At 28, Fyodor Dostoevsky was about to die.
The nightmare started when the police burst into his apartment and dragged him away in the middle of the night, along with the rest of the Petrashevsky Circle. This was a group made up of artists and thinkers who discussed radical ideas together, such as equality and justice, and occasionally read books. Madmen, clearly. To be fair, the tsar, Nicholas I, had a right to be worried about revolution. The Decembrist Revolt of 1825 was still fresh in everyone’s mind, and it was obvious throughout the world that something was happening. In addition to earlier revolutions in America and France, revolutionary ideas were spreading like a virus around the world through art, literature, philosophy, science, and more. To the younger generation and Russians who suffered most under the current regime, it was exhilarating. For those like Nicholas I, whose power depended on the established order, it was terrifying.
So these revolutionaries, most barely in their 20s, were hauled off to the Peter and Paul Fortress, a prison that contained some of Russia’s most vicious criminals. After months of isolation broken up by the occasional interrogation, Dostoevsky and the rest were condemned to death by firing squad.
They were marched into the cold. A priest allowed each man to kiss a cross. Then shrouds were draped over their heads, which did nothing to drown out the soul-crushing sound of soldiers raising their rifles as their commander cried out ONE!…TWO!…
WAIT! someone cried. The tsar had changed his mind — the prisoners would be spared!
Dostoevsky and the rest had been victims of a hilarious prank Nicholas I sometimes played on prisoners, staging mock-executions before sending them off to Siberia. When the condemned men heard they had been “saved” by their benevolent tsar, some immediately lost their minds. But not Dostoevsky. He held on and endured two brutal years in a Siberian prison, before enduring another two brutal years in the army. His life wasn’t exactly easy after that. But in large part because of all that suffering, he would grow into the author of such classics as Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and more.
Plenty of readers know about the later, mature Dostoevsky, but far fewer know about the young man he once was, the one who thought he was moments away from execution. His presence in front of a firing squad may come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Dostoevsky’s later writing, in which he was a ferocious opponent of the young generation’s revolutionary ideas, and an equally ferocious defender of the tsar’s authority and the Russian Orthodox Church. It’s no exaggeration to say that Dostoevsky felt the very soul of Russia was at stake. Ivan Turgenev, in his short novel Fathers and Sons, coined the word “nihilists” for these young radicals, who seemed hell bent on smashing the existing society and replacing it with one founded on values inimical to people like Dostoevsky. They were an existential threat to the nation and they are presented as such throughout all of Dostoevsky’s later works. Sometimes their ideas are the focus of his attacks, like in Notes from Underground, which is essentially a rebuttal to the socialist arguments made in What Is to Be Done? by Nikolai Chernyshevsky, (a book that, more than any other, inspired those who would later instigate the Russian Revolution). Other times, the youth of Russia are the explicit enemy. The plot of Demons was directly inspired by the murder of a Russian at the hands of a group not all that different from the Petrashevsky Circle. In fact, Dostoevsky later acknowledged in his Diary of a Writer that, as a young man, he himself might have been swayed to commit such a horrible act.
Clearly, the post-Siberia Dostoevsky was a different man than the one who faced down that firing squad, to put it mildly. So how do we understand this abrupt transformation? Perhaps the best way is by exploring Dostoevsky’s early major works — Poor Folk, The Double, and Netochka Nezvanova — which offer invaluable insights into just how Dostoevsky became Dostoevsky.
Poor Folk, Dostoevsky’s first novel, is in some ways the most atypical novel of his career. First, it is his only epistolary novel, composed of letters between a poor old man, Makar Devushkin, and Varvara Dobroselova, a poor young woman he helps support financially (to the extent that he can). They live humble lives, and struggle with daily life rather than colossal questions about existence or morality. Compared with a book like Crime and Punishment, Poor Folk feels small. The author’s focus is on meticulously outlining the dreary existence that those on the outskirts of society quietly endure every single day. When Varvara receives a flower Makar has bought her, she is overwhelmed with gratitude, and when a father is able to help pay for a birthday gift for his son, he is equally ecstatic. A flower and a birthday gift — these are important not as symbols but for what they are, tiny tokens of the love that make life bearable. Of course, there are tragedies, too. Friends and family are lost, and the devastation is all the more profound because Dostoevsky’s poor folk have so little to lose.
The persistent need for money is always on characters’ minds. Given the extraordinary sympathy Dostoevsky shows his characters and the sometimes subtle, sometimes not-so-subtle, criticism of society throughout, it’s easy to see why Vissarion Belinsky, the most important Russian critic at the time, deemed it the first “social novel.” It was emblematic of the kind of literature many involved in revolutionary circles thought was the way of the future — the novel as a cry for social justice, a working-class weapon.
Poor Folk is a fine novel, and Dostoevsky demonstrates the kind of negative capability, to use John Keats’s phrase, that would allow him to create characters like Raskolnikov and Ivan Karamazov, who are discussed by scholars to this day as if they were real people. But it’s absurd to think Poor Folk would have become the national sensation it did and launch the 23-year-old Dostoevsky to literary superstardom had it not been the right kind of book at the right time. Dostoevsky likely didn’t set out to upend the capitalist system with Poor Folk, but it certainly fit in well with a growing trend in literature that focused on the downtrodden and weak, along with the shameful indifference of a society that allowed such suffering to persist. Nikolai Gogol’s short story, “The Overcoat,” also caused a sensation in Russia (and is actually read and written about by Makar in Poor Folk). It also highlighted the indignities that the poor had to endure every day, but like many of Gogol’s stories, there is a supernatural element, in this case involving a ghost. Poor Folk has no such supernatural element. It is painfully, unflinchingly realistic. Consequently, Belinsky and others praised it and predicted nothing but great things for the newly-arrived genius.
You’re in your early 20s, your first book is a major national success, and the most influential literary critic in the country has literally declared you are a genius. How would you react?
Maybe you’d take the fame and flattery in stride and stay level-headed. But Dostoevsky didn’t, and by all accounts, he became an insufferable jerk. Worse, he was an incredibly sensitive insufferable jerk, unable to handle any criticism. And that was all he got after Poor Folk. Everything he wrote was one commercial disappointment after another. At first people like Belinsky thought it was a temporary slump, and Dostoevsky would bounce back with another great social novel. But Dostoevsky continued to experiment with different kinds of stories, none of which suited the political climate of Russia at the time or the taste of the very critics who had made Dostoevsky a star. In the eyes of most literary circles, Dostoevsky was just a one-hit wonder.
One of these “disappointments” was his second major work, The Double. From the very first page, it’s clear that this is not another Poor Folk. It feels like a different species of literature altogether. For one thing, whereas his first book focused on two characters and a community of other people in their lives, The Double is all about Goliadkin, a nobody who finds merely existing a difficult task. He is nervous, jumpy, paranoid, awkward, and incapable of a sane conversation. At multiple points, people interrupt his jumbled, meandering monologues to confess they have no idea what the hell he’s talking about. And this is before his exact double, also named Goliadkin, gets hired at his office. But the similarities are only skin-deep. This Goliadkin is a success in every way that the first Goliadkin is a miserable failure, and the new version gradually begins displacing the original from his own life. The story becomes increasingly bizarre until it ends the only way the life of someone like Goliadkin ever could — total insanity.
There are many things to admire about the hallucinatory world of this novella. The surreal nature of Goliadkin’s double anticipates the dialogue between Ivan Karamazov and the Devil in The Brothers Karamazov. Second, the inner monologue of Goliadkin shows Dostoevsky already toying with the idea of excessive-consciousness as sickness that will become a hallmark of his greatest novels. The plot is almost secondary to the maze-without-an-exit that is Goliadkin’s mind. And third, just writing this novella was brave. Dostoevsky could have stuck with what worked and cranked out another Poor Folk, but he chose to stretch himself beyond the social novel, to not write in the service of any ideology.
