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J.A.A. Purves

Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881)

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So from what I have read so far, and it is very little, Dostoevsky's novels are so rich and so interested in matters relating to faith, that we should probably have a thread on him.  I'm disappointed with myself that I didn't start this earlier, because a year or so ago I read a really really good essay discussing his writing and now I can't remember where it is.  It had to do with how he discussed religious faith, doubt and agnosticism in ways that philosophers had discussed for more than a century before, but how, because Dostoevsky portrayed the same questions in the art form of masterly story-telling, he gave them more power than any philosophy text ever could have.

 

I was reminded of this by another recent fascinating essay that I just came across that discusses Dostoevsky's take on narcissism and anxiety as compared to our modern forms of both currently exhibited in the social media that we use -

 

Tweets from underground: How Dostoyevsky anticipated social media:

Much discussion and criticism has already been devoted to the elevation of personal trivialities by the likes of Twitter, Instagram, and other self-published and self-promoting media; certainly, the immense variety of resources available—and used—for documenting daily life suggests for every social media user an epic as narcissistic as that of which Golyadkin is the “hero.” But the element of paranoia is just as important as that of conceit. We are warned that everything we put online could destroy our careers and relationships; that Google and Amazon read our emails, and so does the NSA. And in a social context, we are constantly visible—at least potentially so—to an entire network of friends and acquaintances, which gives every offhand comment the potential weight and reach of a manifesto. It’s as if we are standing in the center of a roomful of people, but we don’t know where they’re looking, and we can’t help but feel, both excitedly and uneasily, that they may well be looking at us. Paranoid narcissism—the mixed desires and fears of being watched by unknown others—thus defines virtual society, giving rise to numerous related anxieties such as the sense of exposed insignificance and the fear of missing out. And with its self-consciously self-involved hero, who happens to suffer from all of these woes, The Double describes—and aptly explains—the experiential anxieties of modern social media ...

 

Enter the double: the curated profile, the version of you that bears all your identifying information—name, clothes, job, appearance, place of birth—but whose social grace is impeccable, whose interests are noble and fascinating, whose biography is impressive yet humbly presented, whose comments are edited for maximum wit. Bound link by link to your real-world self with the ponderous chain of your Google results, trapped by your search and browser history in a fully customized cage, you cannot escape or erase your identity but must find a way to improve it. The avatars of social media—Facebook profiles, Twitter handles, and the like—embrace that burdensome mass of personal data and build on it, creating a version of self that is, if not quite an alter ego, at least an elaborately inflated one. Golyadkin’s double, who appears out of the shadows as he tries to outrun his embarrassment, is like this: physically and biographically indistinguishable from Golyadkin, but more confident, more charming, and more popular above all. Think of it as a deftly cropped, Photoshopped reflection: the image of yourself you always wanted to see. You have the same face, but every angle gets your good side ...

 

But just as Golyadkin is haunted by the notion that “a good man tries to live honestly … and never has a double,” you can’t help but feel the smallest pang of guilty jealousy each time your digital double makes a friend. You are uncomfortably conscious of the fact that your created, curated self is not really you—you’ve played up a few things, kept a few others hidden, put on a mask for your digital friends ... And so Golyadkin’s double, far from soothing his paranoia, exacerbates it. For one thing, he seems determined to embarrass Golyadkin in public; his practical jokes of mistaken identity range from taking credit for Golyadkin’s work to forcing him to pay (and take gluttonous credit) for eleven pies eaten by the double at a restaurant. Online, this is the problem of indiscriminating likes, unfortunate photo tags, ill-advised emotional status updates—things that make you look vindictive, or obsessive, or sloppy, when really it was only a bad camera angle, or a poorly punctuated bit of sarcasm, or an unfortunate YouTube wormhole at three in the morning. But the profile, the double, purports to represent you, and how can you prove that it’s lying? On the other hand, the double seems to leave you out of its more enjoyable adventures. In Dostoevsky’s novel, the ability of the socially confident double to ingratiate himself with his coworkers is both enviable and mystifying to Golyadkin, who expresses textbook FOMO in his desire “to know, too, what he keeps whispering to every one—what plots he is hatching with all these people, and what secrets they are talking about? … If only I could…get on with them a little too…” ...

 

So, whenever anyone runs across something good on Dostoevsky, post it here.  In the meantime, who here has read most of his novels?  Who here still needs to?  How would you rank what you've read?  What's your favorite?  Has anyone, by any chance, read Joseph Frank's five volume biography?  Dostoevsky's basic bibliography seems to run as follows:

 

Poor Folk (1846)
The Double: A Petersburg Poem (1846)
Netochka Nezvanova (1849)
Uncle’s Dream (1859)
The Village of Stepanchikovo (1859)
Humiliated and Insulted (1861)
The House of the Dead (1862)
Winter Notes on Summer Impressions (1863)
Notes from Underground (1864)
Crime and Punishment (1866)
The Gambler (1867)
The Idiot (1869)
The Eternal Husband (1870)
Demons (1872)
A Writer’s Diary (1873)
The Adolescent (1875)
The Brothers Karamazov (1880)

 

Personally, I am currently remedying a large hole in my literary education and am a day or two away from finishing up Crime and Punishment.  The further I read, the more shocked I am that it took me this long to get around to it.

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I went through a Dostoevsky kick a few years ago. Not very intensive--three of the "big four" novels and Notes from the Underground--and smatterings of a one-volume biography I found at the library. Crime and Punishment is really good, and Karamazov is what everyone says it is, but for my money The Idiot is something of an under-rated masterpiece. By under-rated, I mean that it's one of the "big four" but it gets buried under the praise for C&P and--especially--Karamazov. But The Idiot has its own charms--Dostoevsky attempts to portray a "perfectly good man," not as a comical figure [D pointed out that the two "perfectly good men" in literature were Don Quixote and Pickwick, both of them comic characters,] but as an almost tragic one. The novel is much less focused than the other two mentioned, but it's lively in a way I think they aren't.

 

On a totally 'nother note--the current Vintage editions of the Pevear and Volokhonksy translations are absolutely gorgeous.

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I've only read Notes from the Underground and Demons, but Crime and Punishment and The Idiot have been on my to read list for awhile now.


"Anyway, in general I love tragic artists, especially classical ones."

"Even the forms for expressing truth can be multiform, and this is indeed necessary for the transmission of the Gospel in its timeless meaning."

- Pope Francis, August 2013 interview with Antonio Spadaro

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I've not read much of Dostoevsky either, but from the few books I have read (Notes from UndergroundCrime and PunishmentThe Brothers Karamazov), I find him to be one of my favourite writers. And The Brothers Karamazov currently stands as my favourite novel, even though I've only read it twice.  I'm immensely looking forward to immersing myself in the rest of his bibliography once I'm done school and have more time to read the books I want to.

 

Maurice Baring (another great writer who deserves his own thread) puts to words one of the main reasons I love Dostoevsky in An Outline of Russian Literature (1914): 

 

His books resemble Greek tragedies by the magnitude of the spiritual adventures they set forth; they are unlike Greek Tragedies in the Christian charity and the faith and the hope which goes out of them; they inspire the reader with courage, never with despair, although Dostoyevsky, face to face with the last extremities of evil, never seeks to hide it or to shun it, but merely to search for the soul of goodness in it. He did not search in vain, and just as, when he was on his way to Siberia, a conversation he had with a fellow-prisoner inspired that fellow-prisoner with the feeling that he could go on living and even face penal servitude, so do Dostoyevsky’s books come to mankind as a message of hope from a radiant country. That is what constitutes his peculiar greatness.

 

 

Of course, that one quotation simplifies Dostoevsky and his themes, but I think it is an important as a broad way of understanding him.

