About half way through the novel, after that extraordinary chapter in which Alyosha seems to experience a moment of transcendence, we are brought very much back to earth with Dimitri. And over the next two hundred or so pages, Dostoyevsky gives us what amounts to almost a steady crescendo, the atmosphere intensifying by the page till it seems to reach breaking point. I don’t think I have come across anything quite so breathtakingly exciting in any novel, except perhaps for certain sequences in that other deeply problematic masterpiece – Moby-Dick.
Dmitri is, to put it mildly, an odd character, but in a novel where everyone is odd, that is perhaps not saying much. He is at once a sensualist (or a voluptuary, as David McDuff translates it) – a man who lives unthinkingly for the pleasures of the moment, a man who acts first and thinks afterwards. That is, when he can be bothered to think at all. At times he is no better than a thug. And yet, at the same time, he is a man of honour, and very conscious of his sense of honour. In these chapters in which he takes centre-stage, we see him becoming increasingly maddened and delirious: a nervous tension builds up in him, acts on his volatile personality, and almost drives him mad. Yet, despite all this, Dostoyevsky manages scenes of pure comedy: forinstance, there is that chapter entitled “Gold Mines” in which Dmitri, convinced that Mrs Khokhlakova will lend him the money he so desperately needs, puts up with her endless vacuous chatter until he finally realises that she has no intention of lending him a copeck. Or that scene in which Dmitri is fooled into travelling out of town to ask for a loan from a peasant merchant who turns out be in a drunken stupor. Yet these comic scenes, far from dissipating the tension, serve to increase it: Dmitri gets into such a frenzy, that we are in no doubt that he is capable of committing murder.
And here, Dostoyevsky lays out twists and turns of the plot that even Agatha Christie may have been proud of. But despite the whodunit element, it doesn’t ultimately matter: the question of who done it seems to pale into insignificance: what is overwhelming is the depiction of a mind apparently becoming unhinged.
Dmitri is apprehended by the authorities at the height of a wild party, and then begin the scenes of interrogation. These really are some of the most thrilling scenes in all literature. Dmitri’s own story is unbelievable: indeed, his account of his actions and of his motives is so bizarre, we have to pinch ourselves as we’re reading it.. But the man we see in such a state of delirium, we realise, is capable of anything – of any action, of any thought, no matter how bizarre. The gravity of these scenes is in no doubt: three of these chapters are actually headed “Passage of a Soul Through Torments”. And as one becomes caught up in them that is the impression one gets: this is nothing less than a journey through Hell.
And then , at the end of this astounding sequence, Dostoyevsky gives us another of those visionary moments – one of those moments that are so extraordinarily affecting, and yet which seem to be beyond analysis. Dmitri, in his tortured state, falls asleep, and he dreams of a landscape that is bare and cold and unforgiving, of peasant huts burnt to the ground. And amongst this desolation stand a group of peasants. One of them is a mother holding an infant. The child is frozen and starved, and is crying, and there is nothing the helpless mother can do. Dmitri is confused. What’s happening? Why is the child crying? His coachman, also a peasant, patiently explains that the child – the “”bairn” – is crying because of hunger, because of cold. Dmitri doesn’t understand. Why is the child hungry? Why is the child cold?
When Dmitri wakes up, he finds that some kind soul had put a pillow under his head: he doesn’t know who it is. But, apparently no longer delirious, he tells his interrogators quietly that he had had “a good dream”.
This entire passage is tremendously moving, yet I’m damned if I know why. Why does Dmitri think this a good dream when, like the stories Ivan had told Alyosha, it tells of the most unbearable suffering of children – of those who least deserve to suffer? What significance does this dream have to Dmitri? Here, I’m afraid, the novel loses me once again. It clearly does have great significance fror Dmitri but I don’t know why. Later, in prison, Dmitri refers to this dream both to Grushenka and to Alyosha; and, in relation to this dream, he speaks of all of humanity being responsible for all of the rest of humanity – of everyone being guilty for everything, as Zosima had said. Once again, this loses me. I don’t understand either why Dmitri should find this idea so profound and so beautiful. The idea of universal guilt was, after all, a nightmare to Kafka: what does Dmitri find in this idea that allows him to face with fortitude even hard labour in the mines of Siberia?
This novel is frustrating as there is far too much in it of the most vital importance that seems to be going over my head. I can sense that it is the work of a visionary: but the vision itself keeps eluding me.