A Chat with Katherine Bowers and Kate Holland about Dostoevsky at 200: The Novel in Modernity

Today Robin Feuer Miller is sitting down with Kate Holland and Katherine Bowers to talk about their newly published and exceedingly handsome co-edited book! First of all, Congratulations to both of you.

RFM: Dostoevsky at 200: The Novel in Modernity, despite having appeared only recently, is already having an unusually robust impact both on Dostoevsky studies and on that perennial question, “What is modernity?”  Could you share with us when you first had the idea to undertake this volume? Was the subject of modernity already on your minds or did it emerge from the group of essays that you commissioned?

KH: Dostoevsky’s bicentennial had been on my radar for several years, and an edited volume was the ideal way to bring together the new generation of Dostoevsky scholars whose work seemed to speak to each other in certain ways. My own research on Dostoevsky is motivated by questions of form, narrative, and history, and I noticed that several other scholars were working in a similar vein, most notably Katia, who had just got a job in Canada at UBC, and who was an obvious choice for a co-editor, especially as she had previously worked on an edited volume. The initial collaboration with Katia has led not only to this volume, but to a whole series of other projects including our two public outreach projects, Crime and Punishment at 150 and Dostoevsky at 200, as well as a collection of teaching materials on Dostoevsky, A Dostoevskii Companion: Texts and Contexts (co-edited by us and also Connor Doak), and our current Digital Dostoevsky project.

KB: The very week I started my new job in January 2015, the annual MLA conference was in Vancouver and Kate and I met up for coffee. At this meeting, she let me know how excited she was that I was also going to be a Canadian academic because it meant we could collaborate, and she had a project in mind – an edited volume to mark the bicentenary! We planned it out and made a timeline and have been working together since. The idea of modernity, though, only really came together when we had read all of the chapters we had commissioned. Our goal was to showcase younger and mid-career Dostoevsky scholars whose work we found exciting and innovative. It wasn’t until we had all the chapters assembled that we realized that what we had was a book about not just the novel, but the novel’s particular engagement with modernity.

RFM: Now that you have been immersed in the paradoxes and problems of modernity, what aspect of it would you emphasize first—for example, in the classroom with a group of undergraduates? I have to say that I thought the opening pages of your introduction where you focused on the first scene of The Idiot in the railway car and used that as a vehicle to launch right into a discussion of the acceleration of time was extremely effective and original.

KB: When I talk about modernity with undergraduates, the place I always start is not Dostoevsky, but Gogol. I guess you could say that adage that we all came out of Gogol’s overcoat rings true here too. I find that discussing Gogol’s Petersburg tales as a representation of the experience of urban life for the first time—the confusion, crowds, anonymity, and accelerated pace of it—is a good intro to modernity. Of course, Dostoevsky’s Petersburg works and indeed all his novels naturally follow on from this. It’s not a far jump from “Nevsky Prospekt” to “The Overcoat” to The Double to Crime and Punishment, after all!

KH: I’ve thought a lot about the opening scene of The Idiot and its implications, the fact that the novel begins with three strangers talking to one another in a railway carriage, speeding towards St. Petersburg. It conveys something of what the historian Reinhart Kosselleck has called the central element of the experience of modernity, the sense of the acceleration of time, the feeling that the world has speeded up. This sense of acceleration can be found everywhere in Dostoevsky’s novels, perhaps most notably in Crime and Punishment in the rupture of the traditional Bildungsroman structure as Raskolnikov rejects the path of gradual enrichment over time and embraces the sudden transformation that murder promises to bring, the transformation into a man of action, an extraordinary man. I talk with my students a lot about the ways in which Dostoevsky’s novels address the question of sudden, cataclysmic change. It’s something that a generation that is living through the pandemic and the beginnings of climate apocalypse can take on board quite easily!

RFM: Which of all Dostoevsky’s works most embodies modernity to each of you as you now conceive it? How have the contributors to the volume reshaped your understanding of modernity and of Dostoevsky?

KH: For me, it has to be The Adolescent, a novel I’ve been frustrated, charmed, and challenged by since I first wrote about it in my doctoral thesis. It’s a novel which Dostoevsky at one point considered calling “Disorder” and he wrote that “Disintegration is the principle visible idea of the novel.” He said it was an “anti-Copperfield,” suggesting the ways in which it flouts the laws of the Bildungsroman or novel of formation embodied in Dickens’s novel. Its fragmentary form, careering plot, and blustery, confused and at times inarticulate adolescent narrator really conveys the formlessness of modernity, but of course, in a form. In my chapter in the volume I examine the slap and the duel plot in Dostoevsky’s works, beginning with Notes from Underground, and how they suggest a kind of semiotic breakdown that peaks in The Adolescent.

