Dostoevsky had his own way of doing things. No writer before or since has really followed his method, insofar as he had one. Other writers kept notebooks but it is hard to imagine anyone today at least filling hundreds if not thousands of very messy pages before getting down to business.
When it came to “point of view” the great man also had his quirks. He had a fondness for a narrator or editor, typically anonymous, who told the story, or made someone else’s manuscript ready. Version 2 (editor) was his approach in House of the Dead and Notes from Underground and Version 1 in Demons and Brothers Karamazov.
Dostoevsky may have been attracted to these styles of writing because they allowed him to portray events as they may not have happened, but it could get him in writerly trouble. For example, Demons, narrated by an observer of the events described, has a scene between two characters whose content the narrator could not possibly have known. Before he could have found out one hanged himself while the other slipped out of the country. Obviously, Dostoevsky expected readers to drop the fiction of a narrator and allow the real novelist authorial omnipotence, the more usual way writers go about things.
Does this kind of contradiction weaken the impact or enjoyment of Demons? Well, I was glued to the scene described above and a modern editor’s remark that “this is a scary book” remained true for me well beyond the last page: the terror of this novel sticks, even through repeat readings.
The Idiot by contrast is mostly a straight narrative account using conventional authorial omnipotence. Occasionally the writer adopts another, almost experimental approach and addresses the reader directly, offering some lessons in how writers write while – miraculously! – simultaneously both drawing readers’ attention to the fact that The Idiot is a made up story and maintaining an illusion of reality.* It’s done very well and helps him keep the comic air breezy.
There is however another element of this great writer’s intent and style. Unlike most writers, who if anything underscore the points they are trying to make, “laying it on with a trowel”, Dostoevsky wanted to convince despite everything. He gave those who opposed his views as expressed in his novels the very best arguments possible, and he often put his own views in the mouths of the most absurd and comic characters. A devout Christian, his account of the Grand Inquisitor in Karamazov, perhaps his most famous fictional episode, is a compelling attack on Catholicism – Dostoevsky was a vigorous anti-Catholic – but from an atheist. So persuasive was it that when the book was first serialised Dostoevsky’s admirers urged him to demolish the argument quickly, and the writer promised just the thing later on. When it came, it was hardly noticed.
The Idiot‘s fulcrum scene is cut from this cloth; Prince Myshkin, “introduced” to society as the preferred suitor of the daughter of a well to do family, gets overly excited at conversation, makes a fool of himself, smashes the matron’s favourite vase, and has an epileptic fit. The prince, not long returned to Russia from years in a Swiss sanatorium, displays total naivte yet expresses Dostoevsky’s often prescient views as well as his virulent hatred of Catholicism not merely to a skeptical but a disbelieving audience. The implication that the chattering classes were chattering their way to oblivion courtesy of a tsunami of revolution washing toward their summer dachas could hardly have been overlooked even at the time. Couched in the remarks of an apparent fool, the insensible was made sensible. Modern readers know what they are reading in another and genuinely tragic way: a prophet dismissed.
Dostoevsky’s desire to persuade despite everything is not completely unheard of otherwise. Pierre Maurin, one of the co-founders with Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement, sought to win his audience through consciously presenting himself in what might be politely termed an off-putting manner: he wanted, he explained to a well-wisher, to reach doubters over their prejudices.
Maurin was spreading the views of the Russian religious philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, a man who termed himself a “sprout” of Dostoevsky and who wrote a book about him.
In four of my books I have tried Dostoevsky’s way more seriously than with others – Tobi’s Game, The Russian Idea, Kaos and my most recent, Attila’s Angels. I can’t say I really managed. It certainly has been a very stern discipline to give unpalatable people ideas I share, or unpalatable ideas the best case possible. Yet Dostoevsky did these if not with ease definitely with panache. He has carried an undeserved reputation of being difficult and worse into our time; on the contrary, for writer and reader, these “quirks” make him as a writer and as a human being humbling and inspiring.
*The only other notable example I am aware of is John Fowles’ French Lieutenant’s Woman. Fowles was a clever and talented writer but his arrogance got in the way.