Typically Dostoevsky

Russian literature from the second half of the nineteenth century aims to describe and analyse life in all its aspects. This literary movement is called Realism. Next to Tolstoy and Turgenev the third giant in this genre is Dostoevsky (1821-1881) of course.

Literary History

The start of his career as a writer is legendary: after the military academy he knew that a military career was not for him and he started writing seriously as soon as possible. He gave his first novella, Poor Folk, to his friend Grigorovich to read. Grigorovich read it together with Nekrasov, the most influential critic at the time. They finished reading it at four in the morning. Their enthusiasm was such, that they went straight to Dostoevsky and woke him up. They congratulated him Russian style on his literary talents, and the rest is history…

Influences

Dostoevsky was mostly influenced by gothic and romantic writers such as Walter Scott, Ann Radcliffe, Dickens, Schiller, Pushkin and Karamzin. He, in turn, influenced writers like Kafka, Sartre, Bulgakov, Gide and Nietzsche. To name but a few. His most famous novel, The Brothers Karamazov, was and is a favourite of Stalin, Camus, Joyce and Putin. It was lying on Tolstoy's nightstand when he died.

Before and after Siberia

Dostoevsky's work can be devided into two parts: before and after Siberia. In 1849 he was sentenced to four years of forced labour and another four years of exile in Siberia, due to his political engagements. His works from before Siberia are perhaps a bit more sentimental, more romantic. From this period we have Poor Folk, White Nights, The Double and Netochka Nezvanova. After Siberia he wrote The Player, The Idiot, The Possessed, Crime and Punishment and, of course, The Brothers Karamazov. These works are darker and more thought provoking.

Great psychological insight

Dostoevsky is well known for his psychological character studies. His characters often personify one of his ideas, like Raskolnikov (Crime and Punishment) represents his theory that a select group of people could decide what's right and wrong for the majority, even murdering a bad person to save other people. His character seems contradictory at first sight; gentle and compassionate, but at the same time calculating and cold. Naturally both sides are necessary to carry out the theory. Another major Dostoevskian idea is spiritual regeneration through suffering. Raskolnikov is torn by remorse and doubt after his horrible deed. He is sentenced to a prison camp in Siberia and finally after a few years he starts to feel regenerated.

Ordinary people, small talk and everyday situations? There's none of that with Dostoevsky. You will meet a whole lot of pawn brokers, prostitutes, failures, misfits, nihilists, religious fanatics, gamblers, murderers and hysterical women, sometimes combined into one character. Recurring themes are religion, redemption, the mighty rouble, the innocence of children, lost honour, suicide, alcoholism and epilepsy.

Punishment in Siberia

His involuntary stay in Siberia influenced him tremendously and Dostoevsky's work contains many autobiographical elements. In those days the labour camp was mixed, the political prisoners sat together with the criminals. The circumstances were almost unbearable and he learned a lot about people. He observed murderers from close by.

Style

His writing style is very enthusiastic. He talks to the reader, draws him into his exciting and scandalous story, and demands him to think about the big questions in life. He often had to finish his books before a certain deadline, to earn money to pay off his gambling debts. As a result his style is a bit hasty. He did not take the time, like Tolstoy, to endlessly revise. Most of the action takes place in the course of a few days and in a room full of people. As Nabokov has pointed out, this and the lack of background details, make his novels feel more like a play. He thinks Dostoevsky would have been better as a playwright.

In short

It's easy to recognise Dostoevsky; not a normal person in sight and everyone is in a heightened state of excitement. His novels are mostly written in the classical detective style. No detailed natural descriptions such as Turgenev wrote, only the most necessary. His characters don't go through any psychological growth, like Tolstoy's Pierre. But it's not all misery with Dostoevsky, he had a great sense of humour. He often gave his characters appropriate names; a 'raskolnik' for instance, is someone who separates himself, a nonconformist.

 

Dostoevsky is not for everyone, and not for every day either, but boring he is definitely not. Virginia Woolf described his work as follows:

 

“We open the door and find ourselves in a room full of Russian generals, their stepdaughters and cousins, and crowds of miscellaneous people who are all talking at the top of their voices about their most private affairs.”

