A quintessential Russian writer of the 19th century, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s (1821–1881) works explore the relation of the human psyche with social, spiritual and political forces of his time.
Gary Saul Morson is Frances Hooper Professor of the Arts and Humanities at Northwestern University, a literary critic, and an expert on Russian and European writers.
Simply Charly: Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky together encompass the main focus of your studies. The Brothers Karamazov was reportedly read and reread by Tolstoy several times before he died—did the two ever correspond in life? What was their relationship like?
Gary Saul Morson: Believe it or not, these two writers, though supremely conscious of each other, never met. Given how small the circle of major writers and thinkers was, it must have taken considerable effort on the part of each not to encounter the other.
Dostoevsky expressed unreserved admiration for Tolstoy. Dostoevsky wrote that no writer ever had more literary talent than Tolstoy, which is not to say he always approved of the use to which Tolstoy put his talent. When Anna Karenina was being serialized, Dostoevsky reviewed it and declared that, at last, the existence of the Russian people had been justified! His commentaries on the novel are, in my view, as profound as any ever done.
As it happens, Crime and Punishment and War and Peace were serialized in the same journal at the same time. Imagine being the editor! This happy accident allowed for allusions across the pages of the journal, and, in fact, Dostoevsky took advantage of the opportunity. A famous passage in War and Peace shows the Russian allies of 1805—the Austrians—supremely confident of victory. Then, their best general, General Mack, shows up, completely defeated, without his army. The Austrians believed in a hard science of battle, but Tolstoy argued that there could not be a science of battle. Nor, for that matter, could there ever be any science of society. He utterly rejected what we have come to call “social science” as mere superstition if “science” is taken in the sense of hard science. In Crime and Punishment, the detective, Porfiry Petrovich, also makes fun of such rationalism, as applied to crime, and uses General Mack as an example of its failure! It would have been hard to miss this as an allusion to Tolstoy’s novel.
In Dostoevsky’s Writer’s Diary and at the close of his novel A Raw Youth, he contrasts Tolstoy’s art—which he describes as nobleman’s literature about beautiful forms of life that are a mere relic—with his own present-minded engagement with the unformed life of the day, which is anything but beautiful and demands a special approach. In his notebooks, Dostoevsky refers to himself as “the poet of the underground.” He especially liked to contrast Tolstoy’s loosely autobiographical descriptions of childhood in Childhood, Boyhood, Youth with his own descriptions of abused or ignored children. Incidentally, Aldous Huxley’s magnificent and quirky essay “Vulgarity in Literature” contains a splendid passage about why Dostoevsky is a greater writer than Dickens, which Huxley demonstrates by contrasting their portraits of children. Dostoevsky knew that children were not sweet, innocent creatures, but, at times, positively frightening in their cruelty.
After writing Anna Karenina, Tolstoy had a famous conversion experience, after which he rejected most European literature, including his own masterpieces, but he made an exception for one Russian work—Dostoevsky’s semi-autobiographical novel, Notes from the House of the Dead, which Tolstoy described as a profoundly moral and broadly accessible book.
Since their time, numerous critics and thinkers have written studies that contrasted these geniuses as representing the two poles of human experience in one respect or another. Some have favored one of the two writers; others have struck a balance. Literary critic and philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin clearly favored Dostoevsky, seeing him as “dialogic” and Tolstoy as “monologic.” That is, he saw in Tolstoy the roots of Soviet authoritarianism. To do so, he had to focus on Tolstoy after his conversion experience—Tolstoy as the author of Resurrection rather than of Anna Karenina. The Russian novelist Dmitri Merezhkovsky—whose novel Leonardo da Vinci was once very popular in the US and appeared in a modern library edition and numerous coffee table versions—saw history as a battle between two visions of the world, the pagan and the Christian. He expressed this contrast in his study of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Tolstoy was the supreme pagan writer, the “seer of the flesh,” who understood the body and its complex relation to the mind. Dostoevsky was a Christian, and his psychology focused on spiritual depths. So often have critics relied on “Tolstoy vs. Dostoevsky” as a framework that it has become a recognized critical genre.
