The ’60s were a turbulent time. Millions of people had just gained real civil rights for the first time. Government distrust soared because of a failed war. Young people were exploring socialism, communes and free love. Alternative publications flourished. Nihilists were tearing away at norms of society.
I am, of course, referring to Russia in the 1860s.
The country had just failed miserably in the Crimean War. Tsar Alexander II had freed the serfs, who had lived in virtual slavery for centuries. Marxism was in its infancy, and Russians were split over whether socialism or capitalism could lead the nation out of decades of economic doldrums.
The hotbed for all of this turmoil was St. Petersburg, which happened to be the home of Fyodor Dostoevsky, whose novels record these troubled times in unforgettable novels.
I have been working on the Outpost’s upcoming book section, which usually focuses on new books, especially books about Montana. But maybe it makes sense to look once at the books that got us here, especially since some of the reviews I write this summer will be influenced by the many hours I have spent in the last year reading Dostoevsky’s work.
Dostoevsky sets a tough standard. As Woody Allen once put it, “Tolstoy is a full meal. Turgenev is a fabulous dessert. Dostoevsky is a full meal with a vitamin pill and extra wheat germ.”
I fell in love with Dostoevsky’s novels in high school, when a reading of “Crime and Punishment” left me haunted and paranoid for weeks, but touched to my core. I now sometimes use “Crime and Punishment” in literature classes at Rocky Mountain College, but it occurred to me last summer that it had been so long since I had read his other books that I really had nothing much to say about them.
So I started with a pair of short novels, “The Double” and “The Gambler.” Then there was no stopping me. As the semester got under way last fall, I waded into “The Brothers Karamazov,” his last novel, and generally regarded as his greatest.
Then “The Idiot,” which I have regarded as my personal favorite, even though my last reading was so long ago that I could no longer remember exactly why. Now I am about a third of the way through a rereading of “The Possessed” (sometimes translated as “The Devils”), which is generally regarded as the weakest of the four great novels about murder and redemption that Dostoevsky wrote at the end of his life.
Even “The Possessed” has page after page of unforgettable moments. Consider, for example, this perfectly typical introduction of one of the novel’s minor characters:
He was “a tall, heavy, curly-haired fellow of about forty, with a ruddy, bloated face; cheeks that quivered with every movement of his head; small, beady, bloodshot eyes that sometimes had a sly look in them; side whiskers and mustache; and a rather too prominent, unpleasant-looking Adam’s apple. But, oddly enough, that day he was wearing a frock coat and a clean shirt. It reminded me of one of Liputin’s quips: ‘There are people on whom a clean shirt looks positively indecent.’ …
“He wasn’t drunk now, but he was in a state of hazy stupor typical of a man who has come to after days of heavy drinking. He looked as though, if someone had taken him by the shoulders and given him a couple of good shakes, he’d have become drunk again.”
A few pages later, we meet another minor character: “No one could say that he was bad-looking, yet nobody liked his looks.”
I could easily fill dozens of pages with such descriptions. Dostoevsky’s novels are populated with hundreds of characters, and he sketches even the least of them in distinctive and memorable ways.
And he can write a crowd scene like no writer I know. Nineteenth-century Russia being what it was, much of the action in the novels takes place among gentlefolk conversing in a room. Dostoevsky not only makes those scenes move, he keeps every one of a dozen or more characters at a time in focus without losing the thread that drives the whole scene. It’s stagecraft worthy of Shakespeare.
From a crowd of people he moves seamlessly inside the head of single characters, laying bare their thoughts, emotions, contradictions and deviations. If you have ever had an unworthy or base thought, I sometimes tell students, Dostoevsky knows about it, and he wrote it in a book.
A typical insight appears in “Crime and Punishment,” when Raskolnikov goes to tell his mother that he is about to confess to a terrible crime and will be sent away to prison, perhaps never to see her again. As he prepares to tell her, she shows him a magazine that contains an article that he wrote but had not yet seen in print.
