Saturday, 24 October 2015

"To find the Man in Man": On the Four Great Novels of Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881)

Working one's way through the oeuvre of any writer in chronological order will either expose the crude and formulaic obviousness of their repetitious bag of tricks or illuminate the rich development of creative motifs that segue from one novel to another. In practice, there is a fine line between the two, and reading sixteen Dickens novels in the space of a year, for instance, is an exercise that can be sure to fall on both sides of that line on alternating occasions. By and large, however, my summer/autumn marathon of the four major novels of the brilliant Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky avoided such pitfalls; I became wise to his repeated ideas and concepts, certainly, and I was not uncritical, but these four books are on the whole sufficiently distinct from one another that the marathon was in fact a journey leading me further up and further in to Dostoyevsky's creative mindset rather than a flat and stale traipse across a samey plateau of diminishing returns. Below I've recorded simply a few initial impressions; these four books were far too vast and detailed for me to attempt close and detailed analysis of them at this time (though perhaps one day!).

Dostoyevsky's reputation among modern English readership is too often an undeserved one - that he is "dour", or "relentlessly grim", or similar such unearned criticisms (on learning that I was reading Crime and Punishment over the summer, a father of a friend commented that I was only punishing myself). In my eyes this is not at all accurate. It's certainly true that his novels do not push to the forefront that traditional 19th century conception of humans as creatures in harmony with their surroundings, or as belonging to a part of society in the way that Tolstoy could envisage Karenin or Natasha. Dostoyevsky's characters are isolated, feverish, quivering, alone. They rage and rave in dark, empty rooms, often with only themselves for company. They stalk down provincial town streets in the chill of night. They make last-ditch efforts to confess the inhumanity of their thoughts to friends, priests, family members. Shivering, they glance desperately upwards at the sun or the moon and yearn for something better, more peaceful, more reassuring. Perhaps it is best to state that Dostoyevsky's characters are not well. Like the narrator of the shorter piece Notes from the Underground, they are all-too-often sick and spiteful.

Is this relentlessly grim, or is it simply accurate? Does Dostoyevsky needlessly focus on the darker sides of the psyche at the expense of everything else or is his audacity in creating "ice axes to break the seas frozen inside our souls" (Kafka) something we should applaud for its more profound understanding of how humans function? My take on this question is no doubt evident, although it will be for other readers to decide for themselves. I see Dostoyevsky as a tremendously daring writer - and this, at least, is hard to disagree with, since he was regularly censored, lambasted, pilloried; he wrote to friends expressing his certainty that the critics would hate him for his latest piece of work; he was forgotten and rejected in Russia for a period of time until his reappraisal. He was a writer who dared to go places in his fiction, who unravelled the knotty strands of his characters to show us a set of frightening tapestries, who tore apart commonplace preconceptions and establishment ideas. I find this intrinsically interesting, and bold, and exciting.

And his characters are far too passionate for these books to be a dour and emotionless experience. What makes a Dostoyevsky character different from a Tolstoy character - or the majority of Tolstoy characters - is that they think passionately. They do not simply fall from grace because of their unbiddable emotional entanglements, their affairs. We do not see the soldier's zest for life on the battlefield. What we encounter are characters for whom the process of thinking, of reasoning, of testing their theories and the nuances of their own Weltanschauung, of doubting themselves and of trying to rationalise their actions - these processes themselves haunt them, pitch them over the edge, or form their driving impulses. They are not *merely* creatures of thought, since that would make for a dull book indeed - Dostoyevsky is sure to anchor them all in their (often miserable) earthly realities, and to give them often startling, electric, captivating actions and motives - but often the greatest passages boil down to the way in which they intellectually grapple with the ramifications of the lives they're living. In short, Dostoyevsky makes page-turners out of intellectualism.