SC: As a narrative theorist, what would you say was the primary narrative nature of Dostoevsky’s works? In other words, what do you think Dostoevsky was trying to express with his writing, and how did he do so?
GSM: Dostoevsky above all wanted to show human freedom. He wanted to catch consciousness in the act, when it could decide either way, when, if the situation were repeated, there might be a different outcome. He believed deeply that determinism was mistaken and that the belief in determinism—whether mistaken or not—would destroy the possibility of meaning in human life.
In their essential arguments, his opponents resembled the “new atheists” of today. They believed that human freedom is an illusion, that consciousness is entirely describable neurologically, and that a confluence of biological and social causes completely—not just to a considerable extent—explains human behavior. For Dostoevsky, the essence of humanness consists in the possibility of acting into an open future, not yet determined in advance—not determined in the way the outcome of a novel is already determined for readers who are aware they are reading a completed artifact. Dostoevsky did not believe that the present moment was like the page of a novel we just happen to be reading because, in his view, in life subsequent pages are not already given.
For this reason, Dostoevsky found the traditional form of the novel too restrictive. When we read a novel, we know that the end is already given. The very form in which he was working, therefore, tended to create a bias in favor of closed time. Whenever a writer uses foreshadowing, for instance, he is suggesting that a later event can send signs backward to an earlier event, which means the later event is already there. And experienced readers know that at the ending of a well-made literary work all loose ends will be tied together, so that there is closure, not just a stopping point. They know that events are being pulled forward to an outcome that has somehow been planned. If so, characters are simply ignorant of a future that is already determined. In that sense, novels, like deterministic views of time, render human freedom illusory.
And so Dostoevsky not only argued philosophically and psychologically for human freedom but also invented forms that would make choice palpable. One of many ways he did so is to write from scene to scene—and let the reader know it—without an advance plan. Loose ends would not all be tied up. Events in the external world, which the author could not know in advance, would help shape the work. This was one of several ways in which Dostoevsky sought to make choice and open time so sensible to the reader that they could not be doubted. The peculiar thrill, beyond mere suspense, that we experience when we read his works testifies to his success.
SC: Your faculty page notes that you have a particular interest in the relationship between literature and philosophy. Where does Dostoevsky fall into this interest? Did Dostoevsky’s notoriously psychological works adhere to any established branches of philosophy?
GSM: Russian intellectuals of the 19th century largely agreed that while other European countries developed distinct disciplines of thought, Russians combined them all into literature. If you wanted to think about the implications of utilitarianism, materialism, or the new social sciences, you would write a novel or, perhaps, literary criticism about a novel. Even in the 20th century, Russia’s greatest philosopher, Mikhail Bakhtin, offered his contributions to psychology, the social sciences, and ethics in the form of books on Dostoevsky, Francois Rabelais, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and others.
Dostoevsky epitomizes this tradition. Typically, he created characters obsessed by ideas. His psychological acumen allowed him to create an intimate bond between ideas and personality. The two fused. One of Dostoevsky’s characters remarks that he can “feel ideas.”
And so abstractions take on flesh and blood. Ideas are tested in two ways: first, how do they arise for a given person and what makes them so compelling to him or her? Second, what effect do they have on how the person lives? It is often the case that what a philosopher would say is the logical consequence of an idea is not, in fact, its lived consequence.
What I have described so far tends to be true of realist novels of ideas generally. Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons and Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent illustrate the technique as well as Dostoevsky’s The Possessed. Dostoevsky differs from other novelists of ideas by his deeper grasp of human psychology and his willingness to show extreme consequences. No one but Dostoevsky even imagined that the ideas of Russian radicals contained the germ of what we have come to call totalitarianism. But in The Possessed the many horrors of such systems—whether in Germany, Russia, China, or Cambodia—are anticipated in astonishing detail when the revolutionaries outline their plans. Dostoevsky understood where ideas with enough emotional force could lead.
