A New Companion for Readers of Dostoevskii

Today we’re sitting down for a chat with Katia Bowers (KB), Connor Doak (CD), and Kate Holland (KH), the editors behind the volume A Dostoevskii Companion: Texts and Contexts, which is out this month with Academic Studies Press.

9781618117267_fcBK: Tell us a little about the volume. What kind of companion is it?

CD: It’s a volume for students of Dostoevskii, aimed at illuminating his works. But whereas most companion volumes—say, the Cambridge Companion series—provide a selection of new essays on different topics, our book brings together a selection of sources from Dostoevskii’s own time as well as the best critical writings, both classical and contemporary. So, for example, we have put in excerpts from Dostoevskii’s rather cranky letters about his row with Turgenev alongside the chapter in Demons where he pokes fun at Turgenev, as well as a classic critical essay from Robert Louis Jackson about how Dostoevskii and Turgenev might have more in common than either man might have wanted to admit!

KH: Near the beginning, we agreed that our volume should not advocate any one single interpretation of Dostoevskii’s works. Of course, the three of us have our own views about Dostoevskii and his worksometimes quite strong views!but we always tried to refrain from privileging one view over another. Instead we deliberately included critical voices that disagree with one another. Our goal here was to enable students to look at a critical discussion or historical evidence and form their own judgments based in their understanding of the material.

KB: We do provide a kind of introduction to each chapter of the volume, but this is to help students see the bigger picture or put together a web of themes rather than to guide students to a specific understanding. For example, in Chapter 7, called “Captivity, Free Will, and Utopia,” we collect a number of texts that are related to these themes, but students are invited to form their own judgments. (and to add to this conceptualization of a larger theme from their own explorations of Dostoevskii’s works).

BK: Tell us a little about the series the book appears in. What support did you have from the press and other sources?

KH: All three of us were already aware of the excellent Cultural Syllabus series at Academic Studies Press, and we knew they hadn’t done a Dostoevskii volume yet. The series is designed with undergraduate students in mind, for use in the classroom or for the general reader with an interest in the topic. Typically their books are collections of primary and secondary source materials on specific topics in Russian literary studies. Our book is the first in the series to focus on a nineteenth-century topic.

CD: Academic Studies Press have been wonderfully supportive of the project. They also provided part of the funding for the permission to reprint published work that isn’t out of copyright. These permissions can run into thousands of dollars for a volume like this…

KB: Outside of Academic Studies Press’s resources, the work on this volume was supported through funding from the University of British Columbia, where I’m based, and a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Connection Grant that Kate and I received for our project Crime and Punishment at 150.” We are also grateful to Robert Louis Jackson, Igor Volgin, and Vladimir Zakharov and the Yale Review for giving us some permissions for free. Our wonderful team of student Research Assistants did great work in producing the volume: Anton Nonin, who also did a lot of new translations for the volume; Hanna Murray; and Kristina McGuirk. This project would not have been possible without them.

BK: There’s a huge bibliography on Dostoevskii. How did you decide which works to include?

KH: All three of us have taught Dostoevskii, so first of all we put our heads together and shared our ideas about what worked with students. We also asked other colleagues to share their syllabi, and looked at how they teach Dostoevskii…

KB: …And people teach Dostoevskii not just in Slavic departments, of course, but in philosophy, political science, theology, and other fields. The theologian George Pattison, for example, used to teach a graduate seminar on Dostoevskii at Oxford, so we looked at his syllabus, too. Our own volume is written primarily with students in literary studies in mind, but we hope it will be useful for folks in all disciplines.

CD: After we had a working draft of what we wanted to include, we circulated that to some of our most trusted colleagues in Russian Studies. And we met up with them at the International Dostoevsky Society Conference in 2016, which happened to be in Granada, Spain that year… So we had lunch on a sunny summer’s afternoon, with wine aplenty, and discussed. We’re very grateful to those who participated in this initial, extremely helpful discussion: Carol Apollonio, Deborah Martinsen, Robin Feuer Miller, Bill Todd, and Sarah Young.

BK: What were the most challenging aspects of creating the volume?

KB: Striking a balance between what is often taught and what would be valuable for further study took quite a lot of thought and revision. Our survey of syllabi revealed that the most popular works taught in class are, not surprisingly, Crime and Punishment, Notes from Underground, and Brothers Karamazov. However, including the full text of Notes from Underground, for example, would be redundant, as it is widely available elsewhere. We also decided not to have a chapter focused on each text as we felt this would encourage siloed reading. We conceived of this volume as a companion that encourages deeper thinking and exploration, so we focused instead on broad themes or topics for our chapters. The works we include are shorter texts and excerpts that we find revealing or provocative to think about when reading these longer novels. We also made a point of including critical scholarship about these more commonly taught texts, but as an organic part of the exploration of themes or topics. The one exception to this is the inclusion of an entire issue of the Writer’s Diary (the April 1877 issue, which includes “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man”). I wanted to add it because I assign it in my class and I think reading through a single issue is an important part of understanding how Dostoevskii’s journalistic fiction functions.

KH: One of my goals was to include some material from Dostoevskii’s penultimate novel, The Adolescent, which has historically been neglected by readers and critics but which engagingly articulates some of the questions of form that Dostoevskii struggled with. The novel itself, as well as its preparatory notebooks, contain some of the richest meditations on the novel and history anywhere in Dostoevskii’s works and can richly inform readings of his other works. Yet it’s hard to find manageable excerpts of this work and the criticism that deals with it. The Adolescent is a particularly messy, inconsistent work, and it’s rarely taught, yet it is narrated by a twenty-year old and I’ve found that it engages students on an emotional, visceral level even more than other of Dostoevskii’s novels. We hope that the volume might also inspire readers to go beyond the Dostoevskii of Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov.

CD: I did most of the work on the chapter called Dostoevskii’s “Others,” which looks at his representations of ethnic and religious minorities, as well as women. I find it very challenging to deal with Dostoevskii’s xenophobia and his anti-Semitism. We didn’t shy away from including some of his most controversial works, such as his essay “The Jewish Question” from A Writer’s Diary. I find that piece repugnant: by some twisted logic, he ends up blaming the Jews for the crimes perpetrated against them. It’s a horrible piece of intellectual gymnastics, and yet it remains one of the most topical things Dostoevskii ever wrote, as it’s the same kind of victim-blaming that we see among the radical right today. Gary Saul Morson writes somewhere that he felt a sense of betrayal when he first discovered Dostoevskii’s anti-Semitic writings, as if a long-standing friend had revealed some hidden part of his nature that he couldn’t fathom. I, too, find it hard to reconcile Dostoevskii’s empathy and his preaching of forgiveness with this xenophobic side of his nature.

BK: Is there anything you wanted to include in the book that you didn’t have space for?

CD: I was keen to include a section discussing the different translations of Dostoevskii. Students aren’t always aware of how much of a difference translation actually makes, and often opt for the cheapest one, or the one that happens to be available online. But whether you read Crime and Punishment in Garnett’s translation, or Ready’s, or Pasternak Slater’s, or Pevear & Volokhonsky’s, really makes a substantial difference to the reading experience. However, it proved difficult to include discussion of this issue in a succinct way: we would have had to provide extensive quotation of all the different versions, and add a lot of new commentary ourselves, as there’s not a lot of serious scholarship to draw on when it comes to comparing the translations that has been done. I think, then, the translation comparison is probably a separate project.

KH: I would have liked to have included more Russian scholarship. The story of Dostoevskii’s reception in Russia throughout the twentieth century, during the glasnost’ years, and following the fall of the Soviet Union is a fascinating one, yet it would have required significantly more space to contextualize this scholarship as well as more resources to translate it. Another fascinating topic would have been to look at “Global Dostoevskii.” Dostoevskii’s influence looks different in different parts of the world, and recent loose adaptations of his novels in literature and film have served to highlight his importance in the Philippines, in Latin American countries, in Korea and Japan, and in South Africa.

KB: One aspect of my Dostoevskii class is some engagement with contemporary approaches to the text like film adaptations and digital media. I originally wanted to include an excerpt from one of the Twitter projects that I’ve worked on, either @YakovGolyadkin or  @RodionTweets. While I do assign these, in part, to my students to read, there wasn’t space for them in the volume as they would require significant contextualizing. Similarly, adding some discussion of film adaptations of Dostoevskii would have been interesting, but this also would have required significantly more contextualization, and a dedicated section on film adaptations would have unbalanced our volume. These are valuable ways of experiencing the text, particularly for our twenty-first century students, but in the end we stuck with the text, which, in the case of Dostoevskii, is already a huge undertaking!

BK: Dostoevskii is one of the few ‘classic’ writers who can still attract significant undergraduate enrolment numbers. Why do you think he still appeals to readers today?