Belinsky and others didn’t see it this way, and the flops kept on coming right up to the point when Dostoevsky was arrested in the middle of the night. However, he was at work just then on his first full-length novel, which he believed would redeem his literary reputation. We’ll never know what the public’s reaction would have been to the full novel because it was never finished. Only the beginning chapters were completed and, by the time he got back to writing many years later, he had moved on to other projects.
However, fragment or not, the parts of Netochka Nezvanoza that do exist are worth our attention because, compared to Poor Folk and The Double, this is the closet the young Dostoevsky gets to becoming the Dostoevsky we all know today.
This story is also another outlier in terms of structure — while Poor Folk was an epistolary novel, Netochka Nezvanova was meant to be a kind of Dickensian story that would cover the life of its protagonist from childhood to adulthood. Think of it as David Copperfield, only with more mental breakdowns and sadomasochistic relationships.
Dostoevsky can’t help injecting the story with the kind of increasingly-acute psychological realism he does so well. This is perhaps nowhere more obvious than in the fact that, for nearly half of the existing text, Netochka, the little Dickensian soon-to-be orphan, is completely overshadowed by her explosive stepfather, Efimov. Efimov is a clear precursor to the Underground Man, whose life is a stark warning that we need to live our lives, not dream our way through them. Efimov’s dream is to be a great violinist, but alcoholism and his petty nature drive him to poverty, along with Netochka and her poor mother, who sadly fell for Efimov’s self-narrative that he was a genius destined for glory.
If Efimov’s story ended there, his degradation would just be a compelling portrait of a man’s gradual ruination. But this is Dostoevsky, so it’s only the beginning. Although Efimov knows on some level he will never be an internationally famous violinist, he clings to the idea that he is the best violinist in the world. It doesn’t matter if no one else knows it — he knows it, and that self-delusion becomes the foundation for his life. His whole psyche becomes nothing but a jumble of rationalizations he comes to define himself by. If he isn’t the world’s greatest violinist, he’s nothing. And when he hears a violinist who is undeniably greater than he ever was or could be, we see what happens when a man wakes up from a dream he’s been living for far, far too long.
There are other shades of the later, great Dostoevsky to be found in this unfinished novel, but Efimov alone testifies to his development as a writer whose understanding of the human condition would become infinitely richer than anything that could have been explored within the predetermined confines of a social novel.
Each of these works hints at the kind of writer Dostoevsky could have become. Had he followed Poor Folk with another social novel, stuck with the surrealism of The Double, or written more Dickensian bildungsromans like Netochka Nezvanova, we would be talking about a very different Dostoevsky today, if we talked about him at all. But instead he synthesized the best elements of all these works and enhanced them with the profound understanding of human nature he began to develop in Siberia.
Of course, it’s not necessary to read any of these early works to appreciate Dostoevsky, one of the few writers who can scream in print. But the arc of his literary life becomes all the more fascinating when we consider Dostoevsky’s early career, when he was still figuring out what to scream about, and had his hardest days, and greatest works, still ahead of him.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
In 2009, when I was a graduate student in Istanbul, I worked full-time in a newspaper, editing the paper’s books supplement. I was a busy man with lots of editorial assignments on my plate. I had little time to concentrate on my doctoral dissertation — a study of Hegel’s influence on late-Victorian authors. Instead of writing in academic Hegelese, I spent my days behind my office desk where I commissioned, edited, fact-checked, and proofread. A week after my 28th birthday in March, while hard at work on the first draft of a book review, I received a call from the university’s student affairs department. The voice on the other end of the line said there had been a “strange problem” with my academic credits some months ago. The mistake had led to the termination of my enrollment: from this moment onwards I would be subject to the draft.
“Ah, Mr Genç, I am so sorry for you,” the student affairs woman said with a genuine feeling in her voice, “but there is nothing I can do.”
There was nothing she could do. In less than two weeks I would be running on the hills of some distant Anatolian town with a military rifle in my hand.
The news was difficult to digest. So difficult, in fact, that when I heard the dial tone I decided to put away the unfinished review and drink a glass of whisky instead.
Come April 10, I had cleared my desk at the office and arrived at an Anatolian city where my six-month-long national service in a gendarme squadron officially began. I was immediately nicknamed “journo” by the commanders. After the initial month of training came to an end my fellow gendarmes were assigned to various positions related to their education. I, the academic-cum-journalist, meanwhile, was given the most intellectual post the commanders could think of.
“I have just made you the squadron’s librarian,” said our lieutenant, a muscular man whose every word was law and from whose super cool sunshades I could see the reflection of my face.
“Here are the keys to the library. Take them! From now on it will be under your responsibility. Clean the place every day! Don’t give books to everyone! Give them only to soldiers you trust! Now get lost!”
I did get lost. And when I hid myself in that room, which was hardly bigger than 100 square feet, I found myself surrounded by a series of dusty books. Although the books were old and deep in hibernation, the people who came to read them were very much alive. So in my small library in a distant Anatolian town I learned an awful lot about what young Turkish men enjoyed reading under the gun. I watched them as they read for relief. I watched them as they read for pleasure. I watched them as they read for keeping sane.
It was during the first days of my librarian career that I found copies of Harlequin books in the drawer of my little metal desk. The previous librarian, who was less than a week away from being discharged, informed me that the dogeared pages of those romantic books would always be hotly sought after by soldiers.
“Be mindful of those Harlequins,” he briefed me. “Never let soldiers bring them to their barracks. Or it will be YOU who gets into trouble.”
I was asked to recommend books so many times that I ended up feeling like Jorge of Burgos, a post-modern recreation of Borges in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. The blind librarian wants to decide what his fellow monks read in their spare time, taking drastic measures to impose his scholastic beliefs. Whenever I heard others asking me what they should read, I came up with a recommendation that I expected they might follow, and tried to be less insistent than Burgos.
But my small library was something more than a miniature version of Amazon’s recommendations sidebar. Gradually it became a place where soldiers socialized. Young commanders visited me and talked at length about their dreams, which they then asked (or ordered) me to interpret.
There was much talk about books and films. Politics, too, was discussed: “When I retire come visit me in Ankara and I will give you an interview about my political beliefs,” said one commander. I will need to wait for almost two decades for that but still I am curious about what he has to say. Others had more personal stories to tell, and they told them instantly: a book was always a great beginning point, an unmistakable icebreaker.
As I tried to come up with intelligent-sounding solutions to the problems of the Turkish military, I began to feel like Lucy van Pelt in Peanuts — of course there was no way to charge each commander five cents for my services but if I did I would surely be a rich man now.
So what did they read apart from the Harlequin books? To my surprise it was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s oeuvre that was most popular. I heard from more than one private that the military life resembled the life described in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a book in high demand among the bored and the depressed. Then I discovered two shelves of 19th-century Russian classics; from that point onwards whenever a soldier asked for a trashy novel I handed him one of those tomes. I even attempted to describe the classics’ qualities, in one memorable occasion pontificating about the eternal question of Russian literature, “Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky?” (Tolstoy writes better, but Dostoyevsky’s world is more similar to ours, I said.)
How did all those Russian classics end up there? The answer had more to do with politics than with refined literary taste. Turkey had decades-long ties with NATO; the country had been seen as a frontier of the free world and was an outpost of the struggle against communism during the Cold War. Therefore Turkish military officials had long been well-versed in Russian culture. For the last few decades, the best translations of works by Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov were delivered by high-ranking soldiers.
