#DostoevskySaturday: Scrapbooking One’s Way Through Russian Classics

by Oli Akroyd and Dirk Puehl

In the uneasy quarantine climate of Spring 2020 in London, a University of Kent PhD candidate writing on 19th century English and Russian literature, Oli Akroyd, wanted to reach out and connect with the readers, scholars and fans of one of her favourite research topics: Dostoevsky’s landmark novels. Twitter seemed the ideal location to bring people together virtually and celebrate the writer’s rich legacy. Joined by her charming assistant Dirk Puehl from Frankfurt, who still claims he is just another one of Dostoevsky’s imaginations, they both kicked off #DostoevskySaturday in March. Read a bit more about the people behind the weekly Dostoevsky online festival on Twitter below

OLI

So… what is the idea behind #DostoevskySaturday? What prompted you to create this hashtag?

This came as a spontaneous decision! My “day job” involves reading A LOT, and specifically – reading a lot of Dostoevsky. And of course, what is the stereotype concerning the Russian classics? It’s imagined to be something highbrow, heavy-duty and difficult to digest – not pleasure reading, especially in translation. So very often, students, particularly those just starting to delve into Russian literature, become put off by that. My goal was to create something scrap-book like, full of fascinating, bite-size pieces and snippets of information and inspiration, to introduce the audience to one of the most complex writers in the realm of literature through a fun interactive activity, where you could share your findings and ideas with others, get inspired, amused, perplexed… On Twitter, there are many hashtags to do with literature (#MelvilleMonday! #WyrdWednesday! #ShakespeareSunday!), and so, creating #DostoevskySaturday was a natural step to bring the writer’s world in tune with social media, digital humanities and interactive learning.

How did you become acquainted with Dostoevsky in the first place?

Stemming from a bicultural, Russian-British background, Dostoevsky has been a household name for me since an early age. I was introduced to his key texts as a young teenager (after all, “Crime and Punishment” is a typical high-school programme presence in Russia). Later on, as a postgrad student writing a thesis on the interplay of themes in Herman Melville and Dostoevsky’s works, I was able to look closer at the complexities and hidden themes in the writer’s world.

 Do you have a favourite Dostoevskian text? And a least favourite one?

My favourite text would probably either be “Crime and Punishment” – because I cannot resist the detective element to the plot running alongside the more philosophical themes, and besides, it is probably the most interesting to teach! Or “Demons,” for its exploration of Nihilism as a topic. Although, as a 10 year-old, I was rather disappointed, upon finishing that novel, that there were no horned or hooved entities making mischief as part of the narrative! As for the least favourite text… that is a difficult choice, but perhaps “The Adolescent” pales a bit next to the others – purely my personal opinion!

There is a stereotype floating around the literary world, that Dostoevsky can be described as a “depressing” writer. What can you say about that?

I’d say that this stereotype is rather misleading, as, first and foremost, Dostoevsky is a champion of hope. Yes, he does describe the darkness, squalor and the suffering – but whether you pick up “Brothers Karamazov” or consider Raskolnikov’s fate, the message is clear – there is life at the end of the tunnel, hope and happiness. And we can all do our humble bit to bring this a little bit closer.

Do you have a character you really identify with / respect / want to strangle?

Normally, I’d say I identify with Grushenka from “Brothers Karamazov” (her fairytale about the onion is one of my favourite passages) or Dasha from “Demons.” Although lately, I am rather fascinated with the Limping Girl from “Demons” too, because of the echoes of the supernatural – she is a fortune-teller and a visionary! And I am still mildly terrified by Svidrigailov and his dream of a “bath-house full of spiders.”

What do you think of Dostoevsky on film? Any particular series, or movies you can recommend?

Probably the modern-day Russian rendition of “Demons” (2014) made as a TV series. It is filmed in a modern, accessible manner a bit reminiscent of the costume dramas and crime series thrown together, so it often appeals to the students just making their acquaintance with Dostoevsky. But I’ve yet to see a film version of any text that would fully and truly do it justice.

Have you ever attempted reading Dostoevsky in the original? Or read him in translation? Would you say there are any translations you particularly like/dislike, and why?

Being bilingual, I read Dostoevsky both in translation and in Russian. I probably won’t be very original in recommending the Constance Garnett translation, because it is quite lucid and easy to read.  Also, Michael R. Katz’s translation of “The Devils” is great.

 

DIRK

How did you get acquainted with Dostoevsky in the first place?

There were those three-volume novels in my parents’ bookshelves… high recognition value when I began to read the French Existentialists as a pale, bespectacled, black rollneck-sweatered and Gauloises-smoking teen. Grabbed them from said shelves and was… hooked.

What is your favourite novel?

Certainly the “Brothers”. Greatest novel ever written in my humble opinion.

And least favourite one?

Do I have one? Probably “The Adolescent”. Found it to be too deep into contemporary religious exegesis. Interesting from a historical perspective, but less polyphonous than the others. Didn’t talk to me like the other novels did.

Which of his characters do you most/least identify with?

Some 30 years ago I would have instantly cried out Raskolnikov and Ivan Karamazov. Today? Probably Stephan Verkhovensky.

And dislikes?

Oh dear, Dostoevsky has written of so many well-rounded, despicable arseholes… hard to choose. But I have a special place of contempt reserved for Katerina Ivanovna from “Crime and Punishment”.

There are some stereotypes floating around that Dostoevsky is a “depressing” writer. What would you say to this statement?

Absolutely is. Part of the many-voiced choir that is Dostoevsky. Depressing because he does not touch one but several nerves. And that’s a good thing because we are not reading edificatory literature here, right?

What do you think of Dostoevsky on film?

Truth be told, not much. The Russian adoptions are, generally speaking, rather good, especially in regards to the types they’ve cast, costumes and atmosphere. But they usually fail at capturing the magnitude of the novels.

Are there any particular series or movies you can recommend?

Offhandedly, no. I usually prefer movies that are more or less inspired by Dostoevsky, like Visconti’s “White Nights” – straightforward screen adaptions of Dostoevsky’s works.

Have you ever attempted reading Dostoevsky in the original? Or read him in translation?

My Russian is, at best, good enough to read a menu. Wanted to? Yes, absolutely. But I have to work with translations.

Would you say there are any translations you particularly like/dislike, and why?

As mentioned above, I’m not a judge here.

Tell us a little bit about yourself – background, and so on.

Looked for literature and came upon philology. I did an MA but my heart never really was in the academic world. Had to pay the rent, too. Now in online sales & advertising, I really will finish that 12-volume series of epic novels one day.


Dirk Puehl received an MA in German and English Literatures at Frankfurt’s Goethe University 20 years ago. With a day job in online sales and marketing, he is still working on a dissertation on Lord Byron’s influence in 19th century literature focusing on Heine, Pushkin and Lermontov, he sincerely hopes he finishes it before he succumbs to ennui and disease in Western Greece or gets shot in a duel.

Oli Akroyd completed a BA degree in English and Russian at Queen Mary, University of London, and a Masters’ degree in Russian and East European Studies at St Antony’s College, Oxford, where her dissertation addressed the topic of archetype evolution in post-1900 Russian literature. Now in the final stages of a doctorate at University of Kent, based in picturesque Canterbury, Oli in her spare time dabbles in yoga, watches folk horror films and is learning Scottish Gaelic.

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