Dostoevsky also specialized in a specific kind of novel of ideas. Readers of fiction know about the multi-plot novel, like George Eliot’s Middlemarch or Anthony Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? in which two or three stories are told. Although the characters do not know it, each story sheds light on the others as the plots run parallel. Characters faced with similar dilemmas respond differently. Dostoevsky used this technique, but he added a variant: the multi-idea novel. By this I mean a single character becomes obsessed with several ideas, often contradicting each other. It is as if each idea were a hero and the novel told the plots of several ideas in interaction. Sometimes characters follow ideas, and sometimes ideas seem to possess characters.
In Crime and Punishment, for instance, the hero, Raskolnikov, repeatedly asks himself why he committed murder. He seizes upon idea after idea, only to realize that none could be the cause. And they contradict each other. On the one hand, he argues that in a world governed entirely by natural laws, good and evil have no objective meaning. We accept God or morals not because they are real but because we have been bred or conditioned to accept them. On the other hand, he knows he is driven by a moral frenzy to correct the moral evils that deeply disturb him. Despite—or perhaps because of—his deep compassion, he embraces utilitarianism with its tenet of the greatest good for the greatest number. He realizes that this theory sometimes not only permits but positively demands murder in order to reduce the total harm in the world—“it’s simple arithmetic!” As if that were not enough of a tangle, Raskolnikov also adopts his “Napoleonic theory” that neither absolute good and evil nor utilitarian calculus have any force for “extraordinary people,” who have the right to “step over” all the restraints that apply to others. No wonder the hero is named “Raskolnikov,” which means “the schismatic” (a raskol is a schism).
What all Raskolnikov’s theories share is the capacity to sanction murder. But since he does not really accept any of them—and the moment he actually considers murder concretely he reacts with utter horror—what relation do the ideas have to the crime? Are they mere rationalizations of an action he has decided to commit on other grounds?
Not at all. It is not any single idea, but the habit of thinking ideologically that leads him to crime. The disease he suffers from—another of his theories is that crime is always accompanied by a disease—is believing in abstractions as somehow more real than specific people. This is an error to which intellectuals are prone and which has led to unspeakable horror. Ordinary decency is a better guide than any theory. For Dostoevsky, that is a truth intellectuals instinctively reject, because it is available to anyone, and implicitly denies their claim to moral superiority and the right to make rules for others.
The Russian novel is “philosophical” primarily because it is anti-philosophical. It is suffused with ideas because, when we consider their psychological import, we recognize the harm in placing too much trust in them.
SC: As a professor of literature, how do you typically introduce undergraduates to Dostoevsky and Tolstoy? Which of Dostoevsky’s novels do you recommend to new readers?
GSM: I usually find that undergraduates respond to great literature when it teaches them something they do not already know, something that helps them understand their lives better. I avoid some methods commonly used: discovering symbols, as if that were an end in itself; judging the author in terms of current values and beliefs; or showing how the work reveals the social conditions in which it was written.
Symbol-hunting, and any other focus on literary devices, seems a mere exercise unless it contributes to revealing valuable truths. It’s one thing to find foreshadowing, another to show that its use represents more than a superficial facility. Praising the author for sharing our beliefs or blaming him for maintaining other ones means that present beliefs are simply presumed correct. In that case, what has one learned for all the effort of reading? There is a character in one of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novels who wonders why he is made to read all these 19th-century classics, when they make ideological errors that now any sixth grader can identify. And while it is true that a literary work shows something about the social conditions in which it was written, that is not what makes it great. Sure, Charles Dickens illuminates working conditions in England, but a factory inspector’s report might show us more. What makes a work great—arguably, what makes it literature in the first place—is that it is of interest outside the context of its origin. After all, one can’t be interested in every century of every country, so why presume it is important to know 19th century Russia or 18th century France? One becomes interested in 19th century Russia because it produced Dostoevsky, not the reverse.