CD: We live in a world that can be pretty nasty. But students aren’t used to talking about that nastiness, or rather, they tend to project it onto others, and can’t recognize it in themselves. We live in an affirmative, self-help culture, in which we’re told to love ourselves for who we are… and that means we’re very reluctant to recognize the dark side of our nature, to admit just how nasty human beings can be. Reading Dostoevskii is like going into a frightening hall of mirrors, where we see ourselves reflected, but it’s an exaggerated version of ourselves, with all our faults magnified… That’s why Dostoevskii is perennially rewarding—but also frightening—I guess.

KB: The aspect of Dostoevskii my students are most drawn to is his message of compassion. The kind of ethical interactions he puts forward as an ideal but also as a possible outcome appeal to students who see injustice, suffering, and cruelty in the world and want to do something about it. That being said, this message comes, in Dostoevskii, cloaked in the most amazing, sensationalistic melodrama with larger than life characters. Reading Dostoevskii is harrowing and fantastic, but in the end the thing that sticks with students is the larger message that change is possible.

KH: Dostoevskii is a novelist of ideas, and readers and students alike are still drawn to his works for the revolutionary ways in which they express ideas, as well as for those ideas themselves, which can still shock and fascinate after almost 200 years. The ways in which his works address the power relations that foreground all human relationships, the fraught and messy nature of all emotional connections, and the divided nature of selfhood all seem to strike particular chords with students and readers at the present moment.

A Dostoevskii Companion: Texts and Contexts is available now from Academic Studies Press (20% off with code COMPANION). A sampler from the volume is available for download here.


Katherine Bowers is an Assistant Professor of Slavic Studies at the University of British Columbia. A specialist in nineteenth-century Russian literature and culture, she is currently completing a monograph about gothic fiction’s influence on Russian realism. She is the editor of Bloggers Karamazov and sits on the Executive Board of the North American Dostoevsky Society. 

Connor Doak is a lecturer in Russian at the University of Bristol. He works primarily on nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russian literature, with a special interest in gender and sexuality in Russian culture. He has authored articles on authors including Dostoevskii, Chekhov, Petrushevskaia and Pushkin, and is currently working on a study of masculinity in Maiakovsky’s poetry.

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 Dostoevskii, Tolstoy, Herzen, Saltykov-Shchedrin and Veselovsky. Holland sits on the Executive Board of the North American Dostoevsky Society.

A History without a Canon, a Literature with Conflicting Readings

“Long” Trends of Russian Literature: Research Novellas

RusLitHistDenis Larionov, a Moscow-based critic and poet, conversing with Andrew Kahn, Irina Reyfman, Mark Lipovetsky, and Stephanie Sandler – authors of A History of Russian Literature, 2018.

–What prompted the creation of such a detailed history of Russian literature, practically the only one of its kind (particularly now, a moment of new tensions in the relations between our two countries)?  How did this book come into being, and how long did it take?

–The original idea for creating this book was a scholarly one, although it may seem illogical.  We felt that a moment had arrived when the coherence and neutrality of literary histories were being interrogated from various theoretical perspectives, while at the same time practically all of the information had become accessible to anyone with a computer and an internet connection.  This challenge was difficult to resist.

We needed to find a way to create a history of Russian literature which would comprise information on the literary process, on authors and schools, but would offer something more than a collection of facts.  How could we tell the story of Russian literary evolution in such a way that it would make a single whole, while tracing not only the patterns and internal “rhymes” but also the essential differences and moments of rupture?

Our conversations about the future book – on e-mail, on-Skype, and in person – began in 2009.  Oxford University Press’s interest in this project encouraged us from the outset.  Although the original contract was for a short history, Jaqueline Norton, our editor, kept enthusiastically approving our increasingly comprehensive proposals and extending our submission deadline, which allowed us to write a much longer and more detailed history.

Our work was aided by an exceptionally useful symposium at Oxford in 2012, which gathered together historians of various national literatures. Together, we were able to discuss the theoretical and practical difficulties of writing a literary history in the 21st century.  The symposium participants shared their own experience of working on similar projects. They also read through, and commented on, our pilot case studies.  They recommended that we introduce a wider scope of issues in our potential case studies, including discussions of schools of theory and rhetorical tropes. They also suggested unexpected new approaches to individual authors and significant national cultural phenomena.

This advice resulted in the literary historical “novellas” about holy fools, “word-weaving,” duels between writers, and Dmitry Prigov’s “Militsaner” [“P’liceman”].

In 2012, we already had a plan to use case studies and keywords – terms such as Romanticism or “life-creation.” We defined their specific use in the Russian tradition in a “text box” and then used them throughout the volume, as the foundation for the main narrative.  At first, the list of keywords was very long, but gradually it was shortened: some of the words turned into case studies, and others were incorporated into the main text.

We started serious work on the drafts of the main text after the 2012 symposium.  By the fall of 2015, we were close to having a complete draft.  At that point we were helped greatly by a discussion of the history of literature as a genre at a roundtable we organized at the ASEEES (Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies) conference.

Among the round table participants were scholars who had authored their own histories of Russian literature as well as colleagues who devised practical suggestions and articulated their ideas about what kind of history would be helpful for them and their students.  Shortly thereafter we asked several colleagues to read drafts of a few sections of our history, which they did, with generosity and thoroughness.  The publisher also read and commented on the complete draft of the book.  The review by an anonymous reader selected by Oxford University Press as well as detailed comments and corrections by our colleagues guided us in further editing.  At the end of 2017, our manuscript was sent to the printers.  Thus, we spent eight years working on our history, while the most intensive work and revision took place in the last five years.

–Your book is not the first in a series of “histories of Russian literature,” many of which you mention in the Introduction.  At the same time, it seems exceptional in its scope and methodology.  Where in your book do you see a similarity/influence or a distancing from earlier models (for example, Sviatopolk-Mirsky’s classic history, but not only that one)? 

— Histories of Russian literature come in different shapes and sizes; they differ in the amount of detail and in the ratio between close readings of literary texts and broad surveys of the literary process. Of course, they also use essentially different methodologies, which, in turn, result in concrete approaches to the literary canon.  We are not trying to present the existing histories as obsolete, and in order to give them their due and to show that they themselves have become a part of the history of Russian literature, we have included a brief survey of those histories in our Introduction.

You ask specifically about the History by Sviatopolk-Mirsky: this classic, although it follows the methods and interpretations of its time, still deservedly has its readers, due to its profound literary judgments and vivid perspective on the authors discussed.  In addition, we have always valued, and continue to value, the elegant brevity of Mirsky’s History.  Considering the length of our book, it is hard to believe that we also started with the idea of writing a short history of Russian literature.  Our first reviewers, however, strongly recommended that we broaden and deepen our approaches.  While following their advice, we found that focusing on the peripheral areas of the Russian literary tradition, on the one hand, and in-depth consideration of particular works, authors, and literary phenomena in the case studies, on the other, not only gave us great pleasure, but also led us to new and often unexpected discoveries.

Three features characterize all sections of our book and thus define its direction.  They grew out of our individual views and took final shape thanks to numerous collective discussions.

Thus, in our book we emphasize 1) Russian literature’s openness to external influences in almost every period, from the Middle Ages to our time, an openness that even political barriers do not prevent; 2) the important function of narrative in literature itself as well as in literary history; and 3) we are also convinced that the role of poetry in the national narratives and institutions of Russian culture needs to be seriously revisited.

Thus we strove to redefine the accepted view according to which prose and poetry exist in complementary distribution, i.e., when prose rises, poetry declines, and vice versa.  Drama also appears in our history and represents a third type of literature undermining the binary opposition between prose and poetry.  Furthermore, our history includes visual materials and such genres as documentary narrative, memoir, journalistic essays on social and cultural themes, and various types of translations.

–I would like to ask about the structure of the chapters and also about the logic of their composition (practically every chapter includes, besides the scholarly narrative, individual keywords and a case study).  Were individual chapters created jointly or by single authors?

–The structure of the book is quite complex for the very reason that we attempted to combine a chronological with a conceptual approach.  Moreover, we abandoned the “portrait gallery” – a crucial structural feature of all existing histories of Russian literature.  That is, we do not have monograph-style chapters devoted to great writers, although we do include a few case studies which offer a more detailed look at an author’s biography and reputation, or a genre, or a cultural phenomenon, or a text, or a certain aspect of a text.  Those case studies are very important for us.

As was mentioned above, we started the process of writing precisely from case studies and keywords.  We needed some landmarks and orientation points, and it was around them that the narrative was constructed (­­or spooled): some of those case studies later entered the main text, while other case studies had to be added as we went along.

Of course, we distributed chapters among ourselves, but in the process of writing, all of us not only read each other’s work but also completed, corrected, and edited parts written by colleagues more than once.  All of this was, it goes without saying, discussed in our e-mail correspondence, which is probably as voluminous as the book itself: 5,700 messages by one count.  We bear collective responsibility for the whole text.

The book consists of five parts.  The first section is devoted to medieval literature through the XVIth century, followed by sections for each century: seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and then, together, twentieth and twenty-first.  It appears purely chronological.  Inside those sections, however, chapters are organized conceptually.

