Recently I changed the title of this blog. It’s the same blog, with all the same posts. The original title was given to me by a friend, but I never really liked it, not because it was “bad” but because it “wasn’t me”. The new one – I’m not sure and will let it sink in for a while before I decide that it’s “really me”. And if it isn’t, I’ll change it again. The blog isn’t actually about me, but about writing and my attitudes towards writing, so the difference is how I feel about how close to what I’m on about the title manages to be. The new one is meant to suggest that the world of writing is not the world, that when we write, we create a world unlike the world as it really is – even though we are hoping, I think, to penetrate the real world, to reflect it perhaps, to read our written work into it and even to change it, through the creations of our imaginations.This is as true of non-fiction as fiction; in terms of me, of this blog as of my novels.
Nikolai Berdyaev, whose thinking led to my novel The Russian Idea, might have approved of this. One of his books was called The Meaning of the Creative Act, but he emphasised this point in a lot of his writings, in different ways.
Cynics might say that this is all too typical of the fantasist masquerading as a writer, and there is more truth in this than many writers might like to admit. Writers are by definition intellectuals, even if they are undisciplined and incoherent – they are after all living the life of the mind. Perhaps intellectuals in general as well as writers hold dear the illusion that their mental gymnastics can somehow change the world for the better. Certainly writers are often found in this territory. Norman Mailer, for example, tried for many years to bring his stature as a writer to bear on a more general public life. He announced his willingness to be President of the United States and campaigned as I recall for other public offices, though with how much seriousness is perhaps open to dispute.
But Mailer was far from alone Upton Sinclair, an earlier American writer who wrote social realist novels (one, Oil, was made into the film There will be blood, but an earlier and very successful novel The Jungle was about meat packing, and he could claim to have changed the law relating to food hygiene), ran for office over and over, and once gained nearly 900,000 votes in a California election for governor.
Dostoevsky had what in his time was the equivalent of a blog, A writer’s diary, meant to be a monthly excursion for readers through the mind of this amazing man. It ran on and off during the 1870s, and he gave it up to write The Brothers Karamazov. Like most people, he wasn’t planning to die, and aimed to return to it, just as he aimed to carry the Karamazov family into further adventures.
The English-language edition – an abridgement with about half the total content – makes more than great claims for the Writer’s diary, crediting Dostoevsky with looking so far ahead in intellectual trends that he could discern, a century ahead of his own life, the emergence of post-modernism. The diary was a “project” as the posties say these days, and it had intellectual pretensions in this line that may very well have astonished the writer.
Shorn of its poseur baggage, however, the editor has some very good points to make, and any English-speaking person interested in Dostoevsky who is not a Russian language expert can only be grateful that this edition exists. Dostoevsky becomes, through its pages, a much more rounded, more intelligible, and more intelligent human being than he would otherwise be.
Dostoevsky was engaged with the world, and the “diary” shows it. A woman threw her stepdaughter out of a window and Dostoevsky had some idea that he understood this in a way that should see the woman freed. He went to see her, intervened and in the end she was reunited with her husband though the stepdaughter, who had survived the incident, did not live with the family.
More significantly, Dostoevsky used the platform of his magazine for political aims. He saw his writing, as Mailer and Sinclair saw theirs, as a platform for politics. That’s not all he saw it as, but the same idea remains: that a writer, through writing reaches from the life of her or his mind to the mind of others, and through that to meaningful action to change the world in a larger, grander, more social and political sense.
Dostoevsky had some pretty strange notions in this regard and it is fascinating to discern in the diary some of the threads that he could not be open about: he was a Christian socialist, and sought to marry two very antagonistic schools of thought about the future of Russia: the materialist, quasi-Marxian industrial-development and internationalist movement and the mystical, religious, Orthodox and inward movement. He consorted with the Russian royal family (this is not made clear in the diary) as he urged his readers to talk across the dividing lines of their political precepts.
Today we might call this foolish. It may have even actually been foolish at the time. But there is certainly something noble in Dostoevsky’s wishing his profound insight into the human condition to spread outward to transform our relations with one another that might enrich us all materially as well as spiritually.
Noble or not, the writer’s conceit that the mere fact of having a public face through one’s writing earns a purchase on a wider public interest, as Mailer, Sinclair and their ilk insisted, is not necessarily a pretty one. Dostoevsky purchased his right to his views the hard way: long years in prison, opprobrium for other aspects of his life, and a willingness to be “out there” rather than “up there”. He didn’t demand respect. He earned it, even or especially in his craziest moments.
This week I finished the first draft of the bulk of my new book, Kaos. It will be a long time before it appears in print, as I am far from happy about a lot of it, and in addition have a tail-piece and perhaps a prologue to write too. It’s not especially long – 63,000 words, a short novel as it stands. It will grow, but hopefully remain short.
Is it political in the broad, Dostoevskian sense? Do I hope to reach across the divide between reader and writer and spur some personal transformations that will in the end lead to larger, more generalised changes? Of course.
Thanks for reading.