Because page-turners they certainly are, for all their cerebral profundity. The two most artistically successful of these four novels - also, unsurprisingly, the most famous: Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov - have one major advantage over the other two, and that is that they reach a beautifully-crafted synthesis between philosophical intelligence and a cracking plot. Two of the all-time great plots, really: the former not so much a whodunit as a why'dhedoit, as the destitute student Raskolnikov commits a murder towards the story's beginning and spends most of the rest of the book struggling with coming to terms with it, and the latter a vast yet astonishingly taut portrayal of family relations exploded by the murder of the father and framed through the reactions, joys and torments of his three sons, leaving the reader desperate to learn the truth behind the crime. They're archetypal drama, of the kind that, deployed correctly, keeps the audience up late at night; not for nothing was Dostoyevsky compared more to dramatists of ancient Greece than the novelists of his own time. Like those dramatists, he is never one to spare us a heavily pregnant pause, a lull, a calm, then an explosion of activity, dramatic entrances, dramatic exits, terrifying opening lines, revelations, and soliloquies. Just as, in the 20th century, Brecht would reach his grubby collectivist fingers back into the past, seize the old literary device of the chorus and drag it kicking and screaming onto the German stage, so too does Dostoyevsky rework the oldest of storytelling devices in such a way that alarms us, such is the renewed vigour with which he tells them. As with every significant artist, situating Dostoyevsky involves looking back to all his antecedents and trying to understand his legacy; with his depiction of human consciousness as something fluid, uncertain, and burdensome, his willingness to break taboos and his astonishing ability to capture human desperation and futility, he often seems to predate some of the greatest psychological artists of the 20th century, from Brecht to Kafka to Beckett. Not for nothing did Sigmund Freud, who we all know as psychology's founding father, describe The Brothers Karamazov as "the most magnificent novel ever written".

Of the four, there is certainly a case that Crime and Punishment (1866) is the most straightforward, and it is probably the novel I would first recommend to someone wishing to try out Dostoyevsky for the first time (although such a hypothetical reader would no doubt benefit from trying out Notes from a Dead House and Notes from the Underground first). Its depiction of St Petersburg is of a suffocating and decadent city, choked with dust, and its insights into the similarly suffocating plight of Raskolnikov are acutely well drawn. The murder scene itself - particularly the way in which Raskolnikov must dispatch the innocent and mentally troubled Lizaveta Ivanovna, sister of his original and far less sympathetic target - is on every level a tightly woven drama. The depiction of the poverty of the Marmeladovs displays with terribly effective clarity one of Dostoyevsky's most wonderful attributes: his enormous, seemingly unfettered gift for compassion. He delineates the terrors of existence, both material and existential, because of the profoundest pity within him for others' suffering. He plunges deepest so that he might soar highest - even if just the once, would that not be a good once!

But it is Raskolnikov's duologues with the almost demonic Svidrigailov, and the nihilism that such duologues entail, that are most likely to linger on in the mind. If God is dead, wonders Raskolnikov along with Svridrigailov and many other characters to come, surely everything is permitted? Surely there is nothing one must not do? The title therefore works as a clever bait-and-switch, with far more time devoted to both the psychological transgression (the Russian word преступление has an element of "stepping across", e.g. crossing over an invisible boundary, to its meaning that the simple English "crime" lacks) and the subsequent torture of his conscience than to the literal crime and the literal punishment. Raskolnikov struggles with his actions throughout, torn by the serpentine words of Svidrigailov on the one hand and the redemptive good-naturedness of the angelic prostitute Sonya on the other. If Crime and Punishment has an identifiable flaw, I would suggest it is perhaps the overt symmetrical neatness of this structure - especially the Good Angel/Bad Angel dichotomy with which we are now so familiar, as that can too often lead to one-dimensional characterization. It doesn't in Dostoyevsky's case, of course, but one does feel that Sonya risks being *too* perfect at times (fortunately he will go on to refine this in considerably in later works). All told it is an electrifying novel, justly held up as a triumph of literature. All the greatest hallmarks of his writing are displayed within: the compassion, the horror, the reliance on dreams and their symbolism (both Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov hallucinate vividly, in some of the novel's best sections), tensions between atheism and belief, suffering, forgiveness, humiliation and redemption. This is a writer who will not give us heroes, but antiheroes, who will not fully adopt the position of omniscience in his narration, but rather cleave closely to the consciousness of one significant figure, occasionally leaping into the minds of others - yet another impact of Dostoyevsky's on 20th century literature, as can be seen in Woolf, Joyce, Mansfield and others.

