Even if the nineteenth-century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky hadn’t written any books (and he wrote a lot), he would probably have got some sort of recognition for having one of the shittest lives ever in an era and country not short on shitty lives. Quite apart from the early death of his mother, his first wife and two of his children, he got sent to a Siberian prison camp for political sedition, repeatedly lost all his family’s money having convinced himself he had an infallible ‘system’ for roulette and wrote most of his books under tremendous pressure to pay off his debts, which exacerbated his epilepsy. Oh, and he once got led out to be shot by a firing squad, only to have his sentence commuted at the very last minute. After all that, you might be prepared for his books to be a letdown. Ha ha. No.
One of the ironies of Dostoevsky is that he was regarded as reactionary, unfashionably devout and politically conservative by a bunch of cookie-cutter, would-be-anarchist intellectuals, most of whom have never been heard of again. He tackles – again and again – huge human questions: good, evil, compassion, belief, destruction, redemption. It’s like his gambling addiction. You see him try and steer clear of the roulette table of existence, only to be sucked back into its orbit to put himself through the mill once again.
Although much of his early work is fascinating (especially ‘The Double’, 1846), it’s his four, big, post-Siberia novels that are his towering achievement: ‘Crime and Punishment’ (1866), ‘The Idiot’ (1869) ‘Demons’ (1872) and ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ (1880). All deal, in different ways, with the same fundamental question: how can man be good when surrounded and impelled by evil?
That sounds dry and philosophical, but it’s not. This is a real thing for Dostoevsky, and his books thrash about under the strain of trying to deal with it. At the time, critics were confused by what they saw as his unevenness, his randomness, his jolting language and sudden bursts of violence and comedy. Now, you can see that that is his greatness. There is no answer: trying to live, to write, to look into the abyss over and over offers the only kind of answers we can hope for, and they’re often not the ones we want to hear.
Get started with: ‘Crime and Punishment’
I love the opening pages of ‘Crime and Punishment’ so much. It’s high summer in St Petersburg. Everything stinks: the markets, the pubs, the river, the people. It’s a pressure cooker. A student is tempted into a desperate action to try and pay off his debts in a classic set-up. ‘Crime and Punishment’ is basically a police procedural, but Dostoevsky takes it further. Although the anti-hero Raskolnikov is pursued by detectives, the real investigation is into what drives him as human being to kill another human being, and what happens to a man after committing a murder.
It’s a brilliant psychological drama, but also a portrait of a decadent, status-obsessed society whose values seem to impede individuals from ever being able to behave decently. Along the way, there are some astonishing scenes, including a ghastly ‘party’ which might be one of the most tragic in all literature. As usual, Dostoevsky came under fire from the ‘critics’ (with which nineteenth-century Russia seems to have been massively over-supplied), this time for his slangy ‘journalistic’ language. Of course, it’s totally great.
If you liked that, try: ‘Notes from Underground’ (1864)
Preceding ‘Crime and Punishment’ by two years, this intriguing, bleak novella establishes many themes of Dostoevsky’s great, late period. The story of a retired civil servant super-sensitised to disappointments and perceived slights, it’s an intense precursor to the works of Kafka and the existentialists.
Still into it? Read: ‘The Brothers Karamazov’
The antithesis of ‘Notes from Underground’, this huge, expansive novel, Dostoevsky’s last, is the culmination of his philosophical questioning. Initially the story of the three sons of a middle-aged provincial libertine, it roves about through 12 books, including an amazing piece in which Christ returns to earth and is confronted by the Grand Inquisitor. A marathon, but worth it.
Recommended: Where to get started with... Virginia Woolf.