A Chat with Anna Berman on Dostoevsky and the Family Novel

On the blog today Kate Holland interviews Anna Berman about her book Siblings in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky: The Path to Universal Brotherhood.

siblings-in-tolstoy-and-dostoevskyCongratulations on the publication of your book! Siblings in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky joins a venerable series of works comparing the two great nineteenth century Russian novelists. How did you conceive of the idea of comparing the two in this way? And how did you become interested in the problem of the family novel?

Well, I actually came to this all through siblings.  When I was an undergraduate at Brown University I decided to write my senior thesis on siblings in War and Peace because it was a way to focus on all my favorite scenes in my favorite book.  As I started into the project and my adviser pushed me to engage with the scholarly literature on Tolstoy, I noticed that none of the discussions of family in his works dealt with siblings (they were all about husbands and wives or parents and children). I only really started reading Dostoevsky during my MPhil at Cambridge, and I was very surprised when I read The Brothers Karamazov to discover that most people discuss family there in terms of Oedipal struggle and focus on the theme of parricide. Few people had written about the brothers as brothers.  So my MPhil thesis ended up being on siblings in BK… and by the time I finished writing it, I knew that I desperately wanted to write a dissertation that explored the role of siblings in the two authors together.

Tell us a little about your book. What questions are you asking in it? Would you say it has an overarching narrative?

Basically, my book is looking at the role that siblings play in the art and thought of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.  I start with exploring each author’s conception of the literal sibling bond—for both it plays a very positive role—and then the overarching narrative is exploring how they move from their ideas about siblinghood within the family to their more abstract ideals of universal brotherhood.  I am trying to show that there is a link between these two things; their views of the literal sibling bond shape their broader, philosophical ideals.

One of the main arguments of your book is that vertical family bonds such as parent-child are replaced by lateral ones, such as between siblings. How does this play out in Dostoevsky’s novels?

Scholars have been very right to focus on the importance of parent-child relationships in Dostoevsky’s works and to look at the theme of the breakdown of the transmission of values from fathers to sons in his late works.  What I’m trying to add to this picture is that as the fathers fail, brothers fill in.  So, for example, in The Brothers Karamazov, Zosima gets his ideas from his brother Markel.  And he passes them on to Alyosha, who in some ways is like a son, but whom Zosima sees as his brother come back to him at the end of his way.  He literally tells the story of his life to a group of monks, whom he is calling “brothers.” Fyodor Pavlovich is failing in just about every way imaginable as a father, but Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha reach out to each other with love and support.

What role does Freud play in your book? Do you find him helpful in any way as an interpreter of Tolstoy’s and Dostoevsky’s family novels?

Ah Freud… I know many people think it is outdated to write about him, but I studied with a psychoanalyst, Juliet Mitchell, who has done brilliant work on siblings, and under her influence, I have found that Freud still has a lot to teach us.  He was one of the greatest theorizers of the family in the twentieth century and we are still living in a world that was deeply shaped by his views.  So yes, I do find him useful.  What Freud himself wrote about Dostoevsky was wildly inaccurate (Joseph Frank has detailed this quite thoughtfully), but I think his ideas about love and family can still offer insights into Dostoevsky’s fictional worlds.  In my chapter on the first half of Dostoevsky’s career, I look at the way he constructs love triangles, and there we find an interesting slippage between the roles of brother and lover that Freud can speak to.  But I do not only use Freud; I try to put him in dialogue with other thinkers whose works prove relevant to understanding the human problems Dostoevsky is raising.

What do you think is the critical pay-off for thinking about Dostoevsky’s works as family novels? How does it change the way we read them?

A focus on siblings shifts our attention from what I believe is sometimes an over-emphasis on romantic relations and allows us to see the more stable, sustaining kinship love that Dostoevsky actually valued more strongly.  Passionate love is dangerous in Dostoevsky’s works, while sisters and brothers provide each other with true emotional and spiritual support.

What do you think is different about the evolution of the family novel in Russia compared to other national traditions?