Meanwhile, the rest of the books in the library (all those dusty sermons, military handbooks, and well-bound editions of Turkish state literature) went unread.
Nowadays whenever I visit one of the new fancy libraries in Istanbul, I think of that distant room in Anatolia. I think of my readers, those loyal visitors of the library, who found happiness in the solitude provided by the pages of a book. Even under the gun, they could find reflections of their lives and dreams among words on paper — a discovery that made me an even firmer believer in the strange and limitless charm of books.
Image Courtesy of the Author.
Like many recovering English majors before me, I have a longstanding infatuation with heavy Russian novels. So on one level, a new edition of Dead Souls seems like a no-brainer: an excuse to return to a story that has endured for nearly two centuries.
Nikolai Gogol’s masterpiece centers on a con man named Chichikov who is literally buying dead souls — or more accurately, serfs who have died but are still counted on official tax rolls. His journey sweeps through a swath of 19th-century Russian life, as he glides from landowner to landowner, trying to charm and flatter them in an effort to buy as many deceased serfs as possible. The book is smart and funny; it deftly unpacks the social structure of 19th-century Russian life. It says something profound about the dehumanizing effects of buying and selling everything. And it’s the first of the great Russian novels — predating War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, and all the rest of those weighty tomes that pretentious undergraduates lug around to coffee houses. And that gives it mystique.
But as I sat down to read Donald Rayfield’s new translation of the book, I felt a sensation I didn’t expect — guilt. I got to thinking about my reading over the past few months, as I’ve hopped from The Radetzky March to Jude the Obscure to Demons to Chekhov’s plays. All of them brilliant, and all of them properly vetted by the relevant authorities. And I realized I don’t want to get in the habit of “checklist reading” — paging through an old book for no other reason than to say I’ve read it. Ultimately, we live in a consumer society, and it is really easy to let the habits of consumption, the habits of a collector, seep into everything. Even our reading choices.
As Dwight Macdonald pointed out decades ago in his (now ironically canonical) essay “Masscult and Midcult,” “The chief negative aspect is that so far our Renaissance, unlike the original one, has been passive, a matter of consuming rather than creating, a catching up on our reading on a continental scale… We have, in short, become skilled at consuming High Culture when it has been stamped by the proper authorities.” And that’s why I can’t manage to love the classics without reservation. I am afraid that it is far too easy to read them passively — to get so caught up in their mystique that the words don’t matter. And I fear it would be very easy to get stuck in the books of the past, and miss out on newer ones that might relate more directly to the world as I experience the rest of the day.
For example, David Shields’s Reality Hunger, while nowhere near as brilliant as Dead Souls, made a profound impact on how I think about contemporary media. Shields’s book-length essay, which came out about two years ago, is downright dismissive of the traditional novel, announcing, “To write only according to the rules laid down by masterpieces signifies that one is not a master but a pupil.” But, more importantly, it backs up its iconoclasm with a fragmentary style that genuinely captures something about the way people read today. A literary collage that collects fragments (mostly) taken from preexisting works by other writers and then weaves them into a single “manifesto,” it is a genuinely unique work, one that captures something very real about our — or at least my — current reading habits.
Engaging with Reality Hunger’s bits of text made me more attuned to the way much of my reading — on Twitter, or just surfing online — consists of gliding between small bursts of words. Instead of presenting a clean, straightforward argument, Shields makes his case for collage-style writing through accumulation. His fragments build and build, until the reader is able to piece together the argument is his or her own mind. I do the same thing online every day. I read tweets and status updates and blog posts one after another, and eventually, I piece them together in my head to form a coherent view of the world. Shields’s book finally made me aware of something I had done unconsciously for years. This is what literature is supposed to do — call our attention to the way society or technology or history has shaped us.
Reading matters because of its relationship to thinking. What I love most about books is the way they force the reader to get involved. Unlike other leisure activities, a reader needs to actually participate in the experience. You don’t just turn a book on and enjoy it — you need to actively engage with the material, not only sorting out the words, but imagining what they describe. The scenes, the characters, the voices: all of it needs to be created inside the reader’s mind. In that way, reading itself is an imaginative act.
I’ve always seen a minor parallel between a reader and a concert musician — a pianist for example — just in the sense that both are taking notations written by someone else and bringing them to life. In both cases, the work of art as it exists on paper is mediated by someone else. A reader may follow the cues of the author, she may give every word her full attention, her emotions may stir in exactly the way they were intended to — but the images and voice she creates in her mind are hers. But they are not only hers — they are a collaboration between her and the writer. Alone among the arts, reading/writing involves mingling the thoughts of the artist and the audience. In a way, reading is itself a performance.
When a critic like B.R. Myers sniffs at contemporary writing by declaring, “Every new book we read in our brief and busy lives means that a classic is left unread,” I immediately worry that an entire reading life spent rehashing books approved by the proper authorities risks turning a reader (like me) into a perpetual student, someone who treats literature as a way to check off titles on an imaginary syllabus. Someone passive. I worry those images in my head will be subsumed by what I think they’re supposed to be; what a well-known Gogol critic like Vladimir Nabokov thinks they should look like. I worry Dead Souls belongs to so many people, it might never belong to me the way a book really need to. I worry my performance as a reader will borrow to heavy on the performances of others.
And yet I want Gogol’s novel in my head. It remains a profoundly inventive book, with a narrator who comments on the story as it goes along, even to the point of upbraiding the audience:
I apologize. It would seem that a phrase picked up on the streets has slipped from our hero’s lips. What can one do? That’s the situation a writer in Russia finds himself in. Though, if a street word finds its way into a book, it’s not the writer’s fault, it’s the readers’, above all readers in high society: they’re the last people you will hear a decent Russian word from…
Harold Bloom has used the term “canonical strangeness,” and it is precisely an inherent weirdness that makes Dead Souls so hard to give up. Think of a symphony, where a certain movement may repeat in a slightly different key — the subtle repetitions built into Gogol’s text help build the absurdity, the humor, and the emotional force of his tale. It isn’t very realistic — life is not so well constructed — but that’s okay. It gives us an opportunity — if only an opportunity — to stand outside our regular way of looking at the world, and perhaps notice something we have been taking for granted.
The strangeness of Dead Souls, its alien subject matter and its realistic-but-not-lifelike narrative structure actually aid a reader’s performance precisely because, when taken on their own terms, they draw attention away from the process of reading the book. They demand so much energy to really follow, to navigate on their own terms, that the reader’s performance becomes, if not unconscious, at least less self-conscious. As soon as I realized that, my guilt about spending so much time immersed in old books began to melt away.
The way to avoid passive reading is to pay attention to what is on the page and engage it as best you can. This matters because reading offers us something quite rare — a quiet, solitary activity that allows us to clear a little space in our minds. This feels especially true in the context of my own daily habits, which involve spending an extraordinary amount of time online, a decidedly noisy, un-solitary environment that encourages the reader to respond — through retweeting, commenting, or “liking” — as opposed to reflecting.
Reality Hunger sticks with me because it made me more sensitive to the noisy media landscape I inhabit almost continuously. The book forced me to read actively by calling attention to just how I was looking at text. Its fragments made the fragments in my head all too obvious. Dead Souls does the opposite. It is quiet and strange and in some respects inaccessible; it uses a plot that doesn’t dwell too much on the rambling pointlessness of daily life; it is set in a past I don’t understand as much as I pretend to. It is the opposite of the tailored, easy-to-digest world of social media. With the right attitude, the right approach, its contrast with today’s fragmentary reading environment can be every bit as valuable as Shields’s effort to engage it.