 

Books read: Geschiedenis van de Russische Literatuur – Karel van het Reve

Lectures on Russian Literature – Vladimir Nabokov

Photos and dates from Wikipedia

 

Advertisements

58 thoughts on “Typically Dostoevsky

  1. I loved Dostoevsky when I was a moody teenager, just as I loved wallowing in Tchaikovsky’s music. I reckon I should get round a couple of his novels that I haven’t read. I meant to, during my Year of Russian Reading before my trip there in 2012, but I was distracted by contemporary Russian writers…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hey Lisa! So did I, I hadn’t read any of his work in years, but now I read some of it again. At this stage in my life I have other favourites, but his work is definitely interesting. I still like to listen to Tchaikovsky though;-)
    Happy reading!
    Elisabeth

    Like

  3. My mother read Dostoevsky many years ago and suggested that I should look more closely into his writings. Alas, I was consumed with work, studies, and the normal daily commitments. I confess I put off the suggestion. Now, my dear friend, I have just put a hold on the audio book re: The Brothers. You continue to inspire me!!! My mother will be pleased. Have a great day.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Such an excellent post, dear Elisabeth… I liked the anecdote involving Grigorovich and Nekrasov as they both read “Poor Folk” until 4.00 am— Also I had no idea that Dostoevsky´s books were somehow Classified into two groups… Cleraly the After Siberia period was his best one… Although “White Nights” is a great reading too … (I am just making reference to this book because I have not read the others, included in the first period)…
    I particularly enjoyed the section concerning his characters. “Crime and Punishment” is one of my favorite books ever. And I have always felt that Raskolnikov was indeed a megalomaniac type… and yet, there is something quite nihilistic in his behaviour that still make me feel sorry for him.
    A wonderful post, my friend. Thanks so much for sharing it! Happy Holidays, with all my best wishes.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hello Rebecca, good morning from Helsinki Vantaa Airport. It’s always good to hear from you! I used to read Dostoevsky a lot when I was a student. Now I hadn’t read him in years and just like you I downloaded The Brothers Karamazov audiobook, and read a couple of his shorter novels. He is definitely interesting, but for me personally I prefer Tolstoy 😉 Enjoy The Brothers Karamazov, I’m sure it will keep you entertained for some 48 hours!
    Have a great day,
    Elisabeth

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hello dear Amalia! Thank you for stopping by 😊 It often seems to me that the private lives of these literary geniuses was even more interesting than what they wrote about and Dostoevsky was definitely no exception. That anecdote is hilarious, we can just imagine the firm embraces, smacking kisses and glasses of vodka it involved 😉 Dostoevsky said it was the happiest moment in his life. And to go from that to being convicted, first to a death penalty, and getting the pardon from the tsar just minutes before the actual execution. And suffering in Siberia for years, being chained day and night. Horror!
    You’re right of course about Raskolnikov, he is a megalomaniac. But at the same time you do feel sorry for him, he is no real Napoleon, he keeps doubting and regretting, and hates himself for what he did.
    Happy reading, have a great day,
    Elisabeth

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Hello Andrea, thanks for you comment. Dostoevsky’s life was at least as interesting as his writing. I haven’t read his complete biography yet, but it’s on the list..
    Happy reading,
    Elisabeth

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I guess that Dostoevsky was as moody as his characters. Crime and Punishment is the only book of him I read years ago, and I was obviously not impressed because I didn’t even try to read anything else :). Your post makes me think about giving Dostoevsky another chance 🙂 Just downloaded The Brothers Karamazov 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Yes, you’re right! No wonder too when you look at his life. Like you I hadn’t read Dostoevsky in years, but I thought it was about time he made an appearance on my blog;-) I read some works again and downloaded The Brothers Karamazov audio book, almost finished with that. It’s good, very interesting. Enjoy reading, warm greetings from Amsterdam, Elisabeth

    Liked by 1 person

  10. This is a typical post for this site. Which is to say that it is extremely well — I should say, beautifully — written and very informative. And, it makes one want to go back and read an author one hasn’t read for a long while. It seems that everything essential has been said about Dostoevsky, with nothing superfluous. Critics write whole books and never get as close as this to the heart of the matter.

    A couple of thoughts re Dostoevsky. I am wondering, is he not — as regards style — somewhat like a writer such as Balzac, in that he didn’t give a hoot about style, basically. it was the story and the characters that mattered?

    An opinion that I have formed, not based on an extensive acquaintance with his works, is that Nabokov is overrated. Brilliant, but nonetheless, overrated. I recall reading critical writings of Nabokov in which he refers slightingly to Dostoevsky and seems to rank him much lower than contemporaries such as Tolstoy.

    A final comment. The illustrations on this site are always chosen, one can see, with great care, and they enhance appreciation and understanding.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. This is a typical post for this site. Which is to say that it is extremely well — I should say, beautifully — written and very informative. And, it makes one want to go back and read an author one hasn’t read for a long while. It seems that everything essential has been said about Dostoevsky, with nothing superfluous. Critics write whole books and never get as close as this to the heart of the matter.

    A couple of thoughts re Dostoevsky. I am wondering, is he not — as regards style — somewhat like a writer such as Balzac, in that he didn’t give a hoot about style, basically. it was the story and the characters that mattered?

