In Praise of Dostoyevsky

Amongst the more unnecessary things I’ll be posting up on here comes this — a paean, if you will, to Dostoevsky. It’s unnecessary because he needs no such post, and people need no such ‘introduction’ to his amazing work, but because I recently read him for the first time, I feel the need to wax laudatory about him nonetheless.

My relationship with Dostoevsky is – to put it in very religious terms – one of conversion. I first picked up Crime and Punishment many years ago, when I was still fairly young and on a Russian-literature binge (I had recently read Anna Karenina, and had loved it; and Tolstoy is, canonically/generically speaking, only a stone’s throw from Dostoevsky after all!). I got as far as the murder. I put the book down, somewhat disgusted.

I have spoken of a sort of synesthesia (and perhaps I misuse the term this way but –!), where one can’t help associating colours with books or movies. French literature of a certain period is always pastel to me; stories about New York are rust-brown. Certain sad forms of Japanese literature are a kind of green, that of kitchen or bathroom tiles. And Russian literature has always been grey: grey, grey, grey. This isn’t really synesthesia, of course, but more like some evocative association of colours with atmospheres and moods. But this tends to colour almost everything I read, somehow, and when I put Crime and Punishment down, way back when, it was because the grey was too dreary, a particularly dull and depressing shade of grey. Dostoevsky, I thought, was oppressively grey. I wasn’t in the mood for greyness (why grey? Was it the descriptions of St. Petersburg, the solipsistic awfulness of his protagonist, Raskolnikov? The drunks tottering about in the streets and the prostitutes and the poverty of it all?).

This was to some extent a tribute to Dostoevsky’s skill of evocation, I realise now, because the world he presents – especially the world as seen through the mind he presents – is grey and wearisome and sad in some incomprehensible way. It is a world which doubts the existence of any sort of spiritual prop or support, something that other characters – like the poor prostitute Sonia – can cling on to despite their travails through similarly dark times. But we’re not looking at the world through their eyes.

Well, I just didn’t like all this greyness, all this despair and deep questioning. Miles and I have had many arguments about who is better (kind of dumb in itself but!) – he staunchly said Dostoevsky, I laughed and said Tolstoy (“But what about those boring agricultural rants he puts in the middle of his stuff?!” — “Even those!”). Because Tolstoy balances the light and the dark, he lets you breathe (largely because you don’t live inside the head of his characters in such a claustrophobic, all-consuming way, etc.), and Dostoevsky consumes you in his self-consumed people; and agrarian rants are significantly easier to deal with than questions about cynicism and grace….

But no: I was wrong. Having actually finished Dostoevsky’s book, now, I can say – he reigns supreme.

(Miles says that perhaps I am in “the right frame of mind” to appreciate him, now – maybe he’s right! But I’m glad that it is so: because now I can, and do, appreciate him wholeheartedly.)

I thought I’d give Crime and Punishment another go, the other day: I saw the old copy lying around in my cupboard, and I’d just read about how much David Foster Wallace admired, indeed, wanted to be Dostoevsky (or perhaps I hadn’t read it, and someone told me – either way!) – and this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Not someone else who worships this man?? Gotta see what all the fuss is about. So thought I.

Wallace sees Dostoevsky as relevant because he sees modern literature as afraid of certain forms of ‘depth’ (by which I mean beliefs, convictions, ideologies – things of the mind and psyche, I suppose).

“The big thing that makes Dostoevsky invaluable for American readers and writers is that he appears to possess degrees of passion, conviction, and engagement with deep moral issues that we – here, today – cannot or do not permit ourselves.” – ‘Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky’, CONSIDER THE LOBSTER & OTHER ESSAYS, David Foster Wallace.

I wonder to what extent this is a fair assessment of today’s writings? Certainly, if the short stories are anything to go by – well, he’s dead right, because sex that ultimately reveals itself as meaningless and transitory is not the be-all and end-all of all that falls under the label ‘profundity’ or ‘moral questioning’ etc etc. Sorry, guys. (And I should stop feeling so vehement about them but… o! They are all so similar, and all so misled/misleading about the state of things.) This is Wallace’s scepticism, I think, of the sceptics themselves – too much of a good thing and so on.

