Dostoyevsky's Demons: Political Activists

A. S. Byatt connects Dostoyevsky's fiction to political journalism in the 1900s
Leon Bakst, Portrait of Alexandre Benois (1894)
Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky has been popping up quite regularly on A Piece of Monologue. This is due, in part, to the fact that I'm reading David McDuff's wonderful translation of The Brothers Karamazov, and, in part, to the wealth of superb reviews and criticism on Dostoyevsky's work.

Dostoyevsky has often been acknowledged as an influence on key thinkers and philosophers, from the nihilistic impulses of Friedrich Nietzsche to the psychological insights of Sigmund Freud. In many ways, we can think of Dostoyevsky as the first writer of the twentieth century, exploring the complex intersection of new political ideologies, troubling philosophical examinations, and a changing attitude towards religious belief. Each of his novels (Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Notes from the Underground) articulate a crisis for individual in the modern world.

But Dostoyevsky was not simply an observer of his epoch's major cultural and historical shifts; in several senses, he was an active participant. In a wonderful review of Joseph Frank's epic biography of Dostoyevsky (Volume V: the mantle of the prophet, 1871-1881), A. S. Byatt discusses the writer's participation in nineteenth-century political journalism, and its subsequent influence on the narrative fabric of Demons:
The final part of Demons (also translated as The Possessed, or The Devils) appeared in 1873. It dealt with a real contemporary incident - the murder, by the nihilist Nechaev, of a fellow- conspirator, to silence him. Throughout the 1860s, Frank writes, Dostoevsky had been exposing the dangers of Russian nihilism, which was based on "rational egoism", and "a purely home-brewed mixture of Benthamite utilitarianism, atheism and utopian socialism". Dostoevsky believed that these ideas were imported from France, Germany and Britain and he himself, at this stage of his life, believed in Orthodox Christianity, the tsar, and the superiority of purely Russian culture and feelings. In the 1870s, idealistic young Russians gave up abstract arguments in favour of "going to the people", looking in villages for some Arcadian innocence and for a way to be useful. At this time, Dostoevsky became editor of The Citizen and offered his next novel to Notes of the Fatherland, edited by Nikolay Nekrasov, which was the leading Populist journal. Dostoevsky continued to believe that socialism, and Populism, were ultimately misguided because, in his view, they were essentially atheistic, and relied on flawed reason. But he found the Populists, with their respect for the "Russian people's truth" and Christ's teachings, less repugnant than the scientific atheists and anarchists, like Turgenev's Bazarov, in Fathers and Sons, or his own Raskolnikov and Stavrogin.

Between 1873 and 1881, at first as a column in The Citizen, and subsequently in monthly book format (intermittently), Dostoevsky published his Diary of a Writer, in which he created a new form, unlike anything I know by any other novelist. In it he commented on news and social problems, told anecdotes and discussed his own projects for fiction in the making, was satirical and sentimental, factual and visionary. It is part of its nature that it was first proposed by one of his characters, Lizaveta Nikolaevna Tushina in Demons, as a project for the subsequently murdered Shatov. Her idea was to combine the ephemeral newspaper reports of facts into yearly books. Dostoevsky's Diary of a Writer is both a work of art in itself and a demonstration of how the art of fiction relates to "facts" - and to opinions.

Dostoevsky defined his own fiction as "fantastic realism". Its wild, phantasmagoric quality was intimately connected with his sense of the importance of the true sensational stories which appeared daily in the press. "For our writers, they are fantastic; they pay no attention to them, and yet they are reality because they are facts." Classic realist fiction concerns itself with the probable - characters like Anna Karenina and Vronsky are moving because the reader comes to understand that they are behaving as such lovers in such a situation must behave. All fictional narratives, to put it differently, show people who are both individuals and recognisable types. A writer can show his wise understanding of psychology. Or, like Dostoevsky, he can look for his types in the mess and furore of newspaper reality. And he can comment on his own observations. [Read more]

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