Whether you've sat down to try and read one of his major works, or you've just sat down to wrestle through pronouncing his name, it seems as if engaging Dostoevsky is no different than engaging confusion incarnate. Well, that's at least the reputation. And I don't think that's too far off either. At least that's exactly how I felt when I first attempted to read through The Grand Inquisitor - and that's just an excerpt from a larger book! So, I just wanted to offer a quick primer for properly assessing his style, and tackling his monstrous works.
I don't think the problem is necessarily in how difficult Dostoevsky's novels are to read, but that it rests in our understanding of Dostoevsky's style and intention. For example, if we approached any one of the Harry Potter books as though it were an Ayn Rand novel, we'd be greatly confused with the soft charm of the students' wit. Or, if we sat down to read James Joyce's Ulysseswith the same lenses we interpret Flannery O' Conner with, we'd be lost at digesting his Irish idioms. My point is this - Dostoevsky should be read as Dostoevsky, not as Tolstoy, Hemingway, Homer, King, Dickens, or Rowling. And, ultimately, this is primarily due to the fact that he created an entirely new writing method: The dialogical novel.
Where Tolstoy has one protagonist, Dostoevsky has many. Where Hemingway has a strong narrative voice, Dostoevsky's is near impossible to even find. The plot, though present, is primarily worked out in the arena dialogue. His style is all about characters working together, bringing with them their own worldviews - broken and all - and showing teachability, humility, and temperance (at least the good ones). So, what does that look like?
- The robust omniscient character is always falls, where the humbly teachable character always progresses. This might be the most difficult thing to grasp. For example, The Brothers Karamazov has a noticeably different tone than that of Crime and Punishment. Where most of the characters from Brothers K- whether good or bad - are open and willing to be honest and transparent, Raskolnikov, the near-lone protagonist - which is telling - from Crime and Punishment refuses to be open. In the former, the characters begin to become vulnerable and adapt, at times hoping to be edified by another, whereas the latter the character becomes "crazier", as he refuses to be transparent. The lone character (as infrequent as they are) serve to teach the reader the outcome of someone refusing open dialogue with others (e.g. the Underground Man from Notes from the Underground)
- Existentialism was his primary vehicle. Where many stories propel the reader into a different, sometimes fantastical world, Dostoevsky sought to keep the reader in his or her own world, by using the problems of the characters to speak to the reader's soul. His stories aim to call the reader's soul out from its cave, and thus thrive through the refining work of engaging the difficulties it tends to hide from: ethics, theology, beauty, sin. In short, his stories come to us, and speak to us where we're at, as opposed to transporting us somewhere else, somewhere we're not fully present.
- Plot is then subject to edification. Our culture is one of immediacy, begging the author to "get on with it, and tell us what we need." The catch to Dostoevsky is that most of his stories are "just about the characters", and cause us to slow down and apply introspection. If you're reading Brothers K to determine who killed Fyodor Karamazov... you're doing it wrong.
I don't pretend this to be an exhaustive list or write up about all things Dostoevsky-theory, but hopefully it gets the ball rolling. What I do believe is that if these three basic ideas are kept in mind before approaching any one of his works, then you'll find yourself really enjoying the literary giant that is Fyodor Dostoevsky!1
- Name pronunciation might have to be a different post entirely! ↩