Putting Dostoevsky in Context: an Interview with Deborah A. Martinsen and Olga Maiorova

We sat down to chat with Deborah Martinsen and Olga Maiorova about their new book, Dostoevsky in Context. First, congratulations on the publication of your book! I enjoyed reading Dostoevsky in Context a great deal, and will definitely be assigning excerpts from it to my students in the future.

Q. Tell us a little about your book. How did it come about? What is the premise behind it?

DAM: When Cambridge decided to add Dostoevsky as its first non-English language author in their “In Context” series, the editor approached Robin Feuer Miller.  Robin passed the baton to me.  I quickly realized that for such a huge project I needed a partner and immediately thought of Olga, a great literary scholar whose historical knowledge is much deeper than mine.  Olga agreed, and we compiled the table of contents together.  As we explain in our Introduction (which is largely Olga’s work), the volume’s focus on the broad social and intellectual contexts of Dostoevsky’s era allows us to read his works from our own perspective while understanding them as part of Russia’s nineteenth-century history.

OM: In-context study of Russian writers has always been on my research radar, and this is why I was so excited (and grateful!) when Deborah invited me to collaborate on this volume. And of course I was flattered to be working with Deborah Martinsen, a leading Dostoevsky scholar. In a way, our volume pursues a rather conventional approach to Dostoevsky: many generations of scholars have examined his work in historical and literary context. But our volume seeks to go beyond this approach by offering not so much a textual analysis in context (which is traditional), as an in-depth analysis of the contexts themselves, exploring them systemically from Dostoevsky’s perspective.  We also wanted to bring the most recent scholarship on the cultural and historical contexts into the field of Dostoevsky studies.  As time passes, historians, anthropologists, and, of course, literary scholars continue to discover new or overlooked aspects of life in the Russian Empire, and we sought to examine these emerging contexts to facilitate a better understanding of Dostoevsky.  And last but not least, we wanted to bring together in one book the various contexts that were relevant for Dostoevsky, thus introducing readers to the multi-dimensional world he inhabited, both in his everyday life and in his artistic imagination.

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Q. Your book examines Dostoevsky’s works in their historical and cultural context, and as a result its chapters are less about Dostoevsky and more about the age in which he lived- a huge topic! How did you choose which subjects to cover?

DAM: One of my aims was to convey to non-specialist readers that Dostoevsky was involved in Russia’s journal culture from the outset to the end of his career:  he wrote feuilletons in the 1840s, was an editor in the 1860s (Time, 1861-3; Epoch 1864-5), and published his mono-journal Diary of a Writer first as a column in The Citizen, a weekly he edited in 1873-4, then as an extremely popular independent journal in 1876-77, with issues in 1880 and 1881. Like other writers in Russia, Dostoevsky also published all of his fictional works in “thick journals.” He published his semi-autobiographical novel Notes from the House of the Dead  in Time (1861) and Notes from Underground (1864) in Epoch.  He wrote the stories “The Meek One” (1876) and “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” (1877) for his Diary.

As a journalist, Dostoevsky was interested in all the major questions of his day, which helped us to choose the other topics.  With generous support from Columbia’s Harriman Institute and University Seminars, we were able to organize a workshop for volume participants at which we discussed the vital question of how to establish the right balance between context and the writings of Dostoevsky.  We also discussed what was missing, after which we invited a few more contributors and asked a few workshop participants to expand their articles to include missing topics.

OM: Another criterion for selecting what to cover was a series of relatively recent advances in our understanding of Dostoevsky’s time. Eye-opening studies of major cultural, social, and political institutions in the Russian Empire – the monarchy, the press and the law, the diversity of religions and the ecclesiastical policies governing them, the hierarchy of ranks, travel writing, suicide, women’s work, gambling, and the perception of children, to mention just a few –  all this new work pointed us toward contexts in which Dostoevsky’s work should be re-examined. In other words, it was the outstanding research of our contributors and, more broadly, recent developments in our field that helped us navigate through the project.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book?

DAM: I love every part of the volume.  Olga and I read and edited every single article, and I learned so much.

OM: I assign various sections of the book to my students and, as we move from chapter to chapter in our discussions, I find every one of them becomes my favorite.

Q. How do you think reading Dostoevsky with this contextualizing information changes or shifts readers’ understanding of his texts?

OM: Different readers may benefit from our volume in different ways. For general readers, we hope the book makes it possible to enjoy Dostoevsky’s novels on a deeper level. We all understand Crime and Punishment better if we know, say, the cultural mythology of Petersburg, where the story is set, or if we learn about the religious beliefs held by the common people in the 19th century. So for the general audience, our book simply expands the horizons. For high school and college instructors who do not specialize in Russia, our volume offers insights into the historical context of Dostoevsky’s age that they can incorporate in their teaching and thus exercise their analytical skills more creatively by using a broader set of materials.  We hope the volume will be of some use for Russianists as well, since it serves as a forum where historians and literary scholars encounter each other in mutually enriching exchanges. At least for us as the editors working across the disciplines was extremely rewarding and refreshing. As the product of an interdisciplinary team of scholars, our volume aims to facilitate further dialogue across the disciplines.

Q. Your volume is intended for a generalized readership, but what books would you recommend to those who desire further reading?

OM & DAM: We have compiled a list of recommended reading in the volume itself and hope it will be of some help. But here we would mention the five-volume biography by the late Joseph Frank — a book that dramatically advanced the study of Dostoevsky during the past three decades and that is now available in a hefty one-volume edition. Without Frank’s beautifully written and exciting monograph our work would not have been possible.

Dostoevsky in Context was published by Cambridge University Press in 2016 and is the first Russian entry in their “Literature in Context” series.


Deborah Martinsen is Associate Dean of Alumni Education and Adjunct Associate Professor in the Slavic Department at Columbia University. From 2007-2013, she served as President of the International Dostoevsky Society.  She is author of Surprised by Shame: Dostoevsky’s Liars and Narrative Exposure (2003) as well as articles on Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Nabokov. She is editor of Literary Journals in Imperial Russia (1997; in paper 2010) and co-editor with Cathy Popkin and Irina Reyfman of Teaching Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature: Essays in Honor of Robert L. Belknap (2014).

Olga Maiorova is an Associate Professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Michigan; her previous publications include From the Shadow of Empire: Defining the Russian Nation Through Cultural Mythology, 1855-1870 (2010), edited collections of works by A. K. Tolstoi, Leskov, and Pisemskii, and numerous articles on Russian writers and thinkers ranging from Herzen and Leontiev to Dostoevsky and Goncharov.

This interview is part of a new feature on The Bloggers Karamazov. If you have recently published work on Dostoevsky and would like to be interviewed on our blog, please let us know!

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