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Fyodor Dostoevsky

Convulsive Prose

Though Fyodor Dostoevsky talks frequently in his letters about the importance of craft, about taking one’s time and writing carefully, Somerset Maugham is far from alone in commenting on the neglectfulness evident in the great Russian writer’s prose style. In Ten Novels and Their Authors, Maugham talks about how easy it is to “deplore Dostoevsky’s prolixity” (p257), while Vladimir Nabokov mentions “a rush and tumble of words with endless repetitions, mutterings aside, a verbal overflow which shocks the reader after, say, Lermontov’s transparent and beautifully poised prose.“ (New York Times).

Yet we might wonder whether great writing comes from great style, or if it isn’t a secondary quality – a certain talent. In another essay in Ten Novels and Their Authors, on Balzac, Maugham says: “genius and talent are very different things. Many people have talent; it is not rare: genius is. Talent is adroit and dexterous; it can be cultivated: genius is innate, and too often strangely allied to grave defects.” If we agree with Maugham, can we argue for Dostoyevsky’s genius while acknowledging his flaws? Perhaps a good place to start here is with Notes from Underground. The novella doesn’t open with the two aspects usually vital to a piece of fiction: story and character. Instead, we get musings on the maudlin, as if thoughts muttered aloud a. “Oh, if only it was out of laziness that I do nothing! Lord, how much I should respect myself then!” “What about all those millions of incidents testifying to the fact that men have knowingly, that is in full understanding of their own best interests, put them in the background and taken a perilous and uncertain course not because anybody or anything drove them to it, but simply and solely because they did not choose to follow the appointed road, as it were, but wilfully and obstinately preferred to pursue a perverse and difficult path, almost lost in darkness?” Both Nabokov and Maugham can be astute in their criticism of Dostoevsky, even if the former is more dismissive; the latter finally much more admiring. Nabokov believed: “Dostoevsky never really got over the influence which the European mystery novel and the sentimental novel made upon him. The sentimental influence implied that kind of conflict he liked – placing virtuous people in pathetic situations and then extracting from these situations the last ounce of pathos.” Maugham saw not the manipulations of the sentimentalist, but the skill of a thriller writer. In his Notebooks, Maugham says: “A favourite one, which he employs constantly, is to bring together the chief persons to discuss some action so outrageous that it is incomprehensible. He leads you along to an understanding of it with all the skill of [detective writer] Gaboriau unravelling a mystery or crime.”

Yet perhaps Dostoevsky’s real achievement is to internalise the thriller, to turn the question of external plot event into personalised purpose. As in Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky in Notes from Underground wants to predicate his story on the perverse and difficult path, so that any notion of authority is no longer beyond the self but a product of self-reflection. However, Dostoevsky’s characters rarely possess at the same time self-control, so that there is a messy nexus of rejecting social norms, self-analysis that is contradictory, and a sense of self that is fragile and emotionally fraught. These all come together in Notes from Underground, so that even when there are events and actions, they are contained by the singularity of the Dostoevskian: the chaotic world of impulses and self-absorption, misery and morbidity, excessive flattery and the need to insult.

To help us here let us think of a scene from Notes from Underground, and another from Poor Folk. The one in the former novella concerns a meeting with the narrator’s old schoolfriends; people he never much cared for then, and cares less for now. They seem equally indifferent, and when he gets invited along for dinner he turns up at the appointed time of five o’clock only to sit around waiting until the others arrive at six. The time had been changed but nobody cared to inform our narrator. As the evening goes on he gets more and more drunk and, in time, insulting. He turns to the good-looking and charming Zverkov and tells him: “I must tell you that I detest empty phrases and phrase-mongers…my second point is that I hate dirty stories and people who tell them.” His third point is that “I love truth and sincerity.” The narrator thinks Zverkov is terribly offended, noting that “he had even turned white.” But after the others suggest our narrator deserves to be punched, Zverkov says: “Say nothing, do nothing, gentlemen!” “Thank you all, but I am quite capable of showing him what value I put on his words.” Viewed from the angle of a narrator who contains within him so many contrary impulses and askew perceptions, we can’t quite work out exactly how others around him are responding to events. In Poor Folk a character takes to reading books an acquaintance gives him and while at first he just looks to read so he can get some sleep, soon enough “new thoughts and new impressions came flooding into my heart in an instant, overwhelming rush. And the greater the agitation, the turmoil and effort these new sensations cost me, the more attractive I began to find them.”