    An opinion that I have formed, not based on an extensive acquaintance with his works, is that Nabokov is overrated. Brilliant, but nonetheless, overrated. I recall reading critical writings of Nabokov in which he refers slightingly to Dostoevsky and seems to rank him much lower than contemporaries such as Tolstoy.

    A final comment. The illustrations on this site are always chosen, one can see, with great care, and they enhance appreciation and understanding.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I reply to Roge’r Gleanings post I would like to say that I agree with him that your article is an excellent piece. You already know that I love Dostoevsky and have read him extensively. But I must disagree with Roger’s comment on Nabokov and cannot let it go unchallenged. I have also read Nabokov extensively and I find the notion that he is over rated as a writer quite absurd. Between the two of them I would rather read Nabokov any day.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I have taken note of your comment and see why you might differ with me.

    In response, I would be inclined to say the following.

    I don’t know Nabokov that well, having read some of his stuff, e.g., “Speak, Memory,” “Despair,” “Pnin,” and “Lolita” (in part).

    “Lolita,” frankly, left me feeling wanting, impoverished. I could not get into it.

    I have also read, in whole or part, the following critical works of Nabokov: “Nikolai Gogol” and “Lectures on Russian Literature” (parts)

    Does this make me an authority? No.

    But, I got the feeling that Nabokov is:

    — undoubtedly brilliant;

    — somewhat superficial or arid in terms of the emotional depth of his works.

    Regarding the second comment – so called superficiality – I feel that Nabokov does not have or achieve in his writings the emotional depth of a Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, that his works do not strike the same deep chords. It seems to me, from my personal experience as a reader, that often one, while being impressed if not amazed by the pyrotechnics of Nabokov auteur and his ingenuity and linguistic ability, finds oneself left wanting more emotional nourishment from his works.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Hello Roger,
    First of all I have to thank you for your fantastic compliment!
    I think you’re spot on saying that Dostoevsky cared more about the story and the characters than about style. He really tells you a story, it’s like hearing it from a witness, and an ordinary witness wouldn’t care too much about style.
    Nabokov wasn’t a fan, but as writers they do have something in common: they’re not afraid to tackle big subjects and taboos, like child abuse. Both writers have gone deep into the dark areas of the human mind with their controversial ideas.
    Have a nice day!
    Elisabeth

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Hello Benn,
    Thank you very much for you kind words!
    Nabokov didn’t like Dostoevsky much, but as I replied to Roger, they had things in common too, both writing very controversial novels. I think Nabokov was brilliant as a writer, but as a lecturer on Russian literature perhaps a bit too close to the fire to be completely objective. I read his translation and notes on Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, and I much prefer translations that are less literal but more true to its rhythm. But the notes are excellent.
    By the way, as you’ve probably noticed, my favourite is Tolstoy!
    Happy reading,
    Elisabeth

    Liked by 2 people

  16. Relying on my memory (imperfect), I recall Nabokov commenting disparagingly about Dostoevsky. Part of it was probably that he considered Dostoevsky a sloppy writer and poor craftsman, in contrast to himself.

    I recall him saying (it seems flippantly) that the
    title of Dostoevsky’s “Notes from the Underground” should have been translated something like “Notes from a Mouse Hole.

    Regarding translations, I
    have heard that Pushkin, the Russian Shakespeare, is very difficult to translate — virtually unranslatable.

    In my sophomore year in college, I took first year Russian as an elective.

    Despite the fact that I was highly motivated — I greatly
    admired Russian culture and didn’t care if the USSR were our hated political enemies — and that I had a natural aptitude for languages, I struggled mightily and barely got a passing grade.

    We had an excellent textbook with fun readings designed to inform and entertain while illustrating Russian grammar.

    There was a brief reading about Pushkin. The authors wrote, “Like Mozart, Pushkin wrote only chef d’ouevres,” the Russian word for masterpiece being identical to the French word.

    The chapter contained Pushkin’s simple poem “Thou and You” in Russian. I felt the power of his musical poetry in
    the original.

    Like

  17. Elisabeth —

    A couple more things come to mind by way of reply.

    First of all, I notice that you didn’t think Nabokov’s “Lectures on Russian Literature” were that good.

    I merely peeked at them. But, I got the impression that he or someone else compiled them from lecture notes, and that they didn’t quite work as a book. Also, they seemed quirky, like he was showing off his knowledge. And nitpicking. which is the exact opposite of what you do.

    Another thing. I noticed that you were recently (or are still?) “reading” an audio book of “The Brothers Karamazov.”

    I have found that audio books can be an excellent way to increase one’s appreciation of literature. I have found that it’s best to read the printed book first, then listen to the audio book. I have not followed this rule invariably.

    I have listened to audio books of unabridged works by authors such as Dickens and Victor Hugo, and by so doing caught many subtleties of wording and characterization – as well as plotting. Also, irony and humor. The rhythm and tone. The style. The particular brilliance of a great writer.

