Wednesday, November 20, 2013

I promise myself that I won’t correct a single line of this manuscript - in which I allow myself a post of complaining about Dostoevsky

A ratio of one post of complaints  to three or four of appreciation seems allowable for any book, much less a big Dostoevsky novel.  By any sane aesthetic standard, Dostoevsky’s books are such messes.  The Idiot is the messiest I know.  So this will be my single post of whining, after which I will restrain myself to backhanded compliments.

Dostoevsky’s method is the key here, the method I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, where he makes elaborate notes for the novel which he ignores while pacing back and forth, dictating the novel.  Up against a brutal deadline, the results are sent off to the magazine with almost no revision.

The Idiot is the first long novel written this way, and it shows.  Dostoevsky botches some basic  novelistic components.  Characters and storylines are introduced, pumped up, and then forgotten for hundreds of pages.  New characters and plotlines crush the momentum of old ones.   

He  is especially bad with transitions between scenes.  The first of the novel's four parts takes place in a single day, so in a sense has no transitions.  It is light, rapid, energetic, logical in its own crazy way, a wild ride for the first two hundred pages in the Penguin edition, composed, I read somewhere, in a single twenty-two day burst.  But Dostoevsky founders when he switches to Part II and has to shuffle the characters around and let six months pass.  After this point whenever he switches sections or subjects he has to spend some pages clearing his throat before moving on to something better.  Readers of Wuthering Expectations should recognize the phenomenon.

Sometimes it is best for the narrator to confine himself to a simple exposition of events.  This is how we shall proceed with the rest of our account of the present catastrophe with the general; for no matter how hard we may try, we are confronted by the decided necessity of allotting to this secondary character in our story rather more attention and space than we had hitherto proposed.  (IV, 3)


A simple way to say this is that The Idiot is a heck of a first draft.  If only we had the second draft.  If only Dostoevsky had had time to say to his assistant “I was just thinking aloud there – you can cut that bit.”  By The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky has learned a lot about working within his crazy method.

Dostoevsky has a minimal visual imagination.  A huge part of the aesthetic power of fiction is unavailable to him.  He cannot even imitate his idol Nikolai Gogol.  Dostoevsky does not see the scene he is writing.  Or he sees a bare stage and a set of actors.  His strength is animating those actors.  Dostoevsky was a great actor.  But I am not writing about his strengths now.

 “’It seems to me that I have just written something terribly stupid; but I don’t have the time to correct it, as I said; what is more, I promise myself that I won’t correct a single line of this manuscript, even if I notice that I contradict myself every five lines’” – this is not the narrator but a character speaking, in Part III, Chapter 5.  But Dostoevsky does, in fact, correct and revise.  He does it in the next novel.  And the next and the next, until he really does run out of time.


  1. I remember reading a commenter observing that some of the quirks in the style of The Brothers Karamazov were the result of the writer skillfully imitating a young inexperienced writer. In light of your observations I am wondering if it was more lily the result of the sloppiness that you refer to. If so I think that it is amusing that just pain old poor execution is deemed to be intentional.

  2. Dostoevsky was a little crazy even in his childhood and this became more and more reflected in his later writing style. For example, when he was sixteen, Dostoevsky enrolled in the Military Engineering Institute and one of his tasks was to make a design of an ideal fortress that would withstand any kind of siege. He did it and got excellent grades from his superiors. Unfortunately the tsar, who himself was a professional in fortress building, got very interested in the architectural layout made by Dostoevsky. The tsar got really angry when he saw it and called young Dostoevsky a fool. The future author of The Idiot got really offended and became unhappy and finally decided to give up his engineering career. The tsar noticed that Dostoevsky's fortress had no gates at all.

  3. That is not crazy, the idea that FD is deliberately makes the narrator of Karamazov a bit of a fool. Inexperienced, sure. This idea only applies to some specific, narrow but curious aspects of the narrator, though. Most of the problems are unapologetically Dostoevsky's.

    If there is anything Dostoevsky knew how to do by the time he wrote Karamazov, it was how to write Dostoevsky novels.

    I love that story about the fortress without gates, so much, in fact, that I do not believe it, or at least have to allow the possibility that it is not true. It has so much symbolic weight, given Dostoevsky's later imprisonment. But plenty of things happened to Dostoevsky that you would hope were only fiction, but were not.

    This recent biography by Robert Bird calls the story "a rumour." I wonder what Joseph Frank says. Bird is probably just summarizing Frank.

  4. The story about the fortress was present in one of 1882 letters of SD Yanovsky, a medical practitioner and friend of FD. Actually, this assignment was to be Dostoyevsky's diploma paper in the Military Engineering School. I think the letter is available in Russian on the internet.

  5. There's more to it than that The Idiot is FD's first attempt at dictating a novel, especially if you compare it to Crime and Punishment. Last night I looked through FD's notebooks for both of those novels, and found that for C&P there was from the beginning a clear conception of the novel: FD knew who Raskolnikov was, what he'd do, and why, and how things would develop from the initial murder. For Idiot there was never any clear conception of the novel. FD knew he wanted to write about "a perfect man" but he had a head full of conflicting ideas about what a perfect man would be and how he'd interact with the world, and how FD could dramatize that, whatever "that" he chose. FD kept making overarching outlines for the book, radically revising his premises and characters and structure. In the end, as you pointed out yesterday, he gave us a set of brilliant scenes--set pieces, I guess--pinned up against a pretty pedestrian soap opera.