The other contributions in the volume have definitely contributed to my understanding of Dostoevsky’s approach to modernity. Chloë Kitzinger’s chapter raises the problem of the tensions between reality and representation in The Adolescent, and how the clash between the need to represent fragmented reality and the need to retain form finds articulation through the hero Arkady’s illegitimacy. Ilya Kliger’s chapter examines two of Dostoevsky’s novels, Crime and Punishment and Demons,as responses to autocratic power and sovereignty and so doing, he addresses the question of the specific nature of Russian modernity, how it coexists with a mode of autocratic power and its imaginary that belongs to a pre-modern era and helps to explain the peculiarly hybridic nature of the Russian novel.Anna Berman’s chapter examines Dostoevsky’s complex treatment of the marriage plot. She suggests that Dostoevsky’s marriage plots resist the “genealogical imperative,” that they reject the idea of the formation of new family and focus instead on its retention, on the re-establishment of old relations along new lines. Melissa Frazier’s chapter examines the role of allegory in Dostoevsky’s critique of positivist science and contextualizes it within a more general late nineteenth-century European movement to do away with the opposition of mind and matter.

KB: For me, it is always The Idiot. That’s the novel I keep going back to in my research. And, of course, this is both how we started the volume—with that train arriving in the station—and the focus of my chapter in it. I find that The Idiot, a novel which feels like it is coming apart at its seams thanks to Dostoevsky’s haphazard writing process, has such a strong sense of anxiety and urgency. The urgency is encoded in its discussions of apocalypse and the universe, but also in its depiction of day-to-day Russian urban life and its collection of characters struggling through the disruptions and challenges of modernity. My chapter analyzes the image of the gothic corpse in the text and Dostoevsky’s use of this encoded terror to represent the broader anxieties related to existence and modernity for its characters.

However, I really think that all of the chapters have contributed to our understanding of modernity. Vadim Shneyder’s chapter about Dostoevsky’s businesswomen like the pawnbroker in Crime and Punishment and Grushenka in Brothers Karamazov demonstrates the way Dostoevsky builds his storyworlds on a foundation of economic theory. Greta Matzner-Gore’s chapter about probability in Crime and Punishment opens up a completely new understanding of that novel, one predicated in the developing science of statistics. Alexey Vdovin’s work on Dostoevsky’s engagement in Notes from Underground with contemporaneous neuroscience and the work of Sechenev shows us how closely Dostoevsky engaged with the scientific discourse of his time. Sarah Young’s chapter takes this one step further, exploring how consciousness, embodiment, and sensation function within Dostoevsky’s works and the way this could even be considered, perhaps, modernism avant la lettre.

RFM: Your book is unique in representing the current research of a, dare I use the word, younger and more recently emerged generation of Dostoevsky scholars: each of your contributors has taken Dostoevsky criticism in a new direction. As you look toward the future—say the next ten years—what trends do you suspect will dominate in our field?  As critics cast a broader net on society, politics, economics, science, theories of time and space, and philosophy generally, do you imagine that those trends will continue or will there be a kind of narrowing, a return to the older habits of close or slow reading?

KB: As I mentioned before, the volume took its emphasis on modernity from the coalescence of the chapters we had commissioned for it. But the one thing that everyone we invited had in common, besides their expertise in Dostoevsky’s works, was an emphasis in their scholarship on historical and cultural context. The contextualized readings that our authors gave shed new light on the way we understand nineteenth-century Russia through its literature. And, increasingly, I think, this is the direction the field is headed. Now there is so much more attention paid to writers who were important in their time, but who are not so frequently studied today. Marginalized voices, such as nineteenth-century women writers, for example, or, later in the nineteenth century, working-class writers, are increasingly being studied. And all of this creates a much richer, much more nuanced field. Dostoevsky is undoubtedly important, but he is just one voice in nineteenth-century Russian literature.

KH: I think that there is ever more analysis of the discursive context of Dostoevsky’s works, the ways in which scientific, social, economic, political, and other extra-literary discourses penetrate Dostoevsky’s novels or illuminate them in rich ways. There is also a lot more exploration of literary and cultural institutions and Dostoevsky’s place in those institutions. I don’t think close readings ever go away, but they become broader, deeper, more rooted in the complex multivalent contexts of the time. I also wanted to mention another direction in which scholarship is going, which is the Digital Humanities. The two of us have a new computational text analysis project, Digital Dostoevsky, in which we are performing deep textual analysis on Dostoevsky’s novels using XML tagging and machine reading.

