Dostoevsky Panels and Papers at AATSEEL 2018!

AATSEEL is just around the corner!

As always, there’s lots to see, but make sure to carve out time in your schedule for Fyodor Mikhailovich. Here is a list of the papers and panels on Dostoevsky (including time, location, and who’s presenting). See you there!

(List compiled by Greta Matzner-Gore, Assistant Professor at the University of Southern California)


Friday, February 2

8:00-10:00 AM


Stream 3A: Mimesis in Russian Art and Aesthetic Theory (I)

Location: Declaration B

Panelist: S. Ceilidh Orr, Willamette University

Title: “Zachem eto u nas ne odinakovyi pocherk?”: Imitation and alienation in Dostoevsky’s copyist fiction


Saturday, February 3

8:00-10:00 AM


Stream 1B: Tolstoevsky: Dostoevsky and Internality

Location: Declaration A

Panelist: Brian Armstrong, Augusta University

Title: Undomesticating the Sublime in The Idiot

Panelist: Paul Contino, Pepperdine University

Title: Alyosha and Kolya: The Recovery of Internality in The Brothers Karamazov

Panelist: Yuri Corrigan, Boston University

Title: Transgression and Obedience: Dostoevsky on Evil, Before and After Auschwitz


1:15-3:00 pm

Stream 4B: Translation (II): Translation and Diaspora: Poetics of Translation

Location: Penn Quarter A

Panelist: Eugenia Kelbert, School of Philology, Higher School of Economics

Title: Translating Style: Dostoevsky in Emigration


Stream 1B: Tolstoevsky (III): Tolstoy and Dostoevsky: Religion and Literature

Location: Declaration A

Panelist: Jimmy Sudario Cabral

Title: Dostoevsky: Religion, Nihilism, and Negative Theology 

Panelist: Jesse Stavis, Bryn Mawr College

Title: The Prince and the Pauper: Resurrection, Crime and Punishment, and the Question of Conversion

Panelist: Maxwell Parlin, Princeton University

Title: Three Levs Nikolaevich: Tolstoy, Myshkin, Odoevtsev. Andrei Bitov’s Pushkin House as Commentary to Dostoevsky’s The Idiot


Russian Modernist Discourse and Perspectives

Location: Latrobe

Panelist: Lindsay Ceballos, Lafayette College

Title: De-Monologizing Early Symbolist Discourse on Dostoevsky

Sunday, February 4


North American Dostoevsky Society

Location: Tiber Creek A

Panelist: Erica Drennan, Columbia University

Title: To America or Siberia? Binaries and Porous Boundaries in Crime and Punishment 

Panelist: Molly Rose Avila, Columbia University

Title: A Calligraphic Gaze


Dostoevsky: Texts and Contexts

Location: Banneker

Panelist: Vladimir Ivantsov, Williams College

Title: “Awfully Fond of Children”: Children and the Exit from the Underground in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground

Panelist: Saera Yoon, UNIST

Title: Another Loveless Father: Grigory in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov

Panelist: Maria Whittle, University of California Berkeley

Title: Still Dreaming: Spatiotemporal Practice in Dostoevskii’s Belye Nochi


CFP – First Symposium of the Bulgarian Dostoevsky Society

In collaboration with Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”, the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, the National museum of Literature (Sofia), the Museum of Christian Art (Sofia), the Gorky Institute of World Literature (Moscow), the State Museum of the History of Russian Literature (Moscow), the Research Center of Vjacheslav Ivanov (Romе), and the Society of Akira Kurosawa (Japan), the Bulgarian Dostoevsky Society is organizing an interdisciplinary symposium focusing on the anthropology of Dostoevsky in reference to philosophical anthropology and European culture of the 20th century,  Russian religious-philosophical thinking and culture of the 20th century, and specifically on the novel “Idiot” (on occasion of the 150th anniversary of the publication of the novel). The symposium will take place in Sofia on October 23-26, 2018.

The invitation is addressed to specialists from various fields of knowledge and research such as philosophers, specialists in literary studies, linguists, theologists, psychologists, psychoanalysts, etc. The official languages of the symposium are Russian, English and Bulgarian. Presentations, which should last exactly 20 minutes, will be followed by 10 minutes for questions and discussion.