 

 

 

David Foster Wallace has a rather good essay on both Dostoevsky and Joseph Frank's biography in Consider the Lobster:

 

So, for me anyway, what makes Dostoevsky invaluable is that he possessed a passion, conviction, and engagement with deep moral issues that we, here, today, cannot or do not allow ourselves. And on finishing Frank’s books, I think any serious American reader/writer will find himself driven to think hard about what exactly it is that makes so many of the novelists of our own time look so thematically shallow and lightweight, so impoverished in comparison to Gogol, Dostoevsky, even lesser lights like Lermontov and Turgenev. To inquire of ourselves why we – under our own nihilistic spell – seem to require of our writers an ironic distance from deep convictions or desperate questions, so that contemporary writers have to either make jokes of profound issues or else try somehow to work them in under cover of some formal trick like intertextual quotation or juxtaposition, sticking them inside asterisks as part of some surreal, defamiliarization-of-the-reading-experience flourish.

 

 

 

I'm curious, has anyone read any Vladimir Solovyov? Apparently he was a huge influence on Dostoevsky.


"What's prayer? It's shooting shafts in the dark." -- Frederick Buechner, Godric

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Of the five I've read, I'd rank them Brothers K, Humiliated and Insulted (the 'easiest' Dostoyevsky - more linear and straightforward; I was initially solely interested in it as an inspiration for Kurosawa's Red Beard, but was captivated by it), C&P, The Idiot, and Notes from Underground.  I definitely have to be in a particular frame of mind to appreciate Dostoyevsky; his feverish intensity can be rather exhausting. 


To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

http://secularcinephile.blogspot.com

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... but for my money The Idiot is something of an under-rated masterpiece. By under-rated, I mean that it's one of the "big four" but it gets buried under the praise for C&P and--especially--Karamazov. But The Idiot has its own charms--Dostoevsky attempts to portray a "perfectly good man," not as a comical figure [D pointed out that the two "perfectly good men" in literature were Don Quixote and Pickwick, both of them comic characters,] but as an almost tragic one. The novel is much less focused than the other two mentioned, but it's lively in a way I think they aren't.

It sounds like a must read. Honestly, I swear that I've read other authors constantly refer to it and discuss excerpts and characters from it and yet I've been stupid enough not to have read it yet.

 

My big two Dostoevsky works are Demons and Brothers Karamazov.

You know, I heard somewhere that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn cherished Demons, but that's another reference for which I cannot remember the source.  It is one of his more political works, isn't it? Would you have any idea why Solzhenitsyn would specially like it?  It was published in 1872, so that's about four decades before 1917.

 

David Foster Wallace has a rather good essay on both Dostoevsky and Joseph Frank's biography in Consider the Lobster:

So, for me anyway, what makes Dostoevsky invaluable is that he possessed a passion, conviction, and engagement with deep moral issues that we, here, today, cannot or do not allow ourselves. And on finishing Frank’s books, I think any serious American reader/writer will find himself driven to think hard about what exactly it is that makes so many of the novelists of our own time look so thematically shallow and lightweight, so impoverished in comparison to Gogol, Dostoevsky, even lesser lights like Lermontov and Turgenev. To inquire of ourselves why we – under our own nihilistic spell – seem to require of our writers an ironic distance from deep convictions or desperate questions, so that contemporary writers have to either make jokes of profound issues or else try somehow to work them in under cover of some formal trick like intertextual quotation or juxtaposition, sticking them inside asterisks as part of some surreal, defamiliarization-of-the-reading-experience flourish.

 

That's right! That is how I first heard of Joseph Frank's biography. I read Wallace's essay just last year in Consider the Lobster. In fact, two further paragraphs after the one you quoted are also worth quoting:

“... Part of the answer to questions about our own art’s thematic poverty obviously involves our own era’s postindustrial condition and postmodern culture. The Modernists, among other accomplishments, elevated aesthetics to the level of metaphysics, and ‘Great Novels’ since Joyce tend to be judged largely on their formal ingenuity; we presume as a matter of course that serious literature will be aesthetically distanced from real lived life. Add to this the requirement of textual self-consciousness imposed by postmodernism, and it’s fair to say that Dostoevsky et al. were free from certain cultural expectations that constrain our own novelists’ freedom to be ‘serious.’

But it’s just as fair to observe that Dostoevsky operated under some serious cultural constraints of his own: a repressive government, state censorship, and above all the popularity of post-Enlightenment European thought, much of which went directly against beliefs he held dear and wanted to write about. The thing is that Dostoevsky wasn’t just a genius – he was, finally, brave. … who is to blame for the philosophical passionlessness of our own Dostoevskys? The culture, the laughers? But they wouldn’t – could not – laugh if a piece of passionately serious ideological contemporary fiction was also ingenious and radiantly transcendent fiction. But how to do that – how even, for a writer, even a very talented writer, to get up the guts to even try? There are no formulae or guarantees. But there are models. Frank’s books present a hologram of one of them ...”

 

I'm curious, has anyone read any Vladimir Solovyov? Apparently he was a huge influence on Dostoevsky.

You mean this guy? That's interesting, if that's so, because it appears as if he is about 30 years younger than Dostoevsky.  (Edited to add: Yes, it does appear as if they were friends and critics speculate whether he was an inspiration for some of Dostoevsky's characters.)

I definitely have to be in a particular frame of mind to appreciate Dostoyevsky; his feverish intensity can be rather exhausting.

It's partly because you can get so caught up in it. I'm not sure what the psychological explanation for this would be, but you expend more emotional energy reading some authors than others. Except while Dostoevsky's high energy level can be inspiring, it's still much harder work than, oh say, getting caught up in Chesterton's high energy level.

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I would count Dostoevsky as my favorite writer. I've read all of his fiction, his mostly non-fiction Diary of a Writer, and a lengthy collection of his letters. I love all the "big four" novels, have read all but Devils more than once, and would gladly sit down with any of them right now. I usually list The Idiot as my personal favorite. The scene which incorporates Holbein's painting "The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb," remains for me the single greatest moment in his career, and for Dostoevsky, that's saying something. Among his "minor" works, I've got a special affection for The Gambler. I admit, that might be because it was the last thing of Dostoevsky's I (re)read, but I really appreciate the direction he takes the lead character and the subtlety with which Dostoevsky presents the most pivotal moment in that story.

 

As for non-fiction, I've read a single volume biography by Freeborn which was a nice quick intro to Dostoevsky's life. Frank's five-volume work sits unread on my shelf, though I've been planning to begin volume 1 this summer. I've also got Solovyev's Lectures on Godmanhood and Bakhtin's Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics sitting on the shelf. A couple of years ago, I read and enjoyed former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams' book-length treatment of Dostoevsky.

 

When it comes to non-fiction by or about Dostoevsky, I tend to want to spread them out, only because I'd like a significant portion of my Dostoevsky time to be spent in the novels and short stories themselves.


All great art is pared down to the essential.
--Henri Langlois

 

Movies are not barium enemas, you're not supposed to get them over with as quickly as possible.

--James Gray

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 The scene which incorporates Holbein's painting "The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb," remains for me the single greatest moment in his career, and for Dostoevsky, that's saying something. 

 

That passage is one I revisit every Easter, and have for the past six years or so.

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My big two Dostoevsky works are Demons and Brothers Karamazov.

You know, I heard somewhere that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn cherished Demons, but that's another reference for which I cannot remember the source.  It is one of his more political works, isn't it? Would you have any idea why Solzhenitsyn would specially like it?  It was published in 1872, so that's about four decades before 1917.

 

I don't know enough of Solzhenitsyn to comment, but the Wikipedia article for Demons makes the Solzenitsyn connection right off the bat.

But, yes, Demons is exceedingly political; it's an extended critique of the intellectual landscape of Dostoevsky's Russia. I think you'd absolutely love it.

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Here's an interesting essay by Peter Leithart in First Things, where he discusses his own view that Dostoevsky's Christ is a "ineffectual liberal Christ", in relation with an essay by Diane Thompson.