This is a GREAT question, and it’s actually the topic of my next book.  For the new project I’m looking comparatively at the family plotlines we find in the nineteenth-century Russian and English novel.  So my full answer to this would probably be several hundred pages long.  The family novel as a genre began in England in the eighteenth century and originally came to Russia from there (broadly speaking, the Russians credited the English with writing the family and the French with writing love and adultery).  Yet as the Russians were reading the English, the differing historical conditions and status of the family in Russia caused them to diverge strongly from their English models and to create radically different family plots.

Just to give one example: the English honored primogeniture, which meant that all property went to the oldest son.  In plot terms, this means that in English novels only one brother can have a marriage plot that culminates in settling down on the family estate and producing an heir (the English family ideal).  And as a result, the English wrote very few novels that feature a significant pair of brothers.  In Russia, estates were split among all the children, and as a result, we find many more significant brother-brother relationships in Russian novels.  One of my arguments is that the Russians think of the family more laterally, while the English are more focused on vertical issues of origin and descent.  And with that, maybe I will save the rest for book number two!

What did you conclude about the similarities and differences of Tolstoy’s and Dostoevsky’s conceptions of universal brotherhood?

For both authors universal brotherhood is the ideal, but how you get there looks different because they have such different conceptions of the family.  Tolstoyan family is rooted in close family bonds and shared associations; his characters have typically grown up together and their connection comes from such shared intimacy.  So the challenge for him is to actually break down the bonds of family a bit to leave room for expansion.  Dostoevsky, on the other hand, had his idea of the “accidental family” (created partly as a response against Tolstoy).  His characters were often raised separately and only come to know each other as young adults.  So for them, the family bond is not something learned in childhood, but requires what he calls “active love.”  In this sense, it is easier for his characters to get from loving a sister or brother they just met to loving someone “like” a sibling to loving all of mankind; all these things require the same active love, which for Dostoevsky is predicated on faith.

In your analysis of brotherhood in The Brothers Karamazov, you differ from many other scholars by affording a principle role in your argument to Smerdyakov. Can you tell us a little bit about Smerdyakov as a testcase of Dostoevsky’s model of brotherhood?

This actually relates to the previous question.  The Karamazov brothers come from different mothers (except Ivan and Alyosha) and they were mostly not raised together.  So they only come to know each other as young adults and their love must be based on the “active love” Dostoevsky calls for in the novel.  Olga Meerson has argued that: “The chief taboo in The Brothers Karamazov is the idea that Smerdiakov is the fourth son of Fedor Pavlovich—or more precisely, an equal to the other brothers in his blood-sonship.”  I am suggesting that it’s not a taboo to see Smerdyakov as a brother, but a test: can other characters—and particularly Smerdyakov’s legitimate half-brothers—recognize him and love him as a brother despite all the negative things we learn about him?  He is the first step from the blood family to a wider, universal brotherhood. When Smerdyakov’s brothers fail to love and acknowledge him, they fail to enter this wider brotherhood. And the reader is implicated in this test as well; the narrator tries to make us believe that Smerdyakov is not worth of our attention or of anyone’s love.  So in a sense, this contributes to Dostoevsky’s point that all are guilty for all. We have all failed to see Smerdyakov as part of our human family, so even we the readers share the guilt for the act he commits.

And finally, just to be mischievous, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? And why?

Well, I’m slightly embarrassed to say it in this particular blog, but the answer is unequivocally Tolstoy.  Dostoevsky I admire deeply, and I will never tire of studying him, but his psychology is much more foreign to me.  All these characters on the edge of a brain fever fascinate me, but Tolstoy’s characters feel more real and I think I appreciate the fact that they inhabit a world closer to my own.  So I would turn to Dostoevsky for philosophy and ideas, but Tolstoy remains closer to my heart.


Anna Berman is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at McGill University. Siblings in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky: The Path to Universal Brotherhood (Northwestern University Press, 2015) is her first book. She has published articles on Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Russian opera, the relationship of science and literature, and the family novel as a genre. She is a founding member of the North American Dostoevsky Society Reader’s Advisory Board.

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