Dostoevsky and ‘The Idiot’: Author, Narrator and Reader 
by Robin Feuer Miller.
Harvard, 296 pp., £16, October 1981, 0 674 21490 0
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by John Jones.
Oxford, 365 pp., £15, May 1983, 9780198126454
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New Essays on Dostoyevsky 
edited by Malcolm Jones and Garth Terry.
Cambridge, 252 pp., £25, March 1983, 0 521 24890 6
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The Art of Dostoevsky: Deliriums and Nocturnes 
by Robert Louis Jackson.
Princeton, 380 pp., £17.60, January 1982, 0 691 06484 9
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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.

Gogol’s inspiration is obviously akin to that of Dickens, but it is more consciously artful and detailed, as it is more deliberately unkempt. As with Dickens, though, there is a connection between the way invention works and the relation of the author to it: Gogol, like Dickens, is creator, showman, and commentator on his world. It was this relation that the young Dostoevsky set out to subvert, promising himself and the critics that the youthful author’s ‘ugly mug’ would be nowhere visible in Poor People, a novel mostly in letters. (That form, too, Dostoevsky utterly subverts, making the novel a predecessor of his Notes from under the Floor.) Pathos is not pathos in Makar Devushkin as it is in Akaky, fixed as he is in Gogol’s imperial eye, a character who is introduced, seen, and taken away. The very authoritative Russian critic Bakhtin said of the Dostoevsky character that ‘we do not see him, we hear him.’ He appears to be talking to us behind the back of the author. By not seeing the character and the tokens of his existence (overcoats, noses, kidneys) we feel him as a disembodied, independent consciousness. There is nothing to be seen under the floor, but there are many impressions to receive, none definitive, none beginning, none ending. Bakhtin calls Dostoevsky’s an ‘imperfective’ world, in which Makar Devushkin, for instance, really does seem a continuously, an anonymously, an unendingly poor person. Almost every 19th-century novelist was successfully illustrated, the drawings acting as another and complementary way of seeing the characters. Illustrations to Dostoevsky would not even begin to be unsuitable: they would be utterly beside the point.

About such a genius as Dostoevsky’s, dualistic, ‘imperfective’, but also wide and multifarious, infinitely capable of surprisingness, there is always more to say. In that sense he is Shakespearean: his powers give power to others. Though the canon is already formidable, these new studies all add to it in different ways and suggest something new going on. For newness, of a unique kind, is perpetually immanent in Dostoevsky, always on the verge of breaking out, needing the new reader to be excited by it (as Belinsky was by Poor People) and the reader already experienced to be caught in a fresh fever of speculative excitement and admiration. No writer is so seldom dull, but at the same time no great creative writer is more essentially abstract.

And yet what does ‘abstract’ mean here? Dostoevsky has none of Gogol’s overcoats, or Turgenev’s or Tolstoy’s houses and dinners and landscapes, but his novels are full of a stifling smell of living and littered with the detritus of objects that constitute daily reality. What is the function of such things? To undermine the all-too-solid surrogate world of the ‘novel’, just as he borrows Gogolian dishevelment and takes the Gogolian life out of it, or borrows and transforms the love sentiments of a novel in letters, or changes the Gothic into the contingently banal, the Devil into a furtive and seedy bourgeois, or the romantic spectre of the Doppelgänger (as Bakhtin pointed out) into something wholly pervasive, limply commonplace. His prose is a remorseless solvent of what normally constitutes literary distinctiveness. Dr Miller has some penetrating things to say about this, and about how the meandering accumulations of Dostoevsky’s descriptions – and his humour above all – ‘depend on the reader’s acquaintance with the form of the novel of manners or the domestic novel’ – indeed any novel. Take the Epanchin family in The Idiot. All seems normal at first, or rather normally abnormal, as in any vigorous and lively novel. The Epanchin girls are ‘tall young ladies, with amazing shoulders, powerful bosoms, and strong almost masculine arms’. They like to eat, as does their mother, the wife of a general, and Dostoevsky’s account of their eating habits rambles on until it suddenly gets out of hand and reveals that it is not really focused on girls or on eating at all. ‘Besides tea, coffee, cheese, honey, butter, the special fritters adored by the general’s wife, cutlets and so forth, a rich hot soup was even served.’

The dangling emphasis of that ‘even’ gives the game away. This is not like the big eating in Dead Souls. In going too far, that soup deprives the reader of normal expectations. The Epanchin family is not being satirised or undercut. Far from it – that would be normal. The reader is being manipulated into a new kind of awareness, a response far more metaphysical than sex or eating or the satisfactions of the novel. One could write an essay on uneaten food in Dostoevsky, culminating in the cold veal left untouched by Svidrigailov before his suicide. And the atmosphere of eroticism in which every novelist, even in the days of respectability, reposed as on a sofa, is utterly absent. Only Kafka equals Dostoevsky here. Both use objects and people for the same purpose – to bury them in the mind, in obsessions, preoccupations, boredoms, so that they become part of the furniture of consciousness rather than that of the external world. Kafka works on a small scale, but Dostoevsky is glittering, majestic, Olympian. With the laughter and disorder of the gods flattened onto the swarming, unending versts of Russia. No wonder there is so much to say about him.

