Dostoyevsky and me

It was love at first sight: the first time I read Dostoyevsky, I fell madly in love with him.

Like, I suspect., most instances of love at first sight, the subsequent romance hasn’t entirely been smooth sailing: my feelings about Dostoyevsky now are ambivalent, at best. But it’s hard to forget that impression that those novels made on me in my teens. First, when I had just turned fifteen, there was Crime and Punishment; and then came The Brothers Karamazov; and, then, as a young university student, in between my physics textbooks, there were his other major novels – The Idiot, and The Devils. I greedily lapped up everything else by Dostoyevsky I could get hold of – Notes From Underground, From The House of the Dead, The Gambler, The Double, and so on.

What impressed me, amongst other things, was that here was a writer who was obviously dealing with big themes – the nature of morality, the problem of suffering, the immortality of the soul, and all those other things Russian novelists address without the slightest hint of embarrassment; and yet, these ideas were presented in so feverishly dramatic a manner! At each page, everything was either exploding, or threatening to explode. I have fond memories still of Christmas Day in 1975, when I was fifteen: after Christmas dinner, as we were all digesting the turkey, I remember making some excuse to go up to my room for an hour or so to get my Karamazov fix for the day: I just couldn’t keep away.

As years passed, I, perhaps inevitably, became less wide-eyed, and more sceptical. What had appeared to me dramatic now seemed, more often than not, merely hysterical. And, as I found new literary perspectives opening up, I began to wonder whether, in my youthful naivety, I had not been taken in by the older ones. I would look back on some of the passages that only a few years earlier had thrilled me, and find, instead of the brilliance that I had seen with younger eyes, merely an exaggerated and contrived straining for effect. Had I really been taken in so badly? I wondered.

It was a long time before I had the courage to revisit the works, and this I tried to do with as open a mind as was possible. I was in my mid-thirties when, tentatively, I tried re-reading The Brothers Karamazov, and, then, The Idiot. And, to my surprise, I found once again something of that excitement I had felt as a teenager, but now, only intermittently.

The Idiot, I felt, was full of superb things: that long set-piece of Nastasya  Filipovna’s name-day party, with its slow but inexorable build-up to a series of breathtaking climaxes; Ippolit’s journal; the wild, grotesque humour – often reminiscent of Gogol; the sense of foreboding when Myshkin first visits Rogozhin in his huge, rambling old house; that virtuoso passage where Myshkin and Rogozhin trail each other through the streets; that unforgettably intense finale; and so on. And yet, for all that brilliance, the novel seemed to me very badly compromised by the under-characterisation of Aglaya, one of the principal protagonists of the drama. I got the impression of the author as a brilliant improviser – a writer who could invent the most astonishing and powerful scenes, but whose long-term planning could go badly off the rails.

This impression was deepened by The Brothers Karamazov, which seemed to me only intermittently to catch fire – although when it did catch fire, it was breathtakingly good. I don’t think there’s anything in all of literature quite like those three chapters where Ivan talks to Alyosha, and explains to him why he cannot accept religion. This sequence climaxes with the quite extraordinary chapter “The Grand Inquisitor”, and reading the whole thing after so many years, even with a mind less willing to be impressed than previously, I found myself quite blown away by it all: it was like a hammering inside the head.

I tried Crime and Punishment again last year, and once again, I was impressed, but only intermittently. The virtues of this novel are too well-known to be rehearsed yet again, but alongside writing of the greatest imaginative intensity were passages that seemed to me merely crude, or even mawkish. And in the meantime, I read the book Dostoyevsky by Rowan Williams: however, the Most Reverend and Right Honourable the Lord Archbishop of Canterbury, despite being an acknowledged expert on the theology of the Russian Church, did not strike me as the most lucid of writers, and the book mystified at least as much as it enlightened.

