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

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

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

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

BK: What is your favorite part of the novel?

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

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

 

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Dumala-Svidrigailov

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

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

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

 

click here for part 3!


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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Dumala-bridge

click here for Part 2!


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

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

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

Dostoevsky’s Drawings and Calligraphy

by Konstantin Barsht

The Drawings and Calligraphy of Fyodor Dostoevsky (Bergamo: Lemma Press, 2016) is an updated, deluxe edition of my earlier work, available for the first time in English (and Italian as well as Russian). It features numerous examples of Dostoevsky’s graphic heritage, including more than 100 portraits, several hundred Gothic architectural drawings, more than 1,000 calligraphic writings, and other forms of ideography. Based on extensive research, this volume asserts that this large body of graphic material forms part of Dostoevsky’s creative process, enabling him to move from image to word as he realized his literary ideas.

310_110The volume begins with the peculiarities of Dostoevsky’s education, namely his training at the Military Engineering Academy: the method of drawing he learned there became the foundation for creating his literary images.  Significantly, Dostoevsky’s drawings include portraits of the historical figures, literary colleagues, and relatives whom he thought about while writing: Peter the Great, Vissarion Belinsky, Ivan Turgenev, Viktor Askochensky, Mikhail Cervantes, Voltaire, F. P. Haase, William Shakespeare, Roger Tichborne, Germaine de Stael, Tikhon of Zadonsk, Timofey Granovsky, Napoleon Bonaparte I, Gioachino Rossini, Mikhail Dostoevsky (his older brother) and Mikhail’s wife Emilia Fyodorovna, Dostoevsky’s own young son, Fyodor.  All portraits are identified in the Lemma Press volume, which also includes some self-portraits.

Chapter 3 describes the way Dostoevsky portrays characters in the novels Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Demons, A Raw Youth, and The Brothers Karamazov. A special chapter analyzing the interaction between words and images in Dostoevsky’s creative process discusses Dostoevsky’s fascination with physiognomy, properties of portraiture in verbal and figurative art, elements of gothic architecture, his “penmanship,” and features of narrative form and narrative ekphrasis in his work. The book includes an index of names, geographical locations, and Dostoevsky’s works, as well as 202 pages of high-quality facsimiles featuring the drawings in Dostoevsky’s manuscripts.

Ideography, a key component of Dostoevsky’s creative notebooks, vividly captures many changes in the external and internal conditions of the writer’s life.  Most importantly, his ideography provides an extremely precise and productive source of information about his creative process. The volume holds that Dostoevsky’s works can be studied only by consistently and systematically analyzing all the texts and languages involved in his fictional process. Far from being an offshoot of Dostoevsky’s world, the drawings he made during his writing can be seen as a cardinal axis along which he crafted the desired artistic form. It shows that the texts of Dostoevsky’s draft manuscripts were not written in a single textual language accompanied by drawings, but in several languages that form a complex hybrid of textual-graphic languages and ideography. Within the framework of this new understanding, all drawings and notations, all signs in Dostoevsky’s manuscripts, irrespective of their intelligibility or external aesthetic, are fundamentally of equal importance for his art.

When looking at these portraits, examining the ornamental Gothic compositions, or reading Dostoevsky’s polished calligraphy, readers can feel the intense mental struggle of feelings and ideas which drove the writer’s process of “contemplation with pen in hand” that then flowed out onto the pages of his novels – a glimpse into the Holy of Holies of Dostoevsky’s creative consciousness. This experience allows us to view his artistic world “from within,” in direct, visible form, just the way he created it. Although Dostoevsky was capable of more artistically successful drawings, he had no time to draw better: his thought moved swiftly alongside his graphic art and through it to artistic form. The image1ingenious novels that Dostoevsky created through the medium of these sketches – Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Demons, A Raw Youth and Brothers Karamazov – offer sufficient grounds for us to forgive the novelist for not completing some of his graphic sketches. The discovery of the world of images created by Dostoevsky’s hand helps us to better understand his works and to more profoundly assimilate the universal values found in them. Although separated from us by many decades, Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky as writer and artist moves closer to us as we immerse ourselves in his graphic productions. At the same time, our ability to approach this classic writer of Russian and world literature as well as his works, makes it possible for us to understand ourselves better. This is why we should read Dostoevsky’s “graphic words” in the language in which they were written.