Prospective participants should submit abstracts (up to 250 words) by e-mail to by 31 January 2018. The organizing committee will get back to you with their decision at the beginning of March. The formal call for papers (in Russian and English) can be found here (and includes more information), and the preliminary schedule can be found here.

All those who work on Dostoevsky are warmly invited to consider participating in this symposium!

Dostoevsky and Russian lit panels at MLA 2018

Happy New Year to all! If you find yourself at the MLA Convention in New York City this week, please join us on Thursday, Jan. 4  for the presidential theme panel organized by the International Dostoevsky Society, “Dostoevsky and States of Insecurity.” Here are the details:

Session 150: Dostoevsky and States of Insecurity

Time: Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018, 5:15–6:30 PM

Place: New York Hilton Midtown, 1335 Avenue of the Americas, “Midtown” Room


Presider: Carol Apollonio, Duke U.

“Sovereignty and Exception in Crime and Punishment: Dostoevsky with Carl Schmitt”(Ilya Kliger, New York U)

“Arkady’s Overcoat: Illegitimacy and Characterization in Dostoevsky” (Chloë Kitzinger, Rutgers, the State U of New Jersey)

“‘Like a Cat around a Hot Saucer of Milk’: Dostoevsky’s Destabilizing Descriptions of Perverse Sexuality” (Zachary Johnson, U of California, Berkeley)

You may also be interested in the  following Russian literature-related panels and papers:


Session 12: Revolution, Take 2: Exporting the Russian Revolution

Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018, 12:00-1:15 PM (Hilton, Regent)

Participants include: Katerina Clark (Yale U.), Matthias Müller (Cornell U.), Darja Filippova (Princeton U.), Masha Salazkina (Concordia U.)


Session 289: Transatlantic Translations of Trans

Friday, Jan. 5, 2018, 12:00-1:15 PM (Hilton, Midtown)

Participants include: Jessie M. Labov (Central European U.), Brian James Baer (Kent State U.), Vitaly Chernetsky (U. of Kansas), Sandra Joy Russell (U. of Massachusetts, Amherst), Kārlis Vērdiņš (Washington U. in St Louis)


Session 394: Alternative Pasts and Futures in Postsocialist Science Fiction

Friday, Jan. 5, 2018, 3:30–4:45 PM (Hilton, Midtown)

Participants include: Jefferson J.A. Gattrall (Montclair State U.), Julia Gerhard (U. of Colorado, Boulder), Natalija Majsova (U of Ljubljana), Reed Johnson (U of Virginia)


Session 531: Meter, Rhyme, and Dialogue with the Other: Translating from Arabic, Russian, and Spanish into English, including a paper on translating Elena Fanailova

Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018, 10:15 AM–11:30 AM (Hilton, Concourse C)

Participants include: Karen Emmerich (Princeton U.), Gregary Joseph Racz (Long Island U., Brooklyn), Sibelan Forrester (Swarthmore C), Mbarek Sryfi (U of Pennsylvania)


Session 636: Redefining Self-Translation, including two papers on Vladimir Nabokov’s translations of his own poetry and prose.

Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018, 3:30–4:45 PM (Hilton, Concourse E)

Participants include: Genevieve Waite (Graduate Center, City U of New York), Jean-Christophe Cloutier (U. of Pennsylvania), Michael G. Boyden (Uppsala U.), Adrian J. Wanner (Penn State U.), Julia Titus (Yale U.)


Session 654: Literature of Waste and Environmental Insecurity in Central and Eastern Europe

Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018, 3:30–4:45 PM (Hilton, Hudson)

Participants include: Julia Vaingurt (U of Illinois, Chicago), Heather I. Sullivan (Trinity U), Colleen McQuillen (U of Illinois, Chicago), Christopher Harwood (Columbia U)


Session 697: Bad Translation, including the paper: “The Russian Crime and Punishment in the Argentine Seven Madmen; or, How Bad Translations Made Good Literature”

Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018, 5:15–6:30 pm (Hilton, Concourse F)

Participants include: Benjamin Paloff (U. of Michigan, Ann Arbor), Bret Maney (Lehman C, City U. of New York), Ellen Elias-Bursac (American Literary Translators Assn.), Adel Fauztdinova (Boston U.)


Hope to see you there!

