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dostoyI was more than 30 years old before I first read Dostoyevsky. Although I'd heard of him years before, I'd also heard of many other authors, so how - as a mere casual reader - could it have occurred to me that his work might be in any way special or even worth glancing at?

What first alerted me was a masterful series of biographical documentaries on channel 4: 'Ten Great Writers'. This featured: Dostoyevsky, Ibsen, Conrad, Mann, Proust, Joyce, Eliot, Pirandello, Woolf and Kafka - selected for being especially influential in the great literary and philosophical renaissance of, broadly, the 50 or so years between the 1870s and the 1930s.

Although, to this day (to my shame and regret), I have only read - of these particular authors - Dostoyevsky and Kafka fairly comprehensively, some Conrad, and a little Pirandello, Mann and Woolf, I believe that to have missed Dostoyevsky would have left me at a severe personal loss. I could say the same for Kafka, but most of his work contains practically the same fundamental view of the world, as if seen through the same pair of glasses - though each time in a different setting. Dostoyevsky, on the other hand, offers so many new angles on the human condition - each work being an entity unique in itself - that one can only be startled by his genius and learn something anew with each piece.

But again, to my shame and regret, I still haven't read what are considered to be his greatest works, his last two epic novels: 'The Devils' and 'The Brothers Karamazov'.

On page 157 of 'The Outsider' 1956, Colin Wilson describes these and 'The Idiot' as "…surely the sloppiest great novels ever written; this must be qualified by adding that they are also among the greatest novels ever written." Great they may be; easy to read (that is, compelling) they are not - at least the two I mentioned are not. I struggled through part 1 of 'The Brothers…' and then gave up.

In my view, however, 'The Idiot' is very fine. Although it becomes tired towards the end, it is in places outstanding: most notably all of Ch6, p45 (where Myshkin muses on the guillotine and what must go through the victim's mind at the very instant before the blade cuts through their neck), and at the opening of part 3 where the author leaps onto a tangent and attacks the Russian railway system.

'The Idiot' (and probably other works too) also contains a few gems that apparently came from Dostoyevsky's habit of scouring the newspapers. After writing late into the night, he would get up late each morning and read the newspaper sitting outside at his favourite café. One of these 'gems' tells of a man in a first-class railway carriage who refused the request of a lady sitting opposite with a lapdog to extinguish his cigar. The lady promptly snatched the cigar from his mouth and tossed it through the window - whereupon the man snatched up the lapdog and sent it out too. This is one of very few instances of humour - if the lapdog will forgive me - in Dostoyevsky's work. Though perhaps 'humour' is the wrong word because even that example contains an element of horror.

The same is true of his 'A Nasty Story' and especially of his sharply poignant 'Notes from the Underground'. The latter, together with his first story 'Poor Folk' (1845), written when he was 23, 'Netochka Nezvanova' (1849) which translates as 'Nameless Nobody', and 'A Strange Man's Dream' (1877), are among the most gripping and revealing short stories I've ever read.

For me, though, there's no doubt that his most brilliant achievement was 'Crime and Punishment' - a masterpiece of psychological ingenuity: gripping, penetrating, gruesome and intense from start to finish. In addition to the grit and weave of the story, much of which takes place in the deep psychological musings of Raskolnikov, the protagonist, Dostoyevsky analyses the curious phenomenon of how certain high-status individuals in elevated positions can commit horrendous crimes like genocide, with virtual impunity and apparently no stain on their conscience, whereas an ordinary individual who commits a single, perhaps even socially beneficial, crime - such as murdering an evil old money lender - will suffer guilt, anguish and remorse for the rest of their life. This was the fate of Raskolnikov in the novel. Dostoyevsky, though, leaves him effectively on the brink of a precipice at the end, from where he has the option to retreat and begin his repentance. He has learned a great lesson and has already reformed before his exile begins.

In 'The Idiot', in contrast, Myshkin arrives by train from a sanatorium in the country to 'enter the world' as a kind of saint. But it emerges through the course of the novel that he is entirely out of place and seems only to exacerbate discordances he attempts to ameliorate. Finally, disheartened, he 'slouches' back to the sanatorium.