Konstantin Barsht is a Professor and Leading Research Fellow at the Institute of Russian Literature (Pushkin House) of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He has published more than 232 books and articles, including the following books on Dostoevsky’s work: The Story of the Timeless (about Dostoevsky’s Demons) (St Petersburg, 1994), Drawings in Dostoevsky’s Manuscripts (St Petersburg, 1996), and F. M. Dostoevsky’s Drawings. Catalogue, which appeared as vol. 17 of The Complete Works of F. M. Dostoevsky (Moscow, 2005). You can reach him on email at konstantin_barsht (at) pushdom (dot) ru.

A Chat with Anna Berman on Dostoevsky and the Family Novel

On the blog today Kate Holland interviews Anna Berman about her book Siblings in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky: The Path to Universal Brotherhood.

siblings-in-tolstoy-and-dostoevskyCongratulations on the publication of your book! Siblings in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky joins a venerable series of works comparing the two great nineteenth century Russian novelists. How did you conceive of the idea of comparing the two in this way? And how did you become interested in the problem of the family novel?

Well, I actually came to this all through siblings.  When I was an undergraduate at Brown University I decided to write my senior thesis on siblings in War and Peace because it was a way to focus on all my favorite scenes in my favorite book.  As I started into the project and my adviser pushed me to engage with the scholarly literature on Tolstoy, I noticed that none of the discussions of family in his works dealt with siblings (they were all about husbands and wives or parents and children). I only really started reading Dostoevsky during my MPhil at Cambridge, and I was very surprised when I read The Brothers Karamazov to discover that most people discuss family there in terms of Oedipal struggle and focus on the theme of parricide. Few people had written about the brothers as brothers.  So my MPhil thesis ended up being on siblings in BK… and by the time I finished writing it, I knew that I desperately wanted to write a dissertation that explored the role of siblings in the two authors together.

Tell us a little about your book. What questions are you asking in it? Would you say it has an overarching narrative?

Basically, my book is looking at the role that siblings play in the art and thought of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.  I start with exploring each author’s conception of the literal sibling bond—for both it plays a very positive role—and then the overarching narrative is exploring how they move from their ideas about siblinghood within the family to their more abstract ideals of universal brotherhood.  I am trying to show that there is a link between these two things; their views of the literal sibling bond shape their broader, philosophical ideals.

One of the main arguments of your book is that vertical family bonds such as parent-child are replaced by lateral ones, such as between siblings. How does this play out in Dostoevsky’s novels?

Scholars have been very right to focus on the importance of parent-child relationships in Dostoevsky’s works and to look at the theme of the breakdown of the transmission of values from fathers to sons in his late works.  What I’m trying to add to this picture is that as the fathers fail, brothers fill in.  So, for example, in The Brothers Karamazov, Zosima gets his ideas from his brother Markel.  And he passes them on to Alyosha, who in some ways is like a son, but whom Zosima sees as his brother come back to him at the end of his way.  He literally tells the story of his life to a group of monks, whom he is calling “brothers.” Fyodor Pavlovich is failing in just about every way imaginable as a father, but Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha reach out to each other with love and support.

What role does Freud play in your book? Do you find him helpful in any way as an interpreter of Tolstoy’s and Dostoevsky’s family novels?

Ah Freud… I know many people think it is outdated to write about him, but I studied with a psychoanalyst, Juliet Mitchell, who has done brilliant work on siblings, and under her influence, I have found that Freud still has a lot to teach us.  He was one of the greatest theorizers of the family in the twentieth century and we are still living in a world that was deeply shaped by his views.  So yes, I do find him useful.  What Freud himself wrote about Dostoevsky was wildly inaccurate (Joseph Frank has detailed this quite thoughtfully), but I think his ideas about love and family can still offer insights into Dostoevsky’s fictional worlds.  In my chapter on the first half of Dostoevsky’s career, I look at the way he constructs love triangles, and there we find an interesting slippage between the roles of brother and lover that Freud can speak to.  But I do not only use Freud; I try to put him in dialogue with other thinkers whose works prove relevant to understanding the human problems Dostoevsky is raising.

What do you think is the critical pay-off for thinking about Dostoevsky’s works as family novels? How does it change the way we read them?

