One of my least favourite books by Dostoevsky is Notes from Underground.* Serious literary people, who know a lot more than I do about everything, have a very high regard for this book, and it is easy to see why. There are purely literary techniques at work in Notes that are admirable and characteristic of this amazing writer. One of these could even be called his chief technique: the use of a narrator/amanuensis. House of the Dead, Demons, and The Brothers Karamazov also all use this technique of an observer who is if not remote from the action, not really significant to it except as observer or editor/scribe, yet whose existence puts the “facts” open to dispute. Notes and House of the Dead use a kind of transcriber rather than observer, and in Notes he tires of his task so that the outpourings of the “author”, while continuing, will no longer be published….a very exact form of censorship!
Notes is highly regarded as a turning point in Dostoevsky’s career and has been hailed as an “existential” novel, even the first existential novel. It does have some Kierkegaardian overtones (undertones perhaps would be better), to the degree that it is certainly possible that Dostoevsky was influenced by Kierkegaard in writing it. Yet for me, Notes is a bore, especially the first part, where the “author” takes the prevailing liberal politics to pieces. The ideas he attacks are so plainly false that it is hard, at this distance in time at least, not to think Dostoevsky was destroying ideas no one actually held, till some background reading reveals that indeed some very peculiar notions were all the rage among the “intelligentsia” in Russia in the 1860s and 70s (and beyond!). Marxism and materialism in general were swallowed then without chewing, with added spices untasted by any others anywhere. That’s not the yawn of it, though – threaded through the text he drones on and on essentially (existentially?) about his right to be unpleasant, and the resentment that has provoked his unpleasantness. It is undeniable that this right exists, but hardly needs saying, and the resentment he describes as all too universal is more childish than that. What seems to strike people as praiseworthy is the honesty, especially of its second part. Perhaps.
In any case a bad book by this great writer may be better than a good book by many another.
Dostoevsky grabbed me about the time Celine did, in the 1970s, and possibly for similar reasons; the author seemed to get under the skin of society and of the individual person at the same time, and seemed even more in Dostoevsky’s case to understand what it is that drives people to extremes. Dostoevsky had an uncanny ability to sympathetically portray edgy personalities even as he disapproved of them, of their motives, and of their actions. And he could be, like Celine, very funny. He also had a wonderful way of mocking his own beliefs – beliefs he wanted readers to accept and use in their own lives – while giving eloquent support to ideas he found repellent. As a result just what Dostoevsky really thought is not always clear. Digging for these nuggets may not be rewarded with gold: like Celine, Dostoevsky was an anti-
semite, though his dislike of Jews was tempered by the Christian spirit. Many of his views on a wide range of subjects seem quaint when not bizarre to 21st century eyes…and yet…
Yes, “and yet”…What Dostoevsky saw clearly shone crystalline. Demons, inspired by the revolutionary nihilist Sergei Nechaev’s murder of a student, was an eerie, indeed frightening and all too prophetic look at what the revolutionaries Russia was producing in abundance in the 1870s would get up to once they had power.** Karamazov, though it is technically incomplete in the sense that Dostoevsky planned to continue the saga of the Karamazov family in at least an additional volume, is even more incredible: like all great writing, it not merely repays re-reading, but demands it of those who wish to try at least to drink full measure from this writer’s bountiful fountain of insight.
While I was writing my last novel, The Russian Idea, I read and re-read a heap of Dostoevsky – not just most of the novels and stories but the “post-modern” journal he published before leaving off to write Karamazov, A Writer’s Diary.*** What started for me as homage to the Russian religious philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev^ ended a composite with Dostoevsky. While I was writing it, the storyline came to me for my present book, Kaos.
Kaos has not been an easy write, and I’ve dropped it in order to think things through – and this post is an expression of that. One of the elements of Dostoevsky’s writing that I have more or less ignored, now seems essential to me: the labyrinthine network of interrelationships that characterise what I regard as his finest work: The Idiot, Demons, The Brothers Karamazov. All these feature an enormous cast.
In Dostoevsky’s day, when novels were first published as serials in magazines, such vast tapestries were not merely possible but all but expected. Today, following the notion of telegraphy via Celine, they are harder to muster and sustain. All the same, today I reckon it’s the key to my present difficulties. Stop the chatter, Steve, and get on with it. Your underground man awaits his day.
* When I read Notes, it was in an old Everyman edition that treated Dostoevsky as if he was a new chum on the English-language literary block, and referred to him as “Theodore”, the English version of Fyodor. Hence the title to this post.
** There is my own take on this at work in my novel The Russian Idea.
*** Roughly half of this interesting journal has been translated. It gives, among other things, the real flavour of Dostoevsky’s thinking, and shows his anti-semitism in full flower. Indeed, in more than one way, it is similar to Celine’s pamphleteering.
^Berdyaev regarded himself as a follower – he called himself a sprout – of Dostoevsky. For more on this you will just have to read The Russian Idea, whether my own or Berdyaev’s, or Berdyaev’s book Dostoevsky. Berdyaev’s Russian Idea and Dostoevsky are available in hardcover. I have not written a post on Berdyaev, but will one day. For an interesting account of Dostoevsky as a religious prophet and the tradition he fits in, see Nicholas Zernov’s Three Russian Prophets.