See the Stars from a Bottomless Pit: Authors’ Commentary

by Natalya Osipova, translated by Marina Rubinova (the original Russian appears below)

Introducing The Grand Inquisitor: A Graphic novel
adapted by Natalia Osipova
illustrated by Elena Avinova
Introduction by Gary Saul Morson
Plough Publishing House, 2020


“The Grand Inquisitor” is one of the key texts of the Russian culture. Reflections on it determined the thinking of an entire generation of Russians from the late 19th century to the early 20th century. In this “poemette,” narrated by Ivan Karamazov to his brother Alyosha in the tavern, they seek an answer to the big Russian questions. In our graphic novel The Grand Inquisitor, we endeavored to translate the Dostoyevsky’s texts into graphic language, and to make the story understandable and relevant to a modern reader. The text is drawn from two chapters from The Brothers Karamazov, “Rebellion” and “The Grand Inquisitor.”

The authors are deeply grateful to Peter Mommsen and Sam Hine for publishing this work, and to Gary Saul Morson for his brilliant introductory article. Our special thanks go to Banke, Goumen & Smirnova Literary Agency, as well as to Julia Goumen, for making our dreams come true.

The Bloggers Karamazov is grateful to Plough Publishing House for allowing us to include illustrations from the graphic novel. Illustration #4 appears here for the first time.

The book is available through Plough Publishing House.

1. The cover

What is this story about? It is about the craving for, the need for, and the impossibility of faith. It is about facing a choice for happiness for all mankind at the cost of an innocent child’s suffering. It is about forgiveness and temptation. Ivan tempts Alesha in the same way the Inquisitor tempts Christ, who had come down from heaven to Seville. Both temptations go back to the Bible; they both develop the idea of resisting seductions not only of bread and power, but also of embracing the suffering of another person, especially the suffering of children.

The three temptations create three circles of meaning: the Temptation of Christ in the desert is the matrix on which Dostoevsky overlays two new filters. The Inquisitor moves the focus from the religious matrix to the political one, concentrating on the freedom of the minority and the responsibility of the ruling elite to the people, and presenting the relations between the people and the ruling classes as between irrational children and omniscient parents.

In the novel, the Inquisitor tells Christ, “Didst Thou not often say then, ‘I will make you free?’ <…> For fifteen centuries we have been wrestling with Thy freedom, but now it is ended and over for good. Dost Thou not believe that? Thou lookest meekly at me and deignest not even to be wroth with me. But let me tell Thee that now, to-day, people are more persuaded than ever that they have perfect freedom, yet they have brought their freedom to us and laid it humbly at our feet. But that has been our doing. Was this what Thou didst? Was this Thy freedom?”

Ivan Karamazov shifts the focus to the problem of personal acceptance and personal faith. He tempts Alyosha with images of tormented children. The famous statement about the tear of an innocent child is a temptation, too. The suffering of children is the crucial center of the story. Ivan not only speaks of suffering, he adds details. His passionate description of the torture and massacre of innocent children causes even Alyosha, the novitiate, to lose his temper, to the point that, when asked what the punishment for the mother torturing her own child should be, he says: “To be shot!”

2. Ivan and Alyosha talking with children in the background

Dostoyevsky did not finish The Brothers Karamazov. In this first part of the novel, the “Rebellion” and “The Grand Inquisitor” chapters are the key to the novel he completed, as well as to the unrealized design of his great work of art. The four brothers represent four pathways, four motives guiding Russians. Dmitry is Passion, Ivan is Reason, Alyosha is Faith. Smerdyakov, the fourth brother, is an anti-motive, he is the Void consuming all the good while transforming it into filth, sin and evil. The power of the Karamazovs is fueled by the energy of doubt. Karamazovshchina is a paradoxical life force, sprouting up from the coupling of love and lust, of goodness and vice. The same paradox is the trigger of the novel, its resolution of the issues facing the Russian World and its salvation.

Creating a graphic novel based on “The Grand Inquisitor” was a great challenge. Our Grand Inquisitor is the third in a cycle of five planned graphic novels based on Russian classics. These are The Overcoat Affair based on the Nikolai Gogol’s novel The Overcoat; The Lady of Spades based on The Queen of Spades by Alexander Pushkin; To Kill a Seagull based on Anton Chekhov’s play The Seagull; and The Devil based on the novella of the same name by Leo Tolstoy. All these novels tell about death, passion, the Russian people, and the paradoxes of Russian life. All five stories contain an element of mysticism and a voice from the after world – of the Lord sometimes, and the Devil more often. These five Russian classical stories, which tell how to understand the Russians, represent our view on the history of Russian classical literature and its value for modern man. Reading the Russian classics, you can better understand the bitter tragedy of life, the impossibility of and desire for happiness, the illusory nature of any joy, material acquisition, and peace. This world is very anxious, even cruel sometimes, but it struggles its way through to metaphysical heights, and provides us with a chance to know the meaning of love. Russian literature offers a view from a bottomless pit up to the sky, where there is a chance to see the stars.

3. Ivan’s eyes

The Grand Inquisitor is the central piece in our series, both by its timing as the third book and by its meaning, which focuses on the “accursed questions.” This novella has no mysticism. It has been replaced with the character’s tale – Ivan’s poemette. The lowering intonation is also present in the choice of place – a tavern in Dostoevsky’s text, and a modern bar in our version, the kind that can be visited in today’s Moscow, London, or New York. Our characters are modern thinkers. For people today struggle to find the answers to the same questions: if there is God, why are poverty, suffering and death still possible? If He exists, why is there salvation only after death? How can one believe if one must first overcome the imperfection of the world? How can one understand the greatness of God’s plan, and what is even worse, how can one embrace it without irony and pathos? Those very questions which tormented Russian writers in the 19th century also face people in our day and age.

For our graphic novel, the most difficult task was to synchronize the visual language with the Dostoevsky’s wording and style. We were looking for a graphic solution that could correspond to the style of The Brothers Karamazov. That was a matter of lines and marks. While selecting the background theme, we thought of color minimalism. This led us to renounce colorful style in favor of radical black and white. There is a lot of black in our comics. Initially this may feel dismal and create a sense of frustration. But when the image of Christ appears in Ivan’s story, it is surrounded by light.

4. Three color options

There are two dialogs in The Grand Inquisitor: Ivan’s with Alesha, and another between the Inquisitor and Christ. The latter is rather a monologue, as the Grand Inquisitor speaks and Christ keeps silent and just listens. The first conversation reveals a story about terrible tortures; “children” are drawn in a single-line method, as if they are weightless ghost images, who appear during the conversation and silently watch the characters, the same way Christ listens to the Inquisitor. The outlines of tortured innocent children appear in the bar where the story is told, as they represent the incarnation of air and thought into the outlines, which move from the Ivan and Alesha’s conversation to another character sitting in the bar – the Writer.

The characters of the comics exist in two stories simultaneously: in addition to Ivan and Alesha, there is also a bartender, who very much resembles the Inquisitor; and a taciturn fellow who sits behind the counter, and looks like either John Lennon or Christ. At the far table with a glass of beer sits the Writer. We chose not to make any direct allusions to either Lennon or Dostoevsky. We wanted the readers to be able to identify them in the characters, and to choose who these people are and why they are here.

5. In the bar with Christ

In the poemette, the story is set in 16th-century Seville, in the time of the Inquisition, “when fires of splendid auto da fé were lighted to the glory of God.” Dostoevsky’s choice of place and time was rather schematic. It was not a historically accurate Seville, but rather an imaginary place, shifted from Dostoevsky’s Russia both in time and space. It was some distant ancient Catholic city.

Jittery strokes and uneven edges of the word bubbles, we think, correspond to Dostoevsky’s style. This is our attempt to translate Dostoevsky’s speech into visual language. 

Two types of fonts create a distance between the two different layers of the story. The main font is a customized font designed by Elena Avinova. This is our narrative, the adaptation of two chapters into the comics format. The additional font – Gothic style imitating old manuscripts – appears when Christ enters Ivan’s story. The Gothic scrolls enhance the philosophical mood. 

6. With Christ walking

How do we see Ivan and Alyosha? Alyosha has not changed much over the past hundred years; from a novitiate he has turned into a secular-minded Divinity School student; his clothes are of an ordinary boy of twenty. There is nothing special about him, except his faith. He is the one who is meant to become a Hero.

Ivan in the novel is a student who did not complete his studies, tormented by eternal questions. In our version, Ivan Karamazov is a man who doubts the existence of God without scientific evidence, who seeks God not only in Orthodox Christianity, but also in Buddhism, Islam, in his travels around the world, and in altered states of consciousness. He has enough money and time to philosophize. He is a blogger who throws his questions out to the community of deadbeats like himself. We have not altered Dostoevsky’s original text; instead we have provided our readers with visual clues to the present day, such as prints on T-shirts, jeans, earrings, and the modern interior design of the bar. The brothers are drinking vodka and smoking cigarettes. Why does modern man need Dostoyevsky? How can one believe in God when there is so much pain, cruelty, and injustice in the world; and how can one live without believing in God? This question is even more relevant now than a century ago. Because there are even more people who have abandoned faith, while the need for faith is even stronger.