The Idiot (1868-9) is a significantly less approachable novel, and there is a case that it should be left until one is fully entrenched in Dostoyevsky's philosophy and ideals. This is, I think, for two reasons. First there is the simple fact that the main character, Prince Myshkin, is possessed of such an astonishingly good-natured character, such naivete, that most readers will find it difficult, almost impossible, to identify with him. He is, in effect, a modern-day saint, an angel, a paragon of excellence amid the hedonistic world of Saint Petersburg's high society. Simply put, it is less interesting to follow perfect characters. We do not want to see do-gooders doing well even in trying circumstances; give us the churning tempest of a Raskolnikov any day! While Myshkin's role in the novel is nowhere near as simplistic as I am making it sound, the simple fact that it is he as a principal character that the audience is expected to follow is almost certain to make it less of a hit with the majority of readers. Secondly any understanding of Myshkin is almost wholly dependent on an awareness of Russian literature, since he is the utter embodiment of the traditional role of Ivan Durak, the "Holy Fool", which we occasionally see replicated in English works such as King Lear. This tradition is less well-known to English-speaking audiences, and thus Myshkin's unique take on the world is more likely to elicit confusion and indeed irritation than nods of recognition. As a consequence, perhaps, of Dostoyevsky's chosen focus in the form of Myshkin, the novel is lighter on incident and thus strikes a more meandering tone than its fellows, which is also less likely to endear it to modern audiences. The characters are of a much more aristocratic bent than their Saint Petersburg counterparts in Crime and Punishment - indeed, with its generals and its socialites, this is almost the Saint Petersburg of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (1877) - and although Dostoyevsky is more than capable of sending up the innate shallowness of many of these figures, their innate absurdity and the tragicomedy of their obsessions, it is not the ground on which his footing is surest.

There is a lot to like in The Idiot, nonetheless. Dostoyevsky is not the most obvious comic writer, and I don't think any of these novels feature scenes written *purely* to make his audience laugh, as one could freely and liberally say of Dickens (pick any scene from The Pickwick Papers, for instance), and yet a work such as The Idiot shows us that Dostoyevsky clearly understood the powerful effects of humour, and he knows when and where to apply them. His books are often much funnier than one would expect, even if it is the kind of humour that is sharply barbed, puncturing humankind's vanity or other similar aims. The intense and obsessive Rogozhin is another of the novel's highlights and his attempted murder of Myshkin resulting in the latter's epileptic fit a properly haunting sequence. Nastasya Filippovna, too, a "fallen woman" stereotype who grows into something much more fascinating and nuanced, is a character of supreme interest, and arguably the single greatest female character in all Dostoyevsky's work. And I like the way Dostoyevsky limits what his third-person narrator can tell us, drawing a veil over the action in Moscow as though he can only report gossip about what has occurred here in Petersburg. But perhaps the true strength of The Idiot is the way in which even its principal weakness is turned to the writer's advantage in the end. That sounds incredibly, almost vulgarly, gushing; and yet there seems no other way to put it. Myshkin's goodness brings about disaster throughout the novel, reaching fever-pitch as Nastasya Filippovna meets an unceremonious end, and on reaching the end one is left with the disquieting feeling that The Idiot was one great pulling of the rug: Myshkin is imperfect, simply because not to adapt oneself to the imperfections of the world is a kind of folly. This den of iniquity that we call Saint Petersburg, where everyone is at everyone else's throat in the name of money, power and sex, is no place for Myshkin. He is a Christ-like figure who wishes he could remain in the cosy straw of the stable and never have to take the road to Calvary. In this respect The Idiot is a much smarter novel than it seems at first, even if its triumph is likely to frustrate many readers.