The key is to take both together — to avoid getting trapped only reading classics, like Macdonald’s “catch-up” reader, or only reading fragments or bits of text online. The point is not to set up a dichotomy between old and new — and certainly not between “good” and “bad” approaches to writing or reading. What both Shields, with his contempt for traditional narratives, and Myers, in his contempt for everything else, both miss is that each kind of text — those grounded in the technology of the present and those insulated from it — is equally valuable, because it offers the reader a chance to perform (to think) in very different ways. Both matter because a good performer — good reader — is one with a lot of range, and the only way to develop that range is to perform as many different kinds of stories as possible.
In conversation, I’m fond of telling people that the difference between a work of art and a mere product is that art ultimately aspires to contemplation, while a product aspires only to consumption. I suppose my anxiety about turning the classics into a checklist stems from my realization that “art” exists only through collaboration between the artist/creator/writer and an audience; that it’s not the work that should aspire to contemplation, but myself. And that, as a reader, that means I need to be willing to work hard. To approach the performance of reading with every bit as much seriousness and effort as I expect the writer to approach the performance of writing. Art can’t exist without an audience to take it seriously.
The wonder of a book like Dead Souls comes from its silence, the way it offers us a calm place to think. But that place is only as valuable as the reader makes it. A calm place to think is only worthwhile if the reader seizes the opportunity to do some thinking. Perhaps it’s not really guilt I fell about the classics but trepidation — because at the end of the day the classics need to earned. So now, it’s up to me to put in the effort to earn them.
This past winter I wrote a pair of essays about The Brothers Karamazov that included the admission that I preferred “Tolstoy’s ability to see the angles of everyday life to Dostoevsky’s taste for the manic edges of experience.” That line elicited more of a reaction from readers than anything else I wrote, which prompted me to dive deeper into the question: Just which of these two titans of Russian literature is considered the greater novelist?
As it turned out, I was not the first to consider the provocation. The literary critic George Steiner has provided the most authoritative resolution to the problem with his book Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, which positions Tolstoy as “the foremost heir to the tradition of the epic” and Dostoevsky as “one of the major dramatic tempers after Shakespeare.” Isaiah Berlin considered the seemingly opposing qualities of the two authors in his enduring essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” Nabokov argued in Lectures on Russian Literature that it was Tolstoy in a landslide, while America’s First Ladies have tended to give the nod to Dostoevsky: both Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush cite The Brothers Karamazov as their favorite novel.
Still, I wasn’t satisfied with the answers I found online so I decided to get a second opinion — or rather, eight more opinions. I reached out to the foremost scholars of Russian literature as well as avid lay readers I know and asked if they’d be willing to contribute 500 words weighing the respective merits of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Almost everyone said yes, though a few echoed the sentiments of a distinguished emeritus professor who replied to me from a beach in Mexico, writing, “There really is no competition on Parnassus. From my point of view at least, they are both great writers and now live in a realm beyond competition.” And of course that’s true — just as it’s true that it is fun (and often illuminating) to debate Williams vs. DiMaggio and Bird vs. Magic even though at the end of the day we acknowledge that they’re all irreducibly great.
So with that, enjoy eight very knowledgeable, passionate takes on two of the great storytellers of all time. And when you’re done reading, please go ahead and share your own views in the comments section.
Carol Apollonio, Professor of the Practice of Russian, Duke University
The question shot straight into my brain and disabled the parietal cortex. There was a sizzle and a puff of smoke, and the smell of sulfur filled the air. I groped in the dark for a 50-kopeck piece and tossed it upwards. It clinked hollowly on the linoleum. The flickering light of the candle from above illuminated the tiny but unmistakable image of the double-headed eagle. Heads up: Dostoevsky, then.
His protagonist is the head: bait for smart people. The intellect sends forth an unending flow of words. YES! You’ve thought this exact same thing so many times! How can there be justice on earth if it comes at the cost of a child’s tear? How can God be all good and all powerful, yet allow suffering in the world? If God exists, then how can he allow ME to walk the earth, sick, sniveling, spiteful creature that I am, scrawny spawn of the most abstract and premeditated city on the earth? If God does not exist, though, how can I be a captain? Should I return my ticket? Read on! They give us the bread that we ourselves have made, and we accept it back from them in exchange for our freedom: cheap sorcery in place of miracle. I love mankind, but how can you expect me to love the stinking, jabbering drunk across the table, the loser who sold his own daughter into prostitution so he could sit here and drink? Prove that you exist, then! Move this mountain, and I will believe!
His protagonist is the head, but his hero is the heart. Logic and words will get you nowhere: the more talk, the less truth. Twice two is four, but twice two is five is a charming little thing too. A hug, now, a kiss, a fall to the earth, a leg over the iron railing of a cold St. Petersburg bridge, a pouring forth of tears, a pouring forth of blood, a turning pale, a fainting dead away, an issuing forth of the spirit of decay, a slamming of your own finger in the door, the plaintive sounds of a pipe-organ on the street, ragged orphans begging, the dying gasps of the overworked, bludgeoned horse, the barely detectable breathing of the doomed old woman on the other side of the closed door — you, YOU are the murderer — the clink of coins in the cup, the dizzying whirl of the roulette wheel, brain fever, a silhouette in the doorway, the noble young lady bowing down to the earth before you, YOU, you lustful worm! Shrieks, a rope, a gun, a slap on the cheek, and suddenly…
Suddenly an image appears in the darkness: a thin, timid girl in a green shawl, her face pale and drawn from illness. She smiles joyfully and stretches out her hand to me. I must go, for if I do not, I will keep on talking and will never stop….
Ellen Chances, Professor of Russian Literature, Princeton University
The question, in my mind, is meaningless. One of the worrisome tendencies of contemporary society is its impulse to rank. Who is better? Who is Number One? The question should not be, “Who is the greater novelist?,” but rather, “What do I learn from reading the books of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, or of anyone else?
Why does everything have to be a race? Why does everything have to be competitive? This implies that there is a winner and a loser. Why does the reading of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky or of anyone else have to be part of a “success” or “failure” story? Framing the question, “Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: Who’s the better novelist?,” in this way does a disservice, it seems to me, to the act of contemplating the meaning of these writers’ books.
Asking the question is equivalent to asking, “Which is the greater food, milk or orange juice? Which is the greater food, blueberries or strawberries? Which is better, the sky or the grass, night or day?”
To me, both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy are equally great writers. Each focused on some of the important “big questions” of life. Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, in The Brothers Karamazov, asked how a just God could have created a world that includes the suffering of innocent children. Tolstoy, through his character, Levin, in Anna Karenina, asked what the meaning of life is. Both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy asserted that the essence of life cannot be found by relying on the intellect alone. Both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy understood that being true to the authentic rhythms of life means respecting the non-linear nature of life.
Each of the two offers profound insights about psychology. Tolstoy emphasizes the ways in which people relate to one another in a societal context. Dostoevsky digs deeply into the individual human psyche. Tolstoy paints a world in which extreme things happen to ordinary people. Dostoevsky shows us the extremes of which people are capable. Each of the two writers describes crises in faith. Each describes the journey to a life of spiritual values.
Both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy write in a way that conveys the energy of life. That energy comes about, in Dostoevsky, through the clash of ideas, through the tension he creates through suspense and the use of words like “suddenly.” Ivan Karamazov says that he loves life more than the meaning of life. Tolstoy shows a love of life of this world – the smell of the earth, the beauty of a flower. He speaks about living a life of authenticity.