In my introductory course, I teach The Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina. The latter offers a marvelously complex discussion of the nature of love and argues that how most of us—and most students—understand it is mistaken. Students need no persuading that such ideas are worth knowing. Both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky explore the nature of self-deception, evil, and freedom, all of which are on students’ minds. So long as one shows that the novelists conveyed profundities the students would not otherwise have thought of, they grow to love the books.
In teaching Karamazov, I concentrate on its most famous chapters, “Rebellion,” “The Grand Inquisitor,” and the one in which the devil appears to Ivan in a nightmare. I go through these almost line-by-line, so students can see how the thought develops and why no brief paraphrase will do. When we discuss Biblical passages mentioned in the work—the marriage at Cana, the three temptations—I make sure they know these passages before elucidating how Dostoevsky interprets them.
The idea is to get students to see just why great books are great, why Spark Notes won’t do, and why rereading is worthwhile. I find myself saying: here is what a good writer would do, a great writer would do it that way, and here is how Dostoevsky does it. They should not have to take the author’s greatness on authority but should see it for themselves. Above all, I try to get the students to love the process of reading these books.
Karamazov is a very difficult work. Since students will not read more than 200 pages per week with care, one needs to allot four weeks or more to it. One might also choose a shorter book with profound ideas. Crime and Punishment is a good choice. New readers also often love The Idiot with its amazing, and autobiographical, descriptions of the last moments before execution and the suspension of time in an epileptic seizure. It also contains Dostoevsky’s most compelling heroine.
SC: What were some common criticisms of Dostoevsky’s writing during his lifetime, and do any of these criticisms persist among scholars today? Do you agree with any of them?
GSM: Dostoevsky knowingly set himself against the intellectuals of his day. It’s as if, today, intellectuals had to acknowledge that America’s foremost writer, on a level with the greatest in history, was a conservative, a Christian, an uncompromising patriot, and a debunker of intellectuals’ favorite ways of thinking. Dostoevsky was all these things. To be a conservative in Dostoevsky’s Russia was, if anything, more unacceptable than it would be in America today. Progressive thinkers regarded Christianity as a thing of the past that no serious person could believe, much as many do now. And Dostoevsky’s support for the Russian monarchy’s opposition to the radicals seemed positively perverse.
During the Cold War, these aspects of Dostoevsky’s thought appealed to some and disgusted others. To be sure, Christianity, as he rethought it, is far from what was and is taught in most churches. For one thing, he read all of his profound psychology back into the Gospels. For another, he regarded doubt as integral to faith.
Today, many scholars treat Dostoevsky’s Christianity the way they might treat a writer’s alchemical symbolism—as puzzles to solve in critical articles and nothing more. Others find his beliefs repellent.
I tend to think that the best way to read an author involves what might be called “bracketing.” Suspend one’s own beliefs and enter into the author’s way of thinking and feeling. Imagine what criticisms he would make of us, where he would discover our naiveté, where he would detect smug self-deception or intellectual hypocrisy. If done honestly, it can be an uncomfortable experience.
After that process, one can still point out the author’s mistakes. That is what Freud did. He regarded Karamazov as one of the three greatest works of world literature, and yet he remarked of Dostoevsky’s loyalty to the tsar and “the God of the Christians” that “lesser minds have reached the same conclusions with less effort.”
I think two criticisms of Dostoevsky are still worth making, and, interestingly enough, all but a few scholars have neglected these aspects of his thought. There seems to be a tacit agreement not to mention them.
One is his anti-Semitism. It is true that he became obsessed with this question for only a few years, and that it would be a mistake to read it into other periods of his life. But for a brief time, he demonstrated a hatred of Jews that was extreme even by Russian standards, and that is saying something. Nazis and anti-Semites today, in Russia and elsewhere, cite him. For some Russians, it’s as if Russianness demands anti-Semitism to be authentic. I wish I could say only the uneducated think this way, but in Russia, that is far from true. Prominent intellectuals, including some respected literary critics, accept such beliefs.