The Bloggers Karamazov is grateful to Plough Publishing House for allowing us to include illustrations from the graphic novel. Illustration #4 appears here for the first time.

Learn more about the book and buy a copy here.

Elena Avinova is a theater designer, graphic artist, and instructor in the Comics Workshop of the School of Creative Writing in Moscow.

Natalya Osipova is a specialist in Russian literature of the second half of the nineteenth century and the works of the late Leo Tolstoy. She is the co-founder and director of the literary workshops of the School of Creative Writing in Moscow.


Увидеть звезды со дна колодца

Авторский комментарий к графической новелле «Великий инквизитор»

Представляем графическую новеллу «Великий инквизитор»
Адаптированный сценарий – Наталья Осипова
Графика – Елена Авинова
Вступительное слово – Гэри Сол Морсон
Издательство Плуг, 2020


Легенда о Великом инквизиторе – один из ключевых текстов русской культуры. Рефлексия над ним определила размышления целого поколения русских людей конца 19 – начала 20 века. В этой «поэмке», рассказанной Иваном Карамазовым в трактире брату Алеше, искали ответ на главные русские вопросы. В графической новелле «Великий инквизитор» авторы Елена Авинова и Наталья Осипова попробовали перевести Достоевского на графический язык и сделать историю более понятной и актуальной для современного читателя. Литературной основой стали две главы «Братьев Карамазовых» – «Бунт» и «Легенда о великом инквизиторе».

Авторы выражают глубокую признательность Питеру Монсену  и Сэму Хайну за публикацию работы в специальном выпуске журнала «Плуг» и Гари Соул Морсон за блестящую вступительную статью. Особая благодарность Литературному агентству Banke, Goumen & Smirnova и Юлии Гумен, осуществившей наши мечты.

Иллюстрация 1: Обложка

О чем эта история?  О страстном желании, необходимости и невозможности веры. О выборе между невинно замученным ребенком и счастьем всего человечества. О прощении и искушении. Иван искушает Алешу так же, как инквизитор искушает сошедшего в Севилью Христа. Оба искушения восходят к библейскому, оба развивают идею противостояния соблазнам, которые не только в хлебе и власти, но и в принятии чужого страдания, особенно страдания детей.

Три искушения создают три круга смыслов: искушения Христа в пустыне – та матрица, на которую Достоевский накладывает два новых фильтра.  Инквизитор переносит фокус с религиозной матрицы на политическую, на вопрос свободы меньшинства и ответственности элит перед народом, на отношения народа и власти как неразумных детей и всезнающих родителей.

Инквизитор в романе говорит Христу: «Не ты ли так часто тогда говорил: „Хочу сделать вас свободными“. <…> Пятнадцать веков мучились мы с этою свободой, но теперь это кончено, и кончено крепко. Ты не веришь, что кончено крепко? Ты смотришь на меня кротко и не удостоиваешь меня даже негодования? Но знай, что теперь и именно ныне эти люди уверены более чем когда-нибудь, что свободны вполне, а между тем сами же они принесли нам свободу свою и покорно положили ее к ногам нашим. Но это сделали мы, а того ль ты желал, такой ли свободы?»

Иван Карамазов переносит фокус на вопрос личного принятия и личной веры. Он искушает Алешу картинами истязания деточек. Знаменитая фраза о слезе невинно замученного ребенка – это тоже искушение. Страдания деточек – наиболее острое место в этом сюжете. Иван не просто говорит о страдании, но с деталям, с упоением описывая пытки и убиение невинных так, что даже послушник Алеша не выдерживает и на вопрос, что делать с матерью, мучающей ребенка, отвечает: «Расстрелять!».

Иллюстрация 2: Деточки на фоне говорящих Ивана и Алеши

Достоевский не закончил роман «Братья Карамазовы» и в этом незаконченном теле романа главы «Бунт» и «Легенда о Великом инквизиторе» – ключ не только к написанному роману, но и к неосуществленном замыслу большого произведения. Четыре брата – это четыре пути, четыре ответа на вопрос о том, что движет русским человеком. Страсть – Дмитрий, ум – Иван, вера – Алеша. Смердяков, четвертый брат – это анти-ответ, это та бездна, которая сжирает все хорошее, переплавляя это в мерзость, в порок, в грех. Карамазовскую силу питает энергия сомнения. Карамазовщина – парадоксальная сила жизни, рождающаяся от соединения любви и сладострастия, доброты и порока. Этот парадокс – пружина романа, ответ на вопрос о русском мире и его спасении.

Нарисовать графическую новеллу по «Легенде о Великом инквизиторе» – большая смелость. Наш «Великий инквизитор» – третья из пяти задуманных графических новелл по русской классике. «Дело о шинели» по повести Н.В. Гоголя «Шинель», «Королева пик» по «Пиковой даме» А.С. Пушкина, «Убить чайку» по пьесе А.П. Чехова «Чайка» и «Дьявол» по повести Л.Н. Толстого. Все эти новеллы про смерть, про страсть, про русского человека и парадоксы русской жизни. Во всех пяти сюжетах есть мистика и голос потустороннего, иногда Бога, а чаще Дьявола. Пять сюжетов русской классики, по которым можно было бы понять русского человека, – это наш ответ об истории русской классической литературы и ее ценности для современного человека. Читая русскую классику, лучше понимаешь, острый трагизм жизни, невозможность и желанность счастья, иллюзорность любой радости, любого обретения, любого покоя. Этот мир очень тревожный, иногда жестокий, но он прорывается к метафизическим высотам и он дает шанс познать смысл любви. Русская литература – это как взгляд на небо из колодца – есть шанс увидеть звезды.

Иллюстрация 3: Глаза Ивана

«Великий инквизитор» в этом ряду центральный текст и по положению в цикле и по значению, которое концентрирует «проклятые вопросы». В этой новелле нет мистики – она заменена вымыслом героя – придуманной «поэмкой». Снижающая интонация продолжается в выборе места – у Достоевского трактир, у нас – современный бар, такой, какой можно встретить сегодня в Москве, Лондоне или Нью-Йорке. Наши герои – сегодняшние думающие люди. Ведь и сегодня есть люди, которые мучаются теми же вопросами: если есть Бог, то как возможна бедность, страдания, смерть? Если Бог есть, то почему спасение только после смерти? Как уверовать, переступив это несовершенство мира? Как понять величие замысла божия и еще хуже, как принять его без иронии и пафоса? Те же вопросы, которые мучали русских писателей в 19 веке, те же вопросы приходят к современным людям.

Наиболее сложная задача в графической новелле – синхронизация визуального языка со словом и стилем Достоевского. Мы искали графическое решение, которое бы подходило к стилистике «Братьев Карамазовых». Это был вопрос линии и пятна. Выбирая тональное решение, мы думали о цветовом минимализме. Поиск цветового решения привел к отказу от цвета в пользу радикального черно-белого. К нашем комиксе много черного. Возможно, сначала это давит и создает ощущение безысходности. Но когда в рассказе Ивана появляется образ Христа, он окружен светом.

Иллюстрация 4: Три цветовых решения

В «Великом инквизиторе» два разговора: разговор Ивана и Алеши и разговор Инквизитора и Христа, точнее монолог великого инквизитора, потому что Христос молчит и внимает. Внутри первого разговора есть рассказ об ужасных истязаниях, «деточки» нарисованы одним контуром, так, словно это невесомые образы-призраки, являющиеся в разговоре и также молчаливо внимающие героям, как внимает Инквизитору Христос. Контуры невинно замученных детей появляются в баре, где происходит действие, воплощением из воздуха и мысли в контур, который из разговора Ивана и Алеши переходит к еще одному персонажу, сидящему в баре – писателю.

Герои комикса существуют в двух сюжетах: в баре, кроме Ивана и Алеши, еще есть бармен, очень напоминающий Инквизитора, и молчаливый парень за стойкой, напоминающий то ли Джона Леннона, то ли Христа. За дальним столиком с кружкой пива сидит Писатель. Нам не хотелось делать прямых аллюзий на Леннона и Достоевского, нам хотелось, чтобы они угадывались в персонажах, чтобы читатель комикса сам решил, кто эти люди и зачем они здесь.

Иллюстрация 5: В баре с Христом

В «поэмке» действие происходит в Севилье 16-го века во времена инквизиции, «когда во славу Господа пылали великолепные аутодафе». Выбор места и времени и у Достоевского был довольно условен, это не историческая Севилья, а скорее воображаемое место, отодвинутое от современной Достоевскому России и по времени и по расстоянию: какой-то далекий древний католический город. Это историческое отстранение позволяло говорить на остро актуальные для тогдашней России темы. Как показало время, эти вопросы оказались из категории вечных.

Нервный штрих и неровные края баблов, как нам кажется, соответствуют стилистике Достоевского. Это попытка перевода речи Достоевского на визуальный язык. 

