On Dostoevsky, Virginia Woolf sells herself a bit short: "...the mind takes its bias from the place of its birth, and no doubt, when it strikes upon a literature so alien as the Russian, flies off at a tangent far from the truth." I had no other way to read Dostoevsky but as an alien (and I admit I often felt more alien reading it in translation than I did traveling through Russia without a drop of Russian beyond the constant, obsequious "spasiba") -- and yet, I had to read Dostoevsky.
Eight weeks after starting The Brothers Karamazov on the train from Ulaanbaatar, in Central Mongolia, to Irkutsk, in deep Siberia, I finally finished the damn thing. It surely didn't help that Matt and I were sharing a single volume (the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation that people in the know seem to think is the truest) or that I spent more of my train time documenting every ordinary thing I saw, ate, and thought each day in my notebook. I'd visited two Dostoevsky museums -- one in Omsk, where he was imprisoned, and one in St. Petersburg, where he died -- before I'd read more than 200 pages of his final novel.
And yet I persevered well after I was back in the States, flushing paper down the toilet and drinking water from the tap. Why? Because this was a failure I didn't want on my record? Partly yes, of course. But also because the book really does begin to overwhelm its reader after awhile. Even a reader who tends to shut down in the face of Christian philosophy and emotion.
And why does it overwhelm? Aside from the fabulous murder mystery that takes over the novel like a runaway troika somewhere around page 300? It overwhelms because the soul overwhelms. Here's Virginia again, in a delightful appraisal of what goes on in the pages of Dostoevsky: "The novels of Dostoevsky are seething whirlpools, gyrating sandstorms, waterspouts which hiss and boil and suck us in. They are composed purely and wholly of the stuff of the soul. Against our wills we are drawn in, whirled round, blinded, suffocated, and at the same time filled with a giddy rapture. Out of Shakespeare there is no more exciting reading. We open the door and find ourselves in a room full of Russian generals, the tutors of Russian generals, their step-daughters and cousins, and crowds of miscellaneous people who are all talking at the tops of their voices about their most private affairs....We are souls, tortured, unhappy souls, whose only business it is to talk, to reveal, to confess, to draw up at whatever rending of flesh and nerve those crabbed sins which crawl on the sand at the bottom of us." ("The Russian Point of View," The Common Reader)
David Foster Wallace puts it this way: "The thrust here is that Dostoevsky wrote fiction about the stuff that's really important. He wrote fiction about identity, moral value, death, will, sexual vs. spiritual love, greed, freedom, obsession, reason, faith, suicide. And he did it without ever reducing his characters to mouthpieces or his books to tracts. His concern was always what it is to be a human being -- that is, how to be an actual person, someone whose life is informed by values and principles, instead of just an especially shrewd kind of self-preserving animal." ("Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky," Consider the Lobster)
I can't say tracts are entirely absent from The Brothers K. Each of the three brothers -- Dmitri, Ivan, and Aloysha -- are people, 100% themselves, yes, but they also each represent a way of being in the world. Dmitri the way of desire, Ivan of reason, and Aloysha of love. Of course these ways are firmly rooted in the cultural-political climate of 19th-century Russia (which, as a deeply interested non-expert, Wallace summarizes nicely), but they are also rooted in Dostoevsky's own Christian purview. Often, when they speak their souls, these characters (along with the the dozens of other officials, ladies, and devils in the novel) speak their beliefs -- and their beliefs are nothing if not hysterical, discursive, and (partly owing to "brain fever," partly owing to essential humanness) maddeningly conflicted. It can be exhilarating but it can also, at times, get a bit tiring, and a bit confusing. Discussions of guilt turn to blows, which in turn, turn to discussions of the acceptability of turning to blows, which in turn, turn to idle chatter about the utility of learning French. And, of course, there's a whole lot about the separation of Church and State and loving God and all the rest.
Sometimes, though, directness bursts through. Two maxims of Aloysha's mentor Father Zossima stand out. All are guilty, he insists. That, and life is paradise. (Or maybe it's just that Matt, the speedier, greedier reader, got to those maxims first, and had been wondering aloud about them for several days before they filtered down to me...But anyway...) These are beliefs we can grasp right away, and yet they are deceptively complicated, echoing and refracting throughout the novel in all sorts of interesting ways I'm still just beginning to understand.
Or, to paraphrase George Steiner, Dostoevsky is a writer people have not just read and loved, but actually believed in. ("Could one say that one 'believes in Flaubert'?" Steiner asks. The answer, I guess, is no. Nuts.) From my alien, American, secular vantage, which much prefers the incorrigible, desperate binges of Dmitri to the endless grace of Aloysha (however heroic!), I can't say I really believe in old Fyodor.
But I loved reading him, and I do think I know what Steiner means.
author of The Violet Hour, reader, prodigious eater of ice cream