For scholars, the question here should be how these ideas fit with the rest of Dostoevsky’s thought. In fact, it is often the case that great thinkers whose ideas we admire also maintained beliefs we despise, and—disturbingly enough—the two were intimately connected.
SC: The post-Soviet era has seen a heavy resurgence of interest in Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, with the latter’s Anna Karenina receiving a big-budget Hollywood adaptation in 2012. What do you attribute as the cause of our modern interest in Dostoevsky? Do any of the themes in his works still resonate with readers today?
GSM: So far as I know, Dostoevsky was unique in predicting, in detail, what totalitarianism would be. Almost all his contemporaries presumed that the march of liberalism was inevitable, that civil liberties would triumph everywhere, that government would become ever more humane, and that (as one Dostoevsky’s characters, a man from underground, paraphrases the idea) “through civilization mankind becomes softer, and consequently less bloodthirsty, and less fitted for warfare.” Dostoevsky thought that this prediction might prove true in some places—it seems to fit Denmark—but that, taken as a whole, the world would witness horrors that the 19th century could not imagine.
Amazingly enough, the revolutionaries in The Possessed look forward to a world very much like the one we have seen, which owes so much to the vision of another Russian, Vladimir Lenin. The revolutionaries in The Possessed anticipate that regimes taken over by revolutionaries like themselves would sacrifice “a hundred million heads,” which happens to be the figure, based on conservative estimates, offered by The Black Book of Communism (written by several European academics in the 1990s) for civilian lives taken by Communist regimes around the world.
But it is not just loss of lives that revolutionaries anticipate. They propose what the novel’s chief revolutionary, Pyotr Stepanovich, calls “a system of spying. Every member of the society spies on the others, and it’s his duty to inform against them.” That, of course, was true not only of Stalinist Russia. Pyotr Stepanovich calls for the imposition of radical equality and the suppression of independent thought: “Cicero will have his tongue cut out, Copernicus will have his eyes put out, Shakespeare would be stoned… Complete equality!” Since revolutionaries claimed to act in the name of science, Dostoevsky had to be especially prescient to recognize that they would, in fact, suppress science, the way the Soviets banned genetics, even theories of chemistry. The Khmer Rouge execution of the educated almost seems to be following Pytor Stepanovich’s injunctions.
What is more, human nature would be remade. There would be “absolute loss of individuality” as well as private property. There would be a small ruling elite dictating the lives of the others in the name of socialism.
If one considers the Chinese Cultural Revolution, one might wonder why Dostoevsky, and only Dostoevsky, foresaw these events. The answer, I think, is that he took seriously the state of mind of revolutionaries. When they said that the only standard of morality was the success of the revolution, he believed they meant it and saw where that would lead. He also took seriously their ideas that human nature was entirely the product of alterable social conditions. Above all, he recognized the appeal to intellectuals of absolute, truly absolute, power. At last, they would no longer be looked down on by practical people but get to control everything! Dostoevsky, on the contrary, believed that these were the very last people to entrust with power, and that the surest way to create evil is to strive to abolish it altogether.
The radicals responded in kind. Before the Revolution, they hated him, and after the Revolution, he was regarded with profound suspicion. The Soviet school curriculum included the works of Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, and Tolstoy, but not The Possessed and The Brothers Karamazov.
Dostoevsky used to remark that his prison experience taught him two important lessons. One was the idea, despised by the socialists, of the importance of privacy. (He said that in four years of his imprisonment, he was not alone once). Second, by watching the prisoners, he recognized that people define their lives in terms of their own choices. Socialists imagine that if people’s needs are supplied, they will be happy. But Dostoevsky believed that people are miserable if they do not feel that their work matters, that they can sacrifice their lives for others, and that their choices make a difference. In short, for life to be meaningful, people must feel that we act in a world where the future is not determined and where our choices, for good or ill, make a difference. He never ceased to repeat that a “paradise” that supplies all our needs without effort and removes all risk would be experienced as hell—as, to use the title of his prison camp novel, “a house of the dead.”