Два вида шрифтов создают дистанцию двух разных текста. Основной шрифт – авторский шрифт Лены Авиновой – это наш авторский текст, адаптация двух глав романа к формату комикса. Дополнительный шрифт – готика, имитирующая древние манускрипты, появляется тогда, когда в рассказе Ивана появляется Христос. Ленты готического письма создают  философский лейтмотив. 

Иллюстрация 6: С идущим Христом

Кто Иван и Алеша для нас? Алеша за сто лет не очень изменился, из послушника он превратился в студента духовной семинарии в миру, он одет, как обычный парень двадцати лет. В нем нет ничего особенного, кроме веры. Он тот, что должен когда-то стать Героем.

Иван в романе – недоучившийся студент, мучимый вечными вопросами. Наш Иван Карамазов – человек, который сомневается в существовании Бога без научных доказательств, ищет Бога не только в православии, но и в буддизме, исламе, путешествиях по миру и изменении сознания. У него есть деньги и время философствовать. Он блогер, задающий свои вопросы сообществу таких же бездельников. Мы не изменили текст Достоевского, но визуально дали читателю намеки на сегодняшний день: принты на футболках, джинсы, серьга в ухе, современный интерьер бара. Братья пьют водку и курят.

Зачем Достоевский современному человеку? Как возможно верить в Бога, когда в мире так много боли, жестокости и несправедливости и как жить, не веря в Бога? Сейчас этот вопрос звучит еще актуальнее, чем век назад, потому что отпавших от веры больше, а необходимость веры сильнее.

Наталья Осипова

Август 2020

A Chat with Greta Matzner-Gore about Dostoevsky and the Ethics of Narrative Form

Today we’re sitting down with Greta Matzner-Gore to talk about her book, Dostoevsky and the Ethics of Narrative Form: Suspense, Closure, Minor Characters, a fantastic new contribution to Dostoevsky scholarship and to our understanding of the novel, form, and nineteenth-century Russian literature.

BK: First, congratulations on the publication of your book last month! Tell us a little about your book. How would you describe it to a layperson? What questions do you ask in it? What would you say is its overarching narrative?

GMG: My book is about how Dostoevsky’s works work on us.

From the very beginning of his career (I’m talking 1847 here), Dostoevsky’s readers were comparing his novels to moral mirrors—look into the hearts of his most unlikeable characters, and you’ll see yourself there. My book asks how he creates this mirroring effect, how he draws us into the ethical dramas that play out on the pages of his novels.

I argue that Dostoevsky uses a slew of innovative narrative techniques in order to do so. He ratchets up the suspense, experiments with different kinds of endings, adds or subtracts minor characters from the plot—all in a bid to better control our reading experience and, ultimately, to transform us.

BK: How did you first become interested in the question of how Dostoevsky constructs his novels?

GMG: When I was 16 years old. It was a hot day in July (really!), and I was lying on a hammock devouring Crime and Punishment. I was already a fan of detective fiction, and I was struck by how different Crime and Punishment was from anything I’d read before. What impressed me most was the powerful justification Raskolnikov had for committing his crime. In most detective stories I’d read, the motive for the murder was the weakest part of the plot—in the end you find out that so-and-so killed x number of people in order to win an inheritance, in revenge for a personal humiliation, out of jealousy, etc. The motive is never anything very convincing, and it never really matters: the point is the intellectual exercise of solving the crime, not the crime itself. But in Dostoevsky’s novel, the crime matters, and Raskolnikov’s justification for it matters too. His justification is (at least on the surface) rational and compelling: the pawnbroker is cruel, destructive, and parasitical, and the world would be better off without her in it. At one point, I even caught myself agreeing with Raskolnikov’s thought processes. Then I immediately felt horrified with myself. “Did I really just think that? Did I really just think that the premeditated murder of an elderly woman was, well, maybe not so bad after all?”

By the time I finished the novel, I was convinced that I hadn’t simply come to this thought of my own accord. Instead, the novel was designed to lead me to it—to make me feel the full logical power of Raskolnikov’s justifications for murder, and then ultimately to reject them (and the part of myself that found them convincing). That’s when I started getting interested in how Dostoevsky did it, in the artistic sleight-of-hand that makes the readerly manipulation possible. That was my first serious encounter with Russian literature, and it set the course for my entire future career.

Many years later, I learned that Robert Belknap had been teaching Crime and Punishment along more or less those same lines for decades. So my “discovery” as a 16-year-old wasn’t exactly original, but at least I was in good company!   

BK: You call Dostoevsky’s novels “maximally interactive” – what do you think is the result of this kind of art? Why does Dostoevsky pursue it?

GMG: Dostoevsky believed that art changes us, and changes us for the better. In his polemic “Mr –bov and the Question of Art” (1861), he imagined what might happen to a young man who sees the Apollo Belvedere for the first time:

And because the youth’s impression was, perhaps, an ardent one, convulsing his nerves and making his epidermis turn cold; perhaps—who knows!—perhaps as a result of such sensations of higher beauty, as a result of this convulsion of the nerves, some sort of internal change even takes place in a person, some sort of shifting of particles, some sort of galvanic current, which, in one instant, makes the past not what it was before, turns a piece of ordinary iron into a magnet.

Twenty years later, Dostoevsky insists, that (no longer young) man may still be acting under the magnetic influence of this “majestic and infinitely beautiful image,” albeit in ways that he may not fully recognize or understand. According to Dostoevsky, works of art like the Apollo Belvedere can “form” people and form them for good.

Of course, Dostoevsky knew that his own work had little in common with the Apollo Belvedere. He wrote long, messy, disorienting narratives, where the moments of “higher beauty” are few and far between. (After all, he considered himself a realist, a writer committed to portraying 19th-century Russian life in all its chaos and disorder). But he still dreamed that his novels would have a positive moral impact on the people who read them, that they would produce their own kind of ethical-aesthetic shock.

And that’s, I think, why Dostoevsky aims for “maximal interactivity.” He knows he isn’t going to electrify his readers with images of beauty, kindness, or love, so he pushes hard in the opposite direction. With the help of his seductive, morally ambivalent narrators, he immerses us in violence, cruelty, and ugliness; he encourages us to emotionally participate in them; and then exposes us to ourselves. It’s a little sadistic, to be honest. But then we’re talking about Dostoevsky here! 

BK: What are the stakes of “narrative ethics”? How does Dostoevsky bring them to the fore?

GMG: People have been arguing about the moral stakes of novel reading for centuries. For hundreds of years, the usual worry was that novels would have a morally degenerative effect on their readers. In the past few decades, however, the standard line has shifted. The most influential critics have argued that reading novels (at least certain classics, anyway) is regenerative instead. It is a kind of moral training ground, instructing readers in empathy, sympathy, and compassion; teaching them to withhold judgment and respect difference—lessons that they can then take into their day-to-day lives.

What makes Dostoevsky so interesting for me is that he plays on both of these possibilities. His narrators do seem to be “training” readers in particular habits of mind, but often in bad habits: malicious gossip, attraction to violence, hasty judgments and social stereotyping (to name just a few).

I think that Dostoevsky is still trying to write novels that will, in the final account, have a positive impact on the people who read them. But he takes his readers on a circuitous route toward that ultimate goal, pushing them to recognize their own complicity in sin first. In a sense, the plots Dostoevsky writes for his protagonists and the ones he imagines for his readers are structurally similar: we have to descend in order to ascend. 

BK: Your book focuses on three novels, mainly: Demons, The Adolescent, and Brothers Karamazov – why these three?

GMG: It happened organically. Each chapter grew out of a sense of uneasiness with each of the three novels, a sense that there was something wrong with them. As literary critics, we’re trained to look for resonances between form and content. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was a fundamental disconnect between the ethical principles championed by the positive characters in these novels, and the narrative form of the novels—which often seemed to be working at cross purposes.

I could write a lot about this topic, so I will limit myself to one example: how I came up with the idea for chapter one (“Curiosity, Suspense, and Dostoevsky’s Demons”). It all started with Liputin, who always got under my skin. A self-declared “gossip” and “spy,” he is one of the nastiest characters in the novel. But nevertheless, he (through his gossiping and spying) fulfills an essential narrative function—exposition. His gossip provides insider information about Stavrogin’s secret past, which readers need to know in order to make sense of the novel’s plot. The novel is built on the very mechanisms of knowing and telling that it explicitly critiques.

In the end, I came to the conclusion that such disconnects between form and content were not the insoluble problems they seemed to be at first glance—they were the point. Dostoevsky’s novels are not written about, for, or by perfect people who have already realized his dream of universal brotherhood on earth. They are written about, for, and by people who haven’t, who are still struggling with their personal weaknesses and limitations, and who are trying to do better.

BK: What is the most exciting part of your book for you? How does this book change the conversation?

GMG: One benefit of focusing on just three novels is that it allowed me to write in-depth, holistic interpretations of each one, showing how even their tiniest textual details resonate with their biggest philosophical questions. That’s what I was aiming for, and that’s what I am ultimately most proud of. I am also excited about the new insights the book provides into Dostoevsky’s artistic process. Each chapter traces Dostoevsky’s work on a single novel, from his notebooks to the finished product: how he grapples with some question of novelistic craft, starts thinking through its moral stakes, and in the end creates a narrator who is struggling with the same challenges to ethical storytelling that he is.  

