevsky, far more than the Frenchman who coined the phrase, is the true creator of the experimental novel: Both his characters and he himself as novelist conduct radical experiments to explore these issues, they with their fictive lives and he with the narrative forms he invented to contain them.

More than one critic has seen Dostoevsky as nothing less than the practitioner of a new kind of novel. Vyacheslav Ivanov called it the novel-tragedy, arguing that Dostoevsky was the first to adapt the mythic power of classical tragedy to the demands of realism and to set it operating within the privacy of silent, solitary reading. More recently and more influentially, Mikhail Bakhtin has perceived in Dostoevsky's novels a new type of artistic thinking which he calls "polyphonic" and which produces the originality of their form. Dostoevsky, Bakhtin claims, "thought not in thoughts but in points of view, consciousnesses, voices," and through his innovations as an artist gave us "a new artistic model of the world."

Even so basic a thing as character, he argues, becomes something different in Dostoevsky's novels because it is presented as being "unfinalized": so long as a Dostoevskian protagonist remains alive, he or she reserves the right to astonish the reader by changing abruptly. None of them is imprisoned in a biography, even by the end of the book. Nor do Dostoevsky's personages simply expound ideas; rather, they embody and live them out. Though ultimately philosophic, his novels are peopled by passionate beings -- and reason, as Svidrigailov remarks in Crime and Punishment, is passion's slave.

So the action of a Dostoevsky novel tends to be dramatic in the highest degree, verging (as Shakespearean tragedy can do) on melodrama. Dostoevsky took his aspirations from high literature, but many of his techniques came from the more sensational novelists of his day. The result is to make him at once the most literary and the most compulsively readable of novelists we continue to regard as great. Of the five novels of his maturity -- Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1868), The Possessed (1872), A Raw Youth (1875), and The Brothers Karamazov (1880) -- only one (the penultimate) is without its murder, and it, not accidentally, is the one least often read today. Murder guarantees drama and, by introducing the irrevocable, opens the door to tragedy.

The Brothers Karamazov stands as the culmination of Dostoevsky's art -- his last, longest, richest and most capacious book. (It is also his most slowly and carefully written; after a lifetime of slavery to deadlines, he managed finally to devote a whole 2 1/2 years to the project!) Though the action, as in the earlier novels, is compressed into a few fateful days, time is treated as it had not been before in his work -- as biographical process. And where physical description in the earlier novels, whether of people or settings, had been limited to a few passing notations, here we find solid and minute specification. It is as if the lights had been turned up on the presented world.

But the effect is only to intensify its fundamental mysteries. Ambiguity attaches to individual motivation, to all the contending instances of the principal themes -- fatherhood, brotherhood, love, sensuality, faith, rationalism -- and to the construing of probability, justice, freedom, and responsibility. This nearly 800-page whodunit, centering on patricide, features a collective hero (as the title implies) and a whole series of superimposed love triangles, as well as an extended courtroom drama, the often-excerpted "Legend of the Grand Inquisitor," and even an extraordinary cameo appearance by the devil. The whole is propelled by a peculiarly verbal energy; words and actions are inseparable -- words are actions. Everyone's is fraught and expressive, and no one's, not even the author's, goes uncontested.

It is on the stylistic variety and peculiarity that this new translation by Richard Pevear and Larisse Volokhonsky concentrates. For a long time Dostoevsky had the reputation of a hasty, slipshod writer -- at least in his own country. So, for that matter, did his rival, Tolstoy. Only recently has a reaction set in, based on the realization that great art cannot come into being without great artistry; and great artistry implies great care with your materials every step of the way. In an influential article on Dostoevsky's alleged "carelessness with words" Soviet academician D.S. Likhachev recently pointed out how the eccentricities of the writing, the intentional vaguenesses and contradictions, are precisely what constitute the "Dostoevskian" world of his novels.

Richard Pevear agrees. "All the oddities of his prose are deliberate; they are a sort of 'learned ignorance,' a willed imperfection of artistic means that is essential to his vision." Previous translators of The Brothers Karamazov, he notes, "have revised, 'corrected,' or smoothed over his idiosyncratic prose, removing much of the humor and distinctive voicing of the novel." This new translation was made "in the belief that a truer rendering of Dostoevsky's style would restore missing dimensions to the book."

The point is well taken, though the examples offered may strike a reader as being a shade professorial (in the pejorative sense). Is the description of Captain Snegiryov's run-down house with its "dirty courtyard in the middle of which a cow stood solitarily" (Pevear and Volokhonsky) better than the Constance Garnett translation's "muddy yard, in the middle of which stood a solitary cow"? Or than Andrew MacAndrew's "grimy courtyard . . . in the middle of which stood a lonely cow?" The first is closer to the Russian syntax, but closer is not necessarily more effective in English.

Or compare these three Englishings of Grushenka's outburst to the police commissioner who has arrested Mitya for the murder of his father:

" 'It was my fault, accursed I am! My wickedness!' she cried, in a heart-rending voice, bathed in tears, stretching out her clasped hands towards them . . . 'It's my fault, mine first, mine most, my fault!' "

" 'It's me, it's all my fault!' she cried in a heartrending wail, wringing her hands, as tears filled her eyes . . . 'I am the really guilty one. I am the first to blame for everything!' "

" 'It's me, me, the cursed one. I am guilty!' she cried in a heartrending howl, all in tears, stretching her arms out to everyone . . . 'I am the guilty one, first and most of all, I am the guilty one!' "

The first, with its polished rhetorical close, is Garnett's, the second MacAndrew's, the third Pevear and Volokhonsky's. The first two emphasize fault, the last -- guilt. Are such differences important?

The answer depends on what you assume about the way novels are read. Does the reader savor every word, as in poetry? Every sentence? Skim and skip, looking for the gist? Or ingest in larger units -- the paragraph, say, or page?

I suspect, and Pevear and Volokhonsky clearly do too, that individual words and phrases matter a great deal, producing a cumulative effect at least subliminally. For that reason, their scrupulous rendition can only be welcomed. In it, the movement of the novel becomes a little less febrile. Theirs is an adagio reading, distinctive and fresh, that returns to us a work we thought we knew, subtly altered and so made new again.

Donald Fanger, Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Slavic and Comparative Literature at Harvard University, has written extensively on the Russian novel.