Capn's Blog

Friday, January 06, 2006

Dostoevky - Is it me?

For Christmas, a good friend gave my wife a collection of stories by 19th century Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Now all I've heard about Dostoevsky is that he is one of the great Russian authors, along with (for example) Tolstoy, Pushkin, Chekov and Solzhenitsyn.

I read the introduction by the translator and it whetted my appetite for what might lie ahead. So far so good.

As the first story ("A Nasty Anecdote") progressed, I couldn't help but cringe at the descent into social disaster, which was good, because that's what the story was supposed to do. The story wouldn't have worked unless set in a highly classist society such as in Tsarist Russia but was on the whole, pretty good. I was hoping for more.

Then started what I guess I can call "the rest of the book". With the exception of "The Dream of a Ridiculous Man", the remainder of the stories seemed to rely on pitting neurotic characters against each other, nowhere more so than in "The Eternal Husband".

Not that there's anything wrong with using the neuroses of characters to provide the underpinnings of a good story. It's just that to me, Dostoevsky seems to do it over and over again.

One device was particularly prominent: The protagonists don't speak to each other for a while, so without the communication that would settle matters, the author allows the characters to take flights of ever more neurotic fancy, in their attempt to second-guess the mind and motivation of the other character. This leaves the character with such a churning boiling mass of neurosis that the next meeting will sure to produce a big impedance mismatch between them and plenty of opportunity for lashings of relationship right-sizing.

What annoyed me particularly was that it was so obvious. Story slows down, Dostoevsky thinks to generate some more angst and neurosis. Rinse, repeat. From my decidedly unlearned point of view, Dostoevsky may as well have been sticking pins into the characters. Hey, let's watch'em jump. Jump little characters, jump! Pah, voodoo literature.

So why do those who know like Dostoevsky so much? Where does the reputation come from? Is it because it's great literature in and of itself? Or is it just that he was a trailblazer in a mode which has since seen far better work?

Curiously, one of the customer reviews of this book on Amazon says "Warning: this story may make you cry." Sadly, I'd have to agree!

Sigh. Kafka's better. And none of them make me squirm nearly so much as a good Roald Dahl story.


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