    And, I have found that audio books are great for helping “tone deaf” readers such as myself enjoy and appreciate great poetry. In my care, “Paradise Lost” was a good example of this occurring.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. So, I came to report back to you 😉 I got a horribly translated book – with my luck 🙂 But! I like it 🙂 Brothers Karamazov is a great piece of literature. If someone wants to learn more about Russia, Dostoevsky is the answer. He looks into the very core that has never changed. You think – oh no, that’s the bottom! – but he takes you even deeper. I just cannot stop reading.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Hi again Elizabeth. I am rather enjoying this somewhat highbrow discussion of Russian literature. If it is not too tedious I would like to respond to your comment about how both Dostoevsky and Nabokov were able to get into the characters minds even tackling taboo subjects like child abuse. Presumably you are referring to Humbert Humbert’s obsession with the light of his life and the fire of his loins, the fair Lolita. To be sure the sorry and sordid business of the tragic tale is a shining example of “moral leprosy, a general lesson of the wayward child, the egotistic mother, and the panting maniac.”

    In the case of Dostoevsky, I presume you are talking about his novel Demons. In the repressed chapter entitled, “At Tikhon’s,” the main character, Nikolai Vsevoldovich Stravrogin, confesses to the priest Tikhon his rape of an eleven year old girl. He also witnesses her suicide by hanging which he does nothing to dissuade. I think it is important to note that this chapter was censored by Dostoevsky’s Russian publisher, in spite of his protests to the contrary. This chapter was central to Stravrogin’s character and the key understanding the to the theme of the novel.

    In both these cases the writers were able to get in the heads of their characters and portray their innermost workings and yes the darkest places of the human mind. Both writers are brilliant and I think comparing them in the sense of who was the better writer serves no useful purpose. They were not exactly contemporaries. Time will tell who was the greater person.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. This discussion is definitely becoming heated!
    For the purpose of my blog I try to stay objective (although it’s probably pretty obvious that my favourites are Turgenev and Tolstoy). Dostoevsky is a fantastic writer, I appreciate his humour (I especially like The Village of Stepanchikovo) and he is great at ‘setting the scene’. He is an original too. But I do think he tends to exaggerate a lot, especially when it comes to women and religion, and as an unreligious woman that annoys me.
    But reading is a very personal experience and especially Dostoevsky requires the right state of mind and / or phase in your life. I agree with Nabokov that Dostoevsky would have been a much better playwright, but I don’t think that Nabokov should have expressed his dislike so strongly in his ‘Lectures’.
    I feel certain that the writer Nabokov was influenced by Dostoevsky, as Benn pointed out, both writers ventured into the darkest corners of the mind, trying to figure out what drove their protagonists to their crimes. Both writers are controversial even now. I haven’t read much fiction from Nabokov, but stylistically he is better than Dostoevsky. But Dostoevsky gets much closer to his reader, if that makes sense.
    Anyway, all this goes to show that Russian Literature is still alive and kicking 150 years on!

    Liked by 1 person

  21. This discussion is definitely becoming heated!
    For the purpose of my blog I try to stay objective (although it’s probably pretty obvious that my favourites are Turgenev and Tolstoy). Dostoevsky is a fantastic writer, I appreciate his humour (I especially like The Village of Stepanchikovo) and he is great at ‘setting the scene’. He is an original too. But I do think he tends to exaggerate a lot, especially when it comes to women and religion, and as an unreligious woman that annoys me.
    But reading is a very personal experience and especially Dostoevsky requires the right state of mind and / or phase in your life. I agree with Nabokov that Dostoevsky would have been a much better playwright, but I don’t think that Nabokov should have expressed his dislike so strongly in his ‘Lectures’.
    I feel certain that the writer Nabokov was influenced by Dostoevsky, as Benn pointed out, both writers ventured into the darkest corners of the mind, trying to figure out what drove their protagonists to their crimes. Both writers are controversial even now. I haven’t read much fiction from Nabokov, but stylistically he is better than Dostoevsky. But Dostoevsky gets much closer to his reader, if that makes sense.
    Anyway, all this goes to show that Russian Literature is still alive and kicking 150 years on!

    Like

  22. This makes me more eager than ever to read Dostoevsky’s works. Thanks for explaining about his writing style and method. Now I can stop wondering if there was something missed in the translations. Certainly, “The Idiot” does not seem to be as marvellously written as, say, “Anna Karenina” (which set the bar really high for me!)

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Dostoevsky had a rather unique style, his writing comes very much straight from his head, whereas Tolstoy carefully re-wrote everything. Personally, I’m camp Tolstoy, but you have to admire Dostoevsky for his straightforwardness. And Dostoevsky can be very funny.

    Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s