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TheRejectAmidHair

Dostoyevsky

There was some discussion on Dostoyevsky on Page 4 of the thread on what we read in Q4 of 2009:

http://bigreaders.myfastforum.org/ftopic919-30.php

I don’t want to hijack that thread, and yet, at the same time, it would be a shame to let pass this opportunity to talk about one of the great giants of world literature. So I thought it best to start a new thread.

I personally have a love-hate relationship with Dostoyevsky, but whatever reservations I may have about him, he continues to fascinate, and I know I shall keep returning to his works. I was 15 when I first read Crime and Punishment, and I followed it up soon afterwards with The Brothers Karamazov. Soon afterwards, as a student, I devoured everything I could get my hands on – The Idiot, The Devils, Notes From Underground, From the House of the Dead, The Gambler, etc. It was only in my 20s that doubts began to emerge. Those doubts haven’t gone away, but neither have certain impressions that seem permanently branded in my mind.

Dostoyevsky dealt with big themes: he was quite unembarrassed by them. He had a wonderful ability to make ideas dramatically exciting: the ideas aren’t something grafted on to the drama – they are, rather, the raw materials of the drama. And, although he personally held very strong views about religion and about politics, his novels cannot really be called didactic novels – not even The Devils, in which he scathingly attacked political radicalism. For instance, despite his adherence not merely to Christianity but to a particular brand of Christianity, there is no more powerful indictment of God than in The Brothers Karamazov. It is a profound and subtle indictment, compared to which the modern brand of atheism of Dawkins & co appears merely simple-minded and banal. Why did Dostoyevsky the Believer present in his novel so powerful an argument against his own position? Did he put it there so he could knock it down? No, that’s not the reason: there is not even an attempt to knock down Ivan’s argument. I think Dostoyevsky presents this argument against himself because, as an artist, he had to explore his themes, and explore them honestly: whatever views may have been held by Dostoyevsky the Polemicist, Dostoyevsky the Artist had to view his themes, his ideas, from all sorts of different perspectives. And if a view from a certain perspectives takes us into difficult areas, then so be it.

Of course, if The Brothers Karamazov is not a straightforward piece of religious propaganda, neither is it a straightforward piece of atheistic propaganda, as it has sometimes been made out to be: the exploration from different angles reveal different perspectives, but these different views don't cancel each other out. We are left not with any actual assurance of anything, but instead with an overwhelming impression of the sheer complexity of it all.

One thing that struck me when I read them as a teenager – and strikes me still, many years later – is the feverish excitement of it all. It seems almost inconceivable that an exploration of philosophical and theological themes can be so damn exciting! Admittedly, there are longueurs: for instance, his greatest novel, The Brothers Karamazov, does take quite a bit of time to get going. And I think also it’s fair to say also that Dostoyevsky was not the greatest master of planning or of structure: all too often, he gives the impression of improvising, of making it up as he was going along. But he was a brilliant improviser: there are so many passages where the tension is at such a pitch of febrile excitement, that the book seems almost physically to leap out of one’s hands. It’s like reading a book by flashes of lightning.

My reservations about his writing are serious, and are many.  Often, he was banal, and took refuge in easy melodrama; sometimes, important characters aren’t sufficiently well developed (the failure to develop Aglaya in The Idiot, for instance, is a very serious flaw); lack of planning often means that he has to introduce important elements at inappropriate points; and so on. In short, his works display a whole set of serious flaws under the weight of which the works of lesser writers would have sunk without trace. But let us not dwell on these flaws now: there’ll be time enough for that later.

Usually, his finest works are considered to be the four big novels of his mature years – Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Demons (also translated as The Devils or as The Possessed), and The Brothers Karamazov. To these should be added the short novel Notes From Underground, which is a sort of prelude to his major works, and which is a good starting point, I think, for anyone new to Dostoyevsky.

The narrator of Notes From Underground is a figure familiar to those conversant with 20th century literature: he  is an anonymous voice, completely alienated and detached from society, and from the life around him. In the first half of this novel, he gives us his thoughts. That may seem dull, but I am continually astonished by the sheer dramatic power with which Dostoyevsky could invest ideas. In the second half of the novella, a story of sorts develops, and the story is mean and nasty and doggedly anti-heroic. Various issues emerge – philosophical, moral, religious, psychological: it’s difficult categorising these things. Dostoyevsky went to address these issues in his later work.

