The 19th century novel is usually described as “realistic”. It seems to me a strange description given that at least four major novelists of the 19th century – Gogol, Dickens, Melville and Dostoyevsky – seemed to have no interest at all in surface realism. But Dostoyevsky seems, if anything, and anti-realist writer. Far from exploring why his characters think and behave as they do, he insisted on the impossibility of such an exploration. This impossibility is not – as it is in Tolstoy – because the reasons dictating human behaviour become too complex beyond a point for the human mind to grasp; rather, it is because there is no reason to human behaviour: for Dostoyevsky, human behaviour was essentially irrational in nature, and, indeed, often perversely, knowingly irrational. It is for this very reason that Dostoyevsky found so repulsive attempts to regulate human thinking: to regulate the disorder of the human mind into some sort of regular pattern was to do violence to humanity. (These ideas are stated very powerfully in the short novel Notes From Underground, which may be seen as a sort of prelude to the big novels that followed.) And yes, while it is true that the human mind free of any regulation could be a source of terrible violence and atrocity, Dostoyevsky, while not advocating anarchism, was insistent that any attempt to regulate mankind’s thinking – quite apart from being sinful in a religious sense – is no less a source of violence and of atrocity. Dostoyevskians often point to the horrors of Soviet Communism as confirmation of Dostoyevsky’s prescience in this matter.
Without debating the ifs and buts of all this, it clearly presents the novelist with great technical problem: any work of art must have some sort of order, some sort of internal logic: so how can one present characters whose behaviour is so at odds with anything resembling reason, and not end up merely with chaos? I don’t know that Dostoyevsky entirely solves this problem: much of what he writes does seem to me somewhat chaotic in nature. But given his perspective – and given also, perhaps, his almost permanently embarrassed financial state that forced him to write quickly – this sense of chaos is perhaps inevitable. I rarely get a sense of long-term planning in his novels: they seem to me, rather, a series of improvisations. Many of the improvisations are, admittedly, brilliant: but some, it seems to me, aren’t.
But this leaves the purely technical problem of presenting within a patterned whole a set of characters whose thought and behaviour lack pattern. To address this, Dostoyevsky creates, often very convincingly, a fictional world in which virtually everyone is in a state of hysteria – or, at least, teetering on the edge. At times, this can appear risible: but perhaps the comedy is not entirely unintentional. At other times, it can appear overwhelmingly dramatic and exciting. It creates an environment that is unlike any other I have encountered in fiction – an environment that is quite unmistakable. It is like seeing the world in flashes of lightning.