Two books by two important French writers appear simultaneously in the English language. Furthermore, both volumes take up French history of the last 50 years, with a focus on growing self-awareness of the working class in France. Annie Ernaux is a prominent French writer, known for her memoirs A Man’s Place (1984) and A Woman’s Story, works dedicated to her parents. Didier Eribon is a professor of sociology at the University of Amiens, who has published noted works on Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu, as well as Insult and the Making of the Gay Self. The theme of this last book is taken up again in the latest publication. What is more, Eribon is an admirer of Ernaux’s work, and often cites it in the present volume.
Walter Benjamin has written about Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot that it resembles a massive crater. The same metaphor illuminates Annie Ernaux’s memoir The Years, and on an even more explicit level. This work, which was received with great praise in France 10 years ago, and now again on the occasion of its English translation (Les Années [Paris: Gallimard, 2008]; translated 2017, Seven Stories Press, now with Fitzcarraldo Editions), attempts to narrate the very flowing away of time by taking a very specific attitude towards words, events, objects, and people. In this sense, Ernaux’s book puts itself before a metaphysical task. For this reason, there is a consistency to Ernaux’s arresting decision to write in the third person plural “we”—fittingly described by Lauren Elkin in The Guardian as a “choral we” or—and in the singular “she.” Elkin’s observation is well put because it brings out how this entire narrative is like a chorus, repeated after each verse of a song or lyric, providing its pivotal momentum. Accordingly, The Years develops a personal story to attain a general or collective significance: It becomes the story of France of the last 50 years.
In contrast, Eribon goes exactly the other way. Eribon, an established sociologist, uses his academic vocabulary, the language of abstraction and generalization, to bring out his highly personal story. Returning to Reims (Retour à Reims [Paris: Fayard, 2009]; translated 2013, Semiotext(e), now with Allen Lane) relates Eribon’s personal journey from his childhood in Reims to his uncertain steps onto an academic career. On this journey, he feels constantly the pull of two opposed sides of his identity: his working-class background and his homosexuality. Eribon himself notes how he has been able to make an intellectual concern of homosexuality, writing successful books like Insult and the Making of the Gay Self precisely by rejecting and even denying his class origins. One coming out coincides with another closeting. Compared to the metaphysical aspiration of The Years, Returning to Reims can be read as an introduction to sociology, to the understanding of truths that envelop us whole.
The Years’s special
quality, its resemblance to Benjamin’s crater, asserts itself from the
All the images will disappear: the woman who squatted to urinate in broad daylight, behind the shack that served coffee at the edge of the ruins in Yvetot, who stood, skirts lifted, to pull up her underwear and then returned to the café.
A little bit further, this preamble pauses, to commence another series: “Thousands of words, the ones used to name things, faces, acts and feelings, to put the world in order, make the heart beat and the sex grow moist, will suddenly be nullified.” This preamble of the novel consists of a series of about 50 short aphorisms, all of whom, some stronger than others, display a way of folding away in themselves. None of these aphorisms is dressed up as a full sentence. They are not capitalized, and there is no full stop at the end of any of them but the very last. In that sense, they are less than statements. They mean to prepare the reader for what comes next, the story of the particular way in which time flowed over or through France these past 70 years.
The difficult, aphoristic folding away of statements is achieved by presenting the component on which the aphorism opens as married to something heard in a very minor key, or very singular, as to shut it down or sidetrack it and show how its potency runs out. Here is another one:
…on an outdoor stage, the woman shut into a box pierced all the way through by men with silver spears—and emerging alive because it was a magic trick, called The Martyrdom of a Woman.
In this case, the formula works so well because it connects the history of patriarchy and its abuses to a dramatic title, but only through a provincial scene of entertainment, of folklore, even, and thus by way of an exception on this history. It heightens the horror of patriarchy precisely because this formulation—like the others—does not attain the rank of statement: It enacts the very suppression it describes.