Ultimately, I hope that the book will help change the way not just Slavists, but also literary theorists and historians in general think and talk about Dostoevsky’s legacy. He has an international reputation for being an emotionally explosive writer and an influential religious philosopher. But he is also one of the nineteenth-century’s most subtle thinkers about the ethics of reading and writing fiction. He didn’t write much in the way of literary theory, but he was still a great narrative theorist in his own way.


Greta Matzner-Gore is an Assistant Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Southern California. A specialist in nineteenth-century Russian literature, her research interests include narrative theory, the ethics of reading, and the intersections between science and literature. She is also a founding member of the North American Dostoevsky Society’s Reader Advisory Board. Her first book, Dostoevsky and the Ethics of Narrative Form, is available now from Northwestern University Press.

What Can Prince Teach Us About Dostoevsky?

by Fiona Bell

Prince was not a fox.

Well, he was sexy. But within Isaiah Berlin’s paradigm, at least, he was an unmistakable hedgehog. And his big idea – that Christian love will save us – is Dostoevsky’s.

But their paths to God could not have been more different. For Prince, spirituality entails the uninhibited expression of the ego. Dostoevsky, however, views the ego’s destruction as a prerequisite for spiritual progress. This essential difference explains the artists’ contrasting narrative styles and approaches to sexuality. Dostoevsky offers many voices but only supports one self-abnegating vision of spirituality. Prince shares only his own voice but reveals countless – often erotic – paths to God. This strange comparison is (besides the obsessive preoccupation of a Prince superfan) an exciting way to reexamine the role of the self in sexuality, spirituality, and authorship.

For Prince, “funk is about rules.”[1] It’s ordered, harmonic, and – in his case – undeniably monologic. In his first five albums, Prince played every instrument on each track. And while he needed a band for live performances, he was not exactly known for his musical dialogism. In fact, Prince’s resistance to teamwork is a subplot of the movie Purple Rain. Having alienated his band with his diva behavior, The Kid descends into depravity and performs the sleazy single, “Darling Nikki.” Though The Kid learns his lesson by the end of the movie, reuniting with the band and performing a triumphant “Purple Rain,” Prince himself apparently didn’t. Throughout his career, he cycled through dozens of bands, constantly inviting and ousting members, appreciating virtuosity but rarely permitting another artist to rival his own supremacy. The result is a body of work that is stamped with Prince’s voice, touched by others but never defined by them.

Even on a lyrical level, when Prince simulates dialogue, he simply emphasizes his ingrained monologic tendencies. The outro of his 1987 song “If I Was Your Girlfriend” is a great example:

Can I see you?
I’ll show you
Why not?
You can think it’s because I’m your friend I’ll do it for you
Of course I’ll undress in front of you!
And when I’m naked, what shall I do?
How can I make you see that it’s cool?
Can’t you just trust me?
If I was your girlfriend you could
Oh, yeah, I think so
Listen, for you naked I would dance a ballet
Would that get you off?
Then tell me what will!
If I was your girlfriend, would you tell me?

Several times in this excerpt – “Oh, yeah, I think so,” or “Then tell me what will!” – the speaker supposedly responds to a comment his love interest has just made. But by omitting her voice, Prince privileges his own monologic desire over the lovers’ dialogue. Such moments are reminiscent of Dostoevsky in A Writer’s Diary or the Underground Man in Notes from the Underground, when the narrator imagines a skeptical reader’s response and responds to his criticisms preemptively. “If I Was Your Girlfriend” leaves the listener with a similar impression of the speaker’s desperation.

Yet, as Bakhtin noted, it makes sense for love songs to be monologic. What else can the poet do but describe their own desire? Prince hinted at this truth – with his characteristically sly smirk – in a 2004 performance of “Cream,” telling the crowd: “I wrote this while looking in the mirror.”

Of course, Dostoevsky’s work is famously dialogic. His prose, unlike Prince’s music, is characterized by a cacophony of unorchestrated voices. For that reason, any expressions of intimate experience – either sexual or spiritual – belong to his characters, not necessarily to him. Thanks to this dialogism, Dostoevsky is able to describe unconventional sexualities without directly endorsing them.

Still, the author saw a moral danger in writing about sexuality. He once attempted to solve this problem by suggesting that art neutralizes reality, and therefore nullifies the threat of sexuality: “Here reality has been transformed, having passed through art, having passed through the fire of pure, chaste inspiration and through the poet’s artistic thought.”[2] Part of art’s value is its ability to sanitize the world’s depravity.

Prince certainly doesn’t pretend that the eroticism in his music isn’t his own. His characteristic monologism leaves no room for doubt. That’s what makes Prince’s music so uniquely vulnerable. It’s also what prompts some people to wrinkle their noses: they’re encountering someone’s naked sexuality, unable to attribute the strangeness to anyone but the artist himself. The intensity of listeners’ responses – discomfort and awkwardness or, equally, excitement and arousal – demonstrates that sexuality isn’t always neutralized when it’s turned into art, as Dostoevsky suggested.

In his oeuvre, Prince gives us a vivid, realistic portrait of sexuality, with its sanctity, its unpredictability, and its contradictions. Even though his music itself is monologic, within this single perspective he manifests a type of dialogism that Bakhtin would appreciate. Prince adored love without sex, but he also saw the beauty of sex without love, or, rather, sex as an expression of universal love. In his view, the selfishness of erotic love was not at odds with the selflessness of Christian love. Both were sacred, and they fed into one another. In his 1996 cover of the Bonnie Raitt song, “I Can’t Make U Love Me,”  Prince adds this recitative interlude: “In this bedroom/church, U can guess the offering.”

Some of Prince’s dirtiest lyrics appear alongside his most heartfelt religious appeals. In “Controversy,” he recites the entire Lord’s Prayer. “Darling Nikki,” the fifth track on the 1984 album Purple Rain, was the impetus for the creation of the Parents Music Resource Center, which censored music deemed unsuitable for children. The song is sultry and raw, with unambiguous lyrics about masturbation and a one-night stand. But the track ends with gospel-style vocals, which, played in reverse, are: “Hello, how are you? / Fine, fine, ’cause I know that the Lord is coming soon / Coming, coming soon.”

Unlike Dostoevsky, Prince doesn’t believe that suffering improves the soul. Instead, he views sex as a healing force for the “I,” the “you,” and the world. This force is chaotic, joyful, powerful, and – to draw on another Bakhtinian idea – carnivalesque. Prince channels this force in his music, joyously challenging the established understanding of sexuality in American culture. Though music composition was an Apollonian act for Prince, his dancing was an unconfined, Dionysian release of energy. Zadie Smith has written about the ephemerality of Prince’s style: “It was the greatest thing you ever saw and yet its greatness was confined to the moment in which it was happening.”[3]

Bakhtin formed the idea of the carnivalesque in opposition to monologism. And indeed, Prince’s belief in the ordered nature of funk is at odds with the carnivalesque mode, which necessitates the renunciation of order and assimilation into the crowd. Still, Prince managed to evoke the carnivalesque in his monologic music, just as a street performer is both a leader and member of the crowd. The best example is his performance of “Gett Off” at the 1991 VMAs, where he appears in a Boschian, pornographic hellscape, clad in a lace-patterned, assless suit. Prince flaunts his backside with self-assurance and a smirk, seeming to acknowledge the ridiculousness of it all, the silliness of sexuality in general. At one point in the song he promises to “Strip your dress down / Like I was strippin’ a Peter Paul’s Almond Joy.” Yes, the candy bar. To my mind, there’s no better evocation of the carnivalesque’s obsession with the body, its mixture of satanic and Christian elements, its riotous humor, than this performance.

According to Bakhtin, the carnivalesque mode generates fearlessness, as the crowd laughs in the face of the establishment. This is exactly the spirit of Prince’s music: he laughs at racism, at homophobia, at all the world’s evils. He gives his audience permission to do the same. But his collaborators and his listeners are only free to defy convention because Prince has already bared himself. And his greatest wish is that others would follow suit, as he expresses in the famous lines from “Controversy”: “People call me rude, I wish we were all nude / I wish there was no black and white, I wish there were no rules.” Prince was the leader of a widespread carnival, empowering others – especially the Black and queer communities – to be just as vulnerable as he was. This is the enduring power of his music.

Although dialogism is associated with tolerance, Dostoevsky’s overall depiction of sexuality is not very accepting. He portrays the simultaneous holiness and sinfulness of a single human being, but rarely celebrates it. In fact, Dostoevsky’s most indisputable heroes – Prince Myshkin, Alyosha Karamazov, and children – don’t even experience this dissonance. His characters’ sexualities are ultimately at the service of his greater point about salvation.

By contrast, Prince’s work suggests that the ideal discourse on sexuality is an unabashed, monologic expression of a “Dirty Mind.” In his own way, Prince makes an even stronger argument about God than Dostoevsky does. By accepting all the aspects of his consciousness – through a monologic exploration of the self – Prince learns how to accept everyone else. His vision of Christian love relies on the construction, not the destruction, of the self.