RFM: You write that all the essays in your volume focus on works by Dostoevsky that “fail to conform to conventional generic categories or frames of expectation because of their hybridic, confusing, or problematic form,” and that that is why “no chapter is dedicated solely to The Brothers Karamazov.” Are you suggesting that that novel is more conventional and less problematic or hybridic? If so, are you also suggesting that toward the end of his life Dostoevsky’s engagement with modernity had dissipated?

KH: The Idiot, Demons, and The Adolescent – the novels leading up to The Brothers Karamazov -are all shaped in different ways by anxiety about Russian modernity and its effect on the novelistic form as well as on society. They are novels that look forward, instead of back, that point towards an uncertain future. The Brothers Karamazov, in contrast, is a work that looks back as much as forward, incorporating religious and cultural models from the past, that is an intricate formal puzzle in which each piece plays a part in the whole. I don’t think it is any less hybridic, especially given the number of incorporated narratives but its hybridity seems to me to be less problematic, or at least to present less of a problem of form and meaning.

KB: The Brothers Karamazov engages no less with modernity; if anything, it is more deeply concerned with its problems and possible solutions for them. The thing I find really fascinating about Dostoevsky’s works before The Brothers Karamazov is that in them you can see his writing process at work. The Brothers Karamazov is a triumph of the novel, and it is polished and beautiful, and cohesive. But when Dostoevsky’s prose is at its messiest, we can really see how he approached ideas in a raw way, and I appreciate that so much about him. I think that’s one reason why we have focused more on all the other works here. They are the ones where the seams show more, and where Dostoevsky’s grappling with modernity comes out more viscerally.

RFM: Reading your book gives me hope for the Humanities generally. The essays are vibrant, suggestive, important. Are you optimistic about the future of the Humanities and literary studies in particular?

KB: I’d like to say I’m optimistic, but it’s also important to acknowledge our own positionality: I am employed as a humanities scholar and so is Kate. And for this reason, we had the career stability and means to create this book, which took 4 years, from start to publication. It’s important to note that the book was enabled by the financial support of our institutions: a subvention grant from the University of British Columbia and inclusion in the UTP Open Monographs program sponsored by the University of Toronto Library (which enabled us to publish it open access—so important to reach a broader audience!). We’re excited about the essays we have included in our volume and the scholarship generally of our authors, but we’re also cognizant that there are many voices in our field who are not able to continue their scholarship because of the realities of our abysmal job market. I think there is space for optimism—and certainly Dostoevsky would be the first to point out the field of possibilities and potentialities—but I also think there’s a lot of work and advocacy to be done for the humanities and literary studies, and we cannot be complacent. There needs to be a sense of urgency about literary scholarship and humanities research. And there needs to be better communication between disciplines about what we do and why we do it.

KH: I’m optimistic about the work that academics and scholars are doing in terms of research and teaching, but I’m not optimistic about the support that we in the humanities get from our university administrations. Our university leadership are often not supportive of the complexity of humanities departments, and they don’t always understand the nature of the knowledge that we impart. I’m always encouraged by our students and by the extent and power of their engagement, and since I’ve become President of NADS and participated in more public engagement, such as our Dostoevsky at 200 public outreach program, that’s also made me more optimistic about the continuing value of the humanities and literature amongst a sector of the public, even if that sector is small. The birthday party that we organized on November 11 to mark Dostoevsky’s 200th was profoundly moving, sweet, funny and glorious, primarily because people across North America and beyond got to talk about what Dostoevsky means to them. Those are the moments that cheer me up when I get fed up with university administrators’ failure to understand the humanities.

Dostoevsky at 200: The Novel in Modernity is available for purchase from University of Toronto Press. It is also available open access thanks to the support of the UTP Open Monographs program.

Dr Robin Feuer Miller is Edytha Macy Gross Professor of Humanities and Professor of Russian and Comparative Literature at Brandeis University. Her most recent books include Dostoevsky’s Unfinished Journey (2007) and The Brothers Karamazov: The Worlds of the Novel (2008).

Dr Katherine Bowers is Associate Professor of Slavic Studies at the University of British Columbia. Her first monograph, Writing Fear: Russian Realism and the Gothic is forthcoming from University of Toronto Press and she has also written articles about gothic fiction, Russian poetry, and Dostoevsky. She is the Vice-President of the North American Dostoevsky Society and Editor of this blog.

Dr Kate Holland is Associate Professor of Russian Literature at the University of Toronto. She is the author of the monograph, The Novel in the Age of Disintegration: Dostoevsky and the Problem of Genre in the 1870s (2013), as well as articles on Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Herzen, Saltykov-Shchedrin and Veselovsky. Holland is the President of the North American Dostoevsky Society.

Bowers and Holland are co-editors of Dostoevsky at 200: The Novel in Modernity, forthcoming from University of Toronto Press, and, with Connor Doak, A Dostoevskii Companion: Texts and Contexts.

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