This list has been compiled by Chloë Kitzinger, a member of the North American Dostoevsky Society Readers’ Advisory Board and an Assistant Professor at Rutgers.

Yesterday I was still a fool, but today I am a bit wiser: Reading Dostoevsky in Contemporary America

by Justin Trifiro

The following piece derives from a talk delivered at the Jubilee celebration of the Russian major at the University of Montana. It is with hope that we approach the new year together and closer in spirit…

If Dostoevsky were alive and working today, he would be a fearless Facebook stalker and a better tweeter than Trump. A voracious reader of both foreign literatures and the Russian press, Dostoevsky was a seasoned practitioner in a vital human activity that persists in losing momentum and prestige in our postmodern condition: namely, the art of reading. (I hear the voice of Dostoevsky the Paradoxalist chiding me for the earlier comparsion to Trump the President, purportedly a man who has yet to read a book from cover to cover.) Ever an impassioned polemicist and fierce critical thinker, discussion and debate would increasingly become marked concomitant features of the mature Dostoevsky’s engagement with the written word. We come to know ourselves through storytelling.

To know a place is to take in its imagery, cautiously and attentively. To know a man is to reflect on his contours, both bodily and spiritual, to experience his rhythms and gestures as something radically Other and never wholly comprehensible. Knowing as a communicative process, as a motive force—this is the locus of Dostoevsky’s personal and artistic genius. In a letter to his beloved brother Mikhail (dating from August, 1839, shortly after the death of his father), the seventeen-year-old Dostoevsky writes, “Man is a mystery [chelovek est’ taina]. The mystery needs to be unraveled, and if you spend your whole life unraveling it, don’t say that you’ve wasted your time; I am engaged with this mystery because I want to be a human being [Ia zanimaius’ etoi tainoi, ibo khochu byt’ chelovekom].” Years later in April 1864, reflecting on the death of his first wife, Maria, Dostoevsky writes in his notebook, “Man strives on earth toward an ideal that is contrary to his nature [Chelovek stremitsia na zemle k idealu, protivupolozhnomu ego nature].” Robert Louis Jackson considers this to be the writer’s most important philosophical statement. We as autonomous creatures, shrouded in mystery and riddled with contradiction, are ultimately responsible for the cultivation and harvest of an ideal state of being, however curious and confounding the seasons may be.

The season of the world today is one decidedly conditioned by a pervasive sense of fear. This is nothing new. What perhaps most palpably distinguishes our current condition from former times is the astonishing advent of advanced modes of technology. Developments in the realm of social media are of particular gravity and consequence for the viability of interpersonal and cross-cultural relations. We are somehow simultaneously so close to and so far from one another. Some would say we are experiencing a season of shame as Pope Francis recently stated from the Vatican: “Such shame…derives from ‘all those images of devastation, destruction, shipwrecks, that have become routine in our lives.’” The world has probably always been at sixes and sevens, but today, in an image-saturated culture, we are bombarded with visual exigencies from all four corners. We are wounded birds, weary and battle-scarred. What happens to human beings and our collective potential to respond to each other sensitively and temperately when images of deformity and decay become routinized and instrumentalized in the service of deeply-rooted regimes of power and exclusion? Now more than ever we appear to be in need of the insulted and injured, the disenfranchised and misunderstood, the holy fools gracing this rock.

To look, or not to look—such is the concern. But there is more to this all too cozy formulation—how do we responsibly view scenes of unconscionable ugliness? Writing to his friend and frequent correspondent, Nikolai Strakhov, in June 1870, Dostoevsky emphatically states, “…man on the surface of the earth does not have the right to turn away and ignore what is taking place on earth…[…chelovek, na poverkhnosti zemnoi, ne imeet prava otvertyvat’sia I ignorirovat’ to, chto proiskhodit na zemle…].” He is writing in response to a piece recently published by the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev (with whom Dostoevsky had, well, complicated relations) on a public execution Turgenev witnessed in France. Dostoevsky himself faced public execution when he was led to the scaffold in 1849 for his participation in an underground socialist circle. At the last minute, Tsar Nicholas I had the sentence commuted to four years in a Siberian prison camp with a subsequent six-year term of military service in Central Asia. Dostoevsky survived his own death. In his later novels (most vividly captured in Prince Myshkin’s reflections on near-death experience in The Idiot), Dostoevsky returns again and again to the theme of facing one’s mortality, directly, without filters. He stages scenes of extraordinary violence and brutality demanding a moral choice on the part of the reader—do I keep reading or shut the book and donate it to Goodwill?