Coetzee also worships Dostoevsky, and I read all his essays and praise somewhat ashamedly, not understanding what he meant (I still don’t, really). Coetzee admires Dostoyevsky so much that he has even written a novel about the man, called The Master of Petersburg; its finer points once more lost on me. Tolstoy gave up the search for truth at some point, he writes in an essay elsewhere (reading The Kreutzer Sonata – a brilliant short story by Tolstoy), but Dostoevsky never did. Perhaps never could. This is not to say he found it, because Coetzee’s point about the Dostoevskian confessional is that (à la deconstruction) it exposes itself as potentially endless, spiralling-always towards truth without ever landing at an end-point. Etc etc.

Both authors stress something fundamental about Dostoevsky though – his engagement with ethical imperatives. This is perhaps what makes him so novel and incredible, always, because this is probably the hardest thing to do. Interrogating identity and (echoing Wallace) scepticism about its perils are all the vogue these days, and they are necessary, but it is much harder to pose and interrogate moral questions the way Dostoevsky does. I think, anyways. “What is a crime?” – horrible question! And yet isn’t it necessary? Because doesn’t the novel throw into disarray all our preconceptions about what it means to commit a crime, and even more, what it means to be a criminal? I know I should be repulsed by Raskolnikov, because taking a hatchet to two old women’s heads is an appalling crime, disgusting, repellant, everything. And yet I can’t: I like him. I want him to escape the clutches of the law. Or at the very least, I want him to be able to live life anew and gloriously, post-Siberia. And isn’t this fundamentally perverse? I don’t know if I’m alone in this sentiment/reaction to the book – and I hope not, because I need to start worrying about my own psyche, then – but I wonder what this means, this sort of leniency. Any number of things, I guess, but I can’t get at even one of them.

To keep on with the theme of perversity (itself a dubious word to apply), this was my favourite line from the book — I’m not sure why, because it isn’t particularly remarkable, really, and yet when I read it I was floored momentarily, had to put the book down, all blank-minded, and wonder what on earth it meant (no idea):

The dying piece of candle dimly lit up this low-ceilinged room, in which an assassin and a harlot had just read the Book of Books.

I mean – what? Maybe it was the translator’s choice of words – ‘assassin’ to denote ‘murderer’ is quaint, as is ‘harlot’. Maybe it was the tableau Dostoevsky constructs for us in a silent moment, something ironic about the soiled and the sinful reading “the Book of Books”, isn’t there? And yet there they are. Do they find any solace in it? Difficult to say – Sonia certainly does, but Raskolnikov? But it is, like all the book, shot through with pathos, and perhaps that is what is so remarkable about this book. There is no easy good or bad, no simplistic villain or hero or victor — everyone is subject to evaluation, re-evaluation, re-assessment, and even at the end of all that — they are ultimately indecipherable in black and white terms. Is this Dostoevsky’s ethical statement? There is something so intricate about his characters and their psychologies; this is a degree of intricacy I think I don’t even find in real life most of the time (though obviously, it is there – that’s what the difference between life and art has so often dwindled to, right?). But to construct it? To put it down in words? That really floors me.

What is incredible about Crime and Punishment stylistically is its ability to negotiate both the psychological/individual and the wider context in which the psyche exists (socio-political, epistemological, economic, etc!). Given the monomania of its protagonist, his isolation and solipsism, this was pretty unexpected – I didn’t expect it to be any sort of social commentary (let alone a great one!), at the start, and yet it is. If Dostoevsky was a painter, he’d be one of those whose canvas had room for both wider, sweeping brushstrokes and the smaller, finely-detailed, textured ones – and they would both be beautiful.

I went to MPH yesterday to try and find some more books by him – I didn’t want to finish the novel until I had something else to move on to (and I don’t think I could continue with Infinite Jest right now…). Unfortunately, they didn’t have any. (In my wildest dreams, I live in a place where bookstores satiate me as and when I require it…this is probably London. It is certainly not here though.) Sometime this week I will trawl to another one, and hopefully – just hopefully – find something.

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