SC: What was the influence of religion on Dostoevsky’s works and his life? Can this influence be spotted in any of his novels, and if so, where?
GSM: When Dostoevsky was taken to Siberia for punishment, a woman gave him a copy of the Gospels, the only book allowed in prison. In response, he wrote a letter that is itself a Russian literary classic. In it, he calls himself “a child of the age, a child of unbelief and doubt, to this day and eve (I know) to the grave.” And yet, he explains, he thirsts for faith like “parched grass” and suffers all the more for the struggle between the desire for faith and all the “opposite proofs” he has learned. In this state of mind, he has constructed an image of Christ so beautiful that there neither is nor could be anything “more beautiful, profounder, more sympathetic, wiser.” And then occurs one of the most striking sentences he ever wrote: “Even if somebody were to prove to me that Christ is outside the truth, and even if it were a fact that the truth excludes Christ, I would still prefer to remain with Christ rather than the truth.”
How exactly does one believe something one regards as untrue? A great deal of Dostoevsky concerns the nature of belief and how complex it is. Often enough, as he shows, people sincerely profess one set of beliefs, but their behavior reflects a contrary set. In that case, which one does one “really” believe? The question is not an easy one.
Dostoevsky’s letter expresses the sort of faith suffused with doubt that has made him immensely appealing. I have never known anyone who has found faith by reading Dante or John Milton, but people do when reading Soren Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky.
In The Idiot, a character says that “beauty will save the world”—another of Dostoevsky’s most quoted lines—but what is meant here is not aesthetic beauty as we usually think of it, but the beauty that comes from intense goodness. Once we see such beauty, we cannot doubt it.
Dostoevsky tried in his great novels a sort of proof of Christianity. He showed that if one truly understands human psychology, the Gospels accord with it more than contemporary “scientific” thought. In Karamazov, for instance, Ivan expresses the common sense view that one is responsible for one’s actions but not one’s wishes. The Sermon on the Mount, of course, says the opposite: you have heard it said, do not do evil, but I say unto you, do not even wish evil. The novel shows, first, the complex psychological process by which Ivan comes to feel guilty for his wishes. Second, it shows why most evil takes place precisely because people who would not do evil nevertheless wish it. Taken together, these wishes create an atmosphere—a field of possibilities—in which evil is likely to happen. If we attribute great evil only to moral monsters, we will be unable to account for it. But it results from the private thoughts of people who are far from monsters—from people like ourselves—indeed, from us. That is why, as the Holy Father Zossima explains, “everyone is responsible for everyone and for everything.”
Dostoevsky “proves” Christianity in other passages as well. The famous “legend” of “The Grand Inquisitor” finds in the story of the three temptations of Christ the ultimate truths about human nature, our need for freedom, our yearning to overcome doubt, and our willingness to surrender what is most important just to escape the anxiety of not knowing whether one’s life is meaningful or how to act. For Alyosha, the key Biblical story turns out to be the Cana of Galilee, which teaches him not to look for goodness or meaning in grand, dramatic actions, but in the most ordinary events of daily life.
Of course, showing that Christianity (as Dostoevsky interprets) is psychologically profound still does not prove it true. But it does give us a reason to think that the usual arguments against Christianity—which dismiss it as fit only for uneducated fools—are themselves wanting. Today, the arguments of the “new atheists” also represent belief in its most simplistic. But intellectual honesty demands that one respond to one’s opponent’s best ideas.
SC: Do you have any favorite Dostoevsky novels? Are there any that don’t stand the test of time?
GSM: Dostoevsky’s best novel is certainly Karamazov, a masterpiece of construction as well as the most profound of all his works. The Grand Inquisitor chapter encapsulates a central dilemma of human nature in a way that has no rival; it is one of the outstanding passages of world literature. It gave birth to the 20th-century genre of the dystopia, the first of which was Evgeny Zamyatin’s We, which Orwell read before writing 1984.