Both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy make me think about what is important in life. Both urge the reader to appreciate those things that money or competition cannot bestow – love, and life itself…
…So who is the greater writer, Dostoevsky or Tolstoy? Both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are great…And then there is Chekhov, and Pushkin, and Mandelstam and Akhmatova and Bitov… And that’s just the Russians…
Raquel Chanto, Graduate Student, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs
It is likely that these words express more about me than about Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. I have long ago given up on the idea of objective appraisal of literature: reading is a much more mediated process than we would like to admit. All sorts of ghosts crawl into the pages, a prehistory of tastes and experiences and prejudices and fears. So if I say Dostoevsky is a greater writer than Tolstoy, I only mean he has been greater to me.
My first encounter with Russian literature was as random as can be expected for a twelve-year-old girl growing up in suburban Costa Rica. Both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky emerged like potatoes out of a giant plastic bag containing several books of ranging worth. I was lucky enough to be, at the time, very young, very curious and seriously uninformed. Unlike most people, I read War and Peace without having the faintest idea of the book’s reputation. Crime and Punishment followed shortly after, with the same scandalous lack of veneration. I loved them both: Tolstoy, for the story he told, and Dostoevsky, for the thoughts he provoked.
Many years and many books later, the two authors continue to inhabit different places in my mind and in my memory. Tolstoy conjures up images of endless steppes and elegant Petersburg homes, where great and complex characters go about the business of living. His books are showcases of literary craftsmanship, epic tales told with impeccable skill. Dostoevsky’s work is less precise, more ambiguous. I experience his books as a ceaseless battle of demons that never rest — not even as you turn the page, as you end a chapter, as you finish the novel and read it again. A Dostoevsky novel sitting on a shelf is a bowl of anxiety and confusion, a bundle of frustrations marked by a desperate need for redemption. His protagonists are shown in extreme situations, where not only their personality but their very nature is put to the test.
What I find mesmerizing in Dostoevsky is not just the details of the story, the particular twists and turns of the lives of Rodion Raskolnikov or Dmitri Karamazov; it is the mere possibility of their existence. It is, in the end, the mind-bending notion that we could be just like them — that any of us, any ordinary, simple human being, carries around the highest plane and the lowest point of moral capabilities. Tolstoy’s characters tell me a lot about themselves. Dostoevsky’s characters tell me a lot about myself. If that is not writing of the ultimate importance, I do not know what is.
Reading Tolstoy transports me to another world; reading Dostoevsky makes me feel alive in this one. As I’m reading Tolstoy, I’m drawn into a dream of serfs and country estates, endless royal titles and army ranks. So many beautiful horses! A loyal dog! Women like Kitty and Anna Karenina! But then I put the book down and I find myself using a coat hanger to get the hair out of the shower drain, and it doesn’t feel like the Battle of Austerlitz. It feels like my life again.
On the other hand, many times someone will frustrate me at work, and I hear these words from The Brothers Karamazov thundering in my head:
‘Why is such a man alive!’ Dmitri Fyodorovich growled in a muffled voice, now nearly beside himself with fury, somehow raising his shoulders peculiarly so that he looked almost hunchbacked. ‘No, tell me, can he be allowed to go on dishonoring the earth with himself?’
I say this kind of shit to myself all the time. It’s part of the fun of being alive.
As I lead my every day life (so unlike ice-skating in Moscow or cutting grain on my estates), just imagining that I resemble beautiful Levin is to invite self-ridicule. I like him more than he would like me. I’m not nearly as nice, nor as sincere. I find that I can openly admire Prince Myshkin, however, because in The Brothers Karamazov, I’m right there doing it. I’m Dmitri or Ivan, holding Alyosha’s hand. The message of the brothers is that we are all each other; we share each other’s passions. We suffer identically. We demonstrate things differently. I can be innocent and guilty both.
That, to me, is life.
Borges, I believe, said there was something adolescent about a love of Dostoevsky – that maturity demanded other writers. All I know is, when I first read Crime and Punishment, that book represented a lot of work for me. I didn’t get it! What did I have to feel so guilty about, at eighteen? I hadn’t DONE anything. I was frantic with potential energy. I would have been better off with War and Peace – because I had the temperament of Prince Andrei, ready to go to war. I was angry with myself and frustrated, but I had no major regrets. I certainly could never have understood Ivan Fyodorovich’s madness. I had just spent a summer drifting with a beautiful 17 year-old girl on Harrison Lake; if you’d asked me why Prince Myshkin pursued the troubled Nastassya or allowed the beautiful Aglaya to get away, I would have had no idea.
In adolescence, I was loyal with my friends, but also so fiercely uncompromising that I would never have endured a friend like Myshkin’s Rogozhin. That kind of bond would only come later for me, when I understood what it was like to tie myself to someone for life- when I understood what mutual forgiveness was. When I was in my early twenties, one of my friends drunkenly stabbed another. It wasn’t serious. One of my best friends asked me not to see a girl he’d broken up with. Instead, I married her. Later on, I lost her. I chased her in the snow, like Dmitri. I understand Dostoevsky now. What adolescent understands these things?
In any case, I realize that the “competition” between Dostoevsky and Tolstoy is just an exercise in love. No one really has to choose one or the other. I simply prefer Dostoevsky. For my last argument, I will simply cite an expert far older and wiser than me:
Just recently I was feeling unwell and read House of the Dead. I had forgotten a good bit, read it over again, and I do not know a better book in all our new literature, including Pushkin. It’s not the tone but the wonderful point of view – genuine, natural, and Christian. A splendid, instructive book. I enjoyed myself the whole day as I have not done for a long time. If you see Dostoevsky, tell him that I love him.
All mediocre novelists are alike; every great novelist is great in his own way. Which is why the choice between nineteenth-century Russia’s two supreme prose writers ultimately boils down to the question of which kind of greatness resonates with a particular reader. My own sympathies are with Tolstoy, and even my criteria for judging a work of fiction, I admit, are relentlessly Tolstoyan.
“The goal of the artist,” Tolstoy wrote, “is not to solve a question irrefutably, but to force people to love life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations.” By this standard Tolstoy’s novels succeed where Dostoevsky’s fall short.
True, Dostoevsky saw and felt modern experience in all of its isolating, tragic depth. He showed the obsessive power of ideas and the psychological crises, cracks, and explosions of the soul that have become familiar in our modern world. What he doesn’t do, however, is make you love life in all its manifestations. In fact, when he tries to do so, he reveals his deficiencies.
At the end of Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov flings himself at the feet of Sonya, who has followed him to Siberia where he is serving his sentence for double homicide. Sonya jumps up, looks at him and trembles. “Infinite happiness lit up in her eyes; she understood, and for her there was no longer any doubt that he loved her, loved her infinitely, and that at last the moment had come…” If this smacks of modern soap opera or those maudlin French novels Dostoevsky was raised on, that’s because it is melodrama. Sonya’s “infinite love” is an ideal, “the moment” that has supposedly come, an abstraction.
What modern readers need, Tolstoy believed, is not more lurching after “infinite happiness” or “the Great Idea,” as Stepan Trofimovich, near the end of The Demons, claims to have discovered, but the ability to embrace an imperfect reality. The author of Anna Karenina teaches us how to seek meaning not through grandiose romantic strivings, like Anna and Vronsky, but within the limits of imperfect social and family structures, like Kitty and Levin.
Tolstoy’s novels depict the norms and continuities of human behavior by means of grand narratives that expand slowly over time and against the backdrop of vast natural tableaus. “As is usually the case” and “such as often occurs” are phrases you encounter frequently in Tolstoy. Dostoevsky’s world, by contrast, is one in which you can come home one evening and “suddenly” find an axe buried in your skull. Life is always on the verge of imploding on itself. Tragedy is just around the corner, or in your living room.
Tolstoy’s living room is a place where people, well, live. It’s where dark-eyed, voluble twelve-year old Natasha Rostova comes running with doll in hand, or where, a decade later, she enjoys with Pierre one of those endearingly mundane conversations between wife and husband about nothing and everything.