Man is a mystery, and he must be unraveled. This is a categorical assertion that bolsters the necessity for artistic depictions of violence in Dostoevsky’s work. Homo sum et nihil humanum (“I am a man, nothing human is foreign to me”). Terence’s quotation was elevated to a space of great praise during Renaissance humanism, but Dostoevsky questions its infallible merits. If I am a man, then I am capable of engendering tremendous pain and committing all sorts of egregious acts. If none of this is alien to me, then in a sense all is permitted. (It is no accident that Svidrigailov, traditionally viewed as one of the great villains in Dostoevsky’s fiction, utters this phrase shortly before committing suicide toward the end of Crime and Punishment.) It is evident that Dostoevsky considered savagery and barbarity to be immutable realities native to the human condition. As we are all capable of performing considerable injustices to ourselves and to one another, so too we are all responsible for taking a moral inventory of our thoughts, inclinations, and actions.

I have been discussing violence at length because it seems that its presence is endemic to the United States today. The systematic physical and psychological hurt done to minority groups (particularly black men and transgender folk); the vociferous evangelism against immigrants of various skin shades and creeds; the deplorable denigration of drug addicts and the mentally ill—this land increasingly distances itself from the pronoun “our” in favor of binary distinctions proceeding from the rupture of “us” vs. “them.” Terrifyingly, much of this misguided and misdirected vitriol operates from a top-down government apparatus that appears to be fundamentally unaware of the precarity of human life.

A few months short of Donald Trump’s election, Ani Kokobobo contributed a fine piece entitled, “How Dostoevsky predicted Trump’s America.” She writes, “As a professor of Russian literature, I’ve come to realize that it’s never a good sign when real life resembles a Fyodor Dostoevsky novel. Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, with its riotous rhetoric and steady stream of scandals, calls to mind Dostoevsky’s most political novel, ‘Demons,’ written in 1872. In it, the writer wanted to warn readers of about the destructive force of demagoguery and unchecked rhetoric, and his cautionary messages—largely influenced by 19th-century Russian political chaos—resonate in our present climate.” She goes on to note how Trump’s lack of “impulse control” proved to be extremely effective in working up a mass of frustrated people and inspiring similarly aggressive behaviors from much of his constituency. Kokobobo notes, “When audiences at Trump rallies verbalize violence by screaming ‘Lock her up and ‘Kill her,’ or when Donald Trump—either wittingly or unwittingly—advocates Second Amendment violence, I wonder whether they aren’t coming dangerously close to the primal violence of ‘Demons.’”

Demons is Dostoevsky’s most overtly political novel, a work marked by narrative disarray, intercharacterological agitation, and extreme violence. This artistic statement may be as close as Dostoevsky comes to delineating what he perceives to be the alarmingly short step from socialist aspiration to totalitarian asphyxiation. Whenever Dostoevsky’s name is invoked as a prophet* to modernity or prophesier of the nightmare events of the twentieth-century, the novel Demons typically becomes an integral element of the conversation. The work pivots around a few major points, all of them pertinent to any discussion on some of the major issues plaguing contemporary American culture: the prevalence of a “herd mentality” before a concentrated, “educated” elite; the social ramifications of rumormongering; and perhaps most importantly what Sarah Pratt has termed “bystander (ir)responsibility”—that is, the neglect human beings so often exhibit before the plight of others. (*And here I must thank Robin Miller for reminding me that Dostoevsky is an eminently “fallen” prophet—one need only flip to any page in the Diary [and especially the Diary of the last years] to find much ugliness that is frighteningly resonant with the current administration’s agenda. Heroes are not angels, and men are hardly heroes.)

Toward the end of Dostoevsky’s life, the concept of obosoblenie would come to haunt the writer and inform much of his ethical thought and artistic creation. Obosoblenie, as a socio-cultural crisis in late Imperial Russia, is distinguished by a tendency toward isolation, the compartmentalizing of self. It is a marker of what Charles Taylor has termed the “buffered” individual stance of modern Western man. Centuries of Cartesian dualist and Kantian categorical conditioning have placed a premium on minds and the faculty of reason. Following Tayor (and borrowing a term from Max Weber), we live in a “disenchanted” world, one increasingly devoid of a sense of the ineffable. That which resides outside of phenomenological experience (I am thinking here of spirits and such) no longer holds ontic value as it did for our premodern ancestors. The world has become less mysterious, and so we no longer turn out and physically seek, but mentally fortify and turn inward.