In Crime and Punishment, the starting point is Raskolnikov’s state of mind: can a man commit a murder because of an idea?  Although various other motives are floating around, this is what it really boils down to: Raskolnikov kills to prove an idea to himself. And he is punished for his crime by his growing awareness that this idea, sound though it is in all respects, is not something that he can live with.

The central character in The Idiot is that most Russian of characters – the Holy Fool. Myshkin is an “idiot” because, as a severe epileptic, he has spent most of his life in a sanatorium, cut off from life. But now he emerges into a maelstrom of whirling emotions, and he appears to be the still centre of it all. But although he shows traits that are, superficially at least, Christ-like, he cannot engage adequately with what his around him: he can sympathise in an abstract way, but empathy eludes him – the empathy that can only come with engagement with the dirty business of living. This is, like all of Dostoyevsky’s novels, a very flawed work, but the tragic intensity of the finale, and the sense of impending doom that is apparent throughout, are hard to forget.

Demons is prefaced with a famous poem by Pushkin, and with the passage from the gospels that narrates how Jesus placed evil spirits into the Gadarene swine, who then destroyed themselves. The novels tells of a small Russian town being taken over by a group of nihilistic revolutionaries, and it culminates in utter chaos. This makes it sound like a piece of reactionary political didacticism, and at one level, it is. But it is also much more than that: it is a very disquieting exploration of some of the darkest and most obscure areas of the human psyche. Technically, Dostoyevsky develops a narrative technique that he was to use again late in The Brothers Karamazov – that of a multitude of narrative voices. These voices are sometimes omniscient, sometimes subjective or even blinkered, often uncomprehending, and frequently unreliable. And they come and go without warning: not only can we not tell what’s going to happen in the next chapter, we can’t even tell how it will be narrated. This gives the novel a patchwork quality, and a sense of instability.

The Brothers Karamazov is once again about a murder – a parricide. There is a real parricide at the centre of it, and, it may be said that its questioning of God is a sort of metaphorical parricide. And of course, Freudian analysis (this was, incidentally, Freud’s favourite novel) had a field day with its Oedipal themes. Three brothers – four brothers, if one counts Smerdyakov, who may well be an illegitimate son of old Karamazov – are involved in what is, in reality, rather a sordid little affair of lust and greed. But before we know it, we are involved in some of the most profound questions – and it is, somehow, dramatically exciting. The whole thing does, admittedly, take some time to get going, but for anyone hesitating about jumping in, I’d recommend reading those three consecutive chapters entitled “The Brothers Become Acquainted”, “Mutiny”, and “The Grand Inquisitor”. (They don’t, I think, lose much being read out of context.)

These are necessarily very crude impressions of very complex works. I really have too much on my plate right now, but I know I shall be returning to these novels. Last year, I read a book on Dostoyevsky by Rowan Williams, and I am afraid that much of it did go over my head: I am not versed in theology, and clarifying difficult ideas does not appear to be among the Archbishop’s strong points. But I think I got enough out of that book to want to revisit Dostoyevsky. In the meantime, if anyone here reads Dostoyevsky, I would be most interested in their impressions.
Gul Darr

Wow, Himadri, what a post! Where is my copy of The BrothersKaramazov, I want to start reading it now. I've always had a soft spot for Dostoyevsky; he was my introduction to the classics; I think the sheer intensity and excitement of some of his writing must appeal to the younger reader. I will let you know what I make of it as a middle-aged fuddy-duddy!
Hector

Himadri

I have only read The Brothers Karamazov and so am not in a position to comment on his other works. I also accept that my views are accordingly somewhat specific to one piece of work and so not necessarily reflective of the writer as a whole.

As stated in the other thread, I thought TBK was a great book although not without its faults. The chapters which you mention, particularly The Grand Inquisitor, contain some of the most profound and thought provoking writing that I have come across.