“I am a realist in a higher sense,” Dostoevsky rightfully claimed. But Tolstoy was a realist in the total sense. “The hero of my tale… is Truth,” he wrote. And that truth is one every generation recognizes as its own, not just those in a state of social crisis or existential despair. If Dostoevsky urges us to reach for the heavens, then Tolstoy teaches us by artistic example how we may touch the transcendent here and now in our messy, fleeting world.
Gary Saul Morson, Frances Hooper Professor of the Arts and Humanities, Northwestern University
A Soviet anecdote has it that Stalin once asked the Central Committee: which deviation is worse, the right or the left? Some fearfully ventured “the left,” others hesitantly offered, “the right.” The Great Helmsman then gave the right answer: “Both are worse.” I answer the question, “Who is the greater novelist, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?”: Both are better.
Dostoevsky spoke to the twentieth century. He was unique in foreseeing that it would not be an era of sweetness and light, but the bloodiest on record. With uncanny accuracy, The Demons predicted, in detail, what totalitarianism would be.
Bakhtin understood the core principle of Dostoevsky’s ethics: a person is never just the product of external forces. Neither heredity nor environment, singly or together, fully accounts for a human being. Each person retains a “surplus,” which constitutes the self’s essential element. True, some people, and all social sciences aspiring to resemble physics, deny the surplus. But they apply their theories only to others. No matter what he professes, nobody experiences himself as a mere play of external forces. Everyone feels regret or guilt, and there is no escaping the agony of choice. We behave as if we believed that each moment allows for more than one possible outcome and that our freedom that makes us in principle unpredictable. Without that unpredictability we would lack humanness. We would be zombies, and no one has ethical responsibility to zombies. Hence ethics demands: always treat another person as capable of surprise, as someone who cannot be explained entirely at second hand.
Dostoevsky despised both capitalism and socialism because each treats people as the mere product of economic (or other) laws. If socialism is worse, it is because it also presumes that experts know how to organize life for the best and socialism not only denies but actively removes choice for a supposedly higher good. At best, this view leads to the Grand Inquisitor, at worst to the nightmarish plans of Pyotr Stepanovich.
Tolstoy speaks more to the 21st century. His novels’ key concept was contingency. At every moment, however small and ordinary, something happens that cannot entirely be accounted for by previous moments. Like Dostoevsky, Tolstoy also denied the possibility of a social science, which must always wind up resembling the “science of warfare” preached by the generals in War and Peace. Like macroeconomists today, these “scientists” are immune to counter-evidence. To use Tolstoy’s word, social science is mere “superstition.”
If social scientists understood people as well as Tolstoy, they would have been able to depict a human being as believable as Tolstoy’s characters, but of course none has come close.
If we once acknowledge that we will never have a social science, then we will, like General Kutuzov, learn to make decisions differently. We intellectuals would be more cautious, more modest, and ready to correct our errors by constant tinkering.
If we have left the age of ideologies behind, we may need Dostoevsky’s warnings less than Tolstoy’s wisdom.
Donna Tussing Orwin, Professor of Russian and Chair, Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Toronto, and author of Consequences of Consciousness: Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy
I inclined first to Tolstoy. His combination of moral sensibility and love of life appealed to me, and I didn’t like Dostoevsky’s over-the-top world of the self in crisis. The two authors have much in common, and yet diverge in ways that make comparison irresistible.
Both associate the self with moral agency; for both therefore, the individual is the ultimate source of good and evil. For both, goodness, which consists in overcoming selfishness, is natural but weak. For both feelings trump reason in the soul, though Tolstoy is closer to the Greeks and the Enlightenment in his association of virtue with reason. For Dostoevsky, reason is always tainted by egotism, and therefore he relies on love to spur moral impulses. Dostoevsky concentrates more on evil; for this reason his writings anticipate the horrors of the twentieth and the nascent twenty-first centuries. Tolstoy depicts crimes, such as the lynching of Vereshchagin (War and Peace) or uxoricide in Kreutzer Sonata, but not the pure malice embodied in such Dostoevskian characters as Stavrogin (Demons) or Smerdyakov (Brothers Karamazov). Tolstoy’s most evil characters, like Dolokhov in War and Peace, seem to invade his texts from another (Dostoevskian?) world. Dostoevsky also portrays pure goodness. Prince Lev Nikolaevich Myshkin (The Idiot), even though he is named after Tolstoy, is more virtuous than any Tolstoyan character could be, and so is Alyosha Karamazov. Both authors are wicked satirists. Tolstoy’s rationalizing solutions to social ills can seem naive, while Dostoevsky’s high-minded ones seem sentimental.
Tolstoy’s fiction encompasses a broader range of experience than Dostoevsky’s. No one has described childhood, family life, farming, hunting, and war any better. This reflects his affinity for the physical and the body. Not coincidentally, Tolstoy is also celebrated for his portraits of nature and animals. Dostoevsky usually associates the physical with the base. (Compare fleshy old Fyodor Karamazov with his ethereal son Alyosha.) In his writings illness often brings insight, while Tolstoy mostly (though not always) prefers healthy states to unhealthy ones.
Dostoevsky’s fiction aims at the revelation of character to the fullest extent possible. He believes that each individual is unique, however, and therefore ultimately inaccessible to others. His protagonists vacillate between good and evil; this makes the future of any one of them, even the most virtuous, unpredictable. Tolstoy’s characters are complex but not unique. The variety among them (greater than in Dostoevsky) is a result of a practically but not theoretically infinite number of combinations among all the possibilities inherent in human nature, and the interaction of these with the outside world. Tolstoy depicts the intersection of chance, historical forces, and character. In his view, the more disengaged we are from outside circumstances, the freer we are. Tolstoy gravitated in old age toward Christian anarchy, while Dostoevsky in his last novel (Brothers Karamazov) seems to advocate for a Christian theocracy headed by someone like Zosima.
I still prefer Tolstoy’s earthiness and expansiveness to Dostoevsky’s brilliant, edgy anatomy of the psyche, but I can’t imagine life without them both.
I have the usual reasons for thinking of Tolstoy as the “better” — really, as the best — novelist. There’s the incredible variety of scenes and subjects he explores; there’s his precise, uncluttered style; there’s his epic tone, with its special combination of detachment and humanity. And I’m always overpowered by the way his novels describe everyone from the inside, even the dogs and horses. I have the same reaction to Tolstoy’s writing as his sister-in-law, Tanya Bers, who was the model for Natasha in War and Peace: “I can see how you are able to describe landowners, fathers, generals, soldiers,” she told him, “but how can you insinuate yourself into the heart of a girl in love, how can you describe the sensation of a mother — for the life of me I cannot understand.” I think Tolstoy is better at “insinuating himself” than any other novelist.
It’s Tolstoy’s scenes, though, which impress me most. Tolstoy, I’m convinced, is the single greatest writer of scenes in literature. Dostoevsky is often given credit for being more “dramatic” (George Steiner, in Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?, calls Dostoevsky “one of the major dramatic tempers after Shakespeare”). But Tolstoy’s novels are unique in the way they’re constructed entirely out of short, perfect, easy-to-read scenes, and in the way those scenes build on one another until they address the most complex issues in a nonchalant, natural way.
