Of course, Dostoevsky’s claim to have invented a new literary genre doesn’t solely rest on Crime and Punishment. Although it was published when he was 45, after so many books and setbacks, it marked a breakthrough, not a culmination. Its resemblance to Hamlet resides both in its details (fatherless ex-student, bookish sidekick, philosophy, mumbling, murder) and in its peculiar status, as an extraordinary achievement that also serves as the preparation for a trio of more ambitiously unsettling tragedies.
Various touches point towards Dostoevsky’s later novels: a reflection on the “holy fool” (The Idiot), a dream involving a city-wide disease (The Possessed), a smattering of theodicy (The Brothers Karamazov). It is not an insult to Crime and Punishment but a tribute to its author to say that his most famous book, the face he shows to the world, plays a more servile role within his body of work, something like a hinge, or border – a spin-off that doubles as a gateway drug to more exalted highs.
Leo Robson writes of the importance of Crime and Punishment to its author and the literary world, even those who disliked it. (via Prufrock News)
What makes Dostoevsky’s characters so real? They aren’t just mouthpieces for the author’s voice. Peter Leithart describes it.
Dostoevsky’s polyphonic world is full of free subjects, not objects. We don’t know what they might say or do next, and we suspect that the author doesn’t know either. They speak in their own voices, and Dostoevsky doesn’t drown them out. His voice is only one among many.
But Dostoevsky is also concerned with the suppression and source of true human freedom. “True freedom is love, the capacity to sacrifice one’s Ego for the good of others.” And the only way to sacrifice one’s Ego is to surrender to Christ. (via Prufrock News)
During the year 1866 only Crime and Punishment was being read, only it was being spoken about by fans of literature, who often complained about the stifling power of the novel and the painful impression it left which caused people with strong nerves to risk illness and forced those with weak nerves to give up reading it altogether.
A great novel is 150 years old this year, and readers are talking about it. Prufrock News has collected several links, and the curator, Micah Mattix writes about it for the WSJ. If you don’t have access to the WSJ, here’s a post he wrote on why every Christian should consider reading Dostoevsky’s classic.
Thanks to Richard Pearson for pointing out a Times Literary Supplement article on Dickens meeting Dostoevsky. We talked about that meeting a good while back. It appears this story of a meeting of great authors has been repeated by reputable news outlets a few times, while the scholars who should know all there is to know about it say it never happened.
Eric Naiman writes, “The newspaper’s collective unconscious was unable to give the story up. It demands retelling, and by now Dickens and Dostoevsky can be found meeting all over the web. Their conversation appeals to our fancy while, as Gates realized, comforting us with a reaffirmation of what we already know.”
Tomalin regarded publication of the article in the Dickensian as an authentication of the encounter; moreover, the meeting had subsequently been mentioned in monographs by two leading Dickens scholars, Malcolm Andrews and Michael Slater. “We were all caught out”, Tomalin wrote. “The hoax was a clever one precisely because it convinced so many Dickens scholars.”
This is odd, backwards logic. The hoax wasn’t clever because it convinced so many Dickens scholars; rather, it was clever for the same reason it convinced them: because it was modest.
Apparently, Michael Slater’s biography brought this encounter to the attention of book reviewers, which raised it’s profile among scholars of Dostoevsky. Then, the koshka was out of the sumka.
But there’s more. If you read Naiman’s lengthy investigation, you will discover that the name of the writer who foisted this mythical story on us is but one pseudonym of many for an independent scholar who could never get hired to a British university. The story of how Naiman tracked him down is incredible and vulgar, but if you want a literary mystery, read this one.
Back in April, I posted a note from our friend Dale Nelson, about a record of a meeting between Dostoevsky and Dickens, which showed up in a recent book.
Since then a lively discussion has been going on in the comments. A couple different contributors have shown up to question the authenticity of that reference. It appears that the published account lacks corroboration, and there are reasons to doubt whether, although Dostoevsky did visit London in 1862, the two men ever actually spoke to one another.
Commenter Robert Newsom conveys the following statement from The Dickens Fellowship’s The Dickensian web site:
“Dickens and Dostoyevsky: A Notice
“In the Winter 2002 issue of The Dickensian (vol 98, pp.233-35) we published an article on Dickens and Dostoyevsky which contained remarks apparently made by Dickens in an interview with Dostoyevsky in London in 1862. The occasion was allegedly recalled by Dostoyevsky in a letter of 1878 which was transcribed in a journal cited by the article’s author. Subsequent researchers have so far not been able to locate the journal cited nor indeed to verify that such a journal exists. The author was the unfortunate victim of a very serious road accident some time ago, and is not in a condition to respond to further enquiries on this issue.
“We are therefore bound to issue a caution that the authenticity of this letter by Dostoyevsky remains to be proven, in spite of the fact that it has gained currency in a number of recent publications on Dickens.”
Mr. Newsom goes on to say, “Michael Slater had previously withdrawn his account of the alleged meeting from the paperback edition of his biography.
“All very mysterious.”
Thanks to everyone who has participated in this illuminating discussion.
This from Dale Nelson, of Mayville State University:
According to Michael Slater’s Charles Dickens: A Life Defined by Writing (2009, p. 502), Dostoevsky talked with Dickens in London at the office of All the Year Round in summer 1862. Dostoevsky wrote about the meeting to Stepan Dimitriyevich Yanovsky in a letter dated 18 July 1878, so 16 years after the event. The letter was translated by Stephanie Harvey in Dickens’s Villains: A Confession and a Suggestion, published in The Dickensian vol. 98 (2002): 233-5.
The Dostoevsky passage, as quoted by Slater:
—He told me that all the good simple people in his novels, Little Nell, even the holy simpletons like Barnaby Rudge [!?], are what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was (or rather, what he found in himself), his cruelty, his attacks of causeless enmity towards those who were helpless and looked to him for comfort, his shrinking from those whom he ought to love, being used up in what he wrote. There were two people in him, he told me: one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite. From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters, from the one who feels as a man ought to feel I try to live my life. Only two people? I asked.—
I would be happier if Dostoevsky had written the letter right after the interview. I figure, though, that, at the least, these two did actually meet. That seems wonderful.
Update: The story of the Dostoevsky-Dickens meeting is a hoax. See the Comments for more details.