Obviously, each section has its own priorities, but certain themes run through all sections, e.g., institutions, subjectivity, poetics, national narratives – and, of course, their interactions.  For example, the section on the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is structured in such a way that the history is told several times, in several cross-sections.  First, there are institutions, from the Silver Age salons to the modern transformations of the literary field.  Then comes poetics and the subjectivities it engenders – first in poetry, then in prose and drama.  And finally, the narratives in which the culture’s self-awareness takes shape: the narratives of revolution, war, terror, and the intelligentsia.  In each of these chapters, history begins in the 1900s and ends today.

Other sections are similarly organized.  We hope that a multi-level picture emerges as a result.  At the same time, we suspect that only a few people will read our history from cover to cover.  Some will need an individual section; others will need certain chapters or even one chapter.  The structure we have created seems convenient for partial reading: having read even one chapter, a person will receive a picture of the whole century, albeit a somewhat skewed one.

–In the Introduction to your book, a question emerges: how necessary are histories of national literatures today, in the epoch of globalization?  How do you answer that question?  Has your answer changed in the course of working on your History of Russian Literature?

–Our subject is the literary history of Russia; that subject includes many texts written in Russian, but outside of Russia, and texts written by Russians, but in other languages.  Moreover, we see the relations between the Russian literature and literatures of other nations as a history of productive cultural interactions.

We do not assert that there exists a specific set of national traditions; rather, we attempt to demonstrate that the creation of shared national narratives is a constituent part of Russian literature.  What is now called an era of globalization is but a continuation of centuries-long intensive processes that cross national borders.  Russia actively participated in those interactions, despite periods dominated by isolationism and accentuated by Russia’s separateness from the West.

Unquestionably, no great national literature has ever been completely divided from the rest of the world. Russian literature’s “borders” have always been permeable, whether the influence came from close by (such as the South-Slavic cultures or Poland) or from far away (such as Japan or the US).  There is always an international element present in debates on national literature – recall the criticism of French influence evoked by the imitation of French models.  We strove to include a discussion of these debates in our book.

Our ideas on how the history should be written kept changing as we went along, although the basic principles remained unchanged: an overall chronological structure, yet a thematic organization within each section; “case studies” and “keywords” as significant points within the historical narrative; and, instead of lists of isolated facts, a discussion, in every section, of institutions, subjectivities, national narratives, and the role of the intelligentsia — as the unifying imperative of the whole book.  Our emphases, on the other hand, did change as we moved forward.  For example, authors discussed in the later parts of the book would sometimes change our view of how to present earlier periods.  Thus, while working on the sections on poetry and prose of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, we decided to radically expand the discussion of the seventeenth century.  Instead of presenting it as the conclusion of the medieval period, we emphasized its connection with the modern: after all, it was precisely in the seventeenth century that Russian poetry and prose based on fiction emerged.  We also significantly expanded certain parts of the first section in order to show the lasting and formative influence of the Baroque, on the one hand, and of such genres as folk “spiritual verses” (dukhovnye stikhi), on the other.

–To continue the preceding question: do you discuss the problem of the (Russian) (literary) canon in the book, and if so, from what methodological perspective?

–It goes without saying that we had no intention of creating a new canon of Russian literature.  On the contrary, we strove to write into this history as many as possible strange texts and persons who are far from being in any canon.  On top of that, we include contemporary writing, and “canonization” in this area is by definition risky.  We are interested in the “long” trends, ones that cover many decades or even centuries.  Not everything that belongs to those trends necessarily becomes part of the canon.  And in general, what canon are we talking about?  There are many canons, and they belong to the history of literature in the same way as the texts that they contain.  For us, the canon is one of the institutions of literature, along with journals, salons, and the mythology of the national genius.  We write about it in our history.  In other words, the canon is our object of study, and not our goal.


Translated by Svetlana Grenier. The volume A History of Russian Literature was published in June by Oxford University Press. This discussion originally appeared on Gefter on May 16, 2018 and its translation and publication on our site were done with the editor’s permission.

Translating Crime and Punishment: A Conversation with Michael Katz and Nicolas Pasternak Slater, part 3

This past November two new translations of Crime and Punishment were published. Michael Katz’s translation came out with Liveright, a branch of W. W. Norton (link), with an introduction by Katz. Nicolas Pasternak Slater’s came out with Oxford University Press (link), edited and with an introduction by Sarah J. Young. In this series of posts, Bloggers Karamazov sits down with the translators to talk about the experience of translating Dostoevsky’s most famous novel.

This is the last in a series of 3 posts; click here for part 1 and here for part 2.

BK: What is your favorite part of the novel?

katz-coverMK: I have long been a fan of the hero’s dreams. In fact, I wrote a book on dreams and the subconscious in Russian fiction in which I treat those dreams in the context of the novel. I think that the first one, Mikolka and the beaten horse, remains one of the most powerful scenes in all of Russian literature. I read the dream as an allegory of life itself: we are born and have to make our way through the secular world, filled with cruelty and ugliness (Mikolka and the tavern), as we head toward death and ultimate salvation (the church and the cemetery).

NPS: I’m no fan of extreme violence and I thoroughly disapprove of murder. Nevertheless, I am going to choose the account of Raskolnikov’s murder of Aliona Ivanovna and her sister Lizaveta. I think this chapter contains some of the most virtuoso writing not only in the whole of this novel, but perhaps in all that I have read of Dostoevsky. Both the behavior of Raskolnikov – thrown into a state of mental turmoil and confusion by the horror and ugliness of what he has done, and driven more by the inevitabilities of his situation than by any real desire to lay his hands on great wealth – and the reactions first of the old woman and then of Lizaveta when she unexpectedly arrives and is stunned into helpless passivity – are all related with unparalleled psychological insight and a masterly build-up of tension and suspense, culminating in Raskolnikov’s half-crazed bewilderment when he hears steps on the stair and the two visitors start rattling at the door. Dostoevsky dexterously manipulates our feelings so that we are torn between horror at what is going on, some sympathy for the victim (who has never been shown to us personally as wicked or cruel, though described in this way by other characters), unalloyed pity for Lizaveta whom we like – and yet fellow-feeling for Raskolnikov and a desire for him to get away with his deed and not be found out. This last, of course, is achieved by letting us in to the workings of his mind, so that we almost become complicit with him. The whole chapter is a piece of brilliant writing.

 

pasternakslater-coverBK: Why do you think we should read Crime and Punishment today? Why does this novel still resonate with us?

NPS: The novel is at the same time an incomparably gripping and lively story, with a cast of unique and memorable characters, a study in crime and punishment, sin and redemption as moral issues, a treasury of descriptions of the city of Petersburg and its people, a work of social commentary and a religious tract. And more. So what out of all that still speaks to readers in other countries, a century and a half later? For myself personally, I am very interested in the descriptions of the world and time my Russian grandparents were born into; but for the general Western reader, descriptions of deprivation and social injustice are still so prevalent today, from all over the world, that such topics speak less to us now. Of all the many reasons for reading the novel today, I would put the cast of characters at the top of the list. The brilliant portrayals range from Raskolnikov himself – so complicated, tortured, mentally fragile, flung this way and that by sudden irresistible impulses – through the pitiful, hopeless Marmeladov, the saturnine many-sided Svidrigailov, the mephistophelean Porfiry Petrovich, and on to the virtuous characters, the good-hearted but rather comical Razumikhin, Raskolnikov’s naïve but well-meaning mother Pulcheria Alexandrovna, his practical-minded sister Dunia, and the saintly Sonia. Then there are some memorable lesser characters like the maid Nastasia or Lieutenant Gunpowder, and finally a whole cast of walk-on parts, some of whom are sketched out with skill and care in a few pen-strokes (for instance the street girl Duklida who treats Raskolnikov courteously, the drunken teenage girl stalked by a would-be abuser, or the child Polya). Human nature doesn’t change much over the centuries, and these character portraits remain as alive in our day as they were in 1866.

MK: Dostoevsky raises all the right questions, the most important ones that can be asked: the meaning of good and evil, the existence of God, the nature of love, the power of ideas. Even if we reject some of his answers, those questions remain the ones that we struggle with today. Human love and religious faith are his answers.


Michael Katz is the C. V. Starr Professor Emeritus of Russian and East European Studies at Middlebury College. His published research includes numerous articles and two books, The Literary Ballad in Early Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature (1976) and Dreams and the Unconscious in Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature (1984). A prolific translator, he has made a number of works available for English language readers, including prose by Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chernyshevsky, Herzen, Tur, Druzhinin, Artsybashev, Sleptsov, Jabotinsky, and others. His translations of Dostoevsky’s works include Notes from Underground (1989, 2nd ed. 2001), Devils (2010), and Crime and Punishment (2018).

Nicolas Pasternak Slater has a half-Russian background, was brought up bilingual, and studied Russian at school and university as well as during his military service. He spent most of his working life as a hospital doctor and came to translation after retirement. Besides Crime and Punishment (2017), his translations include Pasternak’s Family Correspondence (2010), Lermontov’s A Hero of our Time (2013), Pushkin’s The Journey to Arzrum (2013), Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories (2015), and, most recently, Chekhov’s The Beauties: Essential Stories (2018).