Later in life, Prince’s self-acceptance was shaken and, consequently, so was his tolerance for others. After becoming a Jehovah’s Witness in 2001, he stopped singing swear words and erased many sexual lyrics from his oeuvre. The queer community was understandably upset in 2008 when he denounced gay marriage.[4] Many Dostoevsky scholars experience a similar disappointment upon reading the author’s writings on Jewish people and women. Yet, we continue to cherish these artists for the same reason that they believed God wouldn’t give up on humanity: their striving is so heartfelt.

Prince’s unfinished memoir is being released by Penguin Random House on October 29th. I’m so excited for another chance to witness his joyous, fervent, smirking struggle for transcendence.

Notes

[1] Piepenbring, Dan. “The Book of Prince.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 9 Sept. 2019, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/09/09/the-book-of-prince.
[2] Fusso, Susanne. Discovering Sexuality In Dostoevsky. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2006. Page 6.
[3] Smith, Zadie. “Zadie Smith: Dance Lessons for Writers.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 29 Oct. 2016, www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/29/zadie-smith-what-beyonce-taught-me.
[4] Hoffman, Claire. “Soup with Prince.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 16 Nov. 2008, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/11/24/soup-with-prince.


Fiona Bell recently completed an MSt degree in Russian at Oxford University, after earning her B.A. in Slavic Languages and Literatures at Princeton University. She is currently working as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Ulyanovsk, Russia. In Fall 2020, she will enter Yale University’s PhD program in Slavic Languages and Literatures, where she plans to focus on Russian theater and performance studies.

Travels from Dostoevsky’s Siberia

by Elizabeth Blake

Blake_.inddIn April 1849 Dostoevsky was arrested and imprisoned in the Peter Paul Fortress for his participation in the Petrashevsky Circle.  Before the year was out he and his fellow conspirators had been subjected to a mock execution and then sentenced to either imprisonment or exile in Siberia, the Caucasus, and Orenburg.  Travels from Dostoevsky’s Siberia (Academic Studies Press, 2019) is comprised of archival narratives written by three Polish political prisoners, two of whom shared the experience with the Petrashevsky conspirators, as well as my commentary on each of the three parts (based on over a decade of research). These translations provide the reader with eyewitness testimonies about the life of state prisoners in Western Siberia when Dostoevsky was imprisoned in Omsk and lived in exile in Semipalatinsk.

Kibitka Citadel

A kibitka at the Warsaw Citadel

These famous writer-revolutionaries shared Fyodor Dostoevsky’s experience of living in Western Siberia, after having been imprisoned and exiled by Nicholas I’s regime, and survived to compose their accounts, providing an intimate portrait of their struggle to comprehend the deprivation of their rights and to build networks that helped them to defend against their maltreatment by capricious and abusive authority figures.  The notes to the primary sources include historical information about various conspiratorial groups, agitational activities, and Siberian culture, gathered from archival, print, and digital resources, to provide readers with a sense of the interconnectedness of revolutionary movements across the Russian Empire and beyond owing to shared language, geographical space, nationality, religious identity, and political ideology.

ConfluenceOmIrty copy

The confluence of the Irtysh and Om rivers (Omsk)

Velikhanov copy

A statue of Dostoevsky’s friend Chokan Valikhanov (Omsk)

In the first part, Józef Bogusławski, who lived with the Russian novelist for four years in the Omsk prison fortress, provides additional background information to several characters (Major Krivtsov, Mirecki, Bogusławski, Bem, Durov, Korczyński, Tokarzewski, Żochowski, and Aleksei de Grave) the reader meets in Dostoevsky’s Notes from the House of the Dead. Bogusławski differentiates Dostoevsky from Durov based on the former’s education in the tsar’s military and discusses some of the divisive literary and political debates causing tension between the Russian novelist and the group of Polish political prisoners.  Bogusławski’s memoirs (1898) supplement this most famous text written by any of the five authors (Bogusławski, Dostoevsky, Durov, Tokarzewski, and Żochowski) in the Omsk prison fortress by recording the language, rituals, hardships, and journeys experienced by political prisoners in Dostoevsky’s Siberia.

LiubaGasford

The statue “Lyubа” of the wife of the Governor General of Western Siberia (Omsk)

In the second part, a selection from Memoirs from a Stay in Siberia (1861) provides a portrait of several provincial authorities in Omsk (including Aleksei de Grave and Pyotr Gorchakov) based on Rufin Piotrowski’s brief stay in the town before being assigned to work in a factory. His account of the infamous Omsk Affair, an aborted rebellion organized by Father Jan Sierociński, and the brutal flogging of its leadership without mercy supplement various published accounts of the escape attempt that claimed so many victims.

In the final part, Bogusławski’s co-conspirator and prolific writer Bronisław Zaleski, in “Polish Exiles in Orenburg” (1866), reveals the substantial literary and intellectual contributions of the Orenburg circle (whose members included such famous poets as his fellow conspirator Edward Żeligowski, the Ukrainian nationalist Taras Shevchenko, and Dostoevsky’s friend Aleksei Pleshcheev) with references to the Decembrists, the Petrashevsky conspirators, and the Omsk Affair.

ZaleskiLaVie43

Zaleski’s sketch of the bay at Novopetrovsk

Zaleski’s many portraits of officers and government officials as well as his extensive complaints about the military life of drills, denunciations, and training enhance our knowledge of Dostoevsky’s own service in Semipalatinsk following his prison term.  Moreover, Zaleski, like Piotrowski, provides a connection to the Parisian circle of Polish exiles linked to the Great Emigration following the 1830 uprising––those who gathered around Prince Adam Czartoryski’s circle at the Hôtel Lambert.  The members of this group of Polish exiles supported these unfortunate victims of Nicholas I and Alexander II through direct financial contributions, political advocacy, and the publication of their fates in the Western press.

Memorial Citadel

A memorial to prisoners at the Warsaw Citadel

The narratives of this generation of unfortunates from the western edge of Imperial Russia contribute to our cultural knowledge about famous Russian exiles, including the Decembrists and the Petrashevtsy both because of their shared experience and common language.  This collection therefore imparts to the reader not only a better understanding of the hardships of the carceral continuum but also enriches one’s encounter with Dostoevsky’s post-confinement writings.


FMD Stockade

Dostoevsky statue at the historic Omsk stockade location

Elizabeth Blake is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at Saint Louis University, where she teaches courses on Russian culture, language, literature, and theology that contribute to programs in Fine and Performing Arts, Theological Studies, and Catholic Studies.  Her U. S. Department of State Title VIII and U. S. Department of Education Fulbright-Hays funding through American Councils, a Faculty Research Leave, and a Mellon grant helped fund the secondary research for Travels from Dostoevsky’s Siberia (2019), the culmination of several research trips to Krakow, and are contributing to a monograph on the impact of Dostoevsky’s Siberian period on his oeuvre.  Her research on Orthodox-Catholic exchanges, Russo-Polish conflict, Siberian studies, and the nineteenth-century European novel informed her first monograph, Dostoevsky and the Catholic Underground (2014), and a dozen articles, which have appeared in leading peer-reviewed journals (Dostoevsky Studies, Polish Review, and Slavic and East European Journal) and collections.

Aside from Zaleski’s sketch, the images that appear in this post are the author’s own photographs.

A Chat with Jonathan Paine about Selling the Story

by Jonathan Paine

Today we sit down with Jonathan Paine to talk about his book Selling the Story: Transaction and Narrative Value in Balzac, Dostoevsky, and Zola, out today with Harvard University Press.

Paine_CoverBK: Jonathan, first, please tell our readers a little about your book. What is it about? And how does Dostoevsky feature in it?

JP: Selling the Story is a book about the economics of literature. It asks how writing for money changes what is written, and how we can mine texts for evidence of this process. It concentrates on the 19th-century ‘professional turn’ when authors for the first time began writing for money rather than patronage. It focuses on a 50-year timespan from the 1830s to the 1880s when, and especially in France, publishing in serialized periodicals became far more profitable for authors than publishing in book format, and so catapulted writers into a journalistic context which catered increasingly to a newly developing mass market. The techniques and genres of journalism leach into prose fiction, giving rise to entirely new literary genres – thrillers, detective stories, courtroom dramas.

Dostoevsky, of course, was famously and vocally indigent – hardly a letter goes by without a request for money or a complaint about its lack. Writing for money was an inevitability. But who was his readership? The Russian market was decades behind its West European counterparts – no mass market would develop till the early 20th century, and the ‘thick’ journals , Russia’s book format version of the serious monthly periodical, rarely reached an audience of more than 5-6,000 in Dostoevsky’s lifetime. Yet Russian publishers imported mass market techniques as soon as they were developed in the West – the boulevard newspaper , a precursor of the modern tabloid, took just one year to travel from France to Russia in 1864. Dostoevsky was well travelled, well read, and an enthusiastic follower of French literature, to which his early translation of Balzac’s Eugènie Grandet attests. So should a contemporary Russian author write for the tiny, demographically restricted, actual readership which paid the bills, or for the new mass market which was visibly developing outside Russia? Selling the Story argues that it is impossible to appreciate the literature of the period in Russia, particularly that of Dostoevsky, without an understanding of this publishing context.