 

"Thompson emphasizes the absences in The Idiot: “Here, as opposed to Dostoevsky’s other novels, there are no readings or faithful interpreters of the biblical word, no prayers, no heavenly visions, no biblical epigraphs, no references to the Kingdom, and no one moves towards redemption or renewal through the Word” (75). She cites Jostein Bortnes’s theory that Dostoevsky associated Myshkin with Don Quixote, the holy fool, and Christian, and then proceeds to rip the rug from beneath each in a “process of de-symbolization” that leaves the Prince without salvific poetency.

 

"Similarly, she recognizes that Ivan Karamazov’s silent Christ “has no power to transform one’s life on earth, no further revelations to offer” (92). But this is clearly not the final vision of Christ in Brothers K: “Alyosha’s encounter with the biblical word is transformational. While praying by Zosima’s coffin, Alyosha hears Father Paisy reading the miracle at Cana of Galilee in liturgical Church Slavonic. `I love that passage’, he says . . . . As the sonorous ancient words, ever new, speak to his young soul, all the hatreds and dissonant words rending the Karamazov world recede and give way to serene joy, to a dream which culminates in the appearance of the resurrected Zosima in heaven, pointing to the radiant vision of `our Sun.’ . . . For Alyosha, the Jesus Who celebrated the wedding at Cana is the same as the Christ Who invites everyone to the banquet in heaven. In his hero’s experience, Dostoevsky presents Jesus Christ in the fullness of His Godhead, fully human and divine, conjoining earth and heaven. After glimpsing the beatific vision, Alyosha takes possession of his true voice and goes `into the world’” (93)."


"What's prayer? It's shooting shafts in the dark." -- Frederick Buechner, Godric

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 My big two Dostoevsky works are Demons and Brothers Karamazov.

You know, I heard somewhere that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn cherished Demons, but that's another reference for which I cannot remember the source.  It is one of his more political works, isn't it? Would you have any idea why Solzhenitsyn would specially like it?  It was published in 1872, so that's about four decades before 1917.

 

 

I am not as familiar with Solzhenitsyn as I would like. I've read his Day in the Life and seen Sokurov's documentary about him. However, knowing something of his story, his having spent so much time in prison under the Communist regime and his difficulty in getting his work (properly) published, his appreciation for Demons is unsurprising. Dostoevsky is critical in the novel of a group of revolutionary radicals. It wouldn't be a stretch to see that group as a foreshadowing of the revolution of 1917. Dostoevsky was fairly conservative himself--at least during his later, post-Siberia years--giving the critique an even greater sting.


All great art is pared down to the essential.
--Henri Langlois

 

Movies are not barium enemas, you're not supposed to get them over with as quickly as possible.

--James Gray

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I've heard Eugene Peterson set aside 3 hours (of his work schedule) a week to read Dostoevsky.


He finds no mercy

And he's lost in the crowd

With an armoured heart of metal

He finds he's running out of odd-numbered daisies

From which to pull the petals

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Much as I've appreciated some of David Foster Wallace's writing, I think he doth protest way overmuch the current state of the novel.  Ironically, some of his criticisms are ironic in and of themselves, considering his overuse of the footnote and the heavy irony in many of his essays and short stories.

 

I mean, good gracious, if you want the spiritual luminosity of the quotidian, one need look no further than Marilynne Robinson or Wendell Berry.  If one craves prophetic commentary on contemporary barrenness and vacuity, check out Jonathan Franzen or Dave Eggers.  If one wants Dickensian societal coverage that extols the totally unhip virtue of fidelity (and arguably, patriotism and the value of social hierarchies), start reading Patrick O'Brian's 20-volume Aubrey/Maturin series.

 

99% of all writing in any era is going to be crap.  Acknowledging that, I contend that we're in a golden era of literature.  If one presumes to include the masterful novelistic television series of the 21st Century (Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, The Wire, Six Feet Under, etc.), even more so. 

 

Thus endeth my brief jeremiad on cultural jeremiads.


To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

http://secularcinephile.blogspot.com

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You’ve got a good point Andrew; but I don’t know if I’d quite label those two paragraphs as a jeremiad. Wallace is serious about his claim, but he’s self aware enough to realize the points you bring up. I think that he realizes the hyperbolic nature of his statements. Isn’t that part of the rhetoric, not to mention the fun, in reading these types of generalizations? There’s a spark of truth to them, even if the argument as a whole may not be verifiable. (Of course, this is also the danger in them; they are too often taken as gospel when I’m not sure they should be.)

 

**Side note while we’re talking about jeremiads: does anybody use the term “philippic” anymore? It’s in the same vein, but isn't nearly as widespread in my experience.**

 

Are there great writers out there today? Undoubtedly. It seems that for every classic book I put on my “To Read” shelf on Goodreads there’s another one from the last few decades as well. But I’m not sure if saying we’re in a “golden era of literature” is entirely accurate. We certainly have a great many masterful works written, but couldn't that be because there’s simply such a large volume of books being published  that we’re bound to get more great ones eventually?

 

Conversely, if 99% of all writing in any era is crap, (which I hesitantly agree with) then don’t we have a lot more crap than all other eras before us, because of the volume of books published? Can that coexist with the notion of living in a golden era of literature?

 

I’m curious to know how comparable the publication ratio would be between great books and crap in different eras (Which is admittedly nearly impossible to do. How do we properly define them?).

 

Looking back to Dostoevsky and his contemporaries, the “Golden Age” of Russian literature is incredibly impressive: Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Chekhov, Turgenov, Pushkin, Lermotov, Goncharov, Bakunin, Leskov, Tyutchev, Nekrasov, Ostrovsky... I don’t know if we have a similar list of authors who are as involved in the cultural legacy of literature as these fellows were in the 19th Century. 


"What's prayer? It's shooting shafts in the dark." -- Frederick Buechner, Godric

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I agree, especially in this era of self-publishing and greater awareness of international writers, that the volume of books published appears to have increased drastically.  But I think Wallace was being serious at heart in his charges, and I just don't see it.  Maybe it's my own selection bias, but the books I read tend to be rather serious and/or hopeful works. 

 

And I love the word 'philippic' - I can't wait to use it!


To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

http://secularcinephile.blogspot.com

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I finished Crime and Punishment last night.  The most striking thing about it for me was simply how earnest Dostoevsky’s writing is.

 

The emotions and ideas of his characters are really ... meant ... seriously.  Why do I find that strange?  Granted, Raskolnikov is often sarcastic, mocking of others and aware of irony.  So, in other words, Dostoevsky understands what irony is.  (He uses it perfectly in part of the book's Epilogue.)  But it is difficult to express how unironical Dostoevsky's writing can be.

It’s a little bit crazy to me.  This is a dark bleak Russian novel about murder, tortured consciences and lives wrecked with poverty and suffering.  And yet, it is in earnest about simple good and simple evil.

Andrew, you objected to Wallace’s criticism of modern novels and I agree that Berry and Robinson are exceptions to Wallace’s point.  But I don’t think high vs. poor quality was his main point.  Wallace himself was highly ironical and cynical to a fault and also highly conscious of this fact about himself.  He refers to his own cynicism often and is constantly fascinated whenever he runs across someone who was not cynical (see his essays on 9/11 or about John McCain).

For anyone who is surprised by genuine unironical earnestness, Dostoevsky has to come across a something as a shock.  I think this is what Wallace was trying to describe.  Dostoevsky writes about jaded and cynical characters.  Hell, he’s one of the biggest names of all of Russian literature with all that that implies.  And yet, he does not seem to have the same cynicism that we do.  Like Dickens, like Scott, like Austen, like even Helprin, Dostoevsky has an innocence and portrays an innocence in some of his characters quite seriously.

And see, I am, myself, still struggling to find the words to describe how different Dostoevsky seems in comparison to modern thinking ... or in comparison to my way of thinking.  Why should earnestness seem rare?  Why is it surprising to me to find something that is completely and utterly unironical?  These are the first questions that are now confronting me on finishing Crime and Punishment.