However, whilst I would certainly agree with you that Dostoyevsy puts forward many sides of an argument eloquently - particular the religious question that you allude to - both for and against, I do not agree that there is not an attempt to knock down Ivan's argument. It seems to me that those characters who are closest to his own views (or I should say, those views that I understand to be his own position i.e. a particularly religious one albeit with a questioning bent) are happier and 'succeed'. The most obvious case in point is Alyosha who is incredibly spiritual to the point of irritation at times. I think Demitry also follows a similar albeit slower path to 'love and happiness' although my memory is less clear on this.

Secondly, the fact that the three brothers, and Smerdyakov for that matter, are so completely different in character makes the actual family grounding of the novel unrealistic. Whilst families certainly do have 'black sheeps', Dostoyevsky creates a family where many of them are polar opposites. I suppose you can add the eccentricities of the father to this too. This at first made me feel TBK to be less of a novel and more a 'set up' for Dostoyevsky to create his tale of opposing ideologies. Surprisingly, once I accepted this I allowed myself to be dragged along for the ride.

To contrast this with Tolstoy and Anna K (hey, everyone always compares them so I might as well!), there is never a moment when I don't believe that people are true family. Take Kitty and Dolly for example - though different in character there are pieces of their parents in both of them.

Regards

Hector
goldbug

A well written piece of criticism  but speaking
for myself .. Id like some mention of his life
and times... the fact that he was imprisoned
in Siberia for  4 years with hard labour...  for eg

and maybe some mention of events going on
in Europe at the time  his novels were published...
just for a bit of perspective !
Evie

Well, you've mentioned them - briefly!  Do give us more detail - and how that sort of background informs your reading of his novels, goldbug, and why you think it's important to know about these sorts of things when you read his (or anyone's) novels.
TheRejectAmidHair

goldbug wrote:
A well written piece of criticism  


Why, thank you very much for your approbation!

goldbug wrote:
.. but speaking
for myself Id like some mention of his life
and times... the fact that he was imprisoned
in Siberia for  4 years with hard labour...  for eg

and maybe some mention of events going on
in Europe at the time  his novels were published...
just for a bit of perspective !


Sorry! I'll try and do better next time!  Very Happy
TheRejectAmidHair

Hello Hector,

I think you're right in that those who are closer to Dostoyevsky's own views end up happier - although, of course, that in itself does not indicate that those views are correct, or that Ivan's views are wrong. Although Ivan's eventual fate is not to be envied, his argument is presented with the greatest force, and no counter-argument is put forward.

It appears that Dostoyevsky had intended to continue with Alyosha's spiritual odyssey, in the course of which Alyosha was to undergo  further spiritual crises. It even seems probable - on the strength of what Dostoyevsky had confided to his wife & to certain friends - that he had intended Alyosha to have become ea revolutionary, and even to take part in a political assassination. I must say, on the basis of the Alyosha I know from The Brothers Karamazov, this development does seem very unlikely. But Alyosha is the least vividly characterised of all the brothers.

I agree with you also that Tolstoy is far more realistic, but fans of Dostoyevsky will, I'm sure, claim that realism was not Dostoyevsky's aim - that he deliberately, like Dickens (whom he admired), set out to create a stylised, distorted world. It is often claimed that Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky are complementary writers. This argument is the basis of a very fine book by George Steiner titled - rather provocatively - Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. It's well worth a read.
Hector

Himadri

Thanks for the recommendation. I'm planning to read either Crime and Punishment or The Idiot some time this year as they have been sitting on my shelves for as long as I can remember. I'll let you know when I do!

Regards

Hector
Caro

I thought I could comment on this topic better if I checked what I actually thought at the time of reading the Brothers KK so went back and tried to find an old thread.  That turned out to be a serious mistake, as I didn't find that but did find our threads about our 100/50/65 best novels, so half an hour has drifted past pleasantly, though not perhaps productively.

