An introduction

Notes from an Idiot

Today is 11 November, Dostoevsky’s birthday[1], and, as it happens, mine too. It’s a nice time to start this project, but beyond vague pleasure at the coincidence of the dates, I don’t read any great significance into it. I’ve never particularly hero-worshipped Dostoevsky the man and I was always fairly vague about the details of his life, beyond the major events. Last year, I visited his flat and museum in St Petersburg for the first time, and while it was interesting to see where and how he lived and worked, and to learn a bit more about both him and his family, I was not struck with fairy-dust from seeing his possessions, nor was I overwhelmed with any sense of being somehow in the writer’s presence. On the other hand, I once saw, on a district train in Siberia, a pale, haunted looking, but beautiful young man, huddled in a corner of the carriage wrapped in a scruffy old coat, and I spent the rest of the journey feeling that I was sharing a carriage with none other than Raskolnikov himself. I still remember his face, and I sometimes wonder what became of him, and what he would have thought if he’d known that there was an English student sitting opposite him who had temporarily transformed him into one of Russia’s great literary heroes.

These two memories mark out the boundaries of my fascination with the works of Dostoevsky and although I have plans to explore some background biographical details, these won’t be my central theme. My interest lies in the books and the characters he conjures up, more than in the man himself.

I also make no pretensions to literary criticism. There are many excellent works available on Dostoevsky, for the expert or the amateur[2], and I am not a scholar. What I am, is a dedicated reader, who has lived with a great love of Dostoevsky’s books ever since my first unforgettable encounter with Raskolnikov at the age of 17. I plan to talk about what I, as an ordinary reader, get from his books, how they speak to me, and quite simply, why I love them so much, and can re-read them again and again. I hope, too, to open them up a little to anyone who is daunted by their size, or reputation, or who thinks that Crime and Punishment is all about a moody Russian chap who does nothing but lie around in bed being miserable. I hope that a little of the historical, biographical and literary context will not go amiss, but anyone seeking serious criticism should skip straight to the bibliography.

My frivolous working title is “Notes from an Idiot”, and this is intended as guidance to me as much as anything else, to bring me back on track when I try to veer off into areas on which I am not qualified to speak. Similarly, this introduction stands at the moment as a statement of intent, to set me on the right path.

When Russians (or anyone else, for that matter) ask, as they invariably do, why I chose to learn their language, my glib answer is that I read too much Dostoevsky at an impressionable age, and whilst it doesn’t tell the whole story, I was so swept away by Crime and Punishment that it certainly contributed to my decision to read Russian at university. I like to think that Dostoevksy helped too to bring me to Durham, as I do remember rattling on with great enthusiasm about his novels in one of my interviews (through a raging hangover, and whilst being entranced by the view of the River Wear almost right under the office window).

I made a vow that I would, one day, read Crime and Punishment in the original, and eventually, whilst living in Moscow in the late 90s, I did – albeit extremely slowly and with much help from a dictionary, my English edition, and my memory. I’m not sure that my Russian was really good enough for me to get any additional insight from reading it in the original, but nonetheless I was quite proud of the achievement.

Whilst on the subject of the Russian text, I have to say a few words about translations – always a contentious subject. I’m not qualified to comment on the relative literary and technical merits of different translators, but I have a great fondness for David Magarshack, who to me conveys a particularly Russian fervency and spirit that are lacking in more recent translations. In my second year at university, somewhere in a library or seminar room, I lost, horror of horrors, my mother’s copy of Crime and Punishment. Just at the same time, Penguin Classics reissued the novel in a new translation which I felt didn’t grab me in the same way that Magarshack had done. I spent months trailing through second-hand bookshops wherever I went (this was before the days of the internet, the days when things couldn’t be found at the click of a mouse[3]), to no avail. In a way I found it comforting to think that people were obviously hanging onto their copies of Crime and Punishment, that Dostoevsky appeared to be more loved by the British reading public than Chekhov or Turgenev, both of whom filled the Russian literature sections of bookshops (or perhaps those two just feature on more literature courses). Finally, one wet afternoon in Oxford, in the vast second-hand section on the top floor of Blackwell’s, could be heard a triumphant cry of “I’ve found it”. I’ve managed not to lose this one.

I wonder what became of the first copy. I hope whoever found it enjoyed it as much as I did.

Russian friends have claimed that people are either “Tolstoy” or “Dostoevsky” people – in much the same way that the English will categorise each other as “cat” or “dog” people. These two giants of 19th century literature symbolise the two classic sides of Russian society. For all his folksy nationalism, I put Tolstoy firmly in the westernising camp, with their yearning to be like other Europeans, although, of course, on a much grander scale[4]. He deals with the great 19th century themes of social development, war, the role of women, and sets his novels within the constraints of polite society. Dostoevsky, on the other hand, frequently takes us back to the ancient, Asiatic roots of Russian culture; the fervent religion, that slightly unhinged freedom of thought; he gives us characters who believe, or want to believe, themselves free of convention – Raskolnikov, Prince Myshkin, Alyosha Karamazov (etc) and he gives us human thought and emotion in all its messy, confused reality. The grand divide that Russians can impose between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and their readers, is, of course crude and hugely over-simplified, but it’s useful. It also goes to explain my absolute horror when a friend told me that she couldn’t find a copy of Anna Karenina in our local bookshop, and it transpired that she had been looking under Dostoevsky instead of Tolstoy. To me, it was like mixing up Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte – unthinkable and incomprehensible.

When writing an essay on Dostoevsky in my second year at university, I encountered a critic who said that each successive generation understands Dostoevsky better than the one before[5]. At the time I was struck by this and regarded Dostoevsky as mildly prophetic; I was writing an essay on apocalyptic themes in his work, so it all tied in at the time. Revisiting that thought though, I am less inclined to agree. I think part of the genius of Dostoevsky is that he is able to identify universal traits of human behaviour and psychology, and sets them in a way that successive readers, generation after generation, are deluded into thinking that he is somehow writing about them and their own time. There is terrorism and the fear of aimless, angry young men in the Devils. There is Dmitri Karamazov’s trial where it is clear that justice cannot be done because everyone has heard and read too much about the case to guarantee him a fair trial. We have manic depression, crises of faith, and ecstatic high-spirits. There are headstrong young girls, hopelessly in love with lost causes and above all, destructive, passionate men and women, determined to destroy themselves and everyone around them. Nothing changes.

[1] At least, in the modern calendar – in the Julian calendar in use in Russia at the time, his date of birth was 30 October, but I prefer to mark it on 11 November.

[2] Some of which I may have to read at some point

[3] I’ve just looked – it took me about a minute to find it on Amazon.

[4] Although my feeling is that Tolstoy himself might have rejected that argument. Must look it up.

[5] Dostoevsky C.M. Woodhouse pub Arthur Baker, 1971


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