Not that the overkill, the heaping-up of subject-matter into the life of feeling and idea, always comes off; if it did, he would not be so extraordinary a writer; he towers in imperfection as well as imperfectively. While Dr Miller has much that is of interest to say about The Idiot, she does not quite persuade one that it comes off, indeed she does not really try, because like many scholars today she is more concerned with showing how the thing works than with judging if it works well. A rereading of the famous scene at the end when Rogozhin and Myshkin keep watch over Nastasia Filippovna’s body, whose naked foot protrudes from the sheet while a fly buzzes over the Jeyes fluid, makes one feel that Dostoevsky did not always turn parody into new reality and the Gothic into his own version of the electrically banal. John Jones may be right to write off The Idiot in his study and leave it out of discussion. Even its humour is disproportionate, and it is peculiarly difficult to separate in it the essential from the inessential, the blind alley (Myshkin) from the continuing way. Yet just because of this it is in some ways the most characteristic as it is the most ramified of all the novels, the one with the most varied aspects to explore, as was shown in Michael Holquist’s Dostoevsky and the Novel and by Richard Peace’s remarkable examination, in Dostoevsky: The Major Novels, of its catacomb of religious symbolism and clash of hidden dogmas. It is a quarry for quite separate lines and kinds of study, like a work of the Renaissance.

Like a play of that time, as George Steiner pointed out, is the swift development in Dostoevsky of themes which sweep us on to further excitements and possibilities before they themselves have been used up or made clear. The French structuralist critic René Girard has a good metaphor for the process: ‘In Proust the game proceeds slowly; the novelist constantly interrupts the players to remind them of previous hands and to anticipate those to come. In Dostoevsky, on the contrary, the cards are laid down very rapidly and the novelist lets the game proceed from beginning to end without interfering. The reader must be able to remember everything himself.’ Freedom in Dostoevsky is the freedom to be confused, and there is a close relation between his method and the consciousness that ‘if God does not exist, all is permitted.’ The author has apparently ceased to function as God. The character and the reader have together taken over from him, in a relationship that is bound to be uneasy and claustrophobic. The double again – Dostoevsky’s most consistent obsession.

Girard is quoted in a useful piece on ‘Formalist and Structuralist Approaches’ by Christopher Pike, one of the contributions to New Essays on Dostoyevsky. (Why is there still no unanimity about how we spell him? – the variations seem a suitable emblem for shatost.) There is no doubt that he is the biggest influence both on the ‘new novel’ and the new critical terminology – the two are much the same – and Ann Shukman points out how close his process is to the French idea of texte pluriel, also endorsing Bakhtin’s verdict that literature in the usual sense disintegrates in Dostoevsky, falling, in Pike’s phrase, into a kind of ‘noble ruin’ suggesting new worlds to come which will have to be described and explored in other ways. There are several notable essays in the collection, from which one might single out R.M. Davison on the role of Stavrogin in The Possessed, and Sergei Hackel on Father Zosima’s discourse in The Brothers Karamazov.

Striking, though, and perhaps rather depressing, is the almost purely technical nature of this modern criticism, even more unsuited to how we actually respond to Dostoevsky than it is to most authors. It is natural that Soviet experts should seek to emasculate him by purely technical inquiry (an address by Valery Kirpotin confined him safely in ‘a multiplicity of objectively existent psychologies affecting each other’): but that is no reason why we should seek safety in jargon from an author whose primary strength is to enthral us, to make us love and hate, laugh and cry. I recall, as many must do, a first reading of The Possessed, hating Pyotr Verkhovensky so much, and feeling so sorry for Shatov, that it coloured my mind for days. It is this that makes John Jones’s approach so refreshing. He exclaims, wonders, chuckles, buttonholes and insinuates, just as Dostoevsky’s people do. The blurb describes his book as ‘passionate and tender’, a rather startling claim by a University Press, but one that is, in a sense, fully justified by the text.

Although he does not mention them, Jones’s approach marks a return to the ad hominem style of the old-type Russian critics, such as Mikhailovsky and Merezhkovsky, Rozanov and Shestov. Merezhkovsky called Dostoevsky ‘the seer of the spirit’, as opposed to Tolstoy, ‘the seer of the flesh’; Mikhailovsky held that his great genius was essentially cruel, fuelled by malice, envy and ill-will. That, it could be argued, is in any case what the human spirit is all about. Another forceful critic, Dostoevsky’s one-time friend Strakhov, turned against him and wrote a venomous piece identifying him with all his most repellent characters, the Svidrigailovs, Stavrogins and underfloor men, rapists of little girls in bath-houses. It is natural that one should feel love or hate, or both, for this author, as for his characters, but Strakhov’s reductive line leads nowhere and Jones is right to ignore it. Jones’s meditation is rhapsodic, often emotional – he expresses admiration for Middleton Murry’s pioneering study, brewed up at a time when Constance Garnett’s translations were being rapturously received by the English intelligentsia – but it is a scholar’s approach to the novels, not to their author.

