23 January 2013

Notes on Dostoevsky

For long I thought Dostoyevsky was a philosopher; this could be because of the kind of books he wrote. He wasn’t a philosopher, not like Socrates or Kant.  Although, he did influence many philosophers, writers, and thinkers: Freud, Kafka, and Nietzsche for example. Nietzsche was so impressed he claimed that Dostoevsky was the only writer from whom he had learned anything new.

Philosopher or not, Dostoevsky is the only writer who came very close to understand the mysteries of human behavior.

Early in in his writing career, he was imprisoned for his association with a socialist group; He was charged for reading banned literature, and was to be executed with a firing squad; however, at the last moment, the tsar pardoned him and the sentence was converted to a 4 year hard labor in the prison.

This near-death experience made a profound experience on him. In the prison he was not allowed to read any books, except the New Testament.

Four years of bible study made him a strong believer. Christ became a role model. So much so that, he once said, if he had to choose between ‘Christ’ and ‘Truth’, he would opt for the former. He also created a Christ-like character, Prince Myshkin,  for his book The Idiot. Prince Myshkin is probably the noblest character created in the history of literature. Though a noble person, he was unfit to live in the contemporary society--hence an Idiot. Like Christ, even Prince Myshkin fails in his efforts to save his friends.

Christ like themes appear in Other books as well. In The Brothers Karamazov, there is a parable of Christ's second coming. As soon as the Christ comes second time, he’s imprisoned by a ninety year old man, who asks a lot of questions, but Christ chooses to remain silent. In the end, Christ is released, on condition that he won’t come back again.
(In a similar situation Howard Roark [Fountainhead, Ayn Rand] chooses to remain silent, when questioned by the authorities.)

Dostoyevsky, although a staunch follower of Christ, didn’t like church's interference in politics and other mundane activities. According to him, religion had no business than that of the soul.

Over the period, he got addicted to gambling, and often found short of funds. As a result he had to work on multiple books in parallel. (Unlike Tolstoy, who was quite wealthy, and had the luxury of revising War and Peace a few times over the years.)

Dostoevsky suffered from epilepsy as well. The seizures occurred frequently and severely affected his health. However, once he said that these seizures, though painful, served as  epiphany and enlightened him.

Though a strong believer, his books often challenged the religious beliefs. In Crime and Punishment, he asks: Is any person morally superior (Raskolnikov) to kill a fellow human being? Even when the victim (the pawnbroker) is harming the society. And, then the greater question: Is such a crime pardonable?

In The Idiot, we find even the noblest person (Prince Myshkin) is unable to save his friends, inspite of all his goodness.

In The Brothers Karamazov, a small time character questions: whether faith can really move mountains? Yes, says bible, maybe it was a metaphoric statement. Nevertheless Dostoyevsky’s character challenges the reader.

Of other things, Dostoevsky is the first writer to employ First Person Point-of-View in writing (Crime and Punishment), which is the favorite writing style of contemporary writers. (Tolstoy employed Omniscient Third Person Point-of-View for War and Peace, which is not a popular choice these days. )
Nabokov (Lolita), criticized that Dostoyevsky’s characters don’t grow. They are fully developed at the beginning of the story itself and don’t change over the period.

And, some have criticized his characters talk a lot of philosophy unlike people in real life.

Also, Dostoyevsky’s solution for human problems is salvation through suffering. Many are not convinced by this solution.

Some of the initial Russian books were translated by Constance Garnett. She neither had Tolstoy’s sense of beauty nor the depth of Dostoevsky.

Nabokov, famously criticised that the english speaking world is neither reading Tolstoy nor Dostoevsky, but they are just reading Constance Garnett!

Luckily the translations by the husband and wife Duo, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, are the best available in the market. Anyone interested in Reading russian literature in English should first look for a Pevear/Volokhonsky translation, with the exception of Gogol. The couple somehow failed to capture Gogol’s humor.

Contemporary writing
In current times, if someone writes like Dostoyevsky, he probably won’t find a publisher. Such writing is no more in vogue.

A new writer, trying to learn the craft, may not find much in Dostoyevsky. Novice writers should go elsewhere.

Among the readers, there’s always a debate on who’s the greatest writer: Tolstoy Or Dostoevsky. Both are great writers, uncomparable. And, yet, I am a bit biased to Dostoyevsky knowing his background and the circumstances in which he wrote his books.

War and Peace is all about Beauty. Tolstoy is a gifted writer. No other writer has written a better picturesque prose than Tolstoy. But what he lacks is the depth of Dostoevsky. Every time you read Dostoyevsky you understand him at a different level. You notice things that you didn’t in the earlier reading, which is not true for Tolstoy, and that makes Dostoevsky a better writer.

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