Anti-National Dostoevskys: Linda Lê and “Literature in Exile”

by Melanie V. Jones

The autofictional [1] work of French-Vietnamese writer Linda Lê is well-known for its vast intertextual webs which taken together form an intricate galaxy of authorial and textual allusions woven amidst half-fabricated scenes. Within this galaxy, Russian literature makes up one of its major guiding constellations with Fyodor Dostoevsky as one of its brightest stars. Dostoevsky “imbued [her] universe as a teenager” [2]. His name appears frequently in interviews as a major influence in Lê’s writing, and references to him and his works appear across Lê’s autofiction. He also serves as a guiding light in Lê’s Le complexe de Caliban (Caliban Complex, 2005), a hybrid work of literature review and memoir dedicated to her thoughts on “language, identity, and the place literature now occupies” in the world [3].

Tiếng Việt: Linda Lê à Saigon (2010) – Image by BaoChanTL and shared here thanks to a CC BY-SA 4.0 license

Those familiar with each author, however, may find Dostoevsky’s influence on Lê’s work surprising. Dostoevsky was a fervent Slavophile; his later work, in particular, draws heavily on the concept of pochvennichestvo (return to native soil) as an avenue of redemption for his anti-heroes. His ardent nationalism and fervent religiosity famously caused Vladimir Nabokov to condemn him for dividing the world into “egoism-Antichrist-Europe on one side and brotherhood-Christ-Russia on the other” [4]. Lê, by contrast, is famous for her insistence that “to be the child of no one, from no country, is for [her] the sole attitude possible” to take as a writer [5]. She flatly refuses to be considered French, Vietnamese, or Francophone. It is the act of writing itself, not any origin or affiliation, that creates any sense of self — an act of creation repeated each time she un- and re-ravels the circumstances of her past into a new autofictional novel. Conspicuously absent in her work as well is any kind of transcendent escape. Healing is not the goal, nor is revelation. Rather, the double movement of rupture and reconstruction in her oeuvre “thwarts the cathexis necessary to move past trauma while simultaneously resisting the lure of regression.” Such resistance to closure has led scholars to dub Lê’s autofiction “literature as exile” [6], a statement that could not seem further from Dostoevsky’s oeuvre or aims.

Yet Linda Lê is far from the only anti-nationalist to admire Dostoevsky. In fact, there are several other 20th-century French women — all of whom grapple with multiple allegiances, are skeptical of static identity, and engage heavily in cross-generic experimentation — who have also turned to the Russian author for inspiration. Unlike their male counterparts such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, these women admire Dostoevsky less for being a precursor to existentialism than for his quest for truth amidst—rather than outside of—the chaos of human passions. Philosopher-novelists like the Bulgarian-French writer Julia Kristeva and Algerian-French feminist Hélène Cixous applaud the author’s depiction of the subject as both “in process” and “on trial”[7], and draw on Dostoevsky’s plots and characters in their own respective works. Lê’s contemporary, the Senegalese-French writer Marie NDiaye, is also a fervent admirer of Dostoevsky [8]. Her autofictional texts feature Dostoevskian archetypes of a postmodern age. The characters are neither able to connect fully with any outside world, nor cling to the security of an identity they are hyper-aware is in flux [9].

Both Lê’s male and female protagonists are haunted by madness, threatened by violence, and forever torn between salvation and the abyss, even if Lê refuses to consign them to either fate. Referencing her family’s flight from American invaders, and the later death of her abandoned father, Lê has asserted that “the history of [her] soul is one of exile, of mourning, and of the madness that accompanies them” [10]. As a child, Dostoevsky was the one who “nourished” her soul through a paradoxical balm of “guilt and [spiritual] mortification.” [11] Suffering became generative. Through it, Lê refused to accept the suffocating demands of belonging and legitimacy that stifled (re)generation. For this reason, writing is for her both a criminal act against her ancestry and an ultimate sacrifice of the self: the purposeful up-rooting, de-authorizing, and il-legitimizing of identity as a representational concept. “The writer lives the adventure of Dostoevsky’s character Mr. Golyadkin,” Lê asserts, “who witnesses a flood of doubles surge around him”. When she writes, she observes, it is “as if my grimacing and unruly double, this part of me, furious, violent, vindictive, that I try to silence and dissimulate under a smooth appearance, has taken power” [12]; this parasitic double’s mutable defects engender continual transformation. In Caliban Complex, she defends this perspective by charting a similar tradition in Russian literature, one she traces from Nikolai Gogol, through Dostoevsky, and on to Yevgeny Zamyatin. Such as tradition spurs monstrousness to engender new creations, and sets down lures that ultimately end up “revealing us to ourselves.” Like the Silver Age writer, Leonid Andreyev, she also sees Dostoevsky’s power as “giv[ing] shape to those ‘nocturnal conspiracies, these half-conscious thoughts and feelings’” that haunt the background of each generation [14].

