Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Dostoevsky's creative method

Fyodor Dostoevksy has surprised me again.  I find myself enjoying two of his books in a row, actively enjoying them, and not just for their eccentricities.  Perhaps, after much effort, I have become a better reader of Dostoevsky, more sympathetic to his purpose.

No, I fear that my effort has gone for nothing, and that by chance Dostoevsky has become more sympathetic to my purposes.  Thus he wrote The Gambler (1866) and Part I of The Idiot (1868-9) as comedies, or they are, compared to some of his other works, more obviously comedies.  After the intense and profound labors of Notes from the Underground (1864) and Crime and Punishment (1866) Dostoevsky needed a light-hearted laugh.

That is not at all what happened.  Dostoevsky was writing The Gambler and Crime and Punishment simultaneously, racing against an impossible deadline in a thumbscrew contract.  Amazingly, with the help of “one of Russia’s first stenographers, Anna Grigoryevna Snitkina,” Dostoevsky beat the clock and found his signature method of composition.  He soon married Snitkina, one of the behind the scenes heroines of literature.

The quotation is from the introduction, written by William Mills Todd III, to the Penguin Classics edition of The Idiot, tr. David McDuff, p. xix.  Dostoevsky’s method, as described by Todd explains so much about the author’s art, such as it is.  Dostoevsky

would work late into the might over his notebooks, jotting down ideas.  Then he would dictate passages to [Snitkina], and she would transcribe them and promptly return them neatly copied for editing.

He dictated while pacing, always pacing.  “From this time on, the rhythm of the Dostoevskian sentence may be defined as a walking movement, where the breath of the spoken word is marked in the written style.”  This is Todd quoting Jacques Catteau, from his 1989 study Dostoevsky and the Process of Literary Creation.  I have doubts that much of the sentence-level rhythm can make it into English, but some larger structural features are visibly the result of the method.

Two things amaze me.  First, after spending late hours making notes, Dostoevksy would scrap it all while dictating.  In other words, Dostoevsky’s fiction is mostly improvised.  This is as close to a typical jazz method as I can remember.  Dostoevsky was like the musician who practices for eight hours during the day than plays completely different music at the club for two sets.  The performance was recorded, by heroic Anna Grigoryevna, but still ephemeral in the sense that it was almost immediately dispatched to the publisher for serialization.  Mistakes were permanent.  So the writer created works where they did not matter.

So the second stunner is that Dostoevsky was capable of improvising eight hundred page novels of the complexity of Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov.  No wonder large chunks of his novels are clumsy, fragmented, repetitive, or incoherent, that core ideas and characters are so unstable.  Would I want John Coltrane or Sonny Rollins to play the same way every night?  Dostoevsky, what a showman.

How few writers, even of the highest caliber, could do such a thing.  How few would want to, they would say, and at heart I agree, but here we have one measure of Dostoevsky’s genius.  I guess in this way I have become more sympathetic to Dostoevsky – blow, Fyodor, blow!  And if he has an off night, eh, Bird* had off nights.

I will turn to The Gambler tomorrow and transcribe a solo or two.

*  I am such a fan of jazz that I refer to Charlie Parker by his nickname, as if I knew him, but I did not. 


  1. Not that any of this will stop me from complaining about D.'s klutziness.

  2. A remarkable insight, and an extraordinary way to produce such huge and complex works.

    Am let down about Parker, though.

  3. Dostoevsky developed this method under the pressures of poverty and deadlines, but once he was comfortable he kept it. That he composed Karamazov this way is stunning. Close to impossible.

    I love the way jazz fans are on a first name basis with the musicians. Miles, Dizzy, Prez, Ella. I fall into it, too. Opera and orchestral fans are not so casual.

  4. Fascinating about how D composed his books. I know Henry James eventually took to dictating his books because of hand problems but I don't have the impression he improvised anything. Though I suspect his penchant for long sentences might be a result of dictation.

  5. Oh, it was. Late James is written in a cleaned up version of how late James spoke. See the time the future Virginia Woolf met James.