Read ' Dostoevsky : His life and work ' by Konstantin Mochulsky.
I had read many of Dostoevsky's works in my younger days, e.g. ' Crime and Punishment ', ' The Brothers Karamazov ', ' The Idiot ', ' Notes from the Underground ', ' The Devils ', etc
Whereas Tolstoy's ' War and Peace ', Margaret Mitchell's ' Gone With the Wind ', Sholokhov's ' Quiet flows the Don ', etc can broadly be described as historical novels, Victor Hugo's ' Les Miserables ', and the novels of Dickens, Balzac, Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyaya, John Steinbeck, Upton Sinclair, Mark Twain, Margaret Beecher Stowe,and Maxim Gorky as social novels, the novels of Dumas, Walter Scott, etc as romances, Dostoevsky is often described as the father of the psychological novel.
Dostoevsky's novels shake up one's soul. I sometimes shiver while reading them. The very beginnings of ' Crime and Punishment ', ' Notes from the Underground ', etc create a grim atmosphere and melancholia. They can give the reader a depression. For example ' Notes from the Underground begin with the words " I am a sick man. I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I think my liver is diseased. ". ' Crime and Punishment ' begin with a miserable scene in the life of the student Raskolnikov.
There is no doubt that Dostoevsky is a writer of great talent. As contrasted to the sentimental Victorian novelists, Dostoevsky's works unleash a veritable storm in the mind of the reader. This was no doubt a product of his own stormy life, which became intermingled with his writings. In 1849 he had been condemned to be executed for belonging to a revolutionary group in Russia, and in fact was put up before a firing squad when a reprieve from the Czar arrived.
Dostoevsky saw and felt the terrible cruelties and injustices in Czarist Russia, and these are reflected in his writings. There is no doubt that he was a humanitarian and very talented. He raises penetrating questions, e.g. how can there be a God when many innocent children suffer of hunger, cold, beatings and deprivations ? ( see ' The Brothers Karamazov ' ). He accurately describes inhuman and cruel social situations e.g. how a beautiful, innocent, pure girl like Sonia Marmelodova is driven to prostitution to feed her family ( see ' Crime and Punishment ). In ' The Idiot ' he presents the innocent Prince Myshkin who trusts everybody, not knowing there are wicked people in the world who will take advantage of his trust.
But is being talented enough for a writer? Dostoevsky is against progressive people and is a reactionary, who preaches acceptance of our fate, instead of bravely fighting against social injustice. He believes that the solution to all our problems lie in strictly following the precepts of Orthodox Christianity. He is critical of progressive people. His ' The Devils ' and ' Notes from the Underground ' were undisguised polemics against Chernyshevsky's ' What is to be done ? 'and the Narodniks who were fighting against the Czarist despotism..
In this connection the view of the great writer Maxim Gorky about Dostoevsky is relevant.
In 1913, after attending a staging of Dostoevsky's ' The Devils' at the Moscow State Theater, Gorky criticized Dostoevsky and those who staged his works as “playing the hand of Czarist reaction.” On being subsequently rebuked for criticizing Dostoevsky’s ideology without paying proper regard to the writer’s talent, Gorky gave a damning description of his peers’ attitude towards Dostoevsky:
“This is the opinion of the literati, as I understand them: they say that although Dostoevsky is a reactionary, and one of the founders of the zoological nationalism which is strangling us today, although he denigrated Granovsky and Belinsky and is an enemy of that very West by whose works and ideas we live, although he is a rabid chauvinist, an anti-Semite, a preacher of submission and patience – despite all this his artistic genius is so great that it outweighs all his sins against the concepts of justice which the best leaders of mankind have tried to work out. And, therefore, society has no right to protest against Dostoevsky’s tendencies and, in general, against any artist, whatever his preachment may be”.
Gorky’s critique caused some controversy at the time and set the tone Lenin’s opinions on Dostoevsky. Lenin’s published correspondence reveals that he followed the controversy surrounding staging Devils in 1913 and wrote Gorky a letter supporting his view on the matter. Similarly, a third-hand account of Lenin’s opinion, given in Meetings with Lenin, relates that Lenin said of Devils “[it is] a nasty, thoroughly reactionary work…and I have absolutely no inclination to waste my time on it” (ibid).
The philosophical opposition of Lenin and Dostoevsky is also revealed in their two very different responses to the philosophy of Nikolai Chernyshevsky, revolutionary democrat, materialist, and utopian socialist. Lenin praised, and was influenced heavily, by Chernyshevsky’s philosophy. The title of Lenin’s political tract What is to be Done is a homage to Chernyshevsky’s utopian socialist novel of the same name.
Dostoevsky on the other hand wrote 'Notes from the Underground' as a reaction against Chernyshevsky’s philosophy, and particularly against a passage from What is to be Done, in which the revolutionary hero of the novel states, “Yes, I will always do what I want. I will never sacrifice anything, not even a whim, for the sake of something I do not believe in. What I want, with all my heart, is to make people happy. In this lies my happiness. Mine! Can you hear that, you, in your underground hole?” Dostoevsky’s famous Underground Man came into being in response to Chernyshevsky’s challenge.
In his famous speech in 1934 before the Congress of Writers in Moscow, Gorky reiterated his opinion of Dostoevsky. He said :
" It is difficult to understand just what Dostoyevsky was seeking for, but towards the close of his life he found that that talented and most honest of Russian men, Vissarion Belinsky, was “the most noisome, obtuse and disgraceful thing in Russian life,” that Constantinople must be taken away from the Turks, that serfdom is conducive to “ideal moral relations between the landowners and the peasants,” and finally acknowledged as his preceptor Constantine Pobedonostsev, one of the grimmest figures of nineteenth century Russian life. Dostoyevsky’s genius is indisputable. In force of portrayal his talent is equal perhaps only to Shakespeare. But as a personality, as a “judge of men and the world,” he is easy to conceive in the role of a medieval inquisitor.
The reason why I have devoted so much space to Dostoyevsky is because without the influence of his ideas it would be almost impossible to understand the volte face which Russian literature and the greater part of the intelligentsia made after 1905-06 from radicalism and democracy towards safeguarding and defending “law and order.”
Being talented and humanist is not enough for a writer, he must also have progressive views. Art and literature must serve the people ( see my article ' The Role of Art and Literature ' on my blog justicekatju.blogspot.in )