Using an entirely different technique, Dostoyevsky distils the essence of this remarkable novel into his 'A Strange Man's Dream' - the very story, in fact, that inaugurated my adventure with perhaps the greatest writer the world has yet known. I'll relate briefly below a significant event in Dostoyevsky's life (from Geir Kjetsaa's biography), and then reproduce a few of what I see as worthy extracts from his work.

squadIn 1849, at 28, Dostoyevsky, was accused of subversion and with several others became victim to a mock execution by firing squad. It was an experience that changed his life:

The priest mounted the scaffold and faced the prisoners, quoting from the bible…

'Death was not to be avoided,' Dostoyevsky recalled years later, 'If only it would come as quickly as possible… And then I was seized by a profound indifference. Yes! Yes! Yes! Indifference. I cared not for life or those around me. Everything seemed meaningless beside that terrible moment when I would pass into the unknown, into darkness…'

Three platoons, each with sixteen men, were lined up fifteen yards from those who were to be executed. With
loaded rifles, the soldiers took aim. Half a minute of excruciating, terrible suspense passed… Suddenly someone appeared waving a white cloth and the soldiers lowered their rifles…

At first there was no joy over the pardon. All of them were gripped by indifference… Many of the spectators wept.

A Danish historian wrote much later: '…he survived and became one of the giants in world literature.'

Shortly after the mock execution Dostoyevsky wrote to his brother:

'…When I look back at the past and think of all the time I squandered in error and idleness, lacking the knowledge needed to live, when I think of how often I sinned against my heart and my soul, then my heart bleeds. Life is a gift, life is happiness, every moment could have been an eternity of happiness! If youth only knew! Now my life will change; now I will be reborn…' Before leaving for exile in Siberia, his brother was granted permission to see him: 'Don't cry, dear brother,' he said, 'This is not a funeral. I am not to be laid in my coffin. They aren't beasts in prison. They are men, perhaps better than I am, perhaps worthier than I am…'

That letter to his brother echoes what was, I believe, to become the final words of that small masterpiece 'A Strange Man's Dream', one of the few stories I've read that continues to haunt me. Finally (for the moment), a few extracts from what struck me as some of his most eloquent work - first, from the last page of 'A Weak Heart' (1848):

'Dusk had already fallen by the time Arkady made his way home. As he approached the Neva he stopped for a moment and cast a penetrating glance along the river into the smoky, frost-deadened distance, which had suddenly flared with the last purple of a bloodred sunset that was burning itself out on the smudgy horizon. Night was descending over the city, and the whole immense clearing of the Neva, which had swollen with frozen snow, was being showered, in the sun's last reflection, with infinite myriads of sparks thrown down by the hoar-frost. It was minus twenty-degrees. Frozen steam fell heavily from horses which had been driven to death, from the people hurrying by. The taut air shivered at the slightest sound and, like giants, from all the roofs of both embankments columns of smoke rose into the cold sky and floated aloft, twining and untwining on their way, making it seem as though new buildings were rising above the old ones, as though a new city were being formed in the air… It was as if, at last, this entire world, with all its inhabitants, the shelters of the poor or the gilded palaces for the delight of the powerful of this world, resembled a fantastic, magical vision, a dream that would in its turn vanish in a trice and evanesce towards the dark-blue heavens…. He quivered, and his heart seemed in that instant to fill with a hot jet of blood which had suddenly boiled up from the influx of some mighty sensation hitherto unknown to him…. His lips began to tremble, his eyes flared with light, and at that moment his eyes seemed to open on something new.'

I cannot read that without feeling almost present in the scene, the sensations rise in the imagination to make one completely forget one is reading. But how about this from the opening of Ch-6 of 'The Meek Girl' (1876)?

'Now that terrible reminiscence…

I woke up the next morning, at about eight I think it was, for the room was almost completely light. I woke up at once, fully conscious, and opened my eyes suddenly. She was standing by the table and was holding my revolver.
She had not seen me wake up and was unaware that I was looking at her. And suddenly I saw that she had begun to approach me with the revolver in her hands. Quickly, I closed my eyes and pretended to be fast asleep.

She reached the bed and stood over me. I could hear everything; even though a dead silence had set in. I could hear that silence. At that point there was some kind of convulsive movement - and suddenly, against my will, I opened my eyes.