I do acknowledge, though, that my own very limited understanding of theology may well have contributed to the mystification: for Dostoyevsky is, it seems to me, a profoundly religious writer. This doesn’t mean his novels are proselytising works: they are exploratory in nature rather than declamatory. But the themes explored are religious themes. Looking back, I think point this rather escaped me when I first gobbled up those books in my teenage years: then, I imagined Ivan’s arguments against God were unanswerable, and that, as a consequence, one had no choice but to accept them. My last reading indicated that while it is true that Ivan’s broadside against religion is never answered, his is by no means the last word. The novel is, after all, primarily a work of the imagination, and is not a formal debate in which the argument that cannot logically be answered necessarily wins.

So now, some fifteen years or so after my last reading, I return to The Brothers Karamazov. Perhaps I knew all along that I had to read it again: as on that Christmas Day some thirty-five years ago, I still cannot keep away from it, not even with my adult reservations. What will I make of it this time round, I wonder? I have decided to keep a Karamazov Diary here on my blog: not a regular summary of What I Read in The Last Few Chapters – that sort of thing would be a bit boring, rather like those War And Peace synopses I put up here not so long ago: no – what I had in mind were irregular pieces in which I put down whatever thoughts come into mind as I am reading. A bit like thinking out loud, I suppose.

For, whatever reservations one may have about Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov is one of those handful of works, one of those towering masterpieces, against which the reader is measured. Its stature is beyond dispute: but what I can take out of it is another matter.


7 responses to this post.

  1. I’ve just started my Dostoyevsky adventures with Crime and Punishment. I’m about half way through it. 🙂


    • You do know, don’t you, that Porfiry Petrovich was the inspiration for Columbo? The creators of Columbo said this quite explicitly. I think it’s a great shame that no-one thought of filming “Crime & Punishment” with Peter Falk as Porfiry Petrovich!


  2. But it’s hard to forget that impression that those novels made on me in my teens.

    That’s me all over, but I find D virtually unreadable now. Except for Notes from Underground, which I continue to love. Not only does it make a wonderful argument against the excesses of ‘positivist culture’ etc., but as a boy, I was entranced by the character of the narrator. I wanted nothing so much as to grow up to be a ineffectual bureaucrat behind whose bland mien there was a riot of craziness. (I was not well adjusted, no.)

    I’ve tried to read Bros. K again, and the Devils, but failed miserably. In a while, I will attack Crime and Punishment again.

    Have you seen Bresson’s film, L’argent? Parts of it are right out of the novel, but a very different setting.


    • I can understand why you find Dostoyevsky so off-putting: there are certainly times when, reading his works, one wishes for at least someone to behave normally. And that line from Sheridan (“Could you wish to see anyone madder than that?”) often comes to mind. And yet, despite everything I may have to say, I can think of very few novels that remain so vividly in my mind as Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Devils of Karamazov. There’s something there, I know, something I can’t quite access, but I know it’s there all the same. And it’s tantalising!

      Bresson is another artist whose works I have a hard time with. There are certain films of his that are certainly amongst my favourites (Pickpocket, A Man Escaped), but there are certain others where his distanced, detached style leaves me feeling puzzled – especially when, as is often the case, the content of the drama seems to demand some degree of passionate involvement. I suspect that in the case of both artists – Dostoyevsky & Bresson – I’d appreciate their works more if I had a better imaginative appreciation of their religious outlook. (Incidentally – isn’t it Pickpocket that is intended to be Bresson’s variation on Crime and Punishment? L’Argent, if I remember correctly, is Bresson’s re-working of Tolstoy’s The Forged Coupon. I could be wrong, though!)


      • Don’t know Pickpocket or The Forged Coupon, so I can’t say for sure. L’Argent is certainly NOT a reworking of Crime and Punishment, which is part of its weirdness. You recognize sections of the novel, and the film presentation has only a tenuous connection to the novel’s context. This is especially true at the end!

      • Yes, you’re right. I don’t know what I was thinking about. I had quite forgotten about the ending of L’Argent. I really do need to make more of an effort with Bresson: despite some exceptions, his films tend to leave me very puzzled. But he was among a handful of film directors who really did convey in his films a personal vision.

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