Is Dostoevsky depressing?

16 November 2011 § Leave a comment

A while ago, a friend of mine made a comment about Dostoevsky being depressing. It wasn’t really the time to launch into a full-blown defence, and I got no further than a feeble “no he isn’t”, but  I kept thinking afterwards about what I should have said, as one always does. I remembered it again last night; I’d had a bad day, and had a headache, but forced myself to sit down at the computer and get some work done on the book. An hour or so later, I was feeling much better: on this occasion it was probably just the absorption in work that had cheered me up, rather than Dostoevsky himself, but it got me thinking again about exactly why it is that his novels are not in the least bit depressing, and often quite the opposite.

The delight of reading any book comes from the ability of an author to absorb the reader completely, to take them to a different place, and even if that place is less comfortable than the sofa and glass of wine that’s left behind, there’s still pleasure in the sense of escape from daily life. Dostoevsky has this ability in bucketloads; his plots gallop along, full of unexpected twists and tantalisingly half-answered questions and you have to keep reading and reading out of a desperate desire to know what’s going to happen next. Will Raskolnikov get caught, or will he crack and confess? Who really murdered old Fydor Karamazov? Will Dmitry get a fair trial? Which man will Nastasya Filippovna finally choose? And so on. The novels are packed with action and drama, full of larger-than-life characters who sparkle off the page: when I’m delving into one of the novels looking for a reference, I have to be on my guard not to get sucked back into the story, otherwise I’d never get anything written.

There’s also a fair amount of humour (I even spotted a book in the library entirely devoted to the subject of humour in Dostoevsky, although its contents seemed disappointingly dry), from the straightforward buffoonery of Rogozhin’s entourage, to the sharp digs aimed at the odious and stupid Luzhin (the conversation between Luzhin and Lebezyatnikov when they attempt to discuss the “woman question” is hilarious). One of my favourite scenes is when Raskolnikov teases Razumikhin about his obvious desire for Dunya and the two of them become helpless with laughter (yes, Raskolnikov laughs!), and even the utterly terrifying portrayal of madness that is the Devil’s visit to Ivan is full of humour.

What really nails it, however, is the irrepressible love of life that pervades everything that Dostoevsky writes. Even in the midst of madness and violence, there seems to be a desperate struggle to keep going, to find some way onwards: there is no defeatism in Dostoevsky’s novels. Ivan faces his great crisis of faithbecause he loves life and humanity so much, and the reason that we retain a shred of sympathy for Stavrogin, is because he tries so hard to find and hold onto something good, even though it eventually slips from his grasp. It’s why Dostoevsky won’t let Ippolit succeed in his suicide attempt, and why Kirillov does not, in the end, willingly shoot himself. Dostoevsky sees the miracle of human life as something huge and wonderful, and it is this sense of wonder that gives him the power to magnify the excitement of life, with all its messiness and complications, to the dimensions that it reaches in his novels. Reading Dostoevsky is exhilarating, and at times exhausting. He makes big demands of his readers, but pays them back for the effort. He’s scary, exciting and sometimes a lot of fun.  And never, ever depressing.

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