Ernaux soon departs from this aphoristic style. She then goes on to describe the experience of her generation: the poverty of rural Normandy after World War II, the hatred of Germany, and the way in which time, for the children, was experienced as received, as a given thing. Time and history were present in the stories told by the generation of the parents, and invariably, these stories would involve the occupation. Indeed, this part of the book articulates time as some kind of sediment, something washed up on the shore. Time has as memory a physical dimension to it that is absolutely evident to the children: “Memory was transmitted not only through the stories but through the ways of walking, sitting, talking, laughing, eating, hailing someone, grabbing hold of objects.”
The children simply take this dimension of time for granted.
Yet over time they discover their capacity to answer to it, even if they remain
for the most part silent witnesses. In fact, Ernaux reports that only as
teenagers they become gradually become a partner in conversation to their
parents and other grown-ups:
In the mid-1950s, at family meals, teenagers remained at the table. They listened but did not speak, smiled politely at the jokes that were not funny, the approving comments whose objects was their physical development, the salty innuendos designed to make them blush, and answered only the cautious questions about their schoolwork.
Gradually, Ernaux’s generation awakens to the life of time, its characteristic of moving along with human beings—although never in sync: There is always a discord between the pace of history and the generation that occupies it, and The Years relates the experience of this dissonance.
Compared to Eribon’s Returning to Reims, there is the strong similarity of people discovering at a young age that their education has already exceeded that of their parents, or indeed their entire milieu. This presents them with a crisis of authority: Within the household, they cannot make knowledge-based claims that would undermine the position of the parents, the father most of all. As Ernaux’s parents were shopkeepers at a time when almost everyone was feeling the aftermath of the War, her experience of the class struggle appears relatively mild. The lower middle classes, and a context of general scarcity, help to mediate her awareness of class of identity. Her character, “she” or “we” is aware of being in school together with the children of doctors and schoolteachers, but is always able to reconcile, or at least make sense of these conflicting worlds. Eribon, however, describes his background as extremely poor. There exists an absolute separation between his, and the middle class. This separation can only be traversed by pretending to be someone he is not. In turn, for Ernaux’s generation, and more importantly for women the main predicament of being a young adult is the inexistence of contraception in the 1950s in France.
The same class distinction and difference for their respective generations mediates access entry to intellectual debates, books, and representatives. For Ernaux, these come as a matter of course: studying to be a teacher, listening to the radio news, and generally making her way into the world means for her a pre-existing acquaintance with de Beauvoir and Sartre, and the rest of French intelligentsia that follow their trail. When les nouveaux philosophes appear on the scene in the early 1970s, they arouse only a mild and fleeting interest:
Unlike Sartre, who was said to be senile and still refused to go on TV, or de Beauvoir with her rapid-fire diction, they were young. They challenged our consciences in words that we could understand and reassured us of our intelligence. The spectacle of their moral indignation was entertaining, though it was not clear what they were trying to do, other than discourage people from voting for the Union of the Left.
It is interesting that in Ernaux’s account, philosophy—but also art and often cinema—is talked about as an integral element of the general French culture (there is scattering of namedropping throughout The Years, indicating an easy and self-evident familiarity with high culture). Indeed, Ernaux skips those thinkers whose rigor is much more respected in academic circles today, like Foucault and Derrida—exactly thinkers of the caliber that Eribon ends up close to. For instance, Eribon’s intellectual debt to Sartre, in terms of his coming of age as a philosopher, is massive, as he Sartre is a lasting presence when he describes his formative years. Nonetheless, he is keen to point out, in his biography on Foucault, how young philosophers of the latter’s generation admired Merleau-Ponty even more because Merleau-Ponty “was more academic, more rigorous, less ‘in vogue’, and, above all, took more risks in his attempts to open philosophy up to contributions from the human sciences.”