BK: Your section on Dostoevsky is called “Who Buys the Story?” and there you specifically discuss the novel as a form. What insight does your research provide on Dostoevsky’s writing practice?

JP: If, as my book argues, the publishing context made it difficult for Russian writers to know whether to write for a very restricted contemporary audience or for a mass market yet to come, it makes sense to hedge your bets. Selling the Story suggests that all of Dostoevsky’s work, from Poor People to The Brothers Karamazov, is an extended experiment in the art of writing for multiple audiences. Did a formula in writing fiction exist which allowed the drama of the courtroom to be combined with the intellectual weight which Dostoevsky found no problem in introducing to his own mono-journal, Diary of a Writer?

Selling the Story offers an extended, book by book and serialized instalment by serialized instalment reading of The Brothers Karamazov which links it closely to its publishing context and shows how the text can be read as a literary ‘reinsurance policy’, attempting to combine the dramatic momentum of the murder mystery at the heart of the plot with the philosophical detours of the Grand Inquisitor or Alyosha’s life of Zosima. It argues that Dostoevsky even turns conventional literary devices, such as iteration, into economic tools in an attempt to broaden the reach of his text to different audiences and shows how the central story of the murder itself is iterated no less than 38 times through the mouths of the in-story characters. It shows how Dostoevsky used his characters to model their own in-text acts of literary creation, tested against in-story recipients who mimic the reactions of real readers.

And finally, it suggests that the increasing frequency of episodes showing a loss of control by the novel’s characters – Dmitry’s dream, Alyosha’s epiphany, Ivan’s madness, and most importantly Smerdyakov’s epileptic fit – mirrors Dostoevsky’s own problems in achieving anything but the most transient equilibrium between these competing forces.

BK: Your book isn’t just about Dostoevsky, though. It also features studies of Balzac and Zola, contemporaries of Dostoevsky’s. How has reading the three together enhanced your understanding of Dostoevsky?

JP: Understanding how the publishing context influences artistic output adds a new dimension to our appreciation of any text, and all the works I have selected contain seminal records of the conditions of their own creation. Balzac’s Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes [The Splendors and Mysteries of Courtesans] took 12 years to write and covers a period from 1835 to 1847 in which the French publishing market changed beyond recognition. Prose fiction migrated from its traditional historical book format to the feuilleton, at the foot of the first page of the newly emerging and popular daily newspapers. Balzac and his contemporary Eugène Sue competed head to head over whose work generated the most subscribers for its publishers. Selling the Story reveals how Balzac’s extended creation can be seen as a commentary on the evolving trends of the publishing industry; he starts with an exuberant celebration of the industry’s new-found freedoms, continues through an experimental disassembly and parody of his rival Sue’s techniques, and finishes in an end-of-career sabotage of his own work to see how far readers could be pushed before they stopped reading.

Zola, by contrast, was writing almost half a century later. The boulevard newspaper, introduced in 1863, had revolutionized journalism, catering to a mass market which industrial revolution, urbanization and the spread of literacy were creating. Roads, railways and canals had changed the French corporate landscape just as much as they had altered its geography. Big business had arrived, and Zola was its archivist. Two of his novels, La Curée [The Killing], 1872, and L’Argent [Money], 1891, deal with the rise and fall of his arch-capitalist, Aristide Saccard. But over the same period Zola had himself become big business. At the time of La Curée he was a literary nobody, forced to follow the dictates of the market to establish himself as a writer. By the time of L’Argent, Zola was the most successful writer of his age with print runs in the hundreds of thousands, publishing in a resurrected book format because he no longer needed the visibility of the feuilleton to promote his output. And his novels, inevitably, record and comment on this, the means and process of their own creation, from the importation of the literary devices of the boulevard newspapers in La Curée to Zola’s assumption of literary control over his readership, as the managing director of his own successful publishing business, documented in L’Argent.

And amidst this publishing revolution sits Dostoevsky, writing in a market far removed from France but acutely aware of the potential of his own literary legacy in the shape of a mass market yet to arrive in Russia. Selling the Story traces the influence of this on Dostoevsky as a writer, not least by adding a new dimension to the constant critical theme of memory and legacy in his works, and at the same time demonstrating that the techniques of economic criticism can be shown to travel across geography, time and culture.

BK: You situate your book within the emerging field of economic criticism. What is economic criticism and how does engaging with it enhance your book’s argument?

Economic criticism essentially asks whether treating a text as an object of economic exchange can generate worthwhile new critical insights. Almost all texts have an economic function in that writers ask readers to exchange their time for the writers’ creative output. This is a genuine transaction and can be considered as such.

In the 19th-century any author writing serialized installments for a periodical or newspaper becomes by default part of the publisher’s sales strategy. So, considering the publishing context is the starting point for economic criticism. The technique I find most useful is what I call ‘point of sale’ analysis. This asks what we can deduce from a text about the author’s perception of the market for which he or she was writing, based on a wide range contemporary evidence from successful (or unsuccessful) literary trends to genres and stylistic devices, from cultural evolutions or constants to the prosaic influence of pay per line of printer’s copy. Understanding how authors might have understood and addressed their markets is an underdeveloped aspect of literary criticism and a necessary element of reception theory.

If an author is indeed part of a transaction with the reader, then we can also apply forms of economic analysis to that transaction. Authors describe transactions in their works, few more so than the three I have chosen. Examining how they represent in-story deals can tell us much about how the author approaches his or her own transaction with the reader. Selling the Story also suggests that all texts fall into one of three categories: prospectus, auction or speculation. A ‘prospectus’ text implies that its value is set by its author- all religious works, for example, follow this pattern. Auction implies a value set by the recipient, in this case the reader, and highlights the importance of the iterative approach, which typifies the serialized works common to 19th-century literature, as a means of establishing value over time. Speculation, a metaphor which Dostoevsky uses repeatedly, implies transient value, and suggests that the strategy of iteration which I identify in The Brothers Karamazov is in fact a way of cumulatively increasing the chances of its success.

Historically, economic criticism has had a bad rap. Even today some scholars still argue that treating works of literature as economic commodities is unacceptable. But of course they are, and to ignore their economic context is to omit an important dimension of scholarship. Equally obviously, they are more than that: economic criticism is a useful new tool of analysis which complements, rather than challenges, aesthetic approaches.

BK: Obviously you’ve spent a long time studying these authors, their works, and their historical context. What’s been the most interesting thing you’ve learned while he researching this book?

JP: One of my investment banking colleagues, learning of my academic plans, said ‘You’ll have to learn to concentrate’. I was a bit miffed: what had I been doing, then, through all those years as a banker? But he was right. Banking meant keeping twenty balls simultaneously in the air, so little time for each. Literary scholarship meant a slow process of unpeeling an onion, layer by layer. In the process I’ve learnt to think in a completely different way. And I’ve discovered lots of new friends in the academic community who I would never have found otherwise. And, best of all, I can enjoy all the good bits of scholarship without needing to earn a career from it!


Dr. Jonathan Paine is a Supernumerary Fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford and Senior Advisor and former Managing Director at the investment bank Rothschild & Co. He serves as the treasurer of the International Dostoevsky Society. He is currently researching the art of authorship in Dostoevsky and on ways of promoting the relevance of the humanities in business.

Dostoevsky and Detective Fiction: An Interview with Claire Whitehead

Today we’re sitting down with Claire Whitehead to talk about Dostoevsky, crime fiction, and her new book, The Poetics of Early Russian Crime Fiction, 1860-1917: Deciphering Stories of Detection, published in September by Legenda.

BK: So, first, tell us a little about your new book. What is it about?

M-lgs-p771It’s a book about some of the many brilliant works of crime fiction that were published in Russia during the late Imperial era, from the period of the Great Reforms of the 1860s up to the 1917 revolution. And I guess I wrote it with two main aims in mind. The first is that I wanted to find out more about the history of this genre that doesn’t really appear in the pages of Russia’s canonical literary history: who was writing crime fiction, what sort of works were they producing and were these works like the works we know from the same era in other countries? The second is that I wanted to provide something more than an historical survey: I wanted to look at how these stories, novellas and novels use their narrative structures to manipulate the reader’s access to knowledge, which is what I think of as the key currency of crime fiction. So, there are chapters on questions such as narrative authority, temporal organization, multiple voice, intertextuality and parody that make reference to a host of largely unknown, but really entertaining and interesting, works.

BK: How popular was crime fiction in 19th-century Russia? How familiar would Dostoevsky have been with the genre?

Very, and deservedly so. If you look at Avram Reitblat’s book, Ot Bovy k Bal’montu i drugie raboty po istoricheskoi sotsiologii russkoi literatury (From Bova to Balmont and other works on the historical sociology of Russian literature, 2009), numerous works of crime fiction during this period figured amongst the most widely read publications of their given year. These include: Nikolai Sokolovskii’s Ostrog i zhizn’: iz zapisok sledovatelia (Prison and Life: From the Notes of an Investigator) (1866), Nikolai Timofeev’s Zapiski sledovatelia (Notes of an Investigator) (1872), Aleksandr Shkliarevskii’s Collected Works (1881), as well, of course, as Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Jeffrey Brooks’s When Russia Learned to Read (2003) makes clear that the rise in literacy rates, changes in publishing conditions, including the proliferation of smaller urban presses, ensured that crime fiction was readily available to (and hugely popular with!) Russian readers in the later part of this period, and right up to the 1917 revolution.