It is clear, then, that Linda Lê draws on Dostoevsky’s insights into the human psyche, and the multivocal aspect of his novels, as guiding lights in her own autofiction. More surprisingly, however, she also links Dostoevsky to her conception of literature as illegitimate, something always (and often preferably) “out of place, improper even”. Lê stresses the ambivalent reception that Dostoevsky has received over the past century, with authors as frequently horrified by “the forces of shadows, confusion, and insanity” that amassed in his works as they are compelled to deep reflection by their power [15]. In Caliban Complex—a title that hints at the ways in which Lê often reimagines colonial literature for her own purposes—she implicitly connects Dostoevsky to Russians like the Soviet exile, Marina Tsvetaeva, who inhabits “not a land, but a language” [16]. The cyclical exiles and warped rehabilitations of Dostoevsky’s oeuvre by the Soviet state are well-known [17]. That ambivalence extends today, with Dostoevsky’s popularity lagging behind other great writers like Pushkin, Gogol, and Tolstoy within Russia, even as his influence continues to grow on an international scale. In some ways, the Slavophile’s legacy is one of posthumous literature-in-exile: Dostoevsky’s novels, dedicated to the future of his country, spent a good portion of the Soviet period ignored or denigrated, their words occasionally reclaimed by men the author would have despised. This aspect of Dostoevsky reception is likely known to Lê. She remains fascinated by censored writers, and draws on Russian literature frequently to articulate her feeling of writing-in-exile as creatively generative [18]. Turning this political reality into a personal credo, Lê insists that writing requires “sacrif[ing] everything, absolutely everything” that she is [19], and to instead, draw upon the multitude of fabricated voices produced by her interpretations and readings.

Through a self-erasure that nonetheless draws repeatedly on multiple pasts, Lê’s work also produces many of the same effects which dazzle Dostoevsky readers today. Lê’s writings emphasize perpetually striving for rather than proclaiming truth. They constantly destabilize epistemological sites of authority, and complicate static senses of identity. And they often encourage us to turn to doubt as something life-giving and generating in its possibilities, even as we mourn for the certainties we once held. Voix: Une crise (Voice(s): A crisis, 1998) produces these sensations precisely by drawing on Dostoevsky. In this work, Lê’s narrator is stalked by the Organization, whose voices fill her head and whose agents are seemingly everywhere. The shadowy group shares many similarities to Pyotr Stepanovich’s nihilist cabal in Demons [19]. Yet the Organization’s aims eschew political takeover in favor of cultural appropriation and stoking personal guilt. When a neighbor is unmasked as a member, the narrator names him a Grand Inquisitor. His attempts to placate her fears by reducing her struggle to mental illness are strikingly similar to the strategy of Ivan Karamazov’s Inquisitor in Brothers Karamazov. The narrator refuses to accept the security and acceptance that would come from submitting to the Organization. She suspects that, either way, her spirit will end up destroyed. To escape their reach, the narrator weighs suicide. This is an avenue previously suggested by The Philosopher, a patient from her time in an asylum. “The postulate that “if suicide is permitted, then everything is permitted” [20],” however, here serves to counter the encroaching silence that threatens Lê’s vision of existence-as-creation. Ivan’s famous dictum has been repurposed for the narrator’s own struggle against being co-opted into a philosophical stance, rather than serving as its fundamental expression.

Lê’s oeuvre “assert[s] an itinerary, but that also seeks to scramble the map [brouiller les pistes, “muddy the waters”], point in wrong or unlikely directions” [21]. Her texts incessantly backtrack, retrace, and lead off into new directions upon each reading. Nonetheless, she firmly believes that this up-rooting and dis-placing serves to facilitate immanent truths. “The task of the writer” lies in “teaching the eyes to open, mouths to denounce” [22]. She believes that the “sadness and wise madness” that spring from constant disorientation forces writers to “plunge into the depths of the unknown” and “find something new” [23]. Like Kristeva, Cixous, and NDiaye, Linda Lê embraces the chaos that Dostoevsky feared as a pathway to truths that resist explanation and stability. Yet she also draws on his psychological complexity and polyphonic structures to capitalize autofiction’s own existential uncertainty.