The cover image for this post is a screenshot from Piotr Dumała’s animated adaptation of Dostoevsky’s novel (Zbrodnia i kara, 2000). You can view the full animation here.

Translating Crime and Punishment: A Conversation with Michael Katz and Nicolas Pasternak Slater, part 2

This past November two new translations of Crime and Punishment were published. Michael Katz’s translation came out with Liveright, a branch of W. W. Norton (link), with an introduction by Katz. Nicolas Pasternak Slater’s came out with Oxford University Press (link), edited and with an introduction by Sarah J. Young. In this series of posts, Bloggers Karamazov sits down with the translators to talk about the experience of translating Dostoevsky’s most famous novel.

This is the 2nd in a series of 3 posts; click here for part 1.

BK: The act of translation puts you in intensely close contact with the text. Did you notice anything while you were translating that you had never noticed before? Did your perception of the novel shift in any way?

pasternakslater-coverNPS: When I came to start my translation I had not read the novel for very many years. What I remembered was the skeleton of the plot, and an impression of a gripping but heavy, depressing, chaotic, episodic story. So translating it now enriched my perception in a great many ways. Let me pick just one – Dostoevsky’s humor. He is a brilliant humorist who sees the ridiculous in almost any sphere of life, and in this novel he plays with humor in the most diverse and unexpected situations. When the German Luisa Ivanovna has a verbal set-to with Lieutenant Gunpowder in the police office, their showdown is pure slapstick farce. The meeting between Dunia’s absurdly pompous suitor Luzhin and Raskolnikov’s family who soundly humiliate him is also richly comical, as well as important for the plot. But even the most tragic situations can be injected with comedy. The drunkard Marmeladov’s lengthy confession at the beginning of the novel is funny, with its swathes of biblical language and then the way he revels in his degrading punishment. Or there is the macabre but absurd scene near the end of the book where the demented Katerina Ivanovna drags her little children out into the street in ragged fancy dress to dance and sing for pennies. Even one of the most horrible moments in the whole novel, Raskolnikov’s dream of the horse being beaten to death, has its grim humor – the drunken peasant Mikolka makes himself thoroughly ridiculous when he desperately flogs and beats his little horse, harder and harder, in frustrated fury that he can’t get the poor beast to die.

MK: The Russian ear tolerates repetition – of long names including patronymics and certain words and phrases. As a translator I noticed the multiple repetitions in the text and had to decide whether they were semantically loaded and needed to be preserved in my translation, or whether they were dispensable and could be replaced by a synonym or a pronoun. Such decisions are not easily made: the translator has to rely on his understanding of the text and his own intuition.

 

katz-coverBK: Which character do you think is the most misunderstood in the novel?

MK: Without doubt, it’s Arkady Svidrigaylov. He appears out of a dream and his mysterious presence seems to haunt the hero. He is alleged to be responsible for the deaths of three other characters (his wife, his servant, and a young girl). He commits acts of cruelty and generosity, and feels neither compunction nor satisfaction. He seeks a relationship with Raskolnikov, but it is unclear why he does so. All in all, he remains something of a mystery.

NPS: I wondered – misunderstood by whom? The author, the other characters, or the readers? But I thought that the most universally misunderstood, perhaps, is Svidrigailov, the man of mystery with a shadowy past who hangs around Raskolnikov like a nemesis. On one reading, he is so enigmatic as almost to make no sense – is he fundamentally good (clearly not), or fundamentally evil (also not), and how do the good and bad sides in his character coexist? On the bad side, he may (or may not) have caused his wife’s death, he is a self-confessed libertine, he tries (or threatens) to rape Raskolnikov’s sister Dunia, and he plans to marry a child for his sexual gratification. Yet he performs many good actions, including saving Katerina Ivanovna’s orphan children and giving Dunia a large sum of money. Perhaps the last of his moral actions is to commit suicide. I think his character actually hangs together quite well: though repugnant, he is an intelligent man with a philosophical bent and humane instincts of empathy and kindness, who is saddled with sexual appetites that he can barely control. This is a paradox we meet often enough in real life (in this day and age, might he have been a charity worker in a third-world disaster area?).  Dostoevsky, of course, must condemn him because none of his humane motivations come from God or religion: he is an amoral freethinker.

Dumala-Svidrigailov

BK: It’s interesting that you both chose the same character! Svidrigaylov is a scoundrel in many of his acts in the novel, and I agree that he remains a mysterious, ambiguous figure. Do you think he is a sympathetic character at all?

MK: He is “charming” and sincere in his despair; I don’t find him sympathetic.

NPS: I have already alluded to the good actions he performs, and while we may suspect his motives when he tries to make a gift of money to Dunia, and certainly when he makes a much more lavish gift to his (no longer) intended child bride, his farewell gifts to Sonia and her little brother and sister are untainted by sinister motives, and the reader is bound to approve of him at those moments. The slug in the lettuce, as it were, is not the action he performs, nor its intended good effect, but his inner thoughts at the time. He is a disillusioned cynic, a moral nihilist, and as a reader I cannot imagine him filled with a glow of virtuous satisfaction even during his most generous acts. No, he is looking at himself almost as an outsider, cynically weighing himself up and devaluing whatever looks virtuous and kind. There is no path he can take now save that of self-destruction. As a reader, I can feel sorry for him, I can feel glad about his good actions, but I cannot have fellow-feeling for such a self-annihilating person.

 

click here for part 3!


Michael Katz is the C. V. Starr Professor Emeritus of Russian and East European Studies at Middlebury College. His published research includes numerous articles and two books, The Literary Ballad in Early Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature (1976) and Dreams and the Unconscious in Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature (1984). A prolific translator, he has made a number of works available for English language readers, including prose by Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chernyshevsky, Herzen, Tur, Druzhinin, Artsybashev, Sleptsov, Jabotinsky, and others. His translations of Dostoevsky’s works include Notes from Underground (1989, 2nd ed. 2001), Devils (2010), and Crime and Punishment (2018).

Nicolas Pasternak Slater has a half-Russian background, was brought up bilingual, and studied Russian at school and university as well as during his military service. He spent most of his working life as a hospital doctor and came to translation after retirement. Besides Crime and Punishment (2017), his translations include Pasternak’s Family Correspondence (2010), Lermontov’s A Hero of our Time (2013), Pushkin’s The Journey to Arzrum (2013), Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories (2015), and, most recently, Chekhov’s The Beauties: Essential Stories (2018).

The cover image for this post is a screenshot from Piotr Dumała’s animated adaptation of Dostoevsky’s novel (Zbrodnia i kara, 2000). You can view the full animation here.

Translating Crime and Punishment: A Conversation with Michael Katz and Nicolas Pasternak Slater, part 1

This past November two new translations of Crime and Punishment were published. Michael Katz’s translation came out with Liveright, a branch of W. W. Norton (link), with an introduction by Katz. Nicolas Pasternak Slater’s came out with Oxford University Press (link), edited and with an introduction by Sarah J. Young. In this series of posts, Bloggers Karamazov sits down with the translators to talk about the experience of translating Dostoevsky’s most famous novel.

 

BK: Why did you decide to translate Crime and Punishment? What speaks to you about this novel?

katz-coverMK: Norton Publishers asked me to recommend a translator, since they intended to commission a new translation of C&P. I nominated myself, of course. They asked me to submit a proposal and a sample of my work. In particular, they asked that I address the weaknesses of Pevear and Volokhonsky’s version (1992); I did so and endeavored to demonstrate in my sample how my version would be an improvement on theirs.

The novel is first and foremost an engrossing detective story: not a “whodunnit?” but rather a “why he dunnit?” The search for a motive or motives for Raskolnikov’s crime is intriguing as three strong characters vie for the hero’s allegiance and/or love: the examining magistrate, Porfiry Petrovich; the humble prostitute, Sonya Marmeladova; and the mysterious stranger, Arkady Svidrigaylov. Dostoevsky asks all the right questions: the nature of man, the existence of God, the meaning of faith, the importance of love. Although I may not agree with all of his answers, I find his search for answers meaningful.

pasternakslater-coverNPS: This is really two questions – why did I decide to translate, and why Crime and Punishment. The second one is simple – I agreed to translate Crime and Punishment because my publishers asked me to, and I jumped at the chance of translating one of the great monuments of European literature.

The first part of the question is more complicated. I translate because I am intrigued by style and language – and languages in the plural. Brought up bilingual, I found other languages (and the ways they work differently from English) a fascinating puzzle; I have collected languages the way other people collect stamps, and translated from several of them. The interest of carrying vocabulary and style across language barriers is what attracts me, and the way that this involves working both with the human element – ideas, stories, arguments, emotions – on the one hand, and the technicalities of vocabulary, syntax and style on the other. My formal training in Russian covered both aspects, first an advanced interpreter’s course in the British Navy, and then a degree in Russian literature at Oxford.  In line with this, my first job after graduating was with a language research unit, developing automated translation between Russian and English by computer (that was in the 1960s, when a computer was the size of a couple of rooms). All this was later echoed in my main career as a hospital doctor specializing in diseases of the blood: there was the human side, discussions and explanations with patients and their families, and the technical side, from physical examination of my patients to running their tests in the laboratory or looking down a microscope at their blood. After retirement I returned to my first love of translation, seeking a similar mix again.