I think it’s fair to say that Dostoevsky was very familiar with the various authors who contributed to the birth of crime fiction in Russia. For instance, some of the earliest stories by Nikolai Sokolovskii were published in his journal, Vremia (Time), during 1862 and 1863. In the early 1870s, the aspiring crime writer Aleksandr Shkliarevskii wrote to Dostoevsky to declare his admiration for his works’ ‘deep psychological analysis’. And when Shkliarevskii moved to St Petersburg under the protection of the renowned prosecutor, A.F. Koni, he is said to have moved in some of the same circles as Dostoevsky. Moreover, given the popularity of these authors with a general readership, and Dostoevsky’s interest in all things connected with the law, it seems unlikely that Dostoevsky wouldn’t also have been reading these works.

BK: Crime and Punishment is obviously a text that must be addressed in your study, but it is not commonly read as crime fiction. Why is that?

I think there are a number of reasons. To some extent, it’s a question of the initial reception of the novel that has influenced its reading over subsequent years. When Crime and Punishment was first serialized, crime fiction was only just beginning to appear in Russia, and so there would have been little question of it being categorized in this genre. It was far more appropriate for it to be received as a work of critical realism in keeping with Belinskii’s call to action. And, as the era of the great realist novel in Russia continued to develop, Crime and Punishment, with its ideological, philosophical and existential concerns, fitted in with that particular narrative of literary historical development very productively. I do think it is important, however, to guard against any temptation to argue that Crime and Punishment is not primarily seen as crime fiction because there is so much else going on in the novel. I would suggest that that is, in fact, true of the majority of Russian crime fiction from this era, most of which displays a similar preoccupation with questions of socio-historical environment, individual psychology, determinism and free will, and the role of the law. Russian crime fiction of the late Imperial era is a sophisticated genre that shares many features with its more renowned or canonical literary cousins.

BK: I was intrigued to discover that, after Crime and Punishment, the Dostoevsky text your book discusses the most is Notes from the House of the Dead. This is a work about criminals and penal servitude, but I find it somewhat far from what I think of as crime fiction. What’s the connection?

I don’t claim in the book that Notes from the House of the Dead is a work of crime fiction. However, there are similarities between some of its features and works that do belong to the genre. So, for instance, Sokolovskii’s Prison and Life includes some stories that feature a judicial investigator working on criminal cases, but also others that simply recount his encounters with prison inmates and his knowledge of their habits and traditions whilst incarcerated, which are similar to those found in Dostoevsky’s work. This and other early examples of Russian crime fiction (such as Konstantin Popov’s Vinovatye i pravye (The Guilty and the Innocent) from 1871) make use of the type of physiological/ethnographic sketch that is to be found in Notes from the House of the Dead as well as, for instance, in a work such as V.V. Krestovskii’s Petersburg Slums (1864). And early Russian crime fiction seeks to create a strong sense of realism in part by its use of slang and dialect, which is another feature that is prominent in House of the Dead. So, it’s really a case of shared features rather than a common genre.

BK: Was Dostoevsky influential in 19th-century or later Russian crime fiction writing? What are some of the stories he influenced?

Yes, undoubtedly, although it’s obviously quite difficult definitively to establish influence. I’ve mentioned Dostoevsky’s connection with Aleksandr Shkliarevskii and I think you can see Shkliarevskii echoing a good number of his idol’s preoccupations with questions around criminal psychology, the role of environment and fate as well as with literary techniques related to temporal organisation and narrative voice. More specifically, in Shkliarevskii’s 1872 story ‘Otchego on ubil ikh?’ (‘Why Did He Kill Them?’), the protagonist, Narostov, who has strangled his wife and shot his mistress, refers to himself as a member of the ‘house of the dead’ and expounds on what he sees as the qualities of Dostoevsky’s depiction of the enigma of crime in that work. There are also clear points of resemblance between Dostoevsky’s concern with the plight of the lower echelons of society and Nikolai Timofeev’s plots in stories such as ‘Murder and Suicide’ and ‘The Prostitute’ in his Notes of an Investigator collection. I would also argue that Aleksandra Sokolova’s refusal of an easy explanation of criminal motive in a work such as Spetaia pesnia (The Song Has Been Sung) (1892) reveals the influence of Dostoevsky.

BK: How much influence did other crime fiction from the time have on Dostoevsky?

Again, I think it’s quite difficult to establish this definitively, but there’s no question in my mind that Dostoevsky was aware of the crime writing of the time and that it affected him to some extent. So, for example, I’ve always wondered whether the description in Sokolovskii’s story ‘Skvernye minuty’ (‘Fateful Minutes’), first published in 1863, of a prostitute, Lizaveta, who hides a stolen wallet under the wallpaper near the plinth of her door, might have given Dostoevsky the idea for Raskolnikov’s stashing of what he has stolen from Alyona Ivanovna. More broadly, the depiction of broken family relations that lead to crime, of the type that Dostoevsky illustrates in The Brothers Karamazov, were a staple of Russian crime fiction throughout the 1860s and 1870s. And, the recognition that scenes played out in law courts were ripe with dramatic potential might well have been influenced by other crime writers, such as Semyon Panov and Nikolai Timofeev, who frequently included an account of criminal trials in their work.

BK: Does reading Dostoevsky within the context of 19th-century crime fiction shift our understanding of Dostoevsky’s works?

Yes, potentially. One of the first arguments I make in my book is that Dostoevsky should not be considered to be the first or only author of crime fiction writing in the 1860s. Dostoevsky’s fascination with various aspects of the legal system both in Russia and abroad, expressed not just in Crime and Punishment but also in Notes from the House of the Dead and, later, in The Brothers Karamazov, is far from being unique during this period. Debates conducted in polemical journalism about the proposed legal reforms influenced a good many writers, and these preoccupations found their way into a numerous literary works. Also, to a reader more familiar with the ‘Western’ canon of crime fiction, Crime and Punishment seems at odds with the genre’s conventions because there is no mystery whatsoever about the identity of the criminal. However, when you place Dostoevsky’s novel in the context of works of crime fiction from this early period, you discover that none of them are really interested in the question of ‘whodunit’. Louise McReynolds has written very persuasively about the Russian genre’s greater interest in the issue of ‘whydunit’ and the implications of that focus: she argues that whilst the ‘whodunit’ accuses an individual, the ‘whydunit’ points the finger of guilt at broader, more collective social forces. None of this is to take away from Dostoevsky’s achievements; but it is important to view him as part of a broader literary-cultural movement, many of whose participants have been forgotten.

BK: What is your favourite work of 19th-century crime fiction and why?

Hmmm… that’s a difficult one. Of course, I genuinely love Crime and Punishment and always have such fun talking about its various aspects with my students. But looking beyond that landmark, I would say my favourite author currently is Semyon Panov who wrote five works of crime fiction in the 1870s, all of which are deserving of a much greater reputation. Of his works, I think that Ubiistvo v derevne Medveditse (Murder in Medveditsa Village) (1872) is a very accomplished and rich work, and the dizzying parody Iz zhizni uezdnogo gorodka (From the Life of a Provincial Town) (1876) is well worth a read, not least because I think it might well have influenced Chekhov later on.

BK: Why do you think nearly all of the texts you discuss are not translated into English yet? And do you know of any plans to translate them?

There is still a good deal of ignorance about the existence of many of these works (in spite of my and others’ best efforts) and so they aren’t immediately obvious choices for translators. Many of them have not been reprinted even in Russian since their first publication, or at least not since the late nineteenth century. I would love for someone to translate them and have begun to do some work on trying to find translators with whom I could collaborate. The project that I’m most excited about at the moment, though, is my collaboration with the illustrator and author, Carol Adlam (www.caroladlam.co.uk), on a graphic-novel adaptation into English of Semyon Panov’s Tri suda, ili ubiistvo vo vremia bala (Three Courts, of Murder During the Ball) from 1876. Carol is the artist behind the brilliant cover image of my book and we have just received some seed-funding from the University of St Andrews to produce about ten pages of proof-of-concept artwork to be able to pitch the full adaptation to a publisher. We are hoping that this might be the first step on a longer journey of bringing some more of these works to an anglophone audience, and in an exciting and popular medium.


A specialist in nineteenth-century Russian literature, Claire Whitehead is Senior Lecturer at the University of St Andrews. Her books include The Fantastic in France and Russia in the Nineteenth Century: In Pursuit of Hesitation (2006) and The Poetics of Early Russian Crime Fiction, 1860-1917: Deciphering Stories of Detection (2018). Growing up, she flirted with the idea of becoming a police officer or a forensic scientist, before deciding on the far more glamorous career of an academic.

