Thursday, October 19, 2006

Dostoevsky And Me Aren't Just Like That

I've never been a very good reader of Feodor Dostoevsky. Possibly, Nabokov ruined him for me; I think I read VN's dismissive lectures before I'd read much of FD, where he relentlessly and, I'm afraid, rather persuasively presents him as a rambling, sloppy stylist, a rank sentimentalist and the worst example of the novelist of ideas, which Nabokov loathed above all things.

I tried some years ago to give Dostoevsky his day in court, reading both Crime and Punishment and The Brother Karamazov back to back. I even got the Norton edition of C&P and read all the background material. Nothing, though, really came of it -- I continually found the books bloated and windy. Their plots seemed to me thin pegs on which to hang huge, endless discussions whose conclusions never seemed all that surprising. In fact, I think I liked the biographical stuff and academic essays in the back of the Norton book better than C&P itself. Dostoevsky's plots I did not much care for; Dostoevsky himself and responses to him, that was something else, if only because I myself had a different response than most others.

At the same time, I never felt all that satisfied with my disappointment. I got this feeling that somehow I wasn't reading them right, that I wasn't reading with enough energy or passion -- and yet, I did read it with a lot of energy, with as much interest as I could. I think it may be that I just didn't find his thoughts as fascinating as other readers do, and I don't say that for neccessarily Nabokovian reasons. I don't think of my disdain as especially lofty. I think this is just one of those cases where, despite all best efforts, I can't quite coax myself into excitement.

I never had to tell myself that Dickens or Proust or Tolstoy would pay off if you just gave them a little more time, because they paid off with every page (or every other page). I used to get up every morning and read Proust and I always looked forward to it. I have no doubt there are many people who approach the day the same way; it's a wonderful thing to be lost in that kind of greatness.

A slight turn with Dostoevsky came some years after my initial attempt, and that's when I picked up Demons. This story of Stavrogin and the band of bored nihilists of mid-century Russia was absolutely staggering, if only because it seemed to me so very, very prescient. It's a fantastic novel about how revolutions implode, and to reach that ending, where all the principals die, one dropping after the other very much like in the last scene of Hamlet, was staggering -- it was like reading this great, massive historical tragedy, written by someone with incredibly far-seeing vision, who somehow knew how the history of his country would play out. I thought maybe it was one of the greatest novels I'd ever read. And it was cinematic, too; there's a scene at the end where some character, I forget which, stumbles upon a dead body and holds a candle up to his dead face. It was a beautifully visual scene, and I didn't recall anything like it in anything else of Dostoevsky's.

I never thought this would be my opinion of Demons, because I found the first 200 pages just criminally boring. It didn't really take off until midway though, and after that it never let up.

This positive experience redeemed Dostoevsky somewhat in my mind, and it put in my head the notion that maybe just maybe I should give another look at his two theoretically greatest novels, which I had found so inert, and today I finished reading Crime and Punishment, the latest translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky.

The first thing I can think to say is that maybe I didn't read it all that well before. I think it may have been that I looked at it largely in terms of plot, and on that level it really doesn't have a lot to offer. The thing is, Dostoevsky really is a novelist of ideas. The idea is what drives it. The plot exists mainly to create a philosophical situation which he can tear into, which in this case was Nietzsche and the ubermensch and whether one supposedly superior individual (like the self-absorbed Raskolnikov) has a right to the life of an inferior one (like the pawnbroker and her innocent sister, Lizaveta).

This shallow idea, which seems to have been set up mainly to be knocked down, is generated in Raskolnikov and then passed through, argued, disseminated, chewed up and spat out by all the others, namely the gold-hearted tramp Sonya, Rasky's stalwart friend Razamukhin, and his dual nemeses, the detective Porfiry and the leech Svidrigalov.

As a mystery or a suspense, no, it doesn't have all that much going for it, because that is not what really interests Dostoevsky. His interest, his focus, is a good deal more psychological, and I think what may have kept me a little more on the hook this time is that, read with a certain kind of devotion in which you try to adjust your imagination to the author's manic authorial fury, is that it achieves a certain psychological intensity or majesty -- not Raskolnikov's so much as Dostoevsky's. I noticed, too, that I got more involved with it at the end, just as I did with Demons -- possibly because Dostoevsky was running out of thoughts and had to bring the story to a forceful conclusion, which he does more or less.

I find myself thinking of Dostoevsky almost the way I do certain recording artists who are often absolutely painful to listen to but weirdly interesting at the same time, like Captain Beefheart or Ornette Coleman, where the attempt is more interesting than the execution.

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