    There was also of course the time problem. Before he began writing The Idiot, FD wrote to his niece to say that he had an idea for the book, an idea that he was in love with, and that if he could spend three years writing it he'd produce a book we'd be "talking about 150 years from now," but FD knew he'd really only be able to put about eight months into it. Yes, a heck of a first draft, of a novel the author had not even barely figured out for himself.

    FD's "sloppiness" is pretty well-known and widely discussed, but I don't know if I consider it to be a weakness anymore. I'll have to think about why that sort of talk begins to bug me. It is amazing, frankly, that someone wrote a book as good as The Idiot, even in the form FD gave us. That last sentence has more to do with my own current doubts about writing than it has anything to do with reading novels, I admit. But I let it stand anyway.

  6. I take that source for the engineering school story as something close to disproof, or at least proof of major embellishment. Secondhand and 45 years after the fact, aside from the mythologizing.

  7. Some people hail Dostoyevsky as a great improviser, but I think he was just making it up as he was going along...

    (Yes, I know, it's an old gag, but I'm not above recycling old gags...)

    A hell of a first draft, as you say. But, for some weird reason, I'm glad he didn't write a second draft. for any subsequent draft would have to try to clear up at least some of the mess, and I can't help feeling that in the process of that cleaning up, something is bound to go missing. You don't go to Dostoyevsky or polish anyway: you go to Henry James or Edith Wharton for that.

    I do wonder, though, why Nastasya Filipovna is kept out of the novel for so long. And Rogozhin. How can anyone create characters so fascinating, and then not want to write about them?

    It's interesting that you think Dostoyevsky had little visual sense. I think you're right, by the way - but what's strange is that despite his lack of a strong visual sense, he is actually very good, I think, at suggesting a sense of place. The streets of Petersburg are very vivid, I think, in "Crime & Punishment"; and Rogozhin's large, rambling old house has such a doom-laden atmosphere to it. Without wishing to anticipate, the tragic climax of the novel just *had* to be set in that house. Not that Dostoyevsky planned it - he didn't plan anything else, after all, so why should he plan this? - but so powerful is the aura of that house, that it is virtually fated.

  8. All this talk about Dostoevsky is reminding me I haven't read anything by him since 2010, Poor Folks it was, how I miss him...

  9. Henry James! Talk about no visual sense. Henry James! You're gaslighting me. Let's raise our standards - you have read Nabokov, yes, Himadri? Or, to stay closer to a model available to Dostoevsky, Dead Souls or Fathers and Sons.

    It is a useful exercise to work through the description of Rogozhin's house (mostly in II, 3). Some amusing stuff there. I do not put such a high value on atmosphere and aura. Lots of writers can do that stuff - a common virtue.

    I tell you, there has been a sense of relief following The Idiot with Fathers and Sons. Ah, writing.

    I have come across critics who call the novel a failure, and Himadri and Scott together explain why. The strongly conceived central character is not given a sufficiently interesting story, and to the degree that the Rogozhin and Nastasya part of the novel maybe could be sufficiently interesting, Dostoevsky drops it for 400 pages as he flounders around with other plotlines.

    A shorter, more compressed, more effective version of the novel is easy to imagine. "Effective" and "failure" not in my antithetical aesthetic terms, but in Dostoevksy's own terms. These critics think D.'s clumsiness damages his own ability to demonstrate his thesis.

    I actually disagree with that at this point. The concept of Myshkin is separable from its surroundings. If the purpose of the plot is to show Myshkin from as many sides as possible, then it succeeds, even is it is of little interest in and of itself. I also have the advantage of being able to follow D.'s ideas as they change from book to book, but those other critics do, too.

    Miguel, Poor Folk! There is a passage in PF worthy of Bruno Schulz. You remind me that I have been chewing Dosteovsky's hide on Wuthering Expectations for five years now. When will I get anywhere?

  10. Whoa there! I don't know i have much of an opinion to offer on Henry James' visual sense. Or, indeed, Edith Wharton's. I chose those writers as examples of novelists whose writing is meticulously planned (some might say *too* meticulously planned), and is polished - both meticulous planning and polish being quite antithetical to Dostoyevsky's writings.

    Turgenev? Yes, "Fathers and Sons" is indeed very good. But most of the time I find him insipid. I concede, though, that by any reasonable criterion of literary merit, "Fathers and Sons" scores over "The Idiot". But I'd gladly return to "The Idiot": "Fathers and Sons", I'm not so sure about. And that's what drives me nuts about Dostoyevsky: either the criteria of literary merit I can think of are incomplete, or they don't matter when it comes to D. I am shaken by his novels, and I can't for the life of me work out just what it is in these badly written novels that can shake me so much. It bothers me.

  11. I see. James is invoked solely for the "polish" issue. Honestly, I do not go to any writer for polish. The surfaces of some sculptures are smooth, but others are rough.

    Nor am I "shaken" by Dostoevsky, which perhaps makes me a bad reader of him. But I read with great distance and am rarely shaken by anyone. I am constantly delighted by literature, including, at times, that of Dostoevsky.

    How bothered are you, really? This is a problem that can be solved.