Take the run of scenes around Kitty and Vronsky’s ball in Anna Karenina. In the first scene, Kitty and Anna are sitting on a sofa. Kitty invites Anna to the ball, and suggests that she wear a lilac-colored dress. Then a gaggle of children run to Anna, Anna takes them in her arms, and the scene ends. Reading the scene, we understand that that’s how Kitty sees Anna: as a mysterious, beautiful, poetic young mother. Then, two scenes later, Kitty arrives at the ball, wearing a peach-colored dress, and sees Anna — in black velvet. That’s the scene when Anna steals Vronsky from Kitty. Right there, in the juxtaposition of those two scenes, which are only two or three pages apart, you have the difference between childhood and adulthood, and between sexual innocence and experience. No other novelist can show you so much, so quickly.
It’s not just that his short scenes move quickly, though; it’s that they let Tolstoy focus on very ordinary things, like the color of a dress. One of the best scenes at the end of Anna Karenina is organized around a thunderstorm; in War and Peace, he does two scenes around an oak tree, bare and then in bloom. In each scene, the details feel unremarkable — but, over many scenes, they assemble themselves into a structure that’s more than the sum of its parts. Tolstoy called that structure a “network.” Dostoevsky built up networks, too, of course, and in some ways they’re more powerful. But I prefer Tolstoy’s ordinary materials to Dostoevsky’s extraordinary ones, because they can teach you to uncover the “scenes” and “networks” in your own life.
Why did J.M. Coetzee write The Master of Petersburg?
I mean this as an existential question; the purpose of the novel itself is unusually explicit: not content to be merely “Dostoevskian” in tone, Coetzee’s protagonist actually is Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the story is a fictional account of events in Dostoevsky’s life prior to, and leading to, his writing of the novel Demons. In that way, Master of Petersburg is a sort of reverse mathematical problem. Given a set of factors, it is a matter of simple calculation to derive their product. But what if you start with the product – can you work backwards to discover the original sum from which that product was derived? The possibilities, particular with a large, complex figure, would be infinite. Here, the novel Demons is the product, the effect, the outcome. And from the known answer, Coetzee imagines the unknown questions.
Set in Russia in 1869, Master of Petersburg follows “Dostoevsky’s” grief-stricken return to St. Petersburg after news of the death of his stepson, Pavel, for whom he felt a profound though inscrutable love. While living in Pavel’s old room, he develops a sexual relationship with Pavel’s old landlady, the widow Anna Sergeyevna, along with a fascination with her adolescent daughter, Matryosha. As he becomes increasingly enmeshed in the enigma of his stepson’s death, he discovers Pavel was a member of the nihilist Sergei Nechayev’s revolutionary gang. Nechayev, who is living in hiding, has all the while been scheming to trap Dostoyevsky so to exploit his fame as an author by forcing him to write a pamphlet endorsing the Nechayevite philosophy. Out of these ultimately ambiguous social and political interactions, Dostoevsky begins writing a new novel, ostensibly Demons, in the last chapter of the book.
This plot lies at the murky intersection between fact and two fictions, Coetzeean fiction and Dostoevskian fiction (i.e., Demons). Several elements are based in fact: Dostoevsky did have a stepson named Pavel, who was likewise something of an enigma, although he survived his stepfather. Sergei Nechayev was a real Russian nihilist and revolutionary, and his association with the 1869 murder of a fellow student, Ivanov, partly inspired Dostoevsky to write Demons, where he portrays such idealists of his time as demonic. But the story also draws from the plot of Demons itself, most heavily from “At Tikhon’s,” a chapter originally suppressed by Dostoevsky’s editors, in which the character Stavrogin confesses to having once seduced his landlord’s 12-year old daughter, Matryosha, and driven her to suicide. And finally, to this heady mix Coetzee adds some fiction of his own.
You have to give Coetzee credit for this undertaking, this deconstruction of both the power and process of writing. As a prominent South African writer, no doubt Coetzee was keen to examine the political power of the authorial voice, through Nechayev’s belief in the import of having a famous writer pen the words of a revolutionary pamphlet – and the extreme measures he would take to bring about such a coup. Equally contemplated is the personal power of writing, as it is a means for “Dostoevsky” to access his son, to “give up his soul” so as to “meet him in death.”
But when it comes to the process of writing, you can’t escape the fact that this is not Dostoevsky writing about Dostoevsky writing. It is Coetzee writing about “Dostoevsky” writing. Given this structure, it’s Coetzee’s own role in solving the reverse mathematical problem that compels above all. Why did he choose what he did, from fact, from Dostoevskian fiction, and from Coetzeean fiction? Moreover, Demons is not a novel in a vacuum: many of Dostoevsky’s real-life inspirations are documented, yet Coetzee replaces several of these with fictional inspirations of his own design. Is Master of Petersburg then an account of a fictional writing process? Or is Coetzee laying his own writing process bare?
It’s nearly impossible not to be sidetracked by these thought experiments while reading Master of Petersburg. The fact that much of the (Dostoevskian) fictional parts of the plot are dedicated to Demon’s excised chapter involving the young girl’s molestation is particularly distracting. Coetzee is not alone in holding Stavrogin’s confession as integral to Demons: while some think that Dostoevsky himself was dissatisfied with the confession, others view the forced excision of what was an indispensable chapter as rendering the novel morally asymmetrical. But the extent to which “At Tikhon’s” aligns Demons is not my issue; rather, it is “Dostoevsky’s” largely unexplained tendency to continually attach a sexual subtext to the young girl Matryosha’s interactions, whether with Nechayev, with a sort of version of Pavel that he imagines in the future, or even with himself.
[Dostoyevsky] has no difficulty in imagining this child in her ecstasy… This is as far as the violation goes: the girl in the crook of his arm, the five fingers of his hand, white and dumb, gripping her shoulder. But she might as well be sprawled out naked…
It’s eventually jarring how Coetzee deliberately (and repeatedly) advocates that “Dostoevsky” would be prompted by his own perception of a young girl as above all a sexual object to conceive of the particular molestation scene described in Stavrogin’s confession. I’m not implying this rings false (though it’s somewhat overdone), just that it highlights the major weakness of Coetzee’s particular form of the reverse math problem as fiction: the reader is often far more preoccupied with why Coetzee made his choices than with the choices themselves.
This brings me back to my original, existential question: why did Coetzee write Master of Petersburg? It’s an inspired project, but by its own premise it is merely an experiment, a study, rather than a novel. Coetzee has been criticized for his metafiction before: his 1986 novel Foe, which weaves its plot around Robinson Crusoe, drew him criticism for being a disappointingly politically irrelevant work coming from one of South Africa’s most lauded writers. The New York Times concluded that “the novel – which remains somewhat solipsistically concerned with literature and its consequences – lacks the fierceness and moral resonance of [Waiting for the Barbarians] and [Life and Times of Michael K]…”
However, my criticism of Master of Petersburg is of the literary, not political, variety. Countless excellent novels have been inspired by existing works, but though Coetzee’s writing is stunning, the story, composed of curious but ultimately inconclusive events, never takes hold. It offers much by way of intellectual exercise, but on its own fails to satisfy. More autonomous novels similarly fashioned out of vague questions and ideas contain a central truth or truths that are not merely valuable, but in a sense new, and that have thus driven the author to sit down to write. Here, the underlying purpose, the answer, exists in another novel altogether. And as it turns out, Dostoevsky’s answer is more interesting than Coetzee’s questions.
I come to review Elif Batuman’s The Possessed via a compellingly circuitous route.
It is the divine right of interns to make mistakes, or so I keep trying to convince The Millions editor and my boss, the despotic C. Max Magee. Nonetheless, whenever I chance upon a fresh way to humiliate myself, two events occur in rapid succession: first, I wail “No one must know!” and second, I proceed in a frenzy to tell absolutely everyone.
