And where did all these sages get the idea that man needs some normal, some virtuous wanting? What made them necessarily imagine that what man needs is necessarily a reasonably profitable wanting? Man needs only independent wanting, whatever this independence may cost and wherever it may lead.
Notes from Underground · Fyodor Dostoevsky · 1864
Pevear and Volokhonsky translation · Vintage, 1994 · 136 pages, paperback
With Notes from Underground, first published in 1864, Fyodor Dostoevsky picked up an axe of condemnation and swung—hard. Hard against an imposed ideal, hard against a code of right and wrong in human feeling, hard against the presumption that reason could dictate desire.
Dostoevsky tells us that not only is man inherently flawed but he is flawed because he wills himself to be so. Continue reading
With Gogol, strangeness is inevitable and the one constant is a vertigo that abruptly skews reality before allowing it to settle again – only it’s shifted an inch from where we thought we’d find it.
The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol · Nikolai Gogol · 1830-‘42
Pevear and Volokhonsky translation · Vintage, 2009 · 465 pages, paperback
To read a Gogolian story is to read a story of layered perspective and one that fuses dreams with reality, metamorphosing into a singularly bewitched universe that exists side by side with our own. Continue reading
School-age grudges and backroom bargains line up the chips against ladies’ secrets and counterfeit fathers in The Adolescent, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s penultimate novel and one that built on his previous work with surprising maturity.
The Adolescent · Fyodor Dostoevsky · 1875
Pevear and Volokhonsky translation · Vintage, 2004 · 608 pages, paperback
Vladimir Nabokov, in his Lectures on Russian Literature, said of Dostoevsky that the man “seems to have been chosen by the destiny of Russian letters to become Russia’s greatest playwright, but he took the wrong turning and wrote novels.” Though he was talking about The Brothers Karamazov, which Nabokov called a “straggling play,” the comment holds for The Adolescent, a gossipy soap opera done in high style. Continue reading
Reading Jason Matthews’ spy novel Red Sparrow is like wrapping Le Carré around a dime store romance, a reputable disguise for when you’re embarrassed to be seen with it. Red Sparrow is a thriller for appearances’ sake only (and because CIA men don’t write romance)? A shame – because Matthews has real talent.
Red Sparrow · Jason Matthews · 2013
Scribner, 2014 · 431 pages, paperback
Riddle me this: how do you find a dozen eggs during a siege that has left people to shoot horses for their meat and boil the glue in book bindings for its protein?
City of Thieves · David Benioff
Penguin, 2009 · 258 pages, paperback
Lev the looter and Kolya the deserter who isn’t really a deserter (he left his unit because his “balls were ringing like a couple of church bells”) are two young men caught up in the summary justice of Leningrad under siege. Looting and desertion demand execution. But a powerful colonel has a daughter who’s to be married. The colonel’s decree? Let there be cake – and cake demands eggs.
With its passages of simple brutality and deadpan humor, the morality of a man’s steadfast nature and a heavy layer of religio-mythic magic (that has just enough truth to lend credence to fantasy), The Enchanted Wanderer has the coziness of an old Russian folk tale and the insightful warning of an age-old parable.
“In a world where God is simply dead flesh, a good man becomes simply an idiot.” – AS Byatt, “Prince of Fools,” The Guardian, June 2004
The Idiot · Fyodor Dostoevsky · 1868-’69
Pevear and Volokhonsky translation · Vintage, 2003 · 633 pages, paperback
Dostoevsky explained in a letter to a friend, and later to his niece, that his project in writing The Idiot was that of portraying a “perfectly beautiful man.” This man, Prince Myshkin, the titular “idiot,” is an epileptic who returns to Russia after four years in a Swiss sanatorium.
Myshkin isn’t an intellectual idiot; his idiocy stems from naivety and simple-heartedness. Myshkin is an idiot because he is foolish to the nastier, baser parts of man and to the cruel reality of an impure world.
Dostoevsky writes goodness with the same attention he gave meanness in Crime and Punishment. He writes it as an otherness, received only with reservations, suspicion and disbelief. Goodness disintegrates, is dragged through the street and becomes tangled up with the coarser parts of society until it is unrecognizable and even damaging.