The chapter on the devil in Karamazov presents the devil in an altogether new way—not as grand, dramatic, and Satanic, but as ordinary, petty, and banal—as Dostoevsky thought evil was. Mikhail Bulgakov’s amazing novel The Master and Margarita takes off from this chapter.
Often overlooked is Dostoevsky’s novel about his prison camp experiences, The House of the Dead, which is brilliant psychologically and contains some of the most harrowing passages he ever wrote. It, too, gave birth to a modern genre, the prison camp novel. When one reads Solzhenitsyn or other writers on the Gulag, or great Holocaust novels, Dostoevsky stands as an important predecessor.
My favorite novel, as opposed to the one I regard as the best, is The Idiot. To see Dostoevsky invent scenes almost impromptu is like watching the creative process, with all its fits and false starts, live. In such a context even the stumbles become interesting. And Dostoevsky rises to magnificent moments as if by sheer inspiration brought on by desperation: the three descriptions of executions, the account of an epileptic seizure, Ippolit’s startling confession, and the account of what faith is.
To be sure, there are Dostoevsky works that by now are worth reading only to shed light on the author himself. His late novel, A Raw Youth, begins well enough, but then proceeds in a confused, badly focused way. No one pays much attention to The Insulted and the Humiliated. Winter Notes on Summer Impressions and parts of A Writer’s Diary are tedious as well as vituperative. Although some would disagree with me, I think Poor Folk is interesting primarily because it was his first novel.
His legacy remains the four great long novels—Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Possessed, and The Brothers Karamazov. These are all among the very greatest works of world literature. Among the shorter novels and novellas, I think four are major works: The House of the Dead, Notes from Underground, The Gambler, and The Double. Several of his short stories are striking, but I think the best is one that appears in A Writer’s Diary, “The Meek One” (also translated as “A Gentle Creature”). The Writer’s Diary also contains some classic cases of crime reporting, especially his account of the Kairova case.
Dostoevsky always seems to be struggling to say something and despairing of really saying it right. That’s true of Ippolit and Prince Myshkin in The Idiot, who comment on the impossibility of saying what one means down to the last word. There always remains something “left over.” But the sense that even though he expresses so much, there is still more, and he is devising new ways to say it, gives Dostoevsky’s work a frenetic excitement that is, so far as I know, unique in world literature.
SC: Are there studies of Dostoevsky accessible to the general reader? What translations or editions of his works would you recommend?
GSM: I am on record as saying that the best biography of a writer I am aware of is Joseph Frank’s five-volume biography of Dostoevsky, which has won numerous prestigious prizes and is also available in a one-volume abridgment. Whereas most biographies tend to reduce works to mere responses to life, Frank begins by showing the depth of the work and then showing how it was a response—but not a mere response—to events in the world with Dostoevsky engaged, both personal and social. Because Dostoevsky was so immersed in the literary, political, and philosophical struggles of the day, Frank explores these in depth, and so this biography also doubles as an intellectual history of Russia at the time. He also gives us a sense of how ideas were lived—how, for instance, prevailing progressive opinions shaped personal actions and habits.
A few other studies are accessible to the general reader. Konstantin Mochulsky’s study entitled Dostoevsky is readable and provocative. Robin Feuer Miller’s short book, The Brothers Karamazov: Worlds of the Novel is the place to start for that book. Once one knows Karamazov, one might consult Robert Belknap’s study of how Dostoevsky wrote it, The Genesis of “The Brothers Karamazov.” On a somewhat more difficult level, there are several excellent studies, and I would mention those by Michael Holquist and Robert Louis Jackson, with whom I studied years ago.