The cover image at the top of the page is original artwork by Carol Adlam and appears with the artist’s permission. 

 

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.

Against Nihilism: Nietzsche Meets Dostoevsky

This summer we sat down with Maïa Stepenberg to talk about her new book, Against Nihilism: Nietzsche Meets Dostoevsky, which is forthcoming in September 2018 from Black Rose Books

Against_Nihilism_Front_Cover_JPG_mediumQ1.How would you describe what Dostoevsky and Nietzsche have most in common?

They`re God-obsessed:  they`re both obsessed by the idea of God.  It`s a tormenting or all-consuming concern for them, whether God is there or not.

The most interesting part is not where they coincide, but where they diverge.  It`s actually like a labyrinth of concerns:  the more you read each of them, the more you realize they would have probably profoundly agreed on practically everything – everything that really matters.  That`s what`s really interesting.  But where they begin to diverge is just as irrevocable as a train going down the tracks:  there`s no turning back at that point:  and so Dostoevsky ultimately chooses to believe (like St. Paul says, “Lord, help my unbelief”), whereas Nietzsche ultimately chooses to reject all legitimacy of faith.

Q2.What questions compelled these two thinkers and writers?

Beauty, truth, goodness – it`s basically these three eternal enigmas that drive their writings.  So I`ve tried to organize them as large overarching themes in the book.  There`s the liberating allure of criminality, for one (a very big one!) – and then there`s the existentialist crisis of meaning (because both men are certainly two of the most influential fathers of existentialism); then there`s the tension between paganism and Christianity (actually an argument between aesthetics and morality), and finally there`s the terrible disease or cultural malaise of nihilism.  It`s the last issue that remains especially urgent and timely, so it appears in the title of the book.

Q3.Why do you think nihilism is so urgent for today’s world?

Nihilism is the number one concern in our world today.  Nihilism is the spectre of nothingness haunting our society.  As I began to teach Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, I could see the rise of the very thing that they both had predicted with such dread:  nihilism indeed, in virtually every expression or experience of modern life.  Technology and globalization have removed all boundaries and reduced and flattened everything that matters, in human terms.

Q4.Do Dostoevsky and Nietzsche provide a remedy for nihilism?

I`d say that each of them definitely do.  They identify the same problem, but they come up with different solutions.  One could say that Nietzsche`s way out of the problem has been tried, but misunderstood or misapplied:  the fascist appropriations of Nietzsche`s “will to power” or “aristocratic radicalism” point to a failure to bring to life his cherished ideal of the individual overcoming “the herd” (or the mediocre majority), alone and untrammelled.  On the other hand, one could say that Dostoevsky`s solution has neither been tried nor understood since it`s all there in his last great novel The Brothers Karamazov – a way to overcome the world while loving it, “watering the earth with your tears,” as he had one character put it – something akin to what Chesterton said about Christianity being the greatest ideal in the world, still not fully tried.

I`d like to add that there is something undeniably hideous about the way the world is turning:  something deeply wrong and sick in our failure to inculcate true values, support living institutions, nourish each other in true fellowship.  There is so much that is wrong in the world today that no one can fail to recognize it.  The question is, can anyone still feel enough love or energy to change it?  For the flip side of nihilism is always apathy and despair.

But the point of reading and thinking alongside Dostoevsky and Nietzsche is that they were anything but apathetic.  They cared deeply and passionately about everything they wrote, and that is surely why fresh readers flock to them generation after generation:  Dostoevsky and Nietzsche wrote with a palpable love and energy, and they each proposed vital solutions that demand individual effort, awareness, and spiritual work.

Q5.Should we take this nineteenth-century remedy just as seriously today?

Well, Nietzsche once thought he`d provided a remedy to the perils of nihilism (or at least been on the road towards providing such a remedy).  But only time can tell whether we can apply it correctly.  Nietzscheans of every imaginable stripe have not in fact moved the world forward:  the cataclysms of the twentieth century all somehow bear the palimpsest of Nietzsche`s signature.  And it`s equally true that a Dostoevskian future has yet to be fulfilled in accordance with Dostoevsky`s own vision.  Will beauty save the world?  Can we ever set ourselves aside long enough to feel truly “responsible to all for all”?  This is all still in potentia:  the truly momentous imitation of Christ en masse has yet to pass.  Clearly, if neither man`s vision has yet succeeded in positively transforming the world, that does not mean it is irrelevant.  Quite the contrary.

Q6.What value lies in reading Dostoevsky and Nietzsche in dialogue?

The beginning of philosophy is defined by dialogue.  You have two of the greatest minds of the nineteenth century whose writings still exist, and they seem meant to be read together because they so naturally complement each other`s voices and amplify each other`s points.  So the actual debate they might have had never happened in time or space, but it can happen for the reader today.

In addition, my own understanding has been infinitely enhanced by approaching Dostoevsky and Nietzsche in tandem.  For me, it started in graduate school.  Nietzsche was the focus of my doctoral dissertation, and Dostoevsky was the focus of the doctoral dissertation of my best friend.  We consequently spent many wonderful hours discussing each other`s chapters together as study buddies.  So the seeds for the book were planted for me back then.

Once I started teaching I thought of combining Dostoevsky and Nietzsche in an original course, and I was immediately struck by the excitement that these two thinkers generated in students when they were presented together, rather than separately.  The success of the course from the very beginning told me that there was a book that needed to be written, not only for the benefit of the students (since a book we could use did not exist in any library), but as a tribute to the students` generosity of involvement with both Dostoevsky`s and Nietzsche`s ideas.

A research essay topic that I regularly assign in this course asks students to imagine a sustained and serious dialogue between Dostoevsky and Nietzsche based on assigned readings from each.  Most students excel at this exercise.  Since so many student scripts of Dostoevsky and Nietzsche turned out to be so refreshing and delightful, a shortlist of ten excerpts are showcased in an appendix to the book. Here’s one example:

I always tell my students that if I could ever go back in time and talk with anyone from the past, there is no one I could imagine wanting to converse with more than Dostoevsky and Nietzsche.  They are without a doubt my two favourite men of all time (with the exception of my husband and three sons, of course!).

Here’s a video my sons made that imagines a conversation between them:

Dostoevsky and Nietzsche could have only talked together in French, by the way – since that was the only language they had in common.

Q7.At the end of your introduction you state that in today`s world there are only two choices:  Dostoevsky`s path or Nietzsche`s path.  What would draw a person to one over the other?

You know, it`s a funny thing:  I`ve noticed in my classes that a lot of young women are drawn to Nietzsche (an irony that he would have found delightful, I`m sure!), just as a lot of young men are impressed by Dostoevsky.  There`s also the factor of religion:  those who are comfortable with religious structure often prefer Dostoevsky.  And then people who like the idea of rebellion tend to find themselves attracted to Nietzsche.  There are all kinds of things that can incline a person more one way than another, and then inclinations can change over time too.

It comes down to a very old divide, I think:  before Socrates there was Parmenides (a philosopher who asserted that changeless being is the one binding law of the universe) as opposed to Heraclitus (a philosopher who claimed that change is the only constant we can know).  Nietzsche and Dostoevsky are like that:  one playing Heraclitus to the other`s Parmenides.  It`s a never-ending argument about what came first and why.

With this book I have sought to infect others with my own enthusiasm for Dostoevsky and Nietzsche because I am convinced that they are deeply good for the world and our possibilities of improving it.  They ask us to confront the hardest questions about ourselves, and we are better for struggling to honestly face and answer those questions.  Whichever one you prefer, there`s no doubt that both Nietzsche and Dostoevsky will speak to you, either together or in turn, about all of life`s most unanswerable preoccupations and questions.


Maïa Stepenberg is Professor of Humanities at Dawson College in Montreal. Her book Against Nihilism:  Nietzsche Meets Dostoevsky is published by Black Rose Books.

Approaches to Teaching Crime & Punishment

We would like to invite all Dostoevsky scholars to complete a survey that is designed to gather information about instructors’ methods and materials for teaching Crime and Punishment. We will use these results for a new volume on the novel that we are proposing for the MLA series Approaches to Teaching World Literature. Please answer the questions at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/5TJHPVC and click Done when you are finished. All respondents to the survey will be acknowledged in the published volume, and the editors may quote anonymously from your responses in their introduction. Please indicate in your answers if you do not give permission to be acknowledged or quoted.

We are also soliciting proposals for contributions to the volume. If you wish to submit an essay proposal (see item 12 for requirements), please send it by e-mail to mkatz@middlebury.edu or burry.7@osu.edu. You may also send queries, comments, or supplemental materials such as course descriptions, syllabi, assignments, and bibliographies as attachments (doc, docx, rtf or pdf required). Surface mail submissions may be sent to Professor Michael Katz, 1712 Sperry Road, Cornwall, VT 05753 or Professor Alexander Burry, 400 Hagerty Hall, 1775 College Road, Columbus OH 43210].

Proposals and survey responses are due by 1 August 2018, after which the survey will no longer be available online.

Michael R. Katz, Middlebury College

Alexander Burry, The Ohio State University


Image credit: Panda with Oar on Deviant Art