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I wonder if it's not, at least partly, a question of genre. Like Dickens, Dostoevsky writes melodramas. Granted, his are dark and twisted in a way that Dickens (at least, early Dickens) isn't, but melodramas they are, with all the stock-characters that come with the genre (the virtuous whore, the tortured murderer). And though Dostoevsky is a bit more complex than your run-of-the-mill melodramatic novelist, it's not like he can shake off that basic generic bloodline. And these are melodramas about ideas, which heightens the contrast between "good" characters and "bad" ones. And it's a generic form we aren't used to under Modernism/Postmodernism. At the high point of New Criticism, remember, Henry James was the idealized author, and his description of the typical Dostoevskian novel as a "loose, baggy monster" was hardly flattering. Dostoevsky was a problem precisely because he was not a delicate, controlled novelist in the Flaubert/James mold. And then there's Nabokov:

 

Just as I have no ear for music, I have to my regret no ear for Dostoevsky the Prophet. The very best thing he ever wrote seems to me to be THE DOUBLE. It is [a] story... told very elaborately, in great, almost Joycean detail..., and in style intensely saturated with phonetic and rhythmical expressiveness... It is a perfect work of art, that story, but it hardly exists for the followers of Dostoevsky the Prophet, because it was written in the 1840s, long before his so-called great novels...

 

 

Of course, these negative estimations are mixed in with contemporaneous positive notes, as this link makes clear. But I think a glance at the folks who didn't like Dostoevsky or his brand of the novel is suggestive: James, Nabokov, D.H. Lawrence, Herman Hesse, Joseph Conrad, Turgenev.... These are the creators or forebears of early- and mid-20th C literature, and it's against them and their imitators that I get the impression a lot of maximilist writers like Wallace are reacting. So it's hardly surprising that the creator of a loose, baggy monster like Infinite Jest would cotton on to Dostoevsky, who similarly explodes nuance into bizarre and ill-favored forms.

 

This might be something like what Joyce Carol Oates was getting at in 1978:

 

Much has been said of the unevenness of The Possessed: Dostoyevsky has been accused of creating caricatures rather than characters, and of exaggerating the imbecilic nature of his "anarchists." Several close readings of the novel have convinced me that this is not the case. Of course if The Possessed—like any of Dostoyevsky's work, beginning with The Double—is measured against the conventional standards of naturalism, it will seem somewhat feverish and improbable: but so will King Lear and Hamlet

 

[snip]

 

My reading, over the years, of criticism on Dostoyevsky has led me to the conclusion that many of Dostoyevsky's critics are simply incapable of measuring his genius. Perhaps it is the case that the academic-trained critic will peer into a work of art in the hope of seeing his own reflection there, or certain "critical" qualities his professors in graduate school told him to admire: symmetry, unity of tone, precision, even brevity. Don't all literary works aspire to the condition of the well-wrought poem?
 
The "loose baggy monster" of Russian art is loose and baggy and monstrous only to the critic who confuses his own relative short-sightedness with an aesthetic principle. The Great Gatsby is a masterpiece of organization, but so is The Brothers Karamazov. The Turn of the Screw is deftly and beautifully orchestrated, but so is The Possessed—and The Possessed is an incomparably superior work. Yet Dostoyevsky is routinely accused of being slipshod and untidy —critical cliches that cannot be honored if one studies his novels assiduously. (Why, one wonders, do people so readily assume that a large, ambitious work is necessarily any less subtle than a very short work? D. H. Lawrence's Ursula says, "A mouse isn't any more subtle than a lion, is it?")

 

 
 
FWIW, I'm not convinced that there are not earnestly-good characters in contemporary literature (for all that I'm mostly a mid-century kind of guy). The last time I read a 21st C novel was Let the Great World Spin, and it's certainly got a few characters who are truly, earnestly good. And I suspect that there's still plenty of grand crime melodramas like those of James Lee Burke in which the protagonist is a fundamentally decent human going up against unimaginable evil, and doing it earnestly, if a bit wearily. But, then again, I'm midcentury, so it's not strictly speaking my bag.
 
But I think it's safe to say that at least part of the reason such characters could be scarce is that, generally, literary fiction eschews melodrama, which means that heightened characters of the kind found in Dostoevsky can't really exist. To have a really earnest character, you have to abandon Jamesian irony, drop the ideas laid out in the "Art of Fiction," refuse the delicate portrayal of social interactions, and be willing to get yourself accused of being formless, verbose, obscene. Again, it seems to me that that is what attracts Wallace, as much as anything. His revolt against irony seems, in some senses, to be a literary revolt.
 
Also, for the lulz:
 
 
Of course, as with everything, the distinction between melodrama and realism/naturalism/whatever is apparently not quite so clear cut as I'm making it out.
Edited by NBooth

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I wonder if it's not, at least partly, a question of genre. Like Dickens, Dostoevsky writes melodramas. Granted, his are dark and twisted in a way that Dickens (at least, early Dickens) isn't, but melodramas they are, with all the stock-characters that come with the genre (the virtuous whore, the tortured murderer). And though Dostoevsky is a bit more complex than your run-of-the-mill melodramatic novelist, it's not like he can shake off that basic generic bloodline. And these are melodramas about ideas, which heightens the contrast between "good" characters and "bad" ones. And it's a generic form we aren't used to under Modernism/Postmodernism.

That’s an interesting thought. But I don’t think “melodrama” really counts as a literary genre. Or, if it did count, it would be one genre that we have imposed now on some authors after the fact. I strongly doubt that either Dickens or Dostoevsky were intentionally thinking of writing “melodramas” when he set out to write their novels. (Not that there is anything wrong with intentionally writing within a genre. Many good authors do that all the time. There does even seem to be entertainment with a tradition of being consciously melodramatic, along with something called a “Newgate novel” and a “Sensation novel” - ancestors, perhaps, to our True Crime genre?)

Even more interesting is that we mean the word “melodrama,” at least now, in a derogatory sense.

 

But I think it's safe to say that at least part of the reason such characters could be scarce is that, generally, literary fiction eschews melodrama, which means that heightened characters of the kind found in Dostoevsky can't really exist. To have a really earnest character, you have to abandon Jamesian irony, drop the ideas laid out in the "Art of Fiction," refuse the delicate portrayal of social interactions, and be willing to get yourself accused of being formless, verbose, obscene. Again, it seems to me that that is what attracts Wallace, as much as anything. His revolt against irony seems, in some senses, to be a literary revolt.

Is this really quite consistent with your idea that Dickens and Dostoevsky wrote melodramas? See, I’m not so sure Dostoevsky’s character types can’t really exist in real life. In my work in criminal law (along with some of my involvement in trying to help the homeless), I’ve met quite a few characters who look, act and talk as if they could have walked straight off the pages of any modernized Dickens or Dostoevsky. Besides, earnest characters can simply be honest characters.

“Jamesian irony” may still be a powerful influence over modern/postmodern literature, but there are plenty of 20th Century novelists who consciously flat out rejected it. And they rejected it often for completely different reasons. Earnest Hemingway’s contempt for James (claiming of his characters, “... the men all without any exception talk and think like fairies except a couple of caricatures of brutal outsiders”) did not lead less complexity or more verbosity. G.K. Chesterton’s more good-natured laughter at James (for having a “Puritan” understanding of Europe) did not lead to anything less literary.  Hemingway and Chesterton are entirely unlike each other in almost every respect, and yet they both would have regarded "Jamesian irony" as a weakness, if not, in fact, as a moral flaw.

 

I think a glance at the folks who didn't like Dostoevsky or his brand of the novel is suggestive: James, Nabokov, D.H. Lawrence, Herman Hesse, Joseph Conrad, Turgenev.... These are the creators or forebears of early- and mid-20th C literature, and it's against them and their imitators that I get the impression a lot of maximilist writers like Wallace are reacting.

