Shatost

John Bayley

  • Dostoevsky and ‘The Idiot’: Author, Narrator and Reader by Robin Feuer Miller
    Harvard, 296 pp, £16.00, October 1981, ISBN 0 674 21490 0
  • Dostoevsky by John Jones
    Oxford, 365 pp, £15.00, May 1983, ISBN 0 19 812645 X
  • New Essays on Dostoyevsky edited by Malcolm Jones and Garth Terry
    Cambridge, 252 pp, £25.00, March 1983, ISBN 0 521 24890 6
  • The Art of Dostoevsky: Deliriums and Nocturnes by Robert Louis Jackson
    Princeton, 380 pp, £17.60, January 1982, ISBN 0 691 06484 9

Most novels, if they come off, are orgies of self-congratulation, shared between the writer and the reader, who unconsciously understand both what is going on and what is needed. To enjoy a novel is by extension to enjoy oneself, and novelists in their various ways accommodate the process. Although the rules are always changing, both sides know the game. And as the form becomes more self-conscious, the writer – Henry James is the obvious example – indicates both inside and outside his novel how the reader will divide the work with him and share the spoils. In this partnership we become lucid and wise. Even the most unlikely circumstances are arranged for our self-satisfaction.

In War and Peace Tolstoy goes so far as to make self-satisfaction the key not only to the reader’s enjoyment but to the satisfactory discharge of living in general. In Conrad’s ‘The Shadow Line’, or Lord Jim, even in Heart of Darkness, everything is intensely satisfactory, the language, the sense of things, the reality, or rather the thereness, of objects and people. The novel did not invent such reality, but has developed its conjuration into a fine art. Think of Scott, virtually the founder of the great classic novel, and his unemphatic and impenetrable ability to seem to order and control experience, to give a self to history and to men and women in history. From this point of view, Scott at one end of the century and James Joyce at the other are blood-brothers, Ulysses a fine old-fashioned novel that could almost be in the Scott canon. Like Scott, like Conrad (whose insistent phrase it is), Joyce ‘makes you see’, sharpens still further the artificial focus of language that gives a selfhood to places and people.

But some novels undermine this majestic and (as it sometimes seems) almost involuntary process of creation, and the chief of them are Dostoevsky’s. Instead of giving a self to things, a naming of parts, an artifice of order and being, they take it all away. This has nothing to do with ‘form’, in which Dostoevsky believed as fervently as Henry James (‘Form, Form,’ he keeps exhorting himself in his notebooks). But nothing seems invented or arranged in his novels and no one objectively exists. Things are ‘said’ to happen, supposed to exist. Language, the unending dishevelled calculating intelligence of Dostoevsky’s prose, dissolves the picture instead of creating it. This, if you like, is more like most living, a closer representation of actual consciousness, which cannot perform art’s godlike feat of immortalising days and events, objects and people. In life, we could say, things only seem to happen, whereas in fiction they really do. The novel has come to feel guilty about this art (the guilt may even be the symptom of a terminal disease), and novelists have tried hard – and in the case of someone like Virginia Woolf all too obviously – to avoid creating the novel’s all too solid artificial worlds.

Dostoevsky does not appear to try; his genius just seems to make it happen that way. But in fact he tried very hard indeed. No novelist is more theoretical; none examined with more critical acumen the subtle ways in which he could produce the effects he desired. These he referred to as ‘the deeper realism’, in contrast to such realists as Balzac and Zola, whose worlds are fashioned with as much solid artifice as those of Scott, Joyce or Proust. The deeper realism has the properties physicists now associate with matter itself: it causes everything to waver, slip, collapse and reform. ‘Reality strives towards fragmentation,’ says one of his narrators. In terms of the deeper realism, we have to be somewhere but have nowhere to go. Writers like Beckett have framed and stylised what in Dostoevsky appears to be an absolutely natural, unending and frameless state of affairs. We all live under the floor of a non-existent house. In The Possessed this shatost – radical instability – is most pervasive in terms of method, consciousness, society. One of its characters is called Shatov.

But Dostoevsky developed the method very early, in his very first novel. Many novels come into existence in order to show the falsity of their predecessors, and he exploits in secret subterranean fashion, more effectively than any other novelist, the kinds of parody that make their original look untrue. Poor People is this kind of parody of Gogol’s The Overcoat. (We have all come from under it, Dostoevsky is supposed to have said: if true, a typically ambiguous statement.) Makar Devushkin, in Poor People, comes into existence in order to reveal the solid-all-through artificiality of Gogol’s Akaky Basmachkin. The reader enjoys Akaky just because he could only exist in a novel. His immortally vague trailing speech patterns, his invariable supper of a piece of beef with onions and sometimes a cockroach that had happened to find its way into it, his sitting down after it to the copying work which he loves and has brought back from the office – above all, the overcoat itself, the dreaming of it, the planning, the making, the tailor who makes it: all these are of the same order of being as the armour wrought for Achilles, or the pig’s kidney that Bloom cooks and eats for his breakfast.

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