One thing that speaks to me about the novel – apart from the kaleidoscope of strange characters and the piercing evocation of guilt and stress – is the vivid descriptions of the city and the way poor people lived. When my wife and I visited Petersburg ten or twelve years ago and did a sort of Crime and Punishment pilgrimage, visiting the places said to have inspired Dostoevsky, we passed a throng of destitute people by the roadside, trying to sell anything they had, from used bootlaces to a handful of plastic bags. It was a sad and startling sight; Dostoevsky knew that side of his city all too well.

 

BK: What is the most difficult part of the novel to translate and why? How does it feel to translate Dostoevsky into English?

NPS: The most difficult part of the novel to translate, but at the same time one of the most rewarding, is the dialogue. Almost all the characters in Crime and Punishment have an individual ‘voice’ which carries over from one episode to the next. I have tried to copy their distinctive voices as faithfully as I could, while making each character’s speech seem natural in English. At the same time, the colloquial speech, while sounding normal to the modern ear, must not be too colloquial – it would never do to have palpably twenty-first-century expressions intruding into this nineteenth-century novel. Yet nor does one want old-fashioned Victorian English. What the translator has to look for is a kind of neutral speech that sounds natural when spoken, without being too specifically redolent of England (or any other English-speaking nation, but I write as a British translator); one has to remember that the story is about Russia. – When Dostoevsky uses outspokenly lower-class or peasant expressions, it becomes even more difficult. Some translators have had recourse to Cockney (London) slang to render demotic Russian, and this sometimes works, though it can be treacherous. Regional provincial English is even more of a minefield, and best avoided I think.

MK: The hardest part to translate is the author’s dark sense of humor. It comes to the fore especially in the witty exchanges between Raskolnikov and Porfiry Petrovich. A good example is the entrance staged by Raskolnikov with his forced laughter at Razumikhin’s expense; Porfiry quickly grasps the trick and even comments on it. It is even more apparent in Dostoevsky’s novel Devils (1871-72), which I translated some years ago for Oxford World Classics. In that novel all political ideas were parodied as they were taken to the extreme, the result being that no character could really be taken seriously.

Translating Dostoevsky into English means living in his overwrought and emotional world for several hours a day. It is exhausting but exhilarating.

Dumala-bridge

click here for Part 2!


Michael Katz is the C. V. Starr Professor Emeritus of Russian and East European Studies at Middlebury College. His published research includes numerous articles and two books, The Literary Ballad in Early Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature (1976) and Dreams and the Unconscious in Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature (1984). A prolific translator, he has made a number of works available for English language readers, including prose by Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chernyshevsky, Herzen, Tur, Druzhinin, Artsybashev, Sleptsov, Jabotinsky, and others. His translations of Dostoevsky’s works include Notes from Underground (1989, 2nd ed. 2001), Devils (2010), and Crime and Punishment (2018).

Nicolas Pasternak Slater has a half-Russian background, was brought up bilingual, and studied Russian at school and university as well as during his military service. He spent most of his working life as a hospital doctor and came to translation after retirement. Besides Crime and Punishment (2017), his translations include Pasternak’s Family Correspondence (2010), Lermontov’s A Hero of our Time (2013), Pushkin’s The Journey to Arzrum (2013), Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories (2015), and, most recently, Chekhov’s The Beauties: Essential Stories (2018).

The cover image for this post is a screenshot from Piotr Dumała’s animated adaptation of Dostoevsky’s novel (Zbrodnia i kara, 2000). You can view the full animation here.

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.

Thoughts on ‘Revolutionary Dostoevsky: Rethinking Radicalism’

by Bilal Siddiqi

‘Dostoevsky’ and ‘revolution’ seem to be an unlikely pair of bedfellows. As a writer who actively sought to refute the revolutionary ideologies of his time, while maintaining staunch support for Russian monarchy, Dostoevsky may be better understood as an ‘anti-revolutionary’ writer. But is this all there is to be said on the matter?

UCL’s conference on ‘Revolutionary Dostoevsky: Rethinking Radicalism’ aimed at understanding the ways in which Dostoevsky can be connected with ‘revolution’. Carol Apollonio’s provocatively titled keynote address, ‘Dostoevsky the Bolshevik’ cleared space for just such an unlikely association.

Carol

Carol Apollonio’s keynote. Image credit: Muireann Maguire

Acknowledging the fact that Dostoevsky quite deliberately wrote against the revolutionary writers of his time including Chernyshevsky and Pisarev, Professor Apollonio unpicked some of the undercurrents of revolution pulsing through the author’s oeuvre: his revolutionary poetics, producing gripping narratives dominated by the anti-heroic perspectives of Dostoevsky’s famous rebels that still seem modern to us some 150 years after publication; his nascent and ill-fated participation in the Petrashevsky circle, the mock-execution and sentence of exile handed down to him for a political transgression; the universal respect accorded to Dostoevsky at his funeral, when revolutionaries and conservatives gathered together in a bipartisan show of admiration. All these indicate that Dostoevsky and revolution are much more intricately interwoven than might first appear. It is certainly the case that Dostoevsky’s novels penetrate deeper into the revolutionary psyche than other ‘anti-nihilist’ writers of his time.

However, if objections still persist, perhaps we can nuance our definition of ‘revolution’. ‘Revolutionary thinking’ need not always indicate the desire for forced societal change in the name of Western European proletarian ideals. Instead, it may indicate, more broadly, the possibility of radical societal and/or personal transformation. Towards the end of her address, Professor Apollonio alluded, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, to modern fascinations with cryonics and the possibility of ‘resurrection’. She made associations with the peculiar 19th-century theorizing of Nikolai Fedorov, to imply that revolution in Dostoevsky, whose belief in the possibility of apocalyptic resurrection is well known, need not refer only to politico-ideological mutation, but also to wholesale existential transformation.

George P

George Pattison’s paper. Image credit: Muireann Maguire

In his paper, ‘A Willful Lazarus’, Alexis Klimoff explored how ‘resurrection’ in Dostoevsky refers to the possibility of individual spiritual revolution, or ‘resurrection’ implicit in the rebellious and ‘willful’ discourses of the underground man and other characters in the novels. In the same panel, George Pattison, delineated the metaphysical and ethical principles implicit in the path towards spiritual revolution signposted in Dostoevsky’s novels. His paper, titled ‘We are all guilty – but for what?’ discussed exactly what it purported to, drawing insightful contrasts between seminal and volitional guilt, and emphasizing the author’s belief in freely undertaken individual moral responsibility ‘for all’, in order to illuminate the theosophical intricacies built into Dostoevsky’s fundamental leitmotif of universal guilt. The reference to Levinas is certainly an apt one, for the philosopher quite openly appropriates Dostoevsky’s conception of universal guilt – of ‘Each being guilty for all’ (‘and ‘I’ more than Others’, Levinas might add, as Dostoevsky nods agreeably from the grave) repeatedly in his philosophy. The robust connection between Dostoevsky and Levinas has not yet been adequately explained and Professor Pattison’s talk shed light on some of the significant moral congruencies that exist between the two thinkers.

Apart from the various explorations of ‘spiritual revolution’ in Dostoevsky’s fiction, there was also a broad focus throughout the conference on the inter-relations between characters and the striking radicality and prescience implicit in the structure of these dialogic relations: Artemy Magun recognized the constant experimentation, probing and provocation underlying Dostoevsky’s fictional world; Lynn Patyk presented the theme of ‘provocation’ and how it relates to unmasking and double-voiced discourse; Malcolm Jones recognized the Derridian undertones to the underground man’s narrative all directly or indirectly raised questions about the nature and telos of the dialogism which structures relations between characters in Dostoevsky’s novels.

Contextualizing ‘dialogism’ briefly though Bakhtin may help underscore the innovation and creativity of this line of inquiry into Dostoevsky’s fiction. According to Bakhtin, Dostoevsky’s dialogism, his myriad double-voiced discourses, and the infinite fragmentation of public consciousness they imply serve an integral dialectical purpose in his fiction. Characters seek, through interpenetrative dialogue with one another, to pursue the truths of their own consciousness, and achieve a sense of polyphonic harmony, subsistence in difference, a sobornost’, a holy ‘communion of unmerged souls’.

Denis Zhernokleyev’s paper on the influence of the demonic feuilleton on Dostoevsky’s novels puts into question this ‘optimistic’ understanding of the dialogism inherent in the fiction. Looking particularly at the idea of false confession in Notes from the Underground and malicious relationships in The Devils, Denis was able to demonstrate the complex psychology underpinning these dialogic interactions between Dostoevsky’s diverse set of ideologues. He identified the narrative significance of epistemic violence as the root malevolent desire of Dostoevsky’s more ‘demonic’ interlocutors when they engage in lively metaphysical, social and moral debates. Essentially, this argument puts into question the ‘constructive’ nature of these dialogic interactions, suggesting implicitly that their core function is fragmentation without individual redemption.