I shan't be reading Crime and Punishment, having read (and finished) The Brothers Karamazov.  Not a favourite by any means - quite hard-going for me, but without the delightful turns of phrase and sorts of ideas that Dickens or Tolstoy have that appeal to me.  I am going to struggle a bit to sympathize with Anna and Vronsky (so far my sympathies are with her husband) but I don't think Tolstoy is of the same cloth as them, whereas I couldn't help feel that the hysterical nature of Dostoyevsky's characters, some of them anyway, wasn't representative of him and his style.

The only character I came close to connecting with was Aloysha - even if not delineated so well he seemed to be real in the ways the others didn't.  I've forgotten the name of the brother who wasn't Ivan, but he seemed to be constantly going from one state of mind to other in a matter of seconds and then back again and I just found that tiring and tiresome.  And even with that long exposition of Ivan, I never found that he came particularly alive in the novel.  He seems shadowy in my memory.  

I suppose again these aren't very thoughtful comments, but I didn't find the time it took me to read this quite worth it - except to know that I have read a Dostoyevsky now and can at least enjoy discussions about him.

Cheers, Caro.
TheRejectAmidHair

Hello Caro,

The other brother is Dimitri. I suppose that, very crudely, the three brothers - Dimitri, Ivan and Alyosha - can be said to represent the body, the mind an dthe soul, but that makes it sound far more schematic than it is. The characters are, indeed, hysterical, as you say, and that is entirely characteristic of Dostoyevsky, whose primary interest seemed focusssed on the more extreme states of mind. Perhaps no other author explored so insistently that vague border between sanity and insanity. Like yourself, I, too, find it a bit too much at times, but I can't deny it's very powerful. For all my reservations, for all my frustrations when reading his works, I really can't deny that when reading Dostoyevsky I feel something very intensely that I do not feel with any other author. What that "something" is, I don't know I'm capable of describing!
Klara Z

I'm always inspired when I read your posts, Himadri! I feel, in some ways, that I've become rather a lazy reader compared to the reader I was back in my student days--I've just realised that the last time I tackled a novel by Dostoyevsky was back in 1987, when, rather shameful to admit, I didn't quite finish 'The Devils'. However, I did read 'The Idiot' and 'The Brothers Karamazov', (sometimes bewildered by the behaviour of the characters!) I'm not sure I have the stamina to re-read these 'heavies', but perhaps I should.

The book that I would return to, and did feel was a masterpiece and the most accessible is 'Crime and Punishment'. I remember reading it during my supply teaching days,in my lunch hours at one of the grimmest (as it seemed to me) North London secondary schools. It was actually a relief to escape into the world of Dostoyevsy and realise there were worst things in the world than battling at the chalk face.
TheRejectAmidHair

I think being bewildered by the behaviour of the characters is par for the course when you're reading Dostoyevsky!
Klara Z

Yes--I think you're right! It's as though these characters are occupying an entirely different universe, or at least occupying a culturally different space. And yet I don't feel this problem with any other characters created by other 19th Russian authors that I've read---certainly not Tolstoy, or Turgenev or Chekhov.  

I love Chekhov, and recently re-read 'Lady with a Lapdog' --have we had a Chekhov discussion here? There have been some reviews of a reprint of a memoir of Chekhov by his brother in the papers this weekend.
Chibiabos83

We did a group read of Chekhov's marvellous novella Three Years a few months ago, the discussion of which can be found here: http://bigreaders.myfastforum.org/about765.html
TheRejectAmidHair

We should have more discussion of Chekhov this year - it's the 150th eanniversary of his birth, after all. I love Chekhov's short stories, and certainly his last three plays (I confess to not being entirely convinced by The Seagull). Last year, some of us read Chekhov's novella Three Years as part of this board's Big Read, and, even on the umpteenth reading, I found it almost unbbearably ,oving.

We talk about Tolstoy quite frequently on this board - partly because I can't stop talking about him. Turgenev seems much underrated, though: at the very least his short stories (Sketches From a Hunter's Album) and hi snovel Fathers and Sons (I see a new translation has just appeared in Penguin Classics) deserve to be better known.