Professor Jackson’s study is more nicely balanced between, as it were, the human and the critical; and it is particularly strong on the relation of Dostoevsky’s novels to the literature of the time, complementing in that respect the massive literary biographies of Grossman and Frank. Inside the novels the characters have a genius for depriving all other literature and literary figures of what one of them calls zhivaya zhizn (‘living life’): the notorious instance is the treatment by the narrator of Karmazinov/Turgenev in The Possessed. And this is the real point of Mikhailovsky’s charge of cruelty. In fact, Dostoevsky himself admired, even revered, other writers, just as his own admittedly somewhat distracted home life was full of love and generosity: but his personal genius reaches to the extreme of human dualism, which was analysed by the Russian-Jewish philosopher Shestov, of whom Jackson makes good use. In some respects the subtlest of Dostoevsky’s admirers, Shestov dissects the ways in which both he and Tolstoy draw their immense creative vitality as artists from modes of being which, as spokesmen and sages, they passionately repudiated. In Tolstoy’s case, that mode is the way of life of the Russian nobleman; in Dostoevsky’s, the consciousness of the underfloor man. For Shestov, as for Nietzsche, the greatness of the human spirit lay not in its aspirations but its actuality, in what it was, not in what it thought it ought to be.

Shestov puts a finger on the spot, and yet the dualism itself remains more important than the conclusions he draws from it. It is precisely as artists that Tolstoy and Dostoevsky need to draw on both sides of their natures. Their incomparably vivid sense of actual life – zhivaya zhizn – would be nothing without their longing for a new life – voskresenie – regeneration and resurrection. Jones himself suggests this when he remarks that ‘it is a condition of Dostoevsky’s art to arouse our longing for the settled and the normal and the beautiful.’ To arouse our longing, in fact, and ironically, for the world of the novel. This is an unexpected asset of the ‘deeper realism’: to make us feel and live life as the folk in an ordinary novel can’t.

It is his endings, as Jackson points out, that show Dostoevsky at his most conventionally novelish (Notes from under the Floor does not have one, and The Brothers Karamazov has an end rather than an ending). Jones plays this down, probably rightly, suggesting that such tedious old portents as the ‘great sinner’, who sins his way to God, are more an affair of Dostoevsky’s notebooks (thank goodness Shakespeare didn’t keep a notebook) and of his commentators than the stuff of the novels themselves. I myself would feel that Dostoevsky took a trick here from Pushkin, whom he revered and of whose ‘secret’ he often spoke. In all his kaleidoscopic writings – poems, plays, stories – Pushkin seems to have developed the art of cutting off an end without an ending, leaving the reader to ponder the implications and do the rest of the work. Tolstoy did something rather similar. In the wide Russian context it seems an appropriate way of losing conventional literature while retaining art.

Both Jackson and Jones are interesting on The House of the Dead, which, in a curious way, and perhaps because it is ‘true’, is Dostoevsky’s most framed and artificial work. The horrors of Auschwitz or of the Gulag are ten times worse than anything he saw in the convict prison, or even dreamed of, and they have been chronicled by Solzhenitsyn, and still more graphically by Varlaam Shalamov in Kolyma Tales – some of the most powerful stories to come out of the Soviet Union. But grim as these records are (and they, too, have been got up into works of art), they cannot hold a candle to Dostoevsky’s masterpiece in its capacity both to inflict sheer overwhelming oppression on the reader and to free him with instants of redemption and joy. The reason, of course, is that we stand outside these Soviet stories, while Dostoevsky has the secret of involving us wholly in the life and atmosphere of the prison. It is a singular paradox, because we can see and feel that Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov suffered all the horrors with their fellow sufferers, while Dostoevsky, or rather his narrator, remains a strangely disembodied voice – as it were, from under the prison floor. His secret, in fact, is not to say, or even imply: ‘I am the man, I suffered, I was there.’ Shestov goes so far as to observe, with some justification, that his narrator distances himself from the convicts, telling himself to go on living, for he will be out in four years’ time.

The more disembodied he is the more he involves us. This seems to be Dostoevsky’s secret, and any claim, even a merely implicit one, to participation and fellow-suffering, would have amounted to what he called ‘false inspiration’. He uses the term about Crime and Punishment, where he must not himself be too close to the nightmare of the Petersburg whose atmosphere – ‘summer, dust, mortar’ – he so stiflingly conveys. Jones calls it ‘a feat of illusionist sorcery’ and ‘the most accessible and exciting novel in the world’, but weirdly couples it as a masterpiece with Conrad’s The Nigger of the Narcissus. Surely there, as in all Conrad’s work, we are in the presence of the novel, in the most marvellous of ways, (never more so than in the first half of his ‘Dostoevskian’ novel, Under Western Eyes), and we are seeing and being shown? On the other hand, all the swarming impressions in Crime and Punishment (Henry James could not bear to finish it) oppress us as they do the characters themselves; their nightmares become our own; in this sense, the work is indeed ‘accessible’. On the texture of the novel, however, Jones is continuously absorbing, reading it like the lines of a Shakespeare play. He has given us here some of the best close criticism of Dostoevsky now available.

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