Personally, I much preferred The Devils (1871-2). It's sometimes known as The Possessed, although it's since been clarified that the Russian word Бесы refers more to those doing the possessing, that is to say the possessors, than it does to those who have been possessed. Some choose to render it Demons but I feel that loses the charming, slightly impish implications of "devils" (see the way we might describe naughty children as "rascals" or "devils") - which, for all of the peering into the abyss which may go on in this novel, is how Dostoyevsky often treats the immature political rebels who form the story's major cast. The Devils is the first of these four books to take place in a small and decidedly average Russian town (an "Everytown", if you like), away from the more obvious choices like Moscow or Saint Petersburg. This grants it a more anonymous quality, a far cry from the 'high society' we get in The Idiot, but it also gives the author a greater opportunity to capture the mood of an entire human canvas: the town as a whole is dissected, its authorities explored, its varied beliefs carefully displayed. Some of the most memorable scenes in The Devils are these larger-scale, indeed public knowledge, events: the chaos of the fête, for instance, with the fire raging through the streets, is masterfully described. And yet, naturally enough for Dostoyevsky, the fire rages in people's hearts rather than on the roofs of houses, and it is thus entirely apposite that this is really a novel about the destructive and tragic power of ideas. Himself well acquainted with the socialists, nihilists and atheists of the day, having dabbled in being among the ranks of all three, Dostoyevsky addresses their principal political beliefs with an alarming and indeed raging vigour, displaying how the Westernised liberality of the previous generation (as epitomised in Stepan Verkhovensky and Varvara Stavrogina) brings about a kind of primal, inchoate chaos.

This may not be politics with which I necessarily agree, although arguably the extent to which Dostoyevsky is making a grand, sweeping claim about all socialists, nihilists and atheists should not be overplayed. Regardless of one's political leanings, however, reading The Devils is a quite simply astonishing experience. Though slow to start, there is a palpable atmosphere of dread regarding the coming drama as our narrator drops hints about what is to come, catches himself doing so, and then clams up again (in this instance, the narrator is an actual character in the town, although one who seems to be granted unparalleled access to private conversations while saying very little himself). Once we reach the arrival on the scene of Nicholas Stavrogin and Piotr Verkhovensky - the novel's central figures - almost every chapter is electrifyingly good, right down to the censored chapter (not included in all editions) in which Stavrogin confesses much about his past to Bishop Tikhon, even the shocking detail of his molesting a young girl several years before. It's not hard to see why it was censored for obscenity in 1872, but is an absolutely essential aspect of the novel in my view, giving us an otherwise sorely needed look into Stavrogin's soul. The Devils is sometimes a little uneven, and some of the timescales can feel odd or implausible, but moments like Stavrogin's rejection of the duel, Kirilov's suicide, the heart-in-your-mouth description of Shatov's murder are utterly unparalleled and, for my money, beat even the finer sequences of Crime and Punishment hands down. It's perhaps a less focussed book, but the portrayal of its tormented characters is not easily forgotten. All this, and it has the guilty pleasure of Dostoyevsky being delightfully nasty and petty about his literary rival Turgenev in a thinly-disguised caricature. What's not to like?