There is no possibility here of the astute delineation of character and situation we find in novelists known to be fine prose stylists: from Jane Austen to F. Scott Fitzgerald. These are writers who have the measure of their characters as they have the measure of their prose. But Dostoevsky’s very genius is to be unmeasured, to leave us feeling that we can’t trust the view expressed not because of the writer’s mediocrity, but because his brilliance resides in shaking the foundations evident in many of our assumptions. Notes from Underground takes forever to ‘get going’ because there is no basis upon which it can easily be predicated. The scene above isn’t a simple tale of one man’s humiliation; it is a very complicated exploration of a man’s need to be humiliated; humiliation is a lot more ontologically adventurous than respect in this instance. He doesn’t meet up with his old school acquaintances expecting a fine time: he expects a miserable one. Of one of these figures he says before meeting him again: “I suspected that he found me extremely repellent…”

Of no less emotional and intellectual complexity is the relationship he has with his servant, whose wages he wishes to withhold. Yet the servant would always win: “He began as he always did in such cases (because there had been such cases before, it had all been tried before, and let me remark, I knew it all beforehand, I knew his sneaking tactics by heart).” But we might wonder whether this is the narrator’s projections or the servant’s motivations. Eventually, he gives him the money, but sure that it has been forced out of him by the passive-aggressive behaviour of the other man. “Torturer”, he insists, but the reader is left unsure how much of it is in the narrator’s head, or how much in the servant’s.

Returning to the notion of talent versus genius, we can see how many a writer can skilfully fill out character, give shape and purpose to the story, but very few can suggest the immense fragility of perception that Dostoevsky’s work generates. The servant and the friends might have been much more filled out in another writer’s work, but what we would have gained in characterisation, we would have lost in the instability of being that the Russian writer pinpoints. From a certain point of view Maugham is right to say “I do not think there is great subtlety of characterization in Dostoevsky’. His people are all of a piece.” (quote) And Nabokov too when he says: “Throughout the book they do not develop as personalities. We get them all complete at the beginning of the tale, and so they remain without any considerable changes, although their surroundings may alter and the most extraordinary things may happen to them.” (New York Times) This is criticism of talent but paradoxically the confirmation of genius. Dostoevsky doesn’t create nuanced characters; he is more interested in the inexplicable forces within us and is drawn to characters who reflect so strongly these impulses. As he says in The House of the Dead, discussing many of the prisoners the imprisoned central character encounters in the book and their behaviour: “this is not a matter of reason, rather it is one of convulsions.” Dostoyevsky’s brilliance rests in acknowledging these convulsions, this sense in which a character cannot offer consistency of being except on the monomaniacal level of self-destruction or self-absorption. What matters isn’t mastering prose, creating a register of careful delineation, but in generating a force within the work where the writing seems to come from another force altogether. Dostoevsky’s prose is itself convulsive, hence the numerous exclamation marks, the repetitions, the digressions. He is a writer in the thick of it, wondering exactly what this ‘it’ might be.

Yet we have used genius perhaps a little casually: the question is what does Dostoevsky’s genius consist of. Nicholas Berdyaev puts it quite well when saying: “these reflections of genius, startling in the light they throw, are the origins of all the things that Dostoevsky in his work as creator found out about man. The methods to apply to man are not those of arithmetic but of the higher mathematics, for his destiny does not depend on such an elementary truth as that 2x 2 makes 4. Human nature cannot be brought within the operations of reason: there is always “something over”, an irrational something that is the very well-spring of life.” (Dostoevsky) If Berdyaev is right, then Nabokov’s criticisms make a point and miss the point at the same time. From Nabokov’s point of view Dostoevsky is a bad writer: he lacks the talent that his fellow Russian can readily notice, but can Nabokov see the genius that more than compensates for the relative absence of talent? Dostoevsky did not see the self as manageable, and so how could it be so with one’s fiction? As George Steiner says in Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: “with dark insight Dostoevsky perceived that there are affinities between material want and religious faith. Hence his lifelong polemic against the ‘crystal palace’ of socialism, against Rousseau, Babeuf, Cabet, Saint-Simon, Fourier, Proudhon and all the positivists…” Dostoevsky might often comment on his lack of control and wish he had more of it, might have wished that he could write in a manner that suggested more polish and finesse, but he well knew his gifts. “…I pierce to the depths, trace out the atoms, and from them construct the whole. Gogol always works on the broad lines, and so he never goes as deep as I do.” (Letters of Fyodor Dostoevsky)

Harold Bloom, of course, talked about the anxiety of influence, and meant not so much that writers were terrified in the presence of their forebears; more that they needed to address the work of a major influence and to overcome it, to make themselves as important as the previous great figure. But what about an anxiety of genius, a sense in which one doesn’t know how great is one’s genius but is aware of the limits of one’s talents? If as Steiner says Dostoevsky railed against positivism, it might rest partly on the relatively objective notion of talent proving irrelevant next to the vibrations of genius, as if aware that talent constructs (a work) and genius is in danger of destroying the self. As he would say in his Letters, “Whenever formerly I had such nervous disturbances, I made use of them for writing: in such a state I could write much more and much better than usual: but now I refrain from work that I may not utterly destroy myself.” It is as though, in Dostoevsky, at least there was a genius that bears the name of Dostoevsky; talent can go by any number if names. It is as though, from a certain point of view, talent gives itself to the craft; genius takes it apart, as if aware that it will itself come apart in the process of producing a work that is a fibrous thing, inseparable from the being who creates it.

©Tony McKibbin