But then, of course, lovers of Dostoevsky include both Hemingway and James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Franz Kafka ... also E.M. Forster, Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Camus, M.M. Bakhtin, Marcel Proust, William Faulkner, Henry Miller, Yukio Mishima, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jack Kerouac, Joseph Heller and ... Albert Einstein ... to say nothing of both Robert Bresson and Akira Kurosawa. For those who were authors, the writing of Dostoevsky’s admirers isn’t always as innocent or as noncynical as Dostoevksy’s writing. But at least they greatly valued the opposite of cynicism when they saw it.

 

FWIW, I'm not convinced that there are not earnestly-good characters in contemporary literature (for all that I'm mostly a mid-century kind of guy). The last time I read a 21st C novel was Let the Great World Spin, and it's certainly got a few characters who are truly, earnestly good. And I suspect that there's still plenty of grand crime melodramas like those of James Lee Burke in which the protagonist is a fundamentally decent human going up against unimaginable evil, and doing it earnestly, if a bit wearily. But, then again, I'm midcentury, so it's not strictly speaking my bag.

Right. It may not be the existence of earnestly-good characters that is the difference. The novels of George R.R. Martin have earnestly-good characters too. It’s more a matter of the viewpoint or worldview of the author as a whole. I wouldn’t say the difference is that modern novels are more sensational or have less abnormal or dysfunctional characters. Nor would I say that the difference, in this case, is really about good quality vs. poor quality in writing. Instead, it seems to be more subtle - almost a matter of tone and temper.

And this isn’t one of those threads where I’m trying to argue a specific point with you. You’ve already declared yourself a Dostoevsky fan. But here’s another feeling I’m getting that has, just for a moment here and there, sent a chill through me. When Dostoevsky does caricature an attitude or viewpoint, sometimes he appears to be caricaturing ... us.

The contemptuous smiles, the inappropriate jokes, the inability to take a few deadly serious things seriously, the almost relentless sarcasm that Dostoevsky gives to Raskolnikov or to Fyodor Karamazov often feel like they are caricatures of cynical postmoderns.

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I wonder if it's not, at least partly, a question of genre. Like Dickens, Dostoevsky writes melodramas. Granted, his are dark and twisted in a way that Dickens (at least, early Dickens) isn't, but melodramas they are, with all the stock-characters that come with the genre (the virtuous whore, the tortured murderer). And though Dostoevsky is a bit more complex than your run-of-the-mill melodramatic novelist, it's not like he can shake off that basic generic bloodline. And these are melodramas about ideas, which heightens the contrast between "good" characters and "bad" ones. And it's a generic form we aren't used to under Modernism/Postmodernism.

That’s an interesting thought. But I don’t think “melodrama” really counts as a literary genre. Or, if it did count, it would be one genre that we have imposed now on some authors after the fact. I strongly doubt that either Dickens or Dostoevsky were intentionally thinking of writing “melodramas” when he set out to write their novels. (Not that there is anything wrong with intentionally writing within a genre. Many good authors do that all the time. There does even seem to be entertainment with a tradition of being consciously melodramatic, along with something called a “Newgate novel” and a “Sensation novel” - ancestors, perhaps, to our True Crime genre?)

Even more interesting is that we mean the word “melodrama,” at least now, in a derogatory sense.

 

Oh, melodrama absolutely counts as a literary genre; it was a thriving form of mass [staged] entertainment in the 19th C, and Dickens self-consciously worked with its tropes (remember his performances of the death of Nancy from Oliver Twist?).  Whether Dostoevsky was similarly self-conscious is an open question to me, but to some extent it doesn't matter since genre is only half a matter of intention; the other half is precisely the result of critics mucking around, finding common thematic material, and labeling that commonality a "genre." That's why questions of genre are so interesting.

 

And, yeah, "melodrama" fell out of favor, partly because of Henry James's efforts to justify the novel as an artistic medium.

 

Is this really quite consistent with your idea that Dickens and Dostoevsky wrote melodramas? See, I’m not so sure Dostoevsky’s character types can’t really exist in real life. In my work in criminal law (along with some of my involvement in trying to help the homeless), I’ve met quite a few characters who look, act and talk as if they could have walked straight off the pages of any modernized Dickens or Dostoevsky. Besides, earnest characters can simply be honest characters.
 
“Jamesian irony” may still be a powerful influence over modern/postmodern literature, but there are plenty of 20th Century novelists who consciously flat out rejected it. And they rejected it often for completely different reasons. Earnest Hemingway’s contempt for James (claiming of his characters, “... the men all without any exception talk and think like fairies except a couple of caricatures of brutal outsiders”) did not lead less complexity or more verbosity. G.K. Chesterton’s more good-natured laughter at James (for having a “Puritan” understanding of Europe) did not lead to anything less literary.  Hemingway and Chesterton are entirely unlike each other in almost every respect, and yet they both would have regarded "Jamesian irony" as a weakness, if not, in fact, as a moral flaw.

 

 

 

For "can't really exist" read "can't really exist within the confines of "realism." Since realism isn't real, I don't think there's a contradiction here.

 

Good point on the non-Jamesian authors; I wasn't arguing that his influence was monolithic--I thought I hedged my bets enough, but apparently not--but his model did provide the New Critics with an ideal form, and the habits of reading they formed were indebted to James. And I didn't mean to imply that the two choices are James or Dostoevsky--just that James provided a base-line for understanding how the novel works that would inform generations of novelists. That they rejected him doesn't mean they weren't influenced; it's doubtful that For Whom the Bell Tolls could have been written without Portrait of a Lady and James's other efforts.

 

For those who were authors, the writing of Dostoevsky’s admirers isn’t always as innocent or as noncynical as Dostoevksy’s writing. But at least they greatly valued the opposite of cynicism when they saw it.

 

 

Yup. 

 

And this isn’t one of those threads where I’m trying to argue a specific point with you. 

 

 

 
FWIW, I'm not arguing a specific point, either. Just spitballing (and, for once, on terrain that is at least not tangential to my field).
 
You’ve already declared yourself a Dostoevsky fan. But here’s another feeling I’m getting that has, just for a moment here and there, sent a chill through me. When Dostoevsky does caricature an attitude or viewpoint, sometimes he appears to be caricaturing ... us.
 
The contemptuous smiles, the inappropriate jokes, the inability to take a few deadly serious things seriously, the almost relentless sarcasm that Dostoevsky gives to Raskolnikov or to Fyodor Karamazov often feel like they are caricatures of cynical postmoderns.

 

 

Sure. Of course, Dostoevsky hated the West and he saw the onset of the industrialized society as tremendously bothersome. He had a deep-seated faith in the spirit of the Russian people as essentially superior to all other peoples on the earth. The Russian Soul, he thought, would save the world from the gross, mechanistic, Catholic decadence of the West. [because, yeah, he also hated Catholics]. So the caricatures that seem to be directed at us are part of an old, old ideological struggle.
Edited by NBooth

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I wonder if it's not, at least partly, a question of genre. 

 

The issue of genre is interesting, and while I think Dostoevsky was certainly melodramatic at times, I don’t think the term gives an accurate account. Like you clarify,his novels are  "are dark and twisted...a bit more complex than your run-of-the-mill melodramatic novelist." I’m also not sure that the genre question works as an explanation of DFW’s ironic ideas by itself, or at least, if it does, it may not stretch as far back as you’re putting forth. You mention Turgenev as part of the group that Wallace is reacting against, but in his own words, “so many of the novelists of our own time look so thematically shallow and lightweight, so impoverished in comparison to Gogol, Dostoevsky, even lesser lights like Lermontov and Turgenev.”  (**Emphasis mine**) To be sure, James loved Turgenev partially because of his style, but DFW loves Dostoevsky and Turgenev because of their approach to subject matter and themes, so it’s not quite as clear as melodramatic novels vs. Early to mid-20th C literature (I don’t mean to imply you’re conflating it so simplistically, you’re obviously not,  I’m just offering my two cents). If Wallace were reacting against style, then I don't think he would have referenced Turgenev here, especially when he had a host of other Russian writers to turn to.