This thread of discussion on the nature of dialogic relations was particularly interesting for two central reasons. First, it emphasized how scholarship now appears to be more interested in the ontological nature of the relations between characters, than with the specific ‘content’ of the characters’ own theosophical positions. Secondly, it may be argued that this thread draws on long-standing philosophical questions about the nature of the relation between identity and difference. If the epistemic violence implicit in dialogic relations implies the impossibility of characters maintaining a unified perspective, without offering forth a constructive path towards personal redemption, or towards a primordial experience of their own individuated truth or ‘idea-force’, then there is no identity in Dostoevsky’s works, only diffusion, fragmentation, non-identity and difference in the relation or connection between compromised self-identities. In other words, the probing, experimenting, provoking, epistemic violence in a character’s relationships with others does not produce a heightening or furthering of that character’s pursuit of their own deepest self, of their authentic self-identity. Instead, malice becomes its own reward. Dostoevsky’s vast exploration of human nature ultimately reflects only the ubiquity of human desire for malicious pleasure.

In response to this, perhaps it could be demonstrated that characters do manage to subsist on the threshold of experience, even if only for a few precious ‘eternal’ moments, to achieve a sense of self-identity by experiencing the possibility of the transcendent validity of their own deepest ‘idea-forces’.  If this were true, then the dialogic relations between characters, even though often wrought in a desire for epistemic violence, may indeed have a ‘constructive’ aspect to them, as they serve to raise characters towards the momentary fulfillment of their deepest metaphysical and moral ideas.

The talk by Denis was clearly brilliant, and offered much food for thought. There were also noteworthy papers by Chloë Papadopoulos, Muireann Maguire, Vadim Shkolnikov, Lindsay Ceballos, Yuliya Shcherbina, Connor Doak and many others on a variety of topics related to revolution and radical thinking in Dostoevsky. I apologize for not being able to give them the due attention they deserve in this brief blog post.

The above images are of the author (L) and the conference organizer, Sarah Young (R). Both were taken by Muireann Maguire. Many thanks to Dr Maguire for granting permission to use her photos, both these and the above, for this blog post!


Bilal Siddiqi is a PhD student in the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London. He is currently writing on the role of ‘epiphany’ in Dostoevsky’s Post-Siberian fiction, as well as exploring congruencies between Dostoevsky’s fiction and existential phenomenology. He delivered a paper at the conference titled, ‘Death and Immortality: Spiritual Revolution in Dostoevsky’s Demons

A Chat with Yuri Corrigan about Dostoevsky and the Riddle of the Self

dostoevsky-and-the-riddle-of-the-selfToday we sat down with Yuri Corrigan, and asked a few questions about his new book, freshly out last month with Northwestern University Press, Dostoevsky and the Riddle of the Self.

First, your title. The idea of a “riddle of the self” is such an evocative way of considering one of the core themes in Dostoevsky’s works. How would you articulate the “riddle of the self”? And what led you to this phrase?

For me, the riddle is: how was it that Dostoevsky could be so passionately for and against the idea of individual selfhood? And so passionately for and against the idea of collectivism? This is often taken as a paradox, but I prefer to think of it as a practical problem that Dostoevsky wanted to solve. So I start with a more visceral version of the riddle: namely, why are the borders between selves so porous in Dostoevsky’s writing? I look at the intense and invasive intimacies shared by his characters – the sense you get that these characters are both discrete selves and aspects of each other’s personalities – as a way of getting at the larger philosophical problem of individualism and collectivism that extends through Dostoevsky’s career.

I’m struck by your approach, excluding chapters focused on the two bulwarks of Dostoevsky’s oeuvre of self, Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment. Do you find that focusing more on the question of self in the other works changes the perception of selfhood in Dostoevsky as put forward in those two iconic texts?

It’s not so much that I exclude these works from my study (they both figure centrally in my analysis), but I find that if you use them as a point of departure in exploring Dostoevsky’s view on the self, they tend to draw you toward a specific narrative of Dostoevsky (as critic of the modern condition) that has been well established in scholarship and that I wanted to avoid. In my classes, I always start with the “ideological Dostoevsky” who belonged to a specific historical moment, to Russia’s cultural identity crisis amid the influx of European culture. This is the Dostoevsky who experienced a religious conversion in Siberia, who came back to Petersburg eager to find a cure for the various ailments of modernity – positivism, materialism, atheism, rationalism, and political radicalism – that were so prevalent in his day. And Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment are the go-to texts that bring these questions most readily to life, that show us the agony of the “modern self,” divided between its empirical and reflective dimensions, debilitated by self-consciousness and uprooted from all foundations.

There’s much truth to this narrative, but there are also a few problems with it that I kept running up against. First, I didn’t find the notion of modern mind/body dualism to be a robust enough paradigm, on its own, to illuminate the question of selfhood in the later novels. Another problem was that I didn’t fully believe the story I was telling students about the dramatic breach between early (psychological, social) Dostoevsky and mature (philosophical, ideological) Dostoevsky, with Siberian imprisonment and exile being the turning point. For one, Dostoevsky was always a champion of the inner dynamism of the self and was always an enemy to materialism and rationalism, which would become the galvanizing doctrines of the Russian revolutionary movement. So, in my book, I wanted to defamiliarize Dostoevsky’s meditation on selfhood by starting not with the ideological or philosophical concerns, but with the affective paradigms of selfhood from the early works, and then by watching these paradigms evolve as they take on philosophical breadth and resonance. This allowed me, I hope, to suggest new interpretations for both Crime and Punishment and Notes from Underground, by placing them in the context of the project that Dostoevsky began in his twenties.

Your book spans the whole of Dostoevsky’s career, from his earliest works to his final novel. Did you find writing a book with such scope to be challenging? How did you approach the task?

It happened against my will and against my better judgment (to quote Mr. Darcy). After graduate school, I was reworking my dissertation on Chekhov into a book, and I started a side project – reading Dostoevsky from early to late and making notes as I went. A nice thing about reading Dostoevsky chronologically is that you get to watch him feeling his way forward, thinking aloud from work to work without being able to erase his steps. After a while, I started to see all the works as one big canvas on which he was thinking experimentally about the structure of the self, using variations on image, character, and plot. At the end of about a year and a half, I had a large word document full of raw impressions. Then I started reading the secondary literature, and then my argument started taking shape. And by then I was hooked.

What new insight can be gleaned from Dostoevsky’s early works? And which would you recommend for a new reader of them (and why)?

For me, the early works are the experimental laboratory where Dostoevsky built the psychological and narrative infrastructure for his later, more philosophical writing. For my specific approach, what makes the 1840s so important is the paradigm of collapsed interiority that he developed during this time (of characters engaged in desperate attempts to suppress the “howling” of the unconscious, the waves of “something” that keep lapping up unwantedly onto the shores of consciousness), and the kinds of intimacy that emerge as a result of the willful suppression of the inward. The key psychological insight we can draw from early Dostoevsky is that the suppression of an interior architecture leads to its externalization, to a process in which the geography of the personality becomes turned inside out and other selves become drawn in as substitutes for what can’t be accessed inwardly. Dostoevsky’s early works are populated by characters who can’t regulate themselves administratively from within, and who thus seek to lose themselves in the administration of another person (as Vasia does with Arkady in “A Weak Heart”), or who find themselves overwhelmingly drawn to someone whose memories and emotions they can substitute for their own (as Ordynov does with Katerina in “The Landlady”). In his early writing, Dostoevsky was learning how to build plots from these mechanisms – the collapse of the inward and the externalization of the self – that allow him to turn his stories and novels into exploratory maps of the psyche. It’s only in the later writing that the fear of the inward (the traumatic memories that send his early characters fleeing outward) gives way to a deeper, more overwhelming terror of something within and beyond the self, the indwelling energies of the “living God” that haunt and oppress the waking minds of Raskolnikov and Ivan Karamazov, among so many other characters.

As for recommending early Dostoevsky to a new reader: there are some great reads from the 1840s – especially Poor Folk, and “White Nights,” and Netochka Nezvanova. And from the early post-Siberian period, I love The Insulted and Injured, for its amazing characterizations, readability, and unabashed sentimentalism.

Of all your chapters on the major novels, covering The Idiot, Demons, The Adolescent, and Brothers Karamazov, which has served to give you the most new insight into a text through your analysis (and how or why)?

