On Dostoevsky – a collection of thoughts.

Most of these thoughts will not be mine (fortunately!) – I’ve just been reading a whole bunch of different things on- and offline, and because I found such a delicious collection of interesting, illuminating quotes I felt I must collect them together in one place.

Susan Sontag weighing in on ‘Tolstoy vs. Dostoevsky’, succinctly. (From As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980)

Two kinds of writers. Those who think this life is all there is, and want to describe everything: the fall, the battle, the accouchement, the horse-race. That is, Tolstoy. And those who think this life is a kind of testing-ground (for what we don’t know — to see how much pleasure + pain we can bear or what pleasure + pain are?) and want to describe only the essentials. That is, Dostoyevsky. The two alternatives. How can one write like T. after D.? The task is to be as good as D. — as serious spiritually, + then go on from there.
(12/4/77)

A little anecdote about a boy called Dmitry Merezhkovsky who wanted to get an ‘expert opinion’ (from D. himself!) about whether he had any promise of literary talent. Merezhkovsky goes to Dostoevsky with his father, and reads him some of his verses… (As described in Helen Rittelmeyer’s piece, Two Ways to Deal with Aspiring Writers’, 18/01/13)

Blushing, turning pale, stuttering, I read my childish, paltry verses. He listened silently, with impatient annoyance. We must have been disturbing him. “Weak, bad, worth nothing,” he said at last. “In order to write well, one must suffer, suffer!”

“No,” said my father, “let him not write any better, only let him not suffer.”

(Of course this has to come, sooner or later….)

J. M. Coetzee on Dostoevsky’s obsessive gambling, in an essay entitled ‘Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years’ (published in Stranger Shores, Essays 1986 – 1999).

Though Dostoevsky did not excuse his gambling, he was prepared to condemn it only on his own terms: as a manifestation of his tendency to go ‘everywhere and in everything….to the last limit’. (p. 225)……Frank refrains from asking the properly Dostoevskian question: if the devil in Dostoevsky was not his own, if he was not responsible for it, who was?

I can’t really add much to this (and there would have been more to be said, had I chosen to quote on…). These views fascinate me, as Dostoevsky fascinates me.

There’s only one thing I really think when I read him, and that’s – Well, here’s someone who’s not afraid to stick his hands into the mud and muck of humanity. How? How is he so unafraid?  I think that is probably a true observation, if not very informative. I read recently that Dostoevsky lost a young child – a three month old son? – perhaps whence his injunction to “suffer”. For how can you go through something like that unscathed?

I find my stance now very ironic; for years and years I (privately) denounced the Russian greats as being too depressing (“grey”) and avoided them. But really I realize now I was probably a bit scared, because they cut a bit too close to the bone.

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1 comment
  1. tocksin said:

    The biggest requirement for reading the Russians is stamina; without first having read more such novels one is daunted from the start.

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