Obosoblenie is a major thread comprising the fabric of what Leonard G. Friesen, in a recent study, has called Dostoevsky’s “orphan’s lament” ethic. This lament is overwhelmingly a clarion call signaling alienation and human disconnect. From Dostoevsky’s first work, Poor People (1846), to his final masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov (1879-1880), the theme of withdrawal, and its constitutive elements of loneliness, suspicion, and intemperance, defines the dissonance of a technologically-dependent universe moving at a breakneck tempo away from a primitive fraternity that is predicated on spontaneous, freely suggested interpersonal exchange. It is the crisis of our own age.

If there is anything approaching an answer to the fractured conditions Dostoevsky so presciently diagnosed, it may be found in the attitude of one of his most beloved characters, Father Zosima. The starets advocates a program of “active love” (deiatel’naia liubov’) as a balm for our collective grief. He stresses that loving one’s neighbor actively is hard work—this is because to love another being with tenderness and care is to expose oneself to the very real possibility of being let down, of potentially experiencing all kinds of hurt. To love another actively necessitates loving with a significant degree of uncertainty and vulnerability—it is an act of faith. This is why Ivan Karamazov claims it so much easier to love one’s neighbor when that neighbor doesn’t live next door. Diametrically opposed to the Christian conception of agape (marvelously announced in Kierkegaard’s command: “The first being I see upon opening my door, that one shall I love”), Ivan’s abstract love doesn’t dance—it insulates and atrophies. There is no mystery here, no faith.

We know a good deal in America in 2017, but we are not faithful. Dostoevsky paints a cosmos bereft of faith as one systemically ill, flawed at the root. Where knowledge is stationary, faith is in movement. In the twelfth-century, the Cistercian monk Bernard of Clairvaux writes, “How then does faith differ from knowledge? In that even though it is no more in doubt than knowledge, we hold what we believe as a mystery, as we do not do with knowledge. When you know something you seek no further. Or if you do, you have not yet known.” Dostoevsky’s gift to the world is fundamentally Dionysian in spirit—it is an ecstatic quest that strives toward moral improvement. In the words of Zosima, “Yesterday I was still a fool, but today I am a bit wiser.”

Justin Trifiro is a PhD student in Comparative Studies in Literature and Culture at the University of Southern California.

Commemorating the 140th Anniversary of “The Dream of the Ridiculous Man” at the Dostoevsky Museum in St Petersburg

by Vadim Shkolnikov

“The Dream of the Ridiculous Man” comprises something like a Dostoevskian genealogy of morals.  When the story’s narrator, who has been driven to the brink of suicide and, as it would seem, utter indifference towards his fellow human beings, realizes that he still cannot extinguish an irrepressible spark of moral compassion for a suffering little girl, he sees a dream that fantastically unfolds the source this moral feeling.  In the process Dostoevsky takes us on a journey through time and space, to a distant planet where a beautiful people live in harmony and bliss—until we witness their shocking descent into the deceit, violence and suffering with which we are so familiar.  Yet in the end the narrator finally understands!

Dost exhibit 9The ongoing exhibit at the Dostoevsky Museum in St. Petersburg, dedicated to the 140th anniversary of “Dream of the Ridiculous Man”—“Фантастические миры Достоевского” [The Fantastic Worlds of Dostoevsky]—presents a wide array of materials that aim to contextualize Dostoevsky’s artistic vision and illuminate its genesis.

Considerable attention is devoted to tracing the diverse forms of “the fantastical” throughout Dostoevsky’s writings: from the schizophrenia of The Double to the frivolity of “The Crocodile”; from Raskolnikov’s dream in Siberian exile to the satirical vision of the afterlife in “Bobok.”

The exhibit is, moreover, divided into visions of “paradise” and of “hell,” reflecting the duality depicted in “The Dream of the Ridiculous Man.”  The story is thus shown to resonate with a multitude of other works: literary, religious, and visual, including Dante’s Inferno, the bathhouse scene in Notes from the House of the Dead, and Hieronymous Bosch’s remarkable 16th-century triptych “The Garden of Earthly Delights.”