A focus on siblings shifts our attention from what I believe is sometimes an over-emphasis on romantic relations and allows us to see the more stable, sustaining kinship love that Dostoevsky actually valued more strongly.  Passionate love is dangerous in Dostoevsky’s works, while sisters and brothers provide each other with true emotional and spiritual support.

What do you think is different about the evolution of the family novel in Russia compared to other national traditions?

This is a GREAT question, and it’s actually the topic of my next book.  For the new project I’m looking comparatively at the family plotlines we find in the nineteenth-century Russian and English novel.  So my full answer to this would probably be several hundred pages long.  The family novel as a genre began in England in the eighteenth century and originally came to Russia from there (broadly speaking, the Russians credited the English with writing the family and the French with writing love and adultery).  Yet as the Russians were reading the English, the differing historical conditions and status of the family in Russia caused them to diverge strongly from their English models and to create radically different family plots.

Just to give one example: the English honored primogeniture, which meant that all property went to the oldest son.  In plot terms, this means that in English novels only one brother can have a marriage plot that culminates in settling down on the family estate and producing an heir (the English family ideal).  And as a result, the English wrote very few novels that feature a significant pair of brothers.  In Russia, estates were split among all the children, and as a result, we find many more significant brother-brother relationships in Russian novels.  One of my arguments is that the Russians think of the family more laterally, while the English are more focused on vertical issues of origin and descent.  And with that, maybe I will save the rest for book number two!

What did you conclude about the similarities and differences of Tolstoy’s and Dostoevsky’s conceptions of universal brotherhood?

For both authors universal brotherhood is the ideal, but how you get there looks different because they have such different conceptions of the family.  Tolstoyan family is rooted in close family bonds and shared associations; his characters have typically grown up together and their connection comes from such shared intimacy.  So the challenge for him is to actually break down the bonds of family a bit to leave room for expansion.  Dostoevsky, on the other hand, had his idea of the “accidental family” (created partly as a response against Tolstoy).  His characters were often raised separately and only come to know each other as young adults.  So for them, the family bond is not something learned in childhood, but requires what he calls “active love.”  In this sense, it is easier for his characters to get from loving a sister or brother they just met to loving someone “like” a sibling to loving all of mankind; all these things require the same active love, which for Dostoevsky is predicated on faith.

In your analysis of brotherhood in The Brothers Karamazov, you differ from many other scholars by affording a principle role in your argument to Smerdyakov. Can you tell us a little bit about Smerdyakov as a testcase of Dostoevsky’s model of brotherhood?

This actually relates to the previous question.  The Karamazov brothers come from different mothers (except Ivan and Alyosha) and they were mostly not raised together.  So they only come to know each other as young adults and their love must be based on the “active love” Dostoevsky calls for in the novel.  Olga Meerson has argued that: “The chief taboo in The Brothers Karamazov is the idea that Smerdiakov is the fourth son of Fedor Pavlovich—or more precisely, an equal to the other brothers in his blood-sonship.”  I am suggesting that it’s not a taboo to see Smerdyakov as a brother, but a test: can other characters—and particularly Smerdyakov’s legitimate half-brothers—recognize him and love him as a brother despite all the negative things we learn about him?  He is the first step from the blood family to a wider, universal brotherhood. When Smerdyakov’s brothers fail to love and acknowledge him, they fail to enter this wider brotherhood. And the reader is implicated in this test as well; the narrator tries to make us believe that Smerdyakov is not worth of our attention or of anyone’s love.  So in a sense, this contributes to Dostoevsky’s point that all are guilty for all. We have all failed to see Smerdyakov as part of our human family, so even we the readers share the guilt for the act he commits.

And finally, just to be mischievous, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? And why?

Well, I’m slightly embarrassed to say it in this particular blog, but the answer is unequivocally Tolstoy.  Dostoevsky I admire deeply, and I will never tire of studying him, but his psychology is much more foreign to me.  All these characters on the edge of a brain fever fascinate me, but Tolstoy’s characters feel more real and I think I appreciate the fact that they inhabit a world closer to my own.  So I would turn to Dostoevsky for philosophy and ideas, but Tolstoy remains closer to my heart.


Anna Berman is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at McGill University. Siblings in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky: The Path to Universal Brotherhood (Northwestern University Press, 2015) is her first book. She has published articles on Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Russian opera, the relationship of science and literature, and the family novel as a genre. She is a founding member of the North American Dostoevsky Society Reader’s Advisory Board.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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