“Contradictory as it was to his situation and condition,” Dostoevsky wrote, “he still felt that strange and mordantly sweet sensation an author experiences on seeing himself in print for the first time.” Ah, Fyodor, how well you know me.
But one really reads Dostoevsky for the ideas. The books are bursting with them, from long digressions on the nature of God to his conception of a just society, from the immanence of death to the nature of love.
Dostoevsky had a knack for offending the right people. As a young man, he was arrested and sentenced to death for his involvement in a subversive group. He was spared almost literally at the last moment: He and fellow conspirators were standing on the scaffold waiting to be shot when the tsar commuted their sentences to prison camp.
His books were repressed during Stalin’s regime because his late novels were so critical of social revolutionaries. Too liberal for the tsar, too conservative for the Communist Party—that’s not a bad place to be.
Some of my students hate “Crime and Punishment.” Dostoevsky’s novels are long and digressive, with extensive sections in which not much seems to be happening. The names are impossible, with characters sometimes labeled by first name, by last name, by first name and patronymic, or by some nickname that rings no bells in English speakers. Dostoevsky didn’t even write in English, and his Russian prose, some Russian speakers agree, lacked art and style.
Some of the difficulties are the result of the oppressive circumstances in which Dostoevsky wrote. He suffered from epilepsy and a gambling addiction. He worked under ruinous deadlines, often for serial publications, that nearly cost him his career.
But many students get what’s going on in the book. The main character, Raskolnikov, is a student not much older than them. He obsesses over questions that have haunted young people for generations: Who am I? Have I been singled out by destiny for greatness or am I just a lump? Is there a God? If there is, what obligation does that create in me? If there isn’t, what difference does it make how I live?
In one telling scene in “Crime and Punishment,” the police investigator attempting to get Raskolnikov to confess to murder tells him he should just admit the crime and give himself over to life. “Maybe God is saving you for something,” he says.
As with so much in Dostoevsky, the scene works in multiple ways. Raskolnikov doesn’t know whether he believes in God or not. It isn’t clear that even the investigator believes in God; he may just be trying to capitalize on Raskolnikov’s uncertainty to wring a confession out of him.
Dostoevsky himself certainly believed in God, Russian Orthodox style, although that did not prevent him from portraying all sides of the debate. When a Christian friend of his complained that his famous Grand Inquisitor scene in “The Brothers Karamazov” just provided fuel for unbelievers, Dostoevsky replied, “I wanted to show them that I could make a better case for atheism than they could.”
As it turned out, he made a better case for Christianity in his novels than in his own life. He was a difficult, brittle man who did not work and play well with others. He once beat a servant so cruelly that the man cried out, “I, too, am a human being.”
But Dostoevsky turned his personal demons into art of the highest order. In “The Idiot” (still my favorite) he writes a scene in which the mild-mannered hero, the “idiot” of the title because he, like Dostoevsky, has epilepsy, is making a crucial early appearance in society.
A lovely young woman for whom he feels affection has warned him that he will surely knock over an expensive vase, and he vows to go nowhere near it.
In the course of the evening, a seizure begins to come on. The hero is transported into a sort of ecstasy and launches a virulent attack on the Catholic Church. As others stare in shock, he falls unconscious from the seizure and, of course, knocks over the vase.
So much is in play here: the protagonist’s shattered hopes of winning the girl’s heart, his public humiliation, his revealing diatribe against Catholicism, which no doubt came straight from Dostoevsky’s heart. Dostoevsky’s gift was his ability to lay out ideas that he clearly cared about while undermining their impact by exposing the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of the characters who espouse them.
He was a deeply flawed man who, by placing those flaws on display in living, breathing characters, created art that goes beyond mere perfection. In his work, the sinner in all of us finds its clearest voice.
David Crisp has worked for newspapers since 1979. He has been editor and publisher of the Billings Outpost since 1997. The Outpost is published every Thursday and is available for free all over Billings and in nearby communities.