For translations, by and large, the best versions are those by Constance Garnett, preferably revised by a more recent scholar. Garnett had a marvelous sense of the language of novels, and understood what the authors were doing. She made some mistakes and odd choices, which the best versions correct. I would strongly recommend the version of Karamazov edited by Susan McReynolds in the Norton Critical edition. Also good is the Garnett version of Notes from Underground revised by Ralph Matlaw. Annotations help to translate extracts in French or German, and to explain topical references. Other good choices are the versions of Devils (the novel Garnett translated as The Possessed) and of Notes from Underground. I have written a number of reviews arguing that the new versions by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky are execrable. Kenneth Lantz did a good version of A Writer’s Diary in two volumes, which I abridged to one volume, and this work contains several of Dostoevsky’s stories as well as his best crime reporting and other journalism.
SC: What thinkers have been profoundly influenced by Dostoevsky? Are there any who extend his ideas in interesting ways?
GSM: Beginning about 1920, Dostoevsky began to excite European writers and thinkers. He and Tolstoy seemed to come from a completely different world, where writers still had the power and energy that tired, worn-out Europe thought it had outgrown. Looked on as primitive but natural, the Russian geniuses seemed to represent what European literature had once been—say, in the time of Shakespeare or earlier.
Andre Gidé wrote an early study of Dostoevsky, and his novel The Counterfeiters mentions its debt to him. Dostoevsky seemed to incarnate the spirit of what was thought of as irrationalism. At times, he was identified with Friedrich Nietzsche (who read some Dostoevsky and greatly admired it) and who seemed to have anticipated phenomenology, surrealism, and, especially, existentialism.
Dostoevsky was fascinated by the unconscious, and his characters speak of its workings often. It is hardly surprising, then, that he exercised a profound influence on psychoanalysis. To be sure, Sigmund Freud’s insights seem rather mechanical compared to Dostoevsky, and Dostoevsky would have profoundly disapproved of Freud’s sense of human choice as illusory. But Freud did recognize in Dostoevsky’s novels important insights into the workings of guilt and of egoistic self-destruction (which in Karamazov is called “lacerations”).
In histories and anthologies of existentialism, it was common for the 1960s to begin with Dostoevsky, especially with Part One of Notes from Underground. The underground man’s attack on the rationalist destruction of the self, his cultivation of spite as a free action without a cause, and his war on simplistic notions of inevitable progress, seemed like the founding gesture of the movement. It was usually overlooked that Dostoevsky did not approve of the underground man, that the character did not speak for the author. In fact, this novella contains a Part Two, in which the underground man tells his story, and we see that his views are as misguided as those he rejects in Part One. But Part Two was usually left out of discussions.
Perhaps Albert Camus showed the influence of Dostoevsky most clearly. His book L’Homme Révolté (in English, The Rebel) contains profound meditations on Dostoevsky’s works, especially The Possessed and Karamazov. Camus also wrote a dramatization of The Possessed, stressing its existential themes. Ralph Ellison acknowledged a significant debt to Dostoevsky, and it is common to detect in his work features shared by Invisible Man and Notes from Underground.
Over the past few decades, several currents in American and European thought have been shaped by the ideas of Mikhail Bakhtin. Bakhtin devoted his most famous book to Dostoevsky (Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics), but his other studies also show Dostoevsky’s influence. Bakhtin’s book can be read either as criticism of Dostoevsky or as a philosophical meditation illustrated by examples from Dostoevsky. Bakhtin finds in Dostoevsky’s novels meditations on the nature of time, language, the self, and, above all, ethics. Dostoevsky sees humanness as lying in the capacity to surprise and to make untrue any second-hand definition of oneself; it is always unethical to treat a person as the mere predictable product of so many forces acting upon him or her. Humanness is “surprisingness.” By the same token, individual people cannot avoid their ethical responsibility for what they do at every moment, although they try to foist off individual responsibility onto circumstances, fate, an ideology they believe in, or a group they identify with. People create alibis, but “there is no alibi.” These ideas are paraphrases of key “Dostoevskian” tenets as Bakhtin sees them, and I think they are largely faithful to the spirit of his works.
Photo: Michael Goss