If it’s not William, it’s Ted…yes, since my last post I’ve been beavering away on a novel and the literary face in my mind has been not the Bard of Avon but Mr Fyodor Dostoevsky, Fyodor being Russian’s version of Theodore.
Dostoevsky is apparently not for everybody, though I don’t know why this might be so, just as I don’t know why it might be that Shakespeare isn’t for everybody, as I reckon people missing out on either of these amazing writers, thinkers and human beings really are missing out!
And for me, Dostoevsky is an endless prompt – inspiring, provocative, puzzling, informative, awesome…truly amazing, so amazing that he can be amazing even if one does not agree with almost everything he believed.
The book I am writing now was partly inspired by a short story Doestoevsky wrote and published in his Writer’s Diary between the completion of Demons and the beginning of Brothers Karamazov. This diary was a sort of pot-pourri – there were stories, but also comments and analysis on issues of the day. “Bobok” was a story, and I went to some trouble to discover that it was not based on some folk legends or myths but sprang out of the writer’s imagination.
Something in Karamazov has also kept me thinking as I’ve been writing. Dostoevsky “as any fule no” was a serious Christian, and in his final novel he brings the devil into the picture. Now, what you might think about this in the book as it is translated by any of the many people who have turned Dostoevsky’s Russian into English may very well depend on the translation and edition you are using as the notes are either quite explicit or only implicit or not really informative at all. Even one of his best-known literary biographies, which features what appears to be exhaustive exegesis of his work, does not see fit to mention His Eviltude in its account of Dostoevsky’s last and perhaps most famous novel.
The edition I like is by a Scot, David McDuff* and one of the reasons I like it is for the notes, which are extensive. McDuff is very explicit about the role the devil plays in the story – a role played in the flesh, yet without a pitchfork, strange body or even evil grin. The point of the devil to Dostoevsky is far more subtle. Readers familiar with the writer will know that his theology is easily misunderstood and that like many another human being, he sought refuge behind his own complexity and obscurity when it suited. He is nowadays more appreciated as a Christian socialist than he has been in the past, when he was considered highly conservative, but the dinners he had with the Russian royal family – whose subject matter he never wrote anything about – perhaps did not include much table talk even skirting this kind of religious politics.
Anyway Dostoevsky’s ways of treating subjects like death and the devil himself have helped me a lot as I’ve worked out and written this new book. It’s still in process and I don’t want to spoil anything as I reach the end of the first draft now, but the inspiration for this as yet untitled masterpiece I’ve drawn from the great man really is continuous, as it is in my life. In my novel The Russian Idea I tried to give readers some idea of the importance of Dostoevsky to Russian intellectual culture and beyond including but well outside literature, and in this one he may never even get a mention. It’s not that kind of book. So I just want to say, all over again, “Thanks Ted. You’re a peach.”
Thanks for reading.
*A translation I have bought but not yet read calls the book The Karamazov Brothers on the grounds that we don’t say “the Brothers Marx” etc. While this is true, it is also true that books and plays acquire their own reputations and titles even though the original title is different, usually as a short form, but in other ways too. The full title of Hamlet for example, is a bit of a mouthful.