 

But I think it's safe to say that at least part of the reason such characters could be scarce is that, generally, literary fiction eschews melodrama, which means that heightened characters of the kind found in Dostoevsky can't really exist. To have a really earnest character, you have to abandon Jamesian irony, drop the ideas laid out in the "Art of Fiction," refuse the delicate portrayal of social interactions, and be willing to get yourself accused of being formless, verbose, obscene. Again, it seems to me that that is what attracts Wallace, as much as anything. His revolt against irony seems, in some senses, to be a literary revolt.

 

Hmm, I don’t get that impression that this is what Wallace is revolting against. I can't help but think that if that were true, then Wallace would have waxed rhapsodic about Melville and Moby-Dick, which is the epitome of “formless, verbose, obscene,” but he doesn’t discuss it anywhere that I could find. And it's one of, if not the, Great American Novel(s), and one that also happens to break with traditional form and get lost in its own verbosity. But Dostoevsky, and many of the Russian writers, were writing about very different themes than Melville, and I think that's largely what drew Wallace. There's an appreciation that he wrote about what he thought needed to be written, and form be damned if it gets in the way of his earnestness/seriousness/beliefs. (Logically, I'm on pretty shaky ground here, but hey, this is all just speculation, right?)

 

That being said, I think the strongest thread that connects genre to Wallace's point is that of characters, because as discussed, it's through the characters, however stock or stereotyped by genre, that Dostoevsky is able to bring in his themes. Would "The Grand Inquisitor" have come to us if Ivan Karamazov wasn't the typical Russian atheist/agnostic intellectual?

 

 

 

You’ve already declared yourself a Dostoevsky fan. But here’s another feeling I’m getting that has, just for a moment here and there, sent a chill through me. When Dostoevsky does caricature an attitude or viewpoint, sometimes he appears to be caricaturing ... us.
 
The contemptuous smiles, the inappropriate jokes, the inability to take a few deadly serious things seriously, the almost relentless sarcasm that Dostoevsky gives to Raskolnikov or to Fyodor Karamazov often feel like they are caricatures of cynical postmoderns.

 

 

Sure. Of course, Dostoevsky hated the West and he saw the onset of the industrialized society as tremendously bothersome. He had a deep-seated faith in the spirit of the Russian people as essentially superior to all other peoples on the earth. The Russian Soul, he thought, would save the world from the gross, mechanistic, Catholic decadence of the West. [because, yeah, he also hated Catholics]. So the caricatures that seem to be directed at us are part of an old, old ideological struggle.

 

 

Thanks for that article, it was a fascinating read (plus I was thrilled to see Maurice Baring's name dropped – his writing was a very important contribution to the general public’s knowledge of Russian literature and of Dostoevsky in particular). On the criticism/caricatures, most of Dostoevky’s rants against the West were published in A Writer’s Diary, which wasn’t translated to English until 1949, so the cultural criticism would have felt fresh and new to them as well, the caricatures from the past had likely fled most of the public’s minds, and it would feel directed at their own generation.

 

The article also got me thinking about Dostoevsky's reception from both the East and the West. 

 

Robert-Louis Jackson claims “Dostoevsky’s place in Western culture, nonetheless, is somewhat different from his place in Russian culture - both prerevolutionary and post-revo­lutionary. Russian culture has always been divided about Dostoevsky; a part of it has always quarrelled with, or questioned, one or another aspect of Dostoevsky. In the popular sense he has never been accorded the high rank that he has received in the West; indeed, Westerners are often chided for being too Dostoevsky-conscious, for being too absorbed with Dostoevsky, for seeing Dostoevsky everywhere.”

 

According to Helen Muchnic, there were three periods in which the English grew to know and appreciate Dostoevsky:

 

1881-1888: The public was curious, but didn’t care much.

 

1889-1911: They begin to admire him more

 

1912-1921: Worship and adoration which lead to the “cult” of Dostoevsky.  Interestingly enough, his newly found popularity is apparently due in large part to very easy to read translations by Constance Garnett – which I believe included either the first or second English translation of Brothers Karamazov in 1912. I wonder how much of our current love for Dostoevsky is born out of this movement.

 

Interesting to note that Henry James’s dislike of the Dostoevskian novel as a “loose, baggy monster” was made in 1908, before there was an English translation of the loosest, baggiest monster of them all. And many of his works aren’t all that long or baggy either – although I think only a few were translated before 1900; Frederick Whishaw translated Crime and Punishment and Demons, and The Idiot, which all fit the category, but many of his works were in the 250-400 page range, they just weren’t known to the general public at the time.

 

**Edit. I just discovered that James wasn’t referring to Dostoevsky in particular:

 

“A picture without composition slights its most precious chance for beauty, and is, moreover, not composed at all unless the painter knows how that principle of health and safety, working as an absolutely premeditated art, has prevailed. There may in its absence be life, incontestably, as The Newcomes has life, as Les Trois Mousquetaires, as Tolstoi's Peace and War, have it; but what do such large, loose, baggy monsters, with their queer elements of the accidental and the arbitrary, artistically mean? We have heard it maintained, we well remember, that such things are "superior to art"; but we understand least of all what that may mean, and we look in vain for the artist, the divine explanatory genius, who will come to our aid and tell us. There is life and life, and as waste is only life sacrificed and thereby prevented from "counting," I delight in a deep-breathing economy and an organic form. My business was accordingly to "go in" for complete pictorial fusion, some such common interest between my two first notions as would, in spite of their birth under quite different stars, do them no violence at all.”       **Emphasis mine**

 

Later, in a letter to Hugh Walpole in 1912, this is what he had to say about Tolstoy and Dostoevsky while discussing the importance of form, which is really interesting considering the discussion about genre and literary style.

 

“Therefore I rejoice in the getting on of your work—how splendidly copious your flow; and am much interested in what you tell me of your readings and your literary emotions. These latter indeed—or some of them, as you express them, I don't think I fully share. At least when you ask me if I don't feel Dostoieffsky's "mad jumble, that flings things down in a heap," nearer truth and beauty than the picking and composing that you instance in Stevenson, I reply with emphasis that I feel nothing of the sort, and that the older I grow and the more I go the more sacred to me do picking and composing become—though I naturally don't limit myself to Stevenson's kind of the same. Don't let any one persuade you—there are plenty of ignorant and fatuous duffers to try to do it—that strenuous selection and comparison are not the very essence of art, and that Form is [not] substance to that degree that there is absolutely no substance without it. Form alone takes, and holds and preserves, substance—saves it from the welter of helpless verbiage that we swim in as in a sea of tasteless tepid pudding, and that makes one ashamed of an art capable of such degradations. Tolstoi and D. are fluid puddings, though not tasteless, because the amount of their own minds and souls in solution in the broth gives it savour and flavour, thanks to the strong, rank quality of their genius and their experience. But there are all sorts of things to be said of them, and in particular that we see how great a vice is their lack of composition, their defiance of economy and architecture, directly they are emulated and imitated; then, as subjects of emulation, models, they quite give themselves away. There is nothing so deplorable as a work of art with a leak in its interest; and there is no such leak of interest as through commonness of form. Its opposite, the found (because the sought-for) form is the absolute citadel and tabernacle of interest. But what a lecture I am reading you—though a very imperfect one—which you have drawn upon yourself (as moreover it was quite right you should.)”          **Emphasis mine**

 

And now for something completely different...but still on topic. An interesting sidenote on Dostoevsky’s reception is how Christian thinkers viewed him, and how that influenced people’s views on him. In Karl Barth’s sixth edition of Romans (1928), “there are more references to Dostoevsky than there are to Calvin, Luther, or any other theologian, a fact which underlines Barth’s comment on the crucial importance of the Russian novelist in the development of his early theology” – S.H. Rae, “Dostoevsky and the Theological Revolution in the West." And, of course, Barth was one of the most influential Protestant theologians of the 20th Century, so I’m curious how much of his love for Dostoevsky, and his reading of it, has bled down through the ages in Christian circles. 