Dostoyevsky's final work, The Brothers Karamazov (1880), was originally conceived as merely the first part of a much longer sequence about the life and times of the third and youngest Karamazov brother, Alyosha. It is practically impossible to deduce this from reading the final version - partly because the novel stands up so perfectly on its own as a complete and thematically coherent work, but partly because The Brothers Karamazov has such an impressively structured lattice interweaving the three brothers that it is hard to imagine Alyosha, who is more of a passive peacemaker than an instigator (although there is more to him than that, as we'll see), within his own context and split off from his familial one. In any case, Dostoyevsky's death at 1881 curtailed further work, and we must discuss merely what we are left with. Not that there is anything "merely" about his final novel. It runs to an impressive 970 pages and yet is the polar opposite of War and Peace (1869), arguably the only other 19th century Russian novel of equivalent size, breadth and status. Where Tolstoy's epic travels far and wide, shows us the thick of battle and the indolence of peacetime, begins in 1805 and ends in 1820, Dostoyevsky's masterpiece is in many ways a far simpler affair. It doesn't quite adhere rigidly to Aristotle's Classical Unities, but it isn't far off at all - much of the novel takes place over a mere three days in the same little rustic town (a far less rarefied one than even that featured in The Devils), a town which goes unnamed until about 730 pages in, and even then its name ("Skotoprigonyevsk", meaning "stockyard") is basically one massive joke on Dostoyevsky's part. It is astonishing quite how tight most of the action in The Brothers Karamazov is - there are whole hundred-page chunks displaying a tightness of control of a writer over his craft which I have genuinely never seen elsewhere. In sharp contrast to Crime and Punishment, the murder here takes place in the very centre of the novel, indeed as its pivotal moment, and the sections revolving around the tortured, profligate and impecunious eldest son Dmitri, desperately trying to scrape together enough money, seething with an almost Oedipal jealousy, storming off to his father's house by night have a foreboding air to them of which most other novelists could only dream. The visceral event itself is beautifully skipped over as a lacuna in the narration, all the details rendered as confused, blurred and uncertain as Dmitri's mental state. This leaves the novelist with the unenviable task of piecing everything back together for the second half of the story, which of course Dostoyevsky does with consummate ease. Dmitri's trial in particular is, even in the most drily technical terms, the most perfectly pitched use of the slow build you can imagine. If I were the type to bite my nails, I would have been hospitalised for onychophagia long before reaching the Epilogue.

Of course, The Brothers Karamazov is not just the product of an exceptionally gifted storyteller, but a clearly exceptional man, and the thoughts and passions, the yearning and the aching which Dostoyevsky pours into his principal figures is what really makes the novel sing. Alyosha's revelation on leaving the monastery. The parable of the Grand Inquisitor. Ivan's conversation with the Devil, he of all the best tunes. These are segments which have a shelf-life long beyond the confines of the novel which contains them - they are so delicately wrought and bursting with such philosophical and psychological insight that Freud, Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Einstein have all cited them as inspiration (another of my favourite writers, Franz Kafka, loved both Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov and a careful reading of the latter will display various instances of Dmitri self-flagellating over his "insectoid lust" and other similar phrases that imply he has an insect-like inner being. The starting point for Kafka's Metamorphosis, perhaps? It is, after all, another tale of a son who cannot properly relate to his father).

The Brothers Karamazov may be slighter than War and Peace in terms of its cast, its setting and its time-frame, and it's certainly lacking in cavalry charges, but one could not ask for a more dramatically satisfying exploration of all the Biggest Ideas: life and death, suicide, suffering, atheism and religion, the nature of good and evil, what it means to live in a world in which children can die in the most brutal of circumstances, whether the Church now bears any resemblance to the suffering, martyr-like Christ of the original Gospels, guilt and innocence, the love and hatred that might drive a human being to murder. As is his wont, Dostoyevsky smudges the lines at every turn, leaving us sympathetic to almost every character and rarely baying for the blood of any of them, even whilst being privy to every one of their worst impulses, the kind we may not wish to admit to in ourselves. This is the crime thriller par excellence, a riveting study of human frailties and torments that somehow never loses its way in a quagmire of despair. There are many books about fathers and sons; perhaps, indeed, a surfeit of them at the expense of those which home in on mothers and daughters. But there are none finer than this. Two years before the book appeared, Dostoyevsky's own son Alyosha died of epilepsy, the same disease that plagued his father all his life; I found it impossible not to weep as I read the extolling of his own hero Alyosha's best qualities, or the funeral of little Ilyushechka, his mother's mind snapped and broken and his father howling "I don't want another little boy!" when his dying son advises him to try and start afresh. This is raw, primal, harrowing stuff, and its psychological honesty and clarity makes it in my eyes absolutely essential reading. I cannot stress it highly enough: if I could read no other book but The Brothers Karamazov for a year, it would be a privilege rather than a limitation.

It might be gathered by now that I rate the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky very highly indeed, and so I need not go on at great length as to why this is. Perhaps one day I shall return to them and revisit them in greater detail in future essays. For now it remains only to applaud the task he set himself, "to find the Man in Man", and go out into a world in which almost every goalpost in my mind has been shifted somewhat, in which every perception of reality now bears that magnificent author's unmistakeable touch.

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