Diversions and distractions

1 May 2011 § 1 Comment

I’ve already mentioned that I felt the need to fill a rather gaping hole in my knowledge of Russian literature by finally reading Gogol’s marvellous Dead Souls, and now that I’m getting down to some serious writing and research, I’m finding more interesting diversions along the way. Firstly, I’ve had to go and reread Fathers and Sons to remind myself about literary nihilists: Turgenev’s Bazarov provides some of the inspiration for Raskolnikov.  I hadn’t read it since the first year Russian lit course, and I assumed that the copy on my bookshelf was mine from back then, so I was surprised and puzzled to find that in fact it had a sticker on the back from a secondhand bookshop in Ithaca, NY and someone else’s scribbles in it. I’m still trying to remember why on earth I bought it; I don’t really like Turgenev and rereading it now has confirmed my prejudices. I was on holiday at the time, perhaps I feared running out of stuff to read. I still haven’t quite finished it. I must wade through the last few pages whilst Bazarov dies.

My second diversion has thrown up an interesting puzzle. I’m working on Dostoevsky’s Christ-like characters, particularly Prince Myshkin at the moment, and was reading the passage where Aglaya recites Pushkin’s Poor Knight poem. I decided to look up the original Russian, and discovered that in fact Aglaya selectively quotes it and misses out several verses, completely distorting Pushkin’s vision for her own ends. Puskin’s knight is driven by a vision of the Virgin Mary, and prays only to her, excluding the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, and she is his Lady who inspires him in battle. When he dies, the Devil tries to claim his soul because he’s not been saying his prayers properly, but Mary intercedes for him and he is duly admitted to Paradise. Aglaya omits almost all references to Mary, and has the Knight daubing Nastasya Filippovna’s initials on his shield instead of Ave, Mater Dei. So the whole thing becomes even more of a mockery than I had initially realised – and of course with it being Pushkin, Dostoevsky can safely assume that his readers realise this. That’s the easy bit; now I just have to figure out how it all fits in.

Next diversion is Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ – a friend was describing it to me, and I realised that I have to read it for another take on the old problem of the conflicts between the values of the organised church and the original teachings of Jesus. These are only diversions though: I mustn’t turn into Edward Casaubon.


The details in the Devils

6 February 2011 § 1 Comment

I’m reading the Devils, and, as usual wondering how long to go before the story gets going. The first time I read it, I didn’t finish it, which is unusual for me; it was probably becuase life got in the way.  I did finish it eventually, although my memory of it is that it was mostly hard slog, before suddenly ending in a blaze of action.

What I’m already noticing this time is how much I’m benefitting from reading Joseph Frank’s biography of Dostoevsky, and I’m not even close to the time when he’s writing The Devils yet. Frank’s book is brilliant on 19th century politics and philosophy, and is filling in all sorts of gaps, especially on socialism. So I’m reading some of the political caricatures and discussions with a bit more awareness of what’s going on, I can put labels on people. I expect that as I go on with the biography more details will become clearer.

Another thing that passed me by last time was the absolutely vicious attack on Turgenev in the character of Karmazinov. You can read the first description of Karmazinov and think, “oh Dostoevksy has gone to town creating an affected, pompous old wind-bag” but then when you realise it’s based on a real person, it suddenly looks shockingly cruel, and makes for rather uncomfortable reading.

I think, of all the Big Novels, the Devils is more firmly rooted in the ideas of its time than the others, and as such, it’s worth knowing more about Dostoevksy and the lines of thought being explored in his time. This is its weakness, and probably why it’s harder work than the others. It’ll be interesting to see what I make of it all on this reading.

And, by the way, I’d love to know who is reading this blog. The stats counter tells me I’m getting several visits every day – they can’t all be from my mother! Do say hello and tell me what you think, especially if you don’t agree with me.  janeshuttleworth (at) gmail

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