As for Dostoyevsky's characters inhabiting a different universe - or, at least, not quite the universe the rest of us inhabit - I imagine that to admirers of Dostoyevsky, that is what makes his novels so fascinating. Dostoyevsky doesn't really aim for strict realism, so it's no doubt unfair to judge his work by the criteria of realism. He creates his own very distinctive fictional world which seems, somehow, to accommodate these very strange characters.
Gul Darr

David Magarshack says in his introduction that Dostoyevsky's inspiration for some of the incidents in his novel come directly from real life and he spent a lot of time researching them. Interesting then that he should place his characters in a somewhat unrealistic universe. Was it deliberate or did he maybe have a slightly strange perception of the world?
TheRejectAmidHair

I think it was a bit of both. He did have a somewhat strange perspective of the world – partly caused by his epilepsy – but then again, all major artists have a perception of the world that is somewhat different from the norm: that is what we tend to refer to as their “artistic vision”.

But even given that, Dostoyevsky seemed to have little interest in the sort of surface realism we get from Leo Tolstoy or George Eliot or Gustave Flaubert. His fictional world was a very stylised and distorted world. There are certainly influences both of Gogol and of Dickens – both of whom he admired, and neither of whom was particularly interested in surface realism – but for all that, the fictional world he created was very much his own.
Hector

Himadri

Good call about more discussion on Chekhov. I enjoyed Three Years when we read that as part of the Good Read and there are 5 or 6 other short stories / novellas in my volume which I will try and read soon.

I don't have my book to hand and so cannot say what it contains but suspect that it covers his more popular works. Is there one in particular that you would recommend for someone relatively new to Chekhov?

Regards

Hector
Klara Z

TheRejectAmidHair wrote:


As for Dostoyevsky's characters inhabiting a different universe - or, at least, not quite the universe the rest of us inhabit - I imagine that to admirers of Dostoyevsky, that is what makes his novels so fascinating. Dostoyevsky doesn't really aim for strict realism, so it's no doubt unfair to judge his work by the criteria of realism. He creates his own very distinctive fictional world which seems, somehow, to accommodate these very strange characters.


Yes--I agree , you've reminded me of something I read recently about great (or at any rate distinctive) writers--their ability to create a world that is recognisably 'real', but is also different, a 'world according to them'.  And their books can't be confused with those of any other writer.  Thus there's a world according to P.G.Wodehouse, a world according to Dickens,  a world according to Iris Murdoch etc.
Evie

Yes, I am sure part of why we become attached to certain writers is because we enjoy spending time in the world they create.  Not just great writers either - I am really missing the world of Phil Rickman!

Perhaps we should do a Chekhov group read, as the board's way of celebrating his anniversary.  I have seen and loved some of his plays, but have not read his short stories.
Klara Z

I've just dug out the three collections I've got of Chekhov's short stories (all Penguin books, 'The Kiss' and other stories,  'The Party' and other stories, and 'Lady with the Lap Dog') and am definitely planning to read the ones I've missed in those. Obviously, he wrote many more, and I need to look out for other anthologies.

Evie--the next Merrily book is out in the autumn! ('Title: 'The Secrets of Pain')
TheRejectAmidHair

Hector wrote:
I don't have my book to hand and so cannot say what it contains but suspect that it covers his more popular works. Is there one in particular that you would recommend for someone relatively new to Chekhov?

Regards

Hector



Hello Hector, I think the volume you have is the Everyman Library edition translated by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokonsky. They have focussed on Chekhov’s novellas and  longer tales: the stories in that volume are all major works.

The three volumes in Penguin Classics (translated by Ronald Wilks) cover most of Chekhov’s major fiction, and ca be warmly recommended. The titles are The Steppe and Other Stories, 1887-1891, Ward No 6 and Other Stories, 1892-95, and Lady with the Little Dog and Other Stories, 1896-1904. These three volumes, for me, would grace any library.

The translations in the Oxford World classics series are by Ronald Hingley, and are taken from the Oxford Chekhov series. I haven’t read these, but they are highly regarded. And more recently, Oxford World Classics have published a new collection translated by Rosamund Bartlett entitled About Love and Other Stories, and these translations have been particularly well received.

There are also a few collections of Chekhov’s very early works, which are mainly comic sketches. Although I have found these amusing, I have never quite regarded them as essential.

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