It seems that Eribon shares Foucault’s attitude, that philosophy or academia is always in need of another kind of legitimacy, as it, from Eribon’s perspective, cannot be a part of a culture as a whole. Indeed, for Eribon, all of this, the intelligentsia, was a strange land from the outset, to be taken only by an utmost effort of will and determination, and not without a measure of self-denial and the pretence of being something other than he was. The very activity of reading Marx or Sartre was revolutionary and borderline insubordinate for Eribon as an adolescent. This break constitutes his experience of embarking on an academic life, leaving his native milieu behind him and explains his affinity for Foucault taking leave of Sartre at the end of the 1940s: a thinker with the setup of Eribon is never easy with his environment and must always take the avant-garde.
Ernaux’s character, navigating the
predicaments of sexual autonomy, family life and its disruption, and financial
independence, appears simply to lap up the world of philosophy. Her social
mobility is constrained by other factors or by exceedingly more factors at the
same time, not permitting of one or two significant ones. For Eribon, being gay
and being working class together set up the north and south for his entire life
This process, for Eribon, is far from
completed. In fact, he notes how this book is yet another step in his journey
of removing himself from his origins:
I’m painfully aware that the way I have arranged the writing of this book assumes—both about me and my readers—that we are socially distant from the circumstances and from the people who still live the kinds of lives I am attempting to describe and to reconstruct. I am equally aware how improbable it is that any of those people could end up reading these pages. When people write about the working class world, which they rarely do, it is most often because they have left it behind. This happens even if they write with the goal of exposing and critiquing the very status of social illegitimacy to which these people are relegated over and over again, because in writing they take a necessary critical distance because they have left it behind, and with it comes the position of a judge or an evaluator.
Annie Ernaux was born in 1940, Didier Eribon in 1953. Both spend their upbringing in the North of France. Notwithstanding the considerable difficulties for women of her generation, Ernaux relates a vastly more open social reality from the one that appears in Eribon’s pages. That same difference, however, coincides with their slightly differing social backgrounds, from the lower middle classes and the working classes. Furthermore, to highlight this difference does a disservice to The Years, which is not about class and sociology. It is about time, and how sexuality can take its pulse.
“Near the end of her book, Ernaux presents her methodology and her instrument: “the palimpsest sensation.” In these final pages of The Years, the protagonist—“she,” “we”—describes a relationship with a younger lover. Although the relationship appears exclusively sexual, it is to the protagonist least of all about sex. Instead, sex becomes an antenna for reconnecting to a lifetime of experiences. It is because she does not belong to this man’s generation, his life and his world, that during their rendezvous she is displaced onto the span of her life as a whole. Her body in these moments attains the capacity of feeling sensations from decades ago, as it records once more the sensations of her life, that become manifest this time as their duplicate: the palimpsest sensation.
There are very moving pages, particularly in the description of the closeness of the lover as recording her former bodily closeness to her mother. This kind of reconciliation is only hinted at in Eribon’s book, in its consistent but implicit reverence for his mother, who he describes as a very intelligent person, and someone who craved education but was always in a position too disadvantaged to get it. This woman gets a couple of great lines, for example about her son’s prejudice towards his own class, as well as the final say when it appears that Eribon has arrived in the world of academia.
There is a long-standing debate about a critical aspect of the novel-writing process. Currently and colloquially in some annexes of the writing community it’s been playfully termed the “pantsing vs. plotting/outlining/planning” debate. Pantsers fly by the seats of their pants: they write and see where it takes them. Planners, well, plan before they write.
Precedent and vehement feeling may be marshaled in favor of both approaches.
Virginia Woolf took copious notes before she wrote her novels, as did Fyodor Dostoevsky and Vladimir Nabokov (his notes on index cards). William Faulkner scribbled his outline for A Fable on a wall which his wife tried to paint over. Joseph Heller created an extensive spreadsheet for the correspondences between various plots in Catch-22.
James Joyce, though, thought “a book should not be planned out beforehand, but as one writes it will form itself, subject, as I say, to the constant emotional promptings of one’s personality.” Mark Twain too, insisted that a book “write itself” and that “the minute that the book tried to shift to my head the labor of contriving its situations…I put it away…The reason was very simple — my tank had run dry; it was empty…the story could not go on without materials; it could not be wrought out of nothing.” Ernest Hemingway said much the same, and believed in simply pouring out what was within, stopping each day before he was completely empty, and resuming the next.