An exciting moment for me was when my chapter on The Idiot started coming together after multiple failed attempts. I’d been working on Dostoevsky’s amnesiacs in his early works – especially Ordynov and Netochka Nezvanova – characters violently at odds with their own memories, who want to avoid the “something” that haunts them from within, and who thus turn the architecture of the personality outward, drawing others in as fragmentary dimensions of a collective self. With this in place, when I started reading The Idiot again, I was paying less attention to the philosophical trappings – “Prince Christ,” the “perfectly beautiful person,” etc. – and began to see Myshkin as the apotheosis of that same paradigm from the early works: a noble amnesiac haunted by suppressed thoughts and memories, who goes into convulsions when reminded of his childhood, and who is drawn to specific kinds of wounded and susceptible interlocutors as projective stand-ins for the parts of himself that he cannot bear to encounter inwardly. And these wounded interlocutors are drawn to him for the same reason. The whole of the novel, in this sense, becomes divided between the real world of others (the world of light, or “svet,” of Aglaya and the Epanchins), and the darker, projective world of the self where it’s impossible to distinguish between the faces of others and the suppressed undercurrents of one’s own inner life.

If you read the novel as a meditation on what happens to people and societies whose most intimate memories have been suppressed and lost, The Idiot can be seen as a major moment of convergence for Dostoevsky’s psychological, philosophical, political, and theological projects. The Prince’s heroic journey, in this light, becomes his attempt to move inward beyond the terrors of memory to encounter the menacing divine sources that are almost unbearable for consciousness to behold – as the only way to release Rogozhin and Nastasia Filippovna, and Myshkin himself, from being imprisoned in each other’s minds. Holbein’s painting of the abused and dead Christ, in this context, is both a personal and communal memory. It touches on something horrific in Myshkin’s own past while haunting and oppressing an entire civilization. The revolutionary desire to “execute the past” and “walk boldly on” (to quote Herzen) is therefore also a desperate flight from a traumatic memory that keeps being reenacted because of its suppression (and Nastasia Filippovna’s corpse becomes the latest victim of cultural oblivion). When Myshkin journeys into the tomb at the end of the novel in the hope of bringing the dead body in its depths to life, the psychology of collapsed interiority meets with Dostoevsky’s mystical and idiosyncratic version of Christianity (at the very back of our unconscious, beyond all our other memories, lies a brutalized and unredeemed Christ; and because we are in flight from that image, we cannot resurrect it, cannot draw on it as an infinite inward source), which meets in turn with his interest in Russia’s tormented position within modernity, as suffering from a collectively enforced amnesia.

Your conclusion situates Dostoevsky’s evolving discussion of the self within the broader context of late 19th-century Russia. Do you find that your study of Dostoevsky’s conception of the self has shifted your perception of self in other Russian novels? If yes, how?

It’s a great question, and I feel that there’s a bigger answer to it that would probably take some years to figure out and articulate. The major Russian writers of the 19th century share an interest in the “inner life,” the notion that so many of the problems that at first glance seem social, historical, political are actually, at root, symptoms of an inward malaise, dilemmas of personality. And yet there seems to be no agreement among these writers on what actually constitutes an “inner life.” Coming back to Tolstoy and Chekhov now, I’m struck by how little they shared Dostoevsky’s obsession with the unconscious. For Dostoevsky, the self, at its most capacious, is born from a wound in the mind that breaks and expands the personality from within, that allows for the possibility of a soul – an inner realm that opens up in its depths to something universal and transcendent. Tolstoy, it seems, was interested less in questions of depth and immanence, and more in questions of balance and authenticity, of fusion of self and world. For Chekhov, similarly, the self is less of an ocean and more of a balancing act of unresolvable dimensions, a perpetual contradiction that requires cultivation, grace, intelligence, and compassion to sustain. Tolstoy, who couldn’t accept perpetual contradiction as an ideal, wanted a unified and harmonious self that could be engaged in useful work, and one always feels with Tolstoy that there’s about to be some kind of moral realization that will rescue the self from its anguish. Dostoevsky, though he is so important to the psychoanalytic and medical tradition, was never much interested in health and balance. His goal is the excruciating reorientation of the self toward the good, the building of a self that could be robust enough to give voice to the exuberant, transcendent sources that lie in its depths – all of which can be hard to reconcile with daily life.

In your introduction you make the point that, “it would be difficult to find another writer so unanimously celebrated by hostile schools of thought” than Dostoevsky. You call for a new approach to understanding the concept of “self” in Dostoevsky’s works as so many disparate voices have muddled the waters. How do you situate your work within this critical paradigm (or perhaps mélange would be a better word)?

The vastness and richness of Dostoevsky scholarship does present us with a problem. So many brilliant thinkers have engaged with Dostoevsky over the years in discovering their own systems, adapting and twisting his novels in wonderful and creative ways (as was the case with Bakhtin, or Camus, or Berdyaev, or Girard, among many others), and this can be paralyzing for the contemporary scholar. If you feel that you have a new reading, how do you contextualize it in a vast sea of voices and perspectives? If you want to publish something and get a job, you probably have to focus on one current, build your argument around the psychoanalytic Dostoevsky, or the existentialist Dostoevsky, or the Russian Orthodox Dostoevsky, or Dostoevsky the literary innovator, or Dostoevsky the postmodernist, etc. But then scholars start to talk past each other, to develop discrete idiomatic vocabularies that articulate similar insights without intersecting. So in my project I wanted to see how you could bring some of these currents together in addressing the question of selfhood, and I found that they intersected well around the problem of memory. All of Dostoevsky’s major novels are about going home, about confronting the distant and dreaded past. The underground man’s unhappiness turns to dramatic crisis when he stumbles disastrously into a meeting with his old “comrades” from school; Raskolnikov goes into hysterical panic mode when he finds out his mom and sister are coming to visit; Myshkin comes home to Russia after years away; Stavrogin comes home to stay with his mom; Arkady moves to Petersburg to be reunited with his family; the Karamazov brothers come home to see their dad. As a novelist, Dostoevsky worked with the energy emitted from these kinds of unwilling reckonings, which point his characters toward “something” inward that they would prefer not to encounter – something that, when faced head on and drawn upon actively, can also be redemptive and generative. Here the proto-psychoanalytic Dostoevsky (as pioneer of systems of repression and suppression, and of trauma avant la lettre) touches on the political or ideological Dostoevsky (as prophet of irrationalism, champion of cultural memory), who in turn touches on the religious Dostoevsky (for whom God, or Christ, was an infinite divine source that lies beyond what is innermost in the self).

What’s next for you and Dostoevsky studies? Has this book opened up any new avenues for you to pursue?

While working on the book, I kept thinking of contemporary writers who draw on Dostoevsky in exploring questions of selfhood in the post-religious world – writers like David Foster Wallace, Donna Tartt, Elena Ferrante, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Marilynne Robinson, Michel Houellebecq, who are asking what is the inner life and how do we sustain and preserve it. So a second book came out of the first, looking to Dostoevsky as a guide for our own time. And it has felt more and more recently as if we’re living in a sci-fi version of one of Dostoevsky’s novels. The architecture of the self is actively being turned outward. Google searches are replacing our ability to remember things, and Google wants into our brain, is actively working on inventing an implant that would make the internet a literal extension of our cognition (which could seriously affect our minds’ ability to store memory). Mark Zuckerberg, having probably never considered Dostoevsky’s meditation on the nightmare of collectivism, of selves bound together without inward dimensions, works tirelessly with his corporate army to keep you (your depthless outward persona, your “face”) from leaving his network. Young people who’ve been over-parented and addicted to social media, and to the chemical surges that the “dings” from our phones generate in our brains, have not been given a chance to develop their own inward resources and therefore feel debilitating anxiety in trying to face the real world head on. These same people, lacking inward defenses, become easily coopted by ideologies, find themselves all too happy to repeat “other people’s words,” are drawn into the security of twitter mobs, and the most strident – pious and self-righteous – voices on Facebook and Twitter are the ones that enter most effectively into people’s bloodstreams.

And meanwhile, we in the humanities (if you’ll allow me to overgeneralize in a potentially obnoxious way), we who should have been the torchbearers for the “inner life of the mind,” have always been bound by a kind of unspoken allegiance to positivism, a discomfort with the metaphysical, an embarrassment even to use the phrase “the inner life,” which feels outdated and unfashionable. So who is going to help young people navigate and discover their inward geographies when many of them have lost recourse to the community-based or religious resources that used to address this terrain, and when their humanities professors keep telling them to look to external power relations for answers? That’s why I think we need the Russians more than ever, since, in watching the world around them hurtle toward violent cataclysm and civil war, they felt the crisis of nihilism and the corresponding thirst for a practical doctrine of selfhood – the question of what is the inner life, and how, and on what, can I build my own personality. Dostoevsky thought deeply and productively about what happens when the self is turned inside out, when external agencies invade our mind and think for us. And he gave us practical descriptions of how a self can acquire inward ground and breadth so that it won’t simply be taken over and commandeered by any stray force or agency that comes along. But as I mentioned above, Dostoevsky doesn’t really offer us a path to health; what he wants for us is a grounded and exuberant form of brokenness that is oriented toward the good. I don’t know how many of us are ok with being exuberantly broken, but I think it’s an option to consider, especially if it helps us manage the howling terror that longs, dangerously, to be anesthetized and replaced by something external.


Yuri Corrigan is Assistant Professor of Russian and Comparative Literature at Boston University. Dostoevsky and the Riddle of the Self is his first book, published by Northwestern University Press in October 2017.