There are various historical artifacts from Dostoevsky’s own time, including manuscripts and a scientific brochure on trichina, which Dostoevsky researched before composing Raskolnikov’s Siberian dream.

To top it all off, you can watch the 1992 animated adaptation of “The Dream of the Ridiculous Man.”

The exhibit runs through December 29. You can read a public domain English translation of “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” here.

Dost exhibit 7

The author, enjoying the exhibit!

Vadim Shkolnikov is a dotsent in the Department of Comparative Literature and Linguistics at the Higher School of Economics in St Petersburg.  He is currently writing on Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground and its (unintended) connection to Russian revolutionary terrorism.  And having now lived in St. Petersburg for a year, he feels that he has learned all there is to know apropos of wet snow!

Another Round of Theme Songs

by Albert Ho, Greta Matzner-Gore, Carlota Rodriguez-Benito, and Sarah Russell

The personalities of the brothers Karamazov reflect their time and place (late nineteenth-century Russia), but they are also to some degree universal. One can imagine meeting some like Dmitry (the passionate profligate), Ivan (the tortured intellectual), Alyosha (the would-be saint), or Smerdyakov (the angry reject) in the United States today. Last year, I asked my students to choose one of the brothers Karamazov and find a “theme song” for him, i.e. a contemporary song or piece of music that captures his personality. This year, we did it again! My students posted links to their “theme songs” to our course’s discussion board, alongside short explanations of how their song captures their chosen character’s personality. In class, we put it to a vote. Here are the “theme songs” we voted best for the brothers, introduced by our student winners.


Student: Carlota Rodriguez-Benito

Theme Song: Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds”

Explanation: I chose Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” for Alyosha. I think that this song represents the saint-like aspect Alyosha has of helping people. This song is about getting a message from a higher power. In this context, it is a reggae song and Bob Marley sings “Don’t worry about a thing, because every little thing is going to be alright.” I feel that this is the same message that Alyosha tries to convey many times, being a spiritual son and the peacemaker. Father Zosima helps him see the word as it is in this song, with good and no worrying, all will be just fine.


Student: Albert Ho

Theme Song: Adam Lambert’s Cover of “Mad World”

Explanation: I find this song to fit Ivan well – it’s melancholic, insecure, doubtful, and lonely. Throughout much of the book, especially when Ivan argues, whether in “Rebellion”, “The Grand Inquisitor”, or against Zosima and others – Ivan crafts logically impeccable arguments which is in deep contrast with his wavering heart. He wants there to be a God, for religion to be just and true, he craves it, as he finds partial resolution in Alyosha’s kiss mirroring Jesus in “The Grand Inquisitor.” However, his overwhelming need for things to make sense makes it impossible for Ivan to ever be truly reconciled. Thus, being as cerebral as he is, Ivan sees a Mad World where religion doesn’t make sense, people’s actions don’t make sense, and being intellectually superior to everyone only creates further isolation and the inability to empathize and be empathized with, which is a key element of religion in Dostoevsky’s works.

True, in much of the book Ivan is proud, direct, and dismissive – but underneath the armor I believe he is the Grand Inquisitor waiting to be kissed by Jesus.

“I find it hard to tell you
I find it hard to take
When people run in circles
It’s a very, very
Mad world, mad world”


Student: Sarah Russell

Theme Song: Drowning Pool’s “Bodies” 

Explanation: Smerdyakov is a character surrounded by death. Stinking Lizaveta died giving birth to him, he killed cats as a child, and he played an important, if not the most important, role in Fyodor’s death. In addition, his name means stinking which is associated with decay. This song has a disturbed, creepy sound to it and is all about welcoming death. “Let the bodies hit the floor” is exactly how Smerdyakov feels about Fyodor. Additionally, the song says “Beaten Why For, Can’t Take Much More” which describes Smerdyakov’s motivations for wanting Fyodor dead. He has been beaten and abused his whole life and is thus resentful towards everyone.

This is the second installment of “The Brothers’ Theme Songs” and you can read the first here. The activity is brought to you by Dr Greta Matzner-Gore and her students at the University of Southern California. 

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.