And of course there are many other points along the continuum. Italo Calvino started from an image and then expanded it. “If I didn’t know the ending of a story, I wouldn’t begin. I always write my last lines, my last paragraph, my last page first, and then I go back and work towards it,” says Katherine Anne Porter. And writers’ processes may be regarded differently by themselves than by others. George Eliot may have been prompted by the serial format of Middlemarch to unify her novel more than it otherwise would have been, but she nevertheless considered her work more as “experiments in life” than “moralized fables, the last word of a philosophy endeavoring to teach by example,” as Henry James remarked of her work.
The divide exists with equal prominence in more mass market or “genre” schools. There the archetypal planner might be someone like J.K. Rowling, who extensively outlined the Harry Potter series, or John Grisham, who reportedly outlines each of his books prior to writing them. Stephen King, on the other hand, thinks it’s “dishonest” to pre-determine a plot, and William Gibson dislikes planned writing, which he considers to smack of “homework.” Polish novelist Stanislaw Lem likened his writing process to “dipping a thread in a liquid solution of sugar; after a while crystals of sugar begin to settle on the thread, and it grows thicker and thicker, it puts on flesh, so to speak,” and this is reminiscent of what fantasy author Neil Gaiman says of his novels: that they “accrete.” Lem’s description is reminiscent of what Stendhal says in his deliciously acute Love of the idealization involved in passionate love. When a twig is left in the salt mines, Stendhal writes, it eventually emerges utterly sheathed in delicate, interlacing crystals. In the same way, a person in love encloses their beloved in a seamless vestment of imagined perfections (never, however, with less ground in reality than the shape of the crystals have in the topography of the underlying twig). Perhaps writers like Lem need to idealize their work before writing it.
Authors like Raymond Chandler and George R.R. Martin claim that if they planned, they would lose all motivation to write. The latter makes a distinction between “architects” and “gardeners.” Architects plan rigorously and then construct; gardeners plant seeds and water them, and that creates the novel over time.
These divisions are not to deny the facts that writing itself constitutes a kind of planning, if only in retrospect, and that the lines between glimmering visions, developed thoughts, preparatory notes, preliminary sketches, and first drafts blur. Planners certainly do not and cannot plan everything, and even the incorrigibly spontaneous no doubt fall into certain involuntary spasms of planning.
One distinction by which the controversy might be clarified is the mental state involved in the writing process. Many pantsers view the ideal state of writing as akin to a waking dream. Stephen King claims to pass into reverie when he writes, and Ray Bradbury said much the same, cautioning writers to be driven by emotion and not intellect if they wish to experience that state (“Don’t think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can’t try to do things. You simply must do things.”), which he associates with intense joy.
In Plato’s Phaedrus, love, lunacy and poetry are all related, and so of course Delphic prophecy of old is practically the picture of divine inspiration. The idea of divine madness possessing poets and prophets (and I include novelists under these grand rubrics) is an old one. Kalidasa, the Indian poet, is said to have had the sigil of inspiration painted on his tongue by the goddess, after which the waters of creativity simply poured forth. Madness and divine inspiration here are opposed to calm, clear, intellectual rationality and planning.
There seems to be a separation, then, between the novel whose genesis arises from its creator’s excitement, which, channeled into a dream-like state, throws off what comes to mind in an almost automatic process, and the novel which has its development in a more intentional, cerebral decision, one in which feeling and thought are more nearly equal partners, and which conceives what it wants before it deliberately strives to fulfill that conception.
Planning in a sense takes place in both models. In the case of the planners, it’s a more explicit, thinking kind of planning, whereas in the case of the pantsers it’s an unthinking planning that takes place by way of that first draft.
And that distinction may well mean different parts of the brain or mind function to conceptualize the basic structure of the novel. In everyday social interaction, we understand what another person means by their actions and words by putting ourselves in their place and simulating what we would do in their place. This is not usually a conscious process. There is evidence that when readers read stories, they identify with the characters and do much the same thing.