This blog post is part of the series Global Dostoevskys edited by Melanie V. Jones and Christina Karakepeli. To find out more about the series, click here.

Dr. Melanie Jones works in Russian and Francophone literature and reception. She specializes in Mad Studies and the Critical Medical Humanities. She received her PhD from UCLA in 2021. Dr Jones is currently developing a manuscript on the influence of Russian mad literatures on Francophone women’s writing.


[1] This hybrid form deliberately blurs the generic boundaries between, and distinct rules of, autobiography and the novel. Typically a first-person narrative where the protagonist shares the author’s name and/or backstory, autofiction cribs significant details from the creator’s life only to wholly invent the scenarios, secondary figures, and personal backstories with which their character-self will grapple. It is intended to facilitate identity creation through textual experimentation.

[2] Linda Lê and Catherine Argand, “Interview: Linda Lê,” L’Express:

[3] Linda Lê, Le complexe de Caliban (Bourgois, 2005) 86. The essay collection also serves as “exercises of admiration” for those writers whose output comprises her patrie d’élection — chosen homeland.

[4] “Nabokov on Dostoevsky,” The New York Times:

[5] Lê as quoted in Leslie Barnes, “Linda Lê, On Writing and Not Writing,” PORTAL Journal of Multidisciplinary International Studies 15. 1/2 (August 2018): 22.

[6] Leslie Barnes, Vietnam and the Colonial Condition of French Literature (University of Nebraska Press, 2004) 168, 197.

[7] Christophe Ono-dit-Biot, “Julia Kristeva: Dostoïevski, l’écrivain de sa vie,” France Culture:

[8] NDiaye famously entered voluntary exile with her family in 2009, moving to Berlin in protest to the heavy policing and erasure of colonial brutality occurring under President Sarkozy.

[9] The plot of NDiaye’s first book, Quant au riche avenir (As for the rich future, 1985), published when she was just 17 years old, shares marked similarities to Crime and Punishment, a novel she credits with “chang[ing] [her] life.” Reading Dostoevsky’s novelas a teenager marked “the first time [that] I read a book that profoundly transformed me… I told myself that I would never forget these characters, never, and that in a certain way, their manner of living, of thinking, of acting would influence my own way of thinking, of living.” Translations mine. Marie NDiaye and Marly Biouquine, “Marie Ndiaye évoque Crime et châtiment de Dostoïevski”:

[10] Lê Le complexe de Caliban 86.

[11] Lê and Argand.

[12] Lê, Le complexe de Caliban 141-2

[13] Lê as quoted in Barnes 213-4.

[14] Lê Le complexe de Caliban 135.

[15] Linda Lê, “Conrad, la quête du dernier mot,” En Attendant Nadeau:

[16] Lê as quoted in  Alexandra Kurmann, Intertextual Weaving in the Work of Linda Lê: Imagining the Ideal Reader (Lexington Books, 2016) 1-2.

[17] For more on the full-throated condemnations, socialist reinventions, and failed assimilations of Dostoevsky’s work over the course of the Soviet era, see Vladimir Seduro, Dostoevskis Image in Russia Today, (Nordland Publishing Company, 1975) and Czesław Miłosz: Conversations (University Press of Mississippi, 2006), 49.

[18] Linda Lê dedicated a whole book to this subject, Marina Tsvétaïéva, comment ça va la vie (Marina Tsvetaeva, How’s Life?, 2002), in which she shared translated poems from Tsvetaeva’s oeuvre and meditated on exile and suicide as creative forces, ultimately valorizing her as an Antigonian figure. She has also discussed her interest in silenced writers in works like Caliban Complex and in the interview “Linda Lê: On Writing and Not Writing,” with Leslie Barnes, PORTAL Journal of Multidisciplinary International Studies 15.1/2 (August 2018): 20-30.

[19] Associations with Demons pile on once the narrator succumbs and burns both her writing and letters from her father. This act, readers are told, is explicitly to sacrifice him for the Organization and bind her through writing to them forever. Immediately, the spectre of the dead parent comes to haunt her, and the narrator notes that he has been weighted down and drowned — the fate of sacrificial victim Shatov in Demons, for which the atheist Kirillov takes the blame.

[20] Linda Lê, Voix: Unce crise (C. Bourgeois, 1998) 10.

[21] Lê as quoted in Barnes 168.

[22] Linda Lê, Tu écriras le bonheur (Presses Universitaires de France, 1999) 42.

[23] Lê Le complexe de Caliban 115.

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