You no doubt have the gift of the `mot juste,' of those sentences that are like a flash of limelight on the facade of a cathedral or a flash of lightning on a landscape when the whole scene and all the details leap up before the eye in a moment and are irresistibly impressed on memory by their sudden vividness.
Since I sent you that part 1st (on the eleventh of the month) I have written one page. Just one page. I went about thinking and forgetting — sitting down before the blank page to find that I could not put one sentence together. To be able to think and unable to express is a fine torture. I am undergoing it — without patience. I don't see the end of it. It's very ridiculous and very awful. Now I've got all my people together I don't know what to do with them. The progressive episodes of the story will not emerge from the chaos of my sensations. I feel nothing clearly. And I am frightened when I remember that I have to drag it all out of myself.
Other writers have some starting point. Something to catch hold of. They start from an anecdote — from a newspaper paragraph (a book may be suggested by a casual sentence in an old almanack). They lean on dialect — or on tradition — or on history — or on the prejudice or fad of the hour; they trade upon some tie or some conviction of their time — or upon the absence of these things — which they can abuse or praise. But at any rate they know something to begin with — while I don't. I have had some impressions, some sensations — in my time: — impressions and sensations of common things. And it's all faded — my very being seems faded and thin like the ghost of a blonde and sentimental woman, haunting romantic ruins pervaded by rats. I am exceedingly miserable. My task appears to me as sensible as lifting the world without that fulcrum which even that conceited ass, Archimedes, admitted to be necessary.
You are right in your criticism of Outpost. The construction is bad. It is bad because it was a matter of conscious decision, and I have no discrimination — in artistic sense. Things get themselves written — and you like them. Things get themselves into shape — and they are tolerable. But when I want to write — when I do consciously try to write or try to construct, then my ignorance has full play and the quality of my miserable and benighted intelligence is disclosed to the scandalized gaze of my literary father. This is as it should be. I always told you I was a kind of inspired humbug. Now you know it. Let me assure you that your remarks were a complete disclosure to me. I had not the slightest glimmer of my stupidity. I am now profoundly thankful to find I have enough sense to see the truth of what you say. It's very evident that the first 3 pages kill all the interest. And I wrote them of set purpose!! I thought I was achieving artistic simplicity!!!!!! Now, of course, the thing — the res infecta — is as plain as a pikestaff. It does not improve my opinion of myself and of my prospects. Am I totally lost? Or do the last few pages save the thing from being utterly contemptible? You seem to think so — if I read your most kind and friendly letter aright.
I must explain that that particular story was no more meant for you than the Idiots — that is, all the short stories (ab initio) were meant alike for a vol. to be in-scribed to you. Only then I had not heard from you so long that you were naturally constantly in my thoughts. In fact I worried about it, thinking of the treachery of disease and so on. And then I thought that the story would be a good title-story — better than the Idiots. It would sound funny, a title like this: Idiots and other Stories. While Outpost of Progress and Other Stories sounds nice and proper.
THE ART OF THE TRANSLATOR
(December 7, 1897)
Thanks. It is admirable — admirable. I am not speaking of Turgeniev. But surely to render thus the very spirit of an incomparable artist one must have more than a spark of the sacred fire. The reader does not see the language — the story is alive — as living as when it came from the master's hand. This is a great achievement. I have been reading with inexpressible delight — not the delight of novelty, for I knew and remembered the stories before — but with the delight of reveling in that pellucid flaming atmosphere of Turgeniev's life which the translator has preserved unstained, unchilled, with the clearness and heat of original inspiration. To me there is something touching like a great act of self-sacrifice and devotion in this perfect fidelity to a departed breath. The capacity to be so true to what is best is a great — an incomparable gift.
The trouble is that I too don't know Russian; I don't even know the alphabet. The truth of the matter is that it is you who have opened my eyes to the value and the quality of Turgeniev. As a boy I remember reading Smoke in a Polish translation (a feuilleton of some newspaper) and the Gentlefolks in French. I liked those things purely by instinct (a very sound ground but not starting point for criticism) with which the consciousness of literary perfection had absolutely nothing to do. You opened my mind first to the appreciation of the art. For the rest Turgeniev for me is Constance Garnett and Constance Garnett is Turgeniev. She has done that marvelous thing of placing the man's work inside English literature and it is there that I see it — or rather that I feel it.
Upon the whole I don't see it. If I did see I could talk about it, perhaps to some purpose. As it is, my dear, I wouldn't know how to begin.
As far as I know you are the only man who had seen T not only in his relation to mankind but in his relation to Russia. And he is great in both. But to be so great and at the same time so fine is fatal to an artist - as to any other man for that matter. It isn't Dostoevsky the grimacing haunted creature who is under a curse; it is Turgeniev. Every gift has been heaped on his cradle. Absolute sanity and the deepest sensibility, the clearest vision and the most exquisite responsiveness, penetrating insight for the significant, for the essential in human life and in the visible world, the clearest mind, the warmest heart, the largest sympathy — and all that in perfect measure! There's enough there to ruin any writer. For you know, my dear Edward, that if you and I were to catch Antinous and exhibit him in a booth of the world's fair, swearing that his life was as perfect as his form, we wouldn't get one per cent. of the crowd struggling next door to catch the sight of the double-headed Nightingale or of some weak-kneed giant grinning through a collar.