Editing Dostoevsky: Mikhail Katkov and the Great Russian Novel

by Susanne Fusso

What Russian literary figure competed with Belinsky for a young woman’s affection, traded public insults with Evgeniia Tur, indirectly gave Turgenev the idea of making a Bulgarian the hero of a Russian novel, called Dostoevsky “a fop perfumed with patchouli,” and prompted Tolstoy to summarize Anna Karenina as the story of “a certain lady who abandoned her husband . . . got angry at various things and threw herself under a railroad car”?

FussoKatkovCoverThe answer is Mikhail Nikiforovich Katkov (1818-87), the editor and publisher of the Russian Herald and the Moscow News. My book, Editing Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy: Mikhail Katkov and the Great Russian Novel, published by Northern Illinois University Press, is a study of the role Katkov played in the creation of some of the most significant works of Russian literature. My goal is to provide as dispassionate an account as possible of a man who inspired vehement passions, both positive and negative. Katkov was demonized in the Soviet era because of his conservative political activity in support of Russian nationalism and the autocratic state; in the Putin era he is being lionized as the “savior of the fatherland” (the title of a 2013 article on him). My study strives to offer a view of his literary activity that avoids these two extremes, giving him his due as the important figure he was, without vilification or canonization.

The study traces Katkov’s literary (and sometimes personal) relationships with Belinsky, Tur, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy. Of all the editor’s connections with Russian writers, his association with Dostoevsky was the most important and lasting relationship of Katkov’s literary career. Dostoevsky published all his most celebrated novels in Katkov’s Russian Herald: Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1868), The Devils (1871-72), and The Brothers Karamazov (1879-80); his seminal Pushkin speech was published in Katkov’s newspaper Moscow News in June 1880, six months before Dostoevsky’s death.

Chapter 4 of my book traces a kind of dialogue between Katkov and Dostoevsky in their journalistic polemics of 1861-63, a dialogue that preceded a long and productive working relationship. In this chapter I consider the issues that Katkov and Dostoevsky clashed over, as well as the points of inner, fundamental agreement that can help us understand what made possible their fruitful, if sometimes contentious, partnership. Chapter 5 deals with the famous episodes of Katkov’s interference in the artistic realization of two of Dostoevsky’s most important novels, Crime and Punishment (1866) and The Devils (1871-72). In this chapter I revisit Soviet literary historiography of these moments of conflict and attempt to restore a more balanced view of Katkov’s interventions.

The final chapter describes the Pushkin Celebration of 1880, in which Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Katkov all played prominent roles, from the viewpoint of its status as a kind of summing-up of Katkov’s literary career.  The Brothers Karamazov, the last important literary work to be published in the Russian Herald, was appearing in installments at the time of the Pushkin Celebration, and it was a major factor in the way that Dostoevsky’s Pushkin speech was received. In particular, I read Turgenev’s and Dostoevsky’s Pushkin speeches, as well as Katkov’s own 1880 essay on Pushkin, against the background of the appreciation of Pushkin by the German critic Varnhagen von Ense that was translated and published by Katkov in 1839.

The conclusion considers the nature of Katkov’s role as both editor and patron. As a writer of articles and editorials, Katkov presented a clear program for Russian literature, which was to affirm the political and historical importance of the Russian nationality as expressed through its language. As a powerful and entrepreneurial publisher, he also sought, encouraged, and paid for the writing of the works that were to embody that program, the works we now recognize as among the greatest achievements of Russian literature.


Susanne Fusso is Professor of Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at Wesleyan University. She is the author of Designing Dead Souls: An Anatomy of Disorder in Gogol (1993) and Discovering Sexuality in Dostoevsky (2006; paperback 2007). She contributed articles on Dostoevsky to the recent collections Before They Were Titans: Early Works of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy (2015) and Dostoevsky Beyond Dostoevsky: Science, Religion, Philosophy (2016), and to the forthcoming Oxford University Press volume Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment: Philosophical Perspectives. She translated Sergey Gandlevsky’s autobiographical novel Trepanation of the Skull (2014), and is now completing a translation of his novel IllegibleEditing Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy: Mikhail Katkov and the Great Russian Novel was published in September 2017.

Revolutionary Dostoevsky

by Sarah J. Young

How might we think of Dostoevsky as a radical writer? In his later years he certainly seemed anything but. From his searing critique of nihilist ideas in Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment, and his scathing portrayal of revolutionaries in Demons, to his increasingly virulent Orthodox nationalism and support for the authoritarian Tsarist regime expressed in his Diary of a Writer, his reactionary views appear to be in no doubt. Yet he understood the depths of human misery and the need for utopian visions and the transformation of society. He always maintained an interest in social justice that seems contrary to his political position, and his death was mourned by thousands of radical students. In his youth he did move in revolutionary circles, and much later acknowledged that even if he might not have found been a leader of such a movement, he was, and remained, capable of being a follower. His novels – typically of their focus on the extremes of human behaviour – show that fanatical atheism and fervent religious faith are two sides of the same coin, something he saw as a particularly Russian trait. Was this then just a reflection of the tensions in his own character and the ideological transition he experienced, or perhaps sought, within himself?

Revolutionary-DostoevskyAs a writer Dostoevsky was anything but traditional. His consistent questioning of reality and of the meaning – and possibility – of realism led him to experiment with novelistic form and made him a major precursor of modernism. He was an important influence on Russian Symbolism, German Expressionism and French Existentialism. Prototypes for many of the narrative innovations in James Joyce’s Ulysses can be found in Dostoevsky’s early novella The Double. Yet he is beyond any particular ‘ism’ himself. His polyphonic technique, identified in the theorist Mikhail Bakhtin’s seminal study The Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, pits voices, characters and ideas against each other. The religious faith the author himself espoused features among those voices, but is frequently challenged and seldom dominates. This multiplicity of contradictory voices is responsible for the proliferation of different interpretations of Dostoevsky over the last century and a half, and continues to give rise to new interpretations across various disciplines – from the humanities to the sciences – to this day.

These questions about Dostoevsky’s novelistic experimentation, the innovative readings he provokes from so many different perspectives, and their relation to the place of the author on the reactionary/radical divide, are at the heart of the conference Revolutionary Dostoevsky: Rethinking Radicalism taking place at UCL-SSEES on 20-21 October 2017. We will see how Dostoevsky reflects the political, social, ethical and religious dilemmas of every age. His own critique of terrorism placed him firmly within the political discourse of his milieu and acted as inspiration for subsequent generations of revolutionaries and their philosophical opponents.  Moving to the present day, Dostoevsky continues to illuminate the political, social and philosophical realms, but perhaps more surprisingly, we will discover his role in negotiating the digitally mediated world and the problems of artificial intelligence. Seeing the world through Dostoevsky’s eyes and novels always offers radical solutions.

It was perhaps inevitable in a new age of upheaval and populism, amidst Trumpism and Brexit, as well as the centenary of the 1917 revolutions, that Demons would prove central to a number of contributions. Speakers will consider, among other things, the role of provocateurs, connections between mental illness and politics, the spectre of mortality and possibility of spiritual revolution. The form and genre of this uniquely weird novel also come into focus, both as an experimental technique for shaping its opposition to political radicalism, and as a mode of narrating the unstable society and self.

That sense of instability – evident from Dostoevsky’s earliest works – underlies new approaches to problems of modern (and postmodern) subjectivity. Questions up for discussion include human vulnerability, radical conceptions of guilt, and the roots of revolt in shame and boredom, and different readings of motifs of death, resurrection, and dying again. Instability is also fundamental to innovative interpretations of Dostoevsky’s narrative strategy. A queer theological reading of Prince Myshkin will shed new light on the ways in which past, present and future might be different in Dostoevsky’s novels, while attention to aborted plot lines and the presence (or rather, absence) of babies provides the key to some of the other extremes of Dostoevsky’s novelistic world. Such radical narrative features and the subjectivities they shape ultimately subvert any conception of reality as stable in Dostoevsky’s works.

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Speakers from the UK, USA and Russia, from those starting out on their research careers to some of the most senior and respected scholars in the field, will debate these topics and others over a day and a half that promises to be thought-provoking and controversial, even, in true Dostoevskian mode, scandalous. Certainly Carol Apollonio’s keynote address, ‘Dostoevsky the Bolshevik’, promises to start proceedings on a provocative note. For information about that, and more details of the conference programme and registration, click here.

The conference will also feature the launch of a new translation of Crime and Punishment, published by Oxford University Press.

The hashtag for the conference will be #Dostoevsky2017.

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Revolutionary Dostoevsky: Rethinking Radicalism is supported by the SSEES FRINGE Centre, UCL’s Institute for Advanced Studies, the UCL Global Engagement Fund, and Oxford University Press.


Sarah J. Young is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London. Her book, Dostoevsky’s ‘The Idiot’ and the Ethical Foundations of Narrative: Reading, Narrating, Scripting, was published in 2004. She blogs about her research on www.sarahjyoung.com and tweets on @Russianist.

This post has been cross-posted from www.sarahjyoung.com.