 

Is Dostoevsky one of those “Christian” authors who Western Christians have rallied around, claiming as their own, thus perpetuating reputation and interpretation, or have we, like most of the Western world, apparently, simply come to appreciate him because of the depth and scope of his ideas and characters? And do we find so much to learn/agree with theologically from his novels because we came to the same conclusions separately, or because Dostoevsky's theological ideas have been stewing around in the development of our theology via people like Barth?


"What's prayer? It's shooting shafts in the dark." -- Frederick Buechner, Godric

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To be sure, James loved Turgenev partially because of his style, but DFW loves Dostoevsky and Turgenev because of their approach to subject matter and themes, so it’s not quite as clear as melodramatic novels vs. Early to mid-20th C literature (I don’t mean to imply you’re conflating it so simplistically, you’re obviously not,  I’m just offering my two cents). If Wallace were reacting against style, then I don't think he would have referenced Turgenev here, especially when he had a host of other Russian writers to turn to.

 

 

Good point, though I'd be interested in hearing more about the distinction between "style" and "approach to subject matter," since the two seem closely connected (at least, in my mind).

 

 
 On the criticism/caricatures, most of Dostoevky’s rants against the West were published in A Writer’s Diary, which wasn’t translated to English until 1949, so the cultural criticism would have felt fresh and new to them as well, the caricatures from the past had likely fled most of the public’s minds, and it would feel directed at their own generation.

 

 

Woah. I didn't realize the English translation of the Diary was so late. Interesting. My own work is increasingly focused on the years 1937ish-1950, so that puts the Diary firmly within my period, in a way. So these rants are showing up four years after Hiroshima and three years before the hydrogen bomb. In America, folks are barreling into McCarthyism--Communism replacing fascism as the locus of cultural anxiety. I can see how concerns about a mechanized society and the possibility of total nuclear annihilation would have or could have interfaced with Dostoevsky's anti-Westernism in various ways.
 
1912-1921: Worship and adoration which lead to the “cult” of Dostoevsky.  Interestingly enough, his newly found popularity is apparently due in large part to very easy to read translations by Constance Garnett – which I believe included either the first or second English translation of Brothers Karamazov in 1912. I wonder how much of our current love for Dostoevsky is born out of this movement.

 

 

You've also got WWI in that time period, along with the fall of the Tsar (I wonder--was there a more generalized Western Slavophile movement during this period?).
 
**Edit. I just discovered that James wasn’t referring to Dostoevsky in particular:

 

 

Yikes, yeah. I think I conflated the fluid pudding and the baggy monster.

And now for something completely different...but still on topic. An interesting sidenote on Dostoevsky’s reception is how Christian thinkers viewed him, and how that influenced people’s views on him. In Karl Barth’s sixth edition of Romans (1928), “there are more references to Dostoevsky than there are to Calvin, Luther, or any other theologian, a fact which underlines Barth’s comment on the crucial importance of the Russian novelist in the development of his early theology” – S.H. Rae, “Dostoevsky and the Theological Revolution in the West." And, of course, Barth was one of the most influential Protestant theologians of the 20th Century, so I’m curious how much of his love for Dostoevsky, and his reading of it, has bled down through the ages in Christian circles. 
 
Is Dostoevsky one of those “Christian” authors who Western Christians have rallied around, claiming as their own, thus perpetuating reputation and interpretation, or have we, like most of the Western world, apparently, simply come to appreciate him because of the depth and scope of his ideas and characters? And do we find so much to learn/agree with theologically from his novels because we came to the same conclusions separately, or because Dostoevsky's theological ideas have been stewing around in the development of our theology via people like Barth?

 

 

That Rae article is fascinating, not least because it points out the ways in which Dostoevsky appealed to a post-WWI readership. Certainly, the temperament of Dostoevsky would align pretty well with a disillusioned post-War perspective. As far as how that influence has trickled down--well, it's tricky, isn't it? Barth was far from the only theologian reacting against liberalism; in 1910ish that resolutely modern group, the Fundamentalists, were first finding their identity--and they've been at least as important in some sectors of Christianity (America, mostly) as someone like Barth. [As far as other theologians go, I'm finding a lot of people reading Niebuhr back onto Dostoevsky--there's another post-War theologian interfacing with the novelist--and the Neibuhrs and Paul Tillich are grouped with Dostoevsky as "modern moralists" in this book. Of course, Tillich himself, as an existentialist theologian, seems to share much with Dostoevsky].
 
As far as Western Christians go, I'm not sure it would be an either-or. Possibly Dostoevsky's initial appeal is universal, but for [some] Christian readers it takes on an added kick because he's "one of us." Never mind that he probably wouldn't like "us" very much if he met us--through no real fault of our own. But I've not witnessed (and perhaps I'm moving in the wrong circles) the evacuation of Dostoevsky that takes place with, for instance, C.S. Lewis or Tolkien. Lewis and Tolkien enjoy a broad appeal, in part, because certain sectors of Christianity--I'm talking now about evangelical Protestants--are able to strip them of religious distinctness and pin a generalized "Christian" name-tag on them. I don't think Dostoevsky allows that; he's much too spiky and weird, for one thing. Too Russian [whatever we mean when we say Russianness, there's no question that Dostoevsky has it, perhaps is it].*
 
*Perhaps Dostoevsky remains a kind of talisman for a certain kind of Christian, and that's a whole 'nother ball of wax.

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To be sure, James loved Turgenev partially because of his style, but DFW loves Dostoevsky and Turgenev because of their approach to subject matter and themes, so it’s not quite as clear as melodramatic novels vs. Early to mid-20th C literature (I don’t mean to imply you’re conflating it so simplistically, you’re obviously not,  I’m just offering my two cents). If Wallace were reacting against style, then I don't think he would have referenced Turgenev here, especially when he had a host of other Russian writers to turn to.

 

 

Good point, though I'd be interested in hearing more about the distinction between "style" and "approach to subject matter," since the two seem closely connected (at least, in my mind).

 

 

As much as I like to use it, “style” is one those nebulous, ambiguous words, so I don’t think that my definition is necessarily the right one, or whether anyone’s is, for that matter. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll refer to  Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (rather conveniently titled for this particular discussion)

 

Here we leave solid ground. Who can confidently say that ignites a certain combination of words, causing them to explode in the mind? – p. 66

 

There is no satisfactory explanation of style, no infallible guide to good writing, no assurance that a person who thinks clearly will be able to write clearly, no key that unlocks the door, no inflexible rule by which writers may shape their course. Writers will often find themselves steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion. – p. 66

 

All writers, by the way they use the language, reveal something of their spirits, their habits, their capacities, and their biases. – p. 67

 

I think that how closely style and approach to subject matter is dependent on how closely you cleave to “the medium is the message.” I think that my use of the word “approach” is misleading here, because I don’t mean the nuts and bolts approach – which words to use, reliability of narrator, structure of the plot, etc – I mean the mindset with which the author treats the subject.

 

For example, in the classic noir novels, there’s a huge stylistic difference between James Cain and Raymond Chandler (which makes it even funnier that Chandler wrote the screenplay to Wilder’s Double Indemnity, from Cain’s novel).  They’re both unmistakably hard-boiled and bleak, not to mention great fun. But where Cain is often extremely compact and precise with his language, and his plots, while full of twists, generally make sense, Chandler is the opposite; his plots, like his detectives, meander and find dead ends, false leads, and end up more muddled than they were at the beginning. He’s also more prone to the occasional long descriptive passage, and isn’t as good at vernacular dialogue as Cain. And, of course, he has Marlowe, and there’s no character remotely similar to Marlowe in any of Cain’s novels.

