Anyway, this weekend by attention was gripped by a review of the latest biography of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, aptly named Dostoyevsky: A Writer in His Time by Joseph Frank. This Russian writer has always remained one of my favourite novelists since I was first introduced to his work by one of my philosophy lecturers, Fr Patrick Carmody, M.A., M.Phil., way back in the late 1970s. This man is still alive, and he was surely one of the most brilliant lecturers whom I had the pleasure of having over the years. The first book I read by Dostoyevsky was Notes From Underground. This book was written in 1864 and is a short novel which is quite eaily read. It is considered by many to be the world's first existentialist novel. It presents itself as an excerpt from the rambling memoirs of a bitter, isolated, unnamed narrator (generally referred to by critics as "The Underground Man") who is a retired civil servant living in St. Petersburg. I was transfixed by this nameless character's alienation. His life is quite dry and meaningless and without purpose and he seems to delight in pain and suffering which keeps him conscious of living. He describes war early on in this small novel as being people's rebellion against the assumption that everything needs to happen for a purpose, because humans do things without purpose, and this is what determines human history.
The main issue for the "Underground Man" is that he has reached a point of ennui and inactivity, central aspects of existentialism themelves. Ennui surely approximates to angst and anxiety which are cripplers in so far as they prevent the person from doing anything, hence this man's inability to act. I am reminded here of T.S. Eliot's Prufrock wondering has he even got the courage "to eat a peach." Notes from Underground marks the starting point of Dostoyevsky's move from psychological and sociological themed novels to novels based on existential and general human experience in crisis. Dostoyevsky rightly rebelled against the then currently accepted determinism in philosophy - maintaining that we do not follow logic and mere mechanics in our behaviours. Human beings are far more complex for him. Like many of Dostoyevsky's novels, Notes from Underground was unpopular with Soviet literary critics due to its explicit rejection of socialist utopianism and its portrait of humans as irrational, uncontrollable, and uncooperative. His claim that human needs can never be satisfied even through technological progress, also goes against Marxist beliefs. Many existentialist critics, notably Jean-Paul Sartre, considered the novel to be a forerunner of existentialist thought and an inspiration to their own philosophies. Much of this gloom, doom and dyspepsia, as an erstwhile English teacher of mine used put it, is, of course, directly atributable to the tormented soul that Dostoyevsky was in himself.
He was a chronic epileptic and was a deeply addicted gambler. His young daughter had died tragically at the age of two months in Geneva, and he never really got over that terrible crushing blow. Here is what Ian Thompson says in his review of the above quoted book in The Irish Times:
IN GENEVA, not far from the lake’s edge, is a cemetery with Russian Orthodox crosses. One of the crosses belongs to Fedor Dostoevsky’s daughter “Sophie”, who died in Geneva (according to the inscription) on May 14th, 1868. She was two months old. Dostoevsky was a man who yearned for faith – the Gospels pervaded his Slav soul – yet his daughter’s death could find no part in a divine plan. “Where is Sonya?”, he wailed inconsolably. “To restore her to life I’d accept the torments of crucifixion.” The tragedy served only to aggravate his chronic epilepsy and send him back to the roulette wheel in the hope of a windfall. But why did Dostoevsky say “Sonya” when the plaque clearly states “Sophie”? Perhaps the girl had been named Sonya, grimly as it turned out, after the doomed heroine of Dostoevsky’s most celebrated novel, Crime and Punishment (1866), but the association became too painful for him to bear, so he changed it posthumously to “Sophie” (or “Sofya” in Russian). Joseph Frank, in his monumental biography of the Russian novelist, leaves the mystery unresolved. Does it matter? (See this link here: From Russia with Redemption )Now, back to my personal discovery of this writer. Shortly after reading Notes from Underground, our drama group in college staged a version of Dostoyevsky's great novel Crime and Punishment which as a young man I found both frightening and redemptive. It is a hauntingly deep, disturbing and profoundly psychological novel that engages with the universal themes of crime, punsishment, guilt, expiation of that guilt, the possibility or impossibility of redemption, love and hate and good and evil. It portrays the conflicted mind of its hero or protagonist Raskolnikov with an intensity only a conflicted person with exceptional literary ability could capture in words, and Dostoyevsky was an exceptional, if conflicted, writer of great novels. After experiencing the intensity and conflicted and conflicting themes of this play I was hooked on the works of Fyodor Dostotevsky. I bought Crime and Punishment (1866) shortly afterwards and read it from cover to cover. It is interesting to note that he wrote this novel almost in white heat and published it in parts in a monthly journal called The Russian Messenger to defray debts he had amassed due to his bad luck on the roulette wheel in the casino. How he must have written for dear life!
Needless to say, this is a very intense novel that deals with the psychology of a murderer's mind, tries to get into his motivations and then seeks to show that mind's tortured thoughts that lead to his eventual confession of his crime of double murder to the charitable prostitute Sonya who is full of Christian virtue and with whom he falls in love. I have always been intrigued that Dostoyevsky always portrays prostitutes as very healing and suffering individuals, capable of great love and great forgiveness. He eventually confesses his crimes to the police and is sent to Siberia where Sonya follows him. Our writer leads us to hold out hope for both of them after Raskolnikov's release. Perhaps redemption is possible for tortured souls.
The next novel which I read by Dostoyevsky was The Brothers Karamazov which has the epic and philosophic sweep of War and Peace by Tolstoy. This is the author's final novel and he spent nearly two years writing it. Typically, it was published as a serial in The Russian Messenger and completed in November 1880. Dostoyevsky intended it to be the first part in an epic story titled The Life of a Great Sinner, but he died less than four months after its publication. As I have said above, it has a very wide sweep indeed - a sweep of epic proportions covering the great philosophical questions of Good versus Evil, the problems of addiction to alcohol and gambling, the questions of God, free will and morality. Once again, Dostoyevsky's own personal suffering haunts the very pages of this novel, as indeed, it does, every book he ever wrote. In May 1878, his writing was interrupted by the death of his three-year-old son Alyosha. As tragic as this would be under any circumstances, Alyosha's death was especially devastating for Dostoyevsky because the child died of epilepsy, a condition he inherited from his father. The novelist's grief for his young son is readily apparent throughout the book: in fact, he made Alyosha the name of the stated hero of the novel, as well as imbuing him with all of the qualities he himself most admired and sought after. This heartbreak also appears in the novel as the story of Captain Snegiryov and his young son Ilyusha.
I then went on to read The Idiot (1869) and The Possessed (1872) soon after. Unfortunately their stories or themes do not remain in my mind - as it is well over twenty years since I read these books, but the above three remain firmly in my mind because I was so young and impressionable and I was moved by the passion and depth and even by the tormented and conflicted mind of this great and wonderful existentialist author. Let me finish by saying that most good literature that is formed at white heat from the crucible of suffering is in itself redemptive. Dostoyevsky firmly believed in the redemptive qualities of the Russian soul. However, the reviewer, Ian Thompson does point out that beneath his moral elevation of the Slav spirit that there lurked, unfortunately, an unpleasant vein of anti-Semitism, which Frank, to his credit, does not flinch from exposing. Also, Dostoyevsky’s appetite for affliction and self-torturing asceticism could, moreover, verge on the holier-than-thou and and be far too messianic. I will look out for Frank's book and will most definitely buy it. I have a penchant for tormented souls. It must be the existentialist in me.