Case in point – the following:
Dear MS. Batuman,
I’m currently interning at the literary website The Millions, for which I occasionally post “Curiosities”… and I recently posted the following:
“At the Paris Review Daily, Elif Batuman walks us through part one of HIS 12-hour blind date with Dostoevsky…” (emphasis added)
Shortly afterwards, “Alison” posted the following comment: “Elif Batuman is a woman.”
Doom, I thought, for several reasons. First and foremost, I myself do not possess an anglo-sounding name, so to me such mistakes are personal… As waves of shame from cultural insensitivity washed over me, I comforted myself with the fact that I did not make the heteronormative assumption that just because you were on a blind date with a male in your piece, you must obviously be female. So there! I will tell THAT to my detractors…
But doom I thought again, after I spent the better part of the morning trying to gauge the approximate level of your fame and influence online (and thus the approximate size of my gaffe). My research reveals that your level of fame and influence is, in short, high…
Please accept my apologies. I will make amends by reading The Possessed, and by correcting all those who confuse your gender in my presence, forever.
Think this is a hysterical, maladaptive strategy, perhaps? I beg to differ:
Thanks for your kind and entertaining note, and for reposting on The Millions. I do get the gender mistake a lot, and actually find it kind of flattering, since I interpret it to mean that I don’t have a girly style. You must have mistaken me for one of these hard-hitting gay theater writers who are carrying on the tradition of Hemingway and Dos Passos. Re: your unawareness of my tremendous fame and influence, I will forgive you completely if you purchase The Possessed.
Through my ecstasy at this new found relationship with someone from the higher literary echelons, and subsequent rapid-fire scheming as to what I might do with this unexpected influx of power, it did not escape my attention that Elif had quietly taken my offer to “read” The Possessed and raised it to a “purchase” The Possessed. Nor could this subtle revision be dismissed as mere oversight on her part through force of habit. Her email actually linked the words “purchase The Possessed” to its Amazon page. She wasn’t playing coy.
Purchase, eh? It is the divine right of interns to be broke, or so I keep trying to tell my friends when I insist they pick up the tab after expensive dinners. But a few days later, after I posted the above exchange on my blog, Elif Batuman linked to my post on her own blog, with some additional commentary:
[…] Naturally, I was delighted by this testament to the virility of my authorial voice, which is evidently such that young people would sooner believe me to be a gay man than entertain the possibility of my not having a penis at all.
Far be it for me to skive off my part in what was now clearly a swiftly escalating literary collaboration. “You drive a hard bargain, Batuman,” I muttered to myself. My condolences to Junot Diaz, whose esteemed book was until then the leading contender in that particular paperback bracket. Counteroffer accepted.
At first I couldn’t find The Possessed in the Barnes and Noble on 6th Avenue where I sought it, but the salesperson at the information desk, his eyes lighting up in recognition, walked me purposefully to its spot.
“It’s pretty popular for a book on Russian literature,” he remarked good-naturedly.
“Well, she’s very funny,” I agreed, possibly with an excess of familiarity.
“Oh, do you know her?”
“Well… you know… we’ve corresponded!” I trilled demurely, in a manner suggesting we’d been hand-writing deeply personal letters to each other for years and were practically the best of friends, instead of having emailed exactly once.
I had high hopes that my new purchase would be funny, so I waited until I was on the subway to begin reading. I have a penchant for bursting out in fits of raucous laughter while reading on the subway. It confuses people, but it’s something of a hobby of mine. I also hoped the author (whom I gathered is a smoker from her Paris Review piece) would frequently mention smoking, my other hobby. It is a particular pleasure to light a cigarette (though not on the subway, of course) while reading about someone else lighting a cigarette, sort of like watching the food network while eating.
The humor, as it turns out, did not disappoint. But it could have used a bit more smoking.
The Possessed, drawn from Elif Batuman’s articles for the New Yorker, Harper’s, and n+1, recounts her adventures during the seven years she spent in graduate school studying Russian literature. I have always felt a fondness for academia, and, in fact, so consuming was my desire to get a PhD in every available subject that, rather than pick just one, I opted to go to law school, effectively using up my quota of degree acquisition for at least another decade. But Batuman had far less enthusiasm, at first:
It was a received idea in those days that “theory” was bad for writers, infecting them with a hostility toward language and making them turn out postmodern; and what did it have to offer, anyway… Why all that trouble to prove things that nobody would ever dispute in the first place…?
Studying literature, as she describes it, was something that happened to her, rather than the other way around. A series of chance encounters — a linguistics professor with a deep concern for Martians, a group of writers huddled in a trailer in a New England artists’ colony, an adolescent boys’ “best legs” contest in Hungary, to name but a few — gently pulled her away from creative writing and toward literary criticism.
Like Batuman, I’ve had some harrowing experiences with contemporary American fiction – particularly short fiction. I can be pretty wary of it. Well-meaning friends who question why I dither endlessly before committing to their book recommendations in this genre are finally treated to a vague “Well, I don’t know if it will be any good…” This does not go over well with the person vouching for the work: “But I’m telling you it’s good,” they seethe, and animosity crackles between us.
If I could pinpoint one moment as the genesis of this (mostly irrational) trepidation, it would be somewhere between 2004 and 2005, when I read The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing. (This is not to imply that that collection was considered a shining example, or any sort of example, of the fiction of its time by anyone other than myself). But my disenchantment had been quietly building, and like the proverbial straw, when I read the following few sentences, something inside me just broke:
One wall is covered with taped-up cartoons in black ink and watercolor…
He hands me my wine. And I tell him that his cartoons are beautiful and funny and sad and true.
The description of a thing as “beautiful and funny and sad and true” filled me with such indescribable gloom that it took me years to shake. I was reminded of that feeling as Batuman related the profound “emptiness” she felt upon reading the “Best American Short Stories” of 2004 and 2005 (apparently an epiphanic couple of years for the both of us):
I thought it was the dictate of craft that had pared many of the Best American stories to a nearly unreadable core of brisk verbs and vivid nouns – like entries in a contest to identify as many concrete entities as possible, in the fewest possible words. The first sentences were crammed with so many specificities, exceptions, subverted expectations, and minor collisions that one half expected to learn they were acrostics, or had been written without using the letter e.
But very little of The Possessed is devoted to critique of fiction. Quite the opposite. It’s pure love of Russian literature that fuels Batuman’s adventures that comprise the bulk of the novel. Really, only a mad sort of love could have prompted her to attend a Tolstoy conference in flip-flops and sweatpants while quietly investigating the author’s death, to fabricate a wedding in Uzbekistan, to ask about doorknobs in a St. Petersburg ice castle, to sleep with a diabolically charismatic classmate who transforms her social circle into the cast of Dostoevsky’s The Demons.
The love of literature crystallizes for many readers when they first encounter a novel they so adore that they think: I wish I could just live inside of it. The Possessed has this desire at heart. Granted, it might be more obvious why Don Quixote felt this impulse for his beloved chivalric romances than why Batuman felt it for the works of Babel, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky. But their fantasy is one and the same.
Is seven years of graduate school a more effective means of living inside literature than Don Quixote’s donning an old suit of armor and setting off for adventures with his “squire”? Another question: is it saner?
It’s easy to set these questions aside when drawn into Batuman’s anecdotes, which are told with such deadpan so as to magnify the absurd, or when consuming the literary theory that’s conveyed with such engaging naturalness that one starts believing she is bandying about popular culture. Batuman has the sort of non-fiction voice that not only indicates humor and intelligence but channels it: the reader feels funnier and smarter herself while reading.
But these questions acutely matter to The Possessed, and they in turn transform it from a series of essays and adventures into a novel, into a story, about love and the quest to actualize one’s passions – whether they be Russian literature, chivalric romances, or anything else – through uncompensated devotion. Which is the divine right of all interns and academics.