 

But they broach similar subject matter/themes: disillusionment with the American dream, people who are morally compromised and live in a world of grey morality, and they dig up the dredges of humanity’s vices to show on display for all to see.  (This is a little simplistic, but I think it holds water.) Although, now that I'm thinking about it, you could just say that they're similar because they're part of the same genre, which defeats my point somewhat - but at the same time, I wouldn't compare Hammett as as close thematically as these two are. And then Jim Thompson is similar to Cain, but different from Chandler...but I'll stop this before I get entirely derailed and forget that this is a Dostoevsky thread.

 

I’m not entirely qualified to speak about the stylistic approaches of Turgenev and Dostoevsky, (relying on translations, only familiar with a few works of each, etc), so I’ll stick to the two texts I’ve read most recently: Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons and Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground. My basic premise is that both of these novels, while very different in how they deal with themes of nihilism, approach it in a similar manner; both treat it seriously and show how destructive it can be upon the individual and community.  Stylistically, they couldn’t be farther apart, and while they definitely are different in how they specifically deal with nihilism, they approach it similarly, and a far deal differently than someone like Nicolai Chernyshevsky, whose What Is To Be Done? was what Dostoevsky was responding to with his own novel (Incidentally, Chernyshevsky had been responding to Turgenev's novel). Both Turgenev and Dostoevsky are tackling the growing popular intellectual movements of their time and an ever widening social divide between the traditionalists rooted in the Romantic ideas, and the revolutionaries/nihilists, and Turgenev received a lot of flak for it. 

 

**For what it’s worth, here are a few articles Notes from the Underground. One from Joseph Frank on nihilism, and one from Thomas Kavanagh on its form/style.

 

 

 On the criticism/caricatures, most of Dostoevky’s rants against the West were published in A Writer’s Diary, which wasn’t translated to English until 1949, so the cultural criticism would have felt fresh and new to them as well, the caricatures from the past had likely fled most of the public’s minds, and it would feel directed at their own generation.

 

 

Woah. I didn't realize the English translation of the Diary was so late. Interesting. My own work is increasingly focused on the years 1937ish-1950, so that puts the Diary firmly within my period, in a way. So these rants are showing up four years after Hiroshima and three years before the hydrogen bomb. In America, folks are barreling into McCarthyism--Communism replacing fascism as the locus of cultural anxiety. I can see how concerns about a mechanized society and the possibility of total nuclear annihilation would have or could have interfaced with Dostoevsky's anti-Westernism in various ways

 

Thanks for sharing; I can also see parallels with Thomas Merton (whose main social critiques are between 1950-1966), especially in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. I only bring it up because he was a fan of Dostoevsky, and was very drawn to the mystic Christianity he saw in The Brothers Karamazov, and it's possible his own views were coloured by Dostoevsky's.

 

 

 

 

Yikes, yeah. I think I conflated the fluid pudding and the baggy monster.

 

Well, to be fair, I always thought it referred to Dostoevsky too, and I’ve seen countless sources conflate the two.

 

 

That Rae article is fascinating, not least because it points out the ways in which Dostoevsky appealed to a post-WWI readership. Certainly, the temperament of Dostoevsky would align pretty well with a disillusioned post-War perspective. As far as how that influence has trickled down--well, it's tricky, isn't it? Barth was far from the only theologian reacting against liberalism; in 1910ish that resolutely modern group, the Fundamentalists, were first finding their identity--and they've been at least as important in some sectors of Christianity (America, mostly) as someone like Barth. [As far as other theologians go, I'm finding a lot of people reading Niebuhr back onto Dostoevsky--there's another post-War theologian interfacing with the novelist--and the Neibuhrs and Paul Tillich are grouped with Dostoevsky as "modern moralists" in this book. Of course, Tillich himself, as an existentialist theologian, seems to share much with Dostoevsky].

 
As far as Western Christians go, I'm not sure it would be an either-or. Possibly Dostoevsky's initial appeal is universal, but for [some] Christian readers it takes on an added kick because he's "one of us." Never mind that he probably wouldn't like "us" very much if he met us--through no real fault of our own. But I've not witnessed (and perhaps I'm moving in the wrong circles) the evacuation of Dostoevsky that takes place with, for instance, C.S. Lewis or Tolkien. Lewis and Tolkien enjoy a broad appeal, in part, because certain sectors of Christianity--I'm talking now about evangelical Protestants--are able to strip them of religious distinctness and pin a generalized "Christian" name-tag on them. I don't think Dostoevsky allows that; he's much too spiky and weird, for one thing. Too Russian [whatever we mean when we say Russianness, there's no question that Dostoevsky has it, perhaps is it].*
 
*Perhaps Dostoevsky remains a kind of talisman for a certain kind of Christian, and that's a whole 'nother ball of wax.

 

I think you have a good point about his universal appeal, but the extra "oomph" because of his faith. But I think the problem is that many Christians (and maybe I’m moving in the wrong circles here) don’t/haven’t read Dostoevsky, but allude to him all the time as a paragon of Christian literature. At least Lewis and Tolkien are referenced by people who have read one or two of their works. I know people who just go on Philip Yancey’s endorsement of Dostoevsky (I also remember reading one of his books where he makes some sort of statement paramount to “he is my favourite author”, but I can’t remember which one). I’ve encountered enough people who have no idea of his weirdness or Russianness, only of his Christianness (even though it is pretty complicated/wierd too). He’s one of those guys people namedrop with a tacit assumption that everyone will understand the significance of the author.

 

But I’m probably being uncharitable here; I do know a great many people who haven’t read him but are nowhere near this simpleminded towards him.

 

I’m much more interested in the theological trickle down, so thanks for bringing up Neibuhr and Tillich, both of whom I can’t comment on much, as I’ve only read snippets of their work, and small commentaries on their influence, but I’m definitely curious to find out more.  

 

And then there are the far less overtly influential thinkers whose thoughts on Dostoevsky have likely come to us somewhere down the line, like Lev Shestov and Nikolai Berdyaev, both of whom wrote at least one book on Dostoevsky, if memory serves, and likely got the ball rolling on his "official" connection to Christian existentialism. 


"What's prayer? It's shooting shafts in the dark." -- Frederick Buechner, Godric

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We don't have a thread on literary translations? Huh. In that case, I'll drop this interview with Dostoevsky translators Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear here:

 

PEVEAR
 
And I discovered during our work together on Dostoevsky that he was not a brooding, obsessed man, but a very playful, free spirit. You see it in his style. The style of Dostoevsky is extremely varied. He would practice writing pages in different voices. He shows characters through the voice, through the way they use or misuse language. Which meant a lot of people used to say that he didn’t write very well! For example, there is a little note at the beginning of Karamazov, “From the Author,” about how he came to write the book. The “author” is not Dostoevsky—he makes that perfectly clear—although everybody seems to think that Dostoevsky is the narrator. But the narrator isn’t a writer at all. He just happens to live in the town where the novel is set. He got interested in the story of the Karamazov brothers and the murder of their father and wanted to record it. The whole point of this preface is to introduce all possible voicings of this narrator, who writes absurd things like, “Being at a loss to resolve these questions, I am resolved to leave them without any resolution.” And of course all the translators vary the words, because Flaubert said you should never use the same word twice on the same page. Finally he says, “Well, that is the end of my introduction. I quite agree that it is superfluous, but since it is already written, let it stand.” Dostoevsky gets you into the entire question of whether this man is trustworthy. Does he know what he’s talking about? The uncertainty surrounding this narrator is very important, and all of that is introduced just by the way it’s written. So the light suddenly went on.
 
 
 
VOLOKHONSKY
 
I said to Richard, You are reading a different book.
 
 
 
PEVEAR
 
It occurred to us that there was a whole other register to Dostoevsky, and the translators hadn’t translated it. There was something to be done there.

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