She was looking straight into my face, and the revolver
was now at my temple. Our eyes met, but remained there no more than a moment. I forced my eyes shut again, and in the same instant took a mighty resolve neither to open them nor to move one muscle, no matter what awaited me…'

I would like to have included some extracts from the ultimate existential story 'Notes from the Underground' but find it so full of powerful impressions that it is impossible to select one in preference to another. It belongs with the most compelling and penetrating stories I've ever read. One is forced to identify with the author, because Dostoyevsky has observed an aspect of ourselves that, essentially, we all contain in differing degree, though in this instance it is so deep and out of sight that many people will - presumably through misplaced shame - refute its existence, as they did in the fifties regarding Kinsey's findings from research into human sexual behaviour. I confess an awareness of some level of all these unflattering characteristics in myself - some even since about eight years old, and am prepared to acknowledge truth whether palatable or otherwise. How else, except by such acknowledgements - such self-knowledge - can one understand and live contented with oneself?

The great secret is: focus on what IS - not what you might wish… for that, I would suggest, is the way to ultimate salvation. If nothing else, I learned that great detail from reading the world's (alongside Tolstoy, perhaps) greatest ever writer.

                    A Crucial Question

I recently noticed in a book of quotations that Dostoyevsky had posed the question:  

Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature, and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? (The Brothers Karamazov (1879, 80) bk. 5, ch. 4.)

This question is more far-reaching than it might at first seem. But how many of us would reply like all the rest throughout history, with an enthusiastic: Yes! Yes!

Unfortunately, human beings prefer not to think; they tend to view such questions simplistically. If they pause to reflect, they would notice that the detail is both incomplete: What if that insignificant creature were me? - and unrealistic: Could such a future be possible without humanity being reduced to an innocuous race of morons?

Maybe it is possible; one would hope so; but most people, I think, on assessing the problem when they might be chosen as the insignificant creature, would answer a very clear no. Who would forfeit their life in such a way even if that unlikely promise was a certainty?

To die is, for the individual, equivalent to annihilating the entire universe. Before we die we believe everything will carry on as normal without us, and so it will. But once you're dead, this is irrelevant - which means that nothing has greater value than life. And so on. As we reason through these kind of questions, we build a framework of provisional opinions and feelings - to be updated on receipt of new relevant information or by progression of thought. With the possible exception of suicide, life, then (my train of thoughts conclude), should therefore always be regarded as sacred, as if it is us, ie, me or you, whose life is in the balance. Which means the answer to Dostoyevsky's question must be an emphatic NO. Appropriately, I recently read on a Quaker notice board: 'The time is now, and now is sacred.'

What we fail to realise is that to analyse for ourselves hypothetical questions like this can have a marked effect on how we conduct our everyday lives. For instance, I have concluded above that life should be preserved at all costs, when previously I may have believed life dispensable in certain special conditions - not in others: ie, if it's mine. This will influence, perhaps, whether I support capital punishment - or even corporal punishment - or, ultimately, any punishment at all. It will affect the level of respect and concern I feel for other people - and perhaps also other creatures: whether I become a vegetarian, for instance. Together with a little imagination, this sort of thinking broadens the perspective, and can alert us to alternative viewpoints. This is important if people are to get along better because it will increase the respect we have and show for those we disagree with - or disapprove of, including dumb animals.

So, observing and weighing what the greatest minds in history have thought gives us an edge. And because reading happens at a controlled pace, one can pause for thought, reread, make notes, discuss with others, and even (as I'm doing here) consolidate thoughts by writing them - which forces one to focus and take greater care in analysing issues than might otherwise be the case.

"Ambition," said Proust, "is nothing more than a lust for power." I've yet to find reason to disagree. So when I say that I have an ambition, I'll have already assessed how Proust's lust applies to me. My ambition is to learn and experience. Among a few lesser things, I lust for power over myself. Left to myself I'm apt to laze around and waste time, become self indulgent in ways that if not restrained would certainly shorten my life considerably. But even if I do nothing but read time-tested books for the rest of my life, they can never make me wise - that depends upon me; books contain only knowledge.