It may be the case that pantsers engage in this kind of imaginative and empathic recreation when they tell stories, which is precisely why they cannot plan. They have to tell the story in order to know its contours and structure. They have to place themselves in the minds of the characters and then simulate what the characters do. This may be why Hilary Mantel calls writing her fiction an activity akin to acting.
These writers work by faith that their emotions channel into words a latent object which will later prove to possess a structure. The act by which one constructs characters, subjects them to some shock or hinders their desire by some obstacle, and then simply follows them in one’s imagination as they respond, is the empathic creative process.
This empathic process relates, too, to the possibility of characters which somehow take control and even surprise their creator.
That this could even happen is a matter of controversy. Jorge Luis Borges, admittedly not a novelist, is skeptical that such a thing is not merely authorial self-deception. He found preposterous the idea that characters could truly buck their author.
Yet Leo Tolstoy claimed surprise at what his characters did, in particular expressing shock at one of Anna Karenina’s most infamous acts.
Indeed, a reverie-writer like Stephen King considers it dishonest when a writer pre-determines a plot instead of simply giving the characters the situation and following what they do. J.R.R. Tolkien claimed that he had long ago learned not to determine by fiat what characters would do, and to let them determine their own actions instead, and Bradbury says that the plot is simply the footprints of the characters sprinting toward their desires.
And yet here too there are strong crossovers.
The planner William Faulkner said, after all, that this is precisely what he did with As I Lay Dying: “I simply imagined a group of people and subjected them to the simple universal natural catastrophes, which are flood and fire, with a simple natural motive to give direction to their progress.” And it was a book for which he claimed to know practically every word prior to writing anything down. More broadly he claimed of each of his books that “there is always a point…where the characters themselves rise up and take charge and finish the job — say somewhere about page 275.”
And Henry James thought through a situation and then expanded in his mind the ramifications of that situation. It started for him with a little “seed” or “virus” which then he then expanded into its inevitable implications, structured into a novel, and then wrote. He took distinct pleasure in rendering visible the intricate organism into which the situational seed blossomed — an empathic approach, yet filtered through a powerful planning intellect.
Planning is often connected to a desire to use fiction to explicate an idea. That makes sense, since such a desire requires intellectual foresight and control.
Dostoevsky wrote his extensive notes no doubt because his works had to illustrate complex philosophical ideas like the “positive idea of beauty” in The Idiot, or the possibility of acting beyond morality in Crime and Punishment.
Marcel Proust famously wrote that he was overjoyed when one of his readers realized that his work was in fact a “dogmatic work and a construction,” that is — that it had been fashioned according to a plan to demonstrate certain principles. Proust was not, contrary to popular opinion, merely trying to recreate old memories. He was trying to demonstrate certain philosophical, psychological, and literary ideas, and these manifested in his work. He admired the idea of Gothic cathedrals and thought of his work architecturally, or with the unity of painting or a great symphony, and drew his characters and situations from memory accordingly. He claims, indeed, to have possessed no imagination at all, though this remark likely ought to be taken about as seriously as Montaigne’s claims to a poor memory and and dull storytelling ability.
And yet even here there are complications. Ray Bradbury mentions that when he writes, a second self arises and does all the writing; his muse does all the work. In strange analogy with that view is Proust’s strongly-held position that the real life of the writer cannot tell us anything important about the authorial self, which be known only in the artistic creation. Yet this in itself does not tell us much about the planning debate, because that second self, that other self, may be precisely the self of reflection rather than the automatic, unconscious self which manifests when the intellect suspends itself in a reverie. On the other hand, Proust himself firmly holds that for an artist, “instinct” is king, and that intellect, by its own lights, bows in acknowledgement of this fact. Unfortunately, he never defines just what instinct is or how it is to be accessed in the writing process, excusing himself with an idea that Faulkner independently and no less staunchly adumbrates: that finally, there are no rules to writing.
Perhaps, as Henry James put it, “the general considerations fail or mislead, and…even the fondest of artists need ask no wider range than the logic of the particular case.”
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.