David Goldstein’s Dostoyevsky and the Jews is a valuable study on a subject which cannot help being of interest to any reader of Dostoevsky, and it goes a long way toward lighting up one unhappy aspect of this complex, baffling, and self-contradictory genius. One may fear, at first sight, that it is the type of book described in the old story about the mythical Academy of Sciences which, offering a prize for a scientific study of the elephant, was mildly astonished to receive an entry entitled: The Elephant and the Jewish Question. But Mr. Goldstein does not unduly inflate the importance of the Jewish Question for Dostoevsky, and he happily makes no attempt to endow it with more significance than it actually has in the body of the novelist’s work.
In fact, Dostoevsky depicted only one Jewish character at any length (Isai Fomich Bumstein in The House of the Dead). The minor figure of Lyamshin in The Possessed, a member of Pyotr Verkhovensky’s revolutionary “five,” is, as Mr. Goldstein demonstrates, probably a converted Jew; but his Jewish traits are so minimal that they have hardly attracted any critical attention. There is also the passing glimpse of the Jewish fireman, incongruously rigged out in an Achilles helmet (Matthew Arnold might have been pleased by this combination of the Hebraic and the Hellenic), before whose disbelieving eyes Svidrigailov shoots himself in Crime and Punishment. Mr. Goldstein’s analysis of this fleeting encounter is the only place in the book where a trace of the elephantine can, perhaps, be detected.
Nonetheless, Mr. Goldstein is perfectly justified in maintaining that a study of Dostoevsky’s relation to the Jews and Judaism is by no means arbitrary or superfluous. Dostoevsky himself felt it necessary publicly to take a stand on “The ‘Jewish Question”’ in his important article with this title in The Diary of a Writer, and he constantly makes passing allusions, invariably uncomplimentary, to Jews and Jewishness in his novels and stories and, most of all, in his Diary. Yet, at the same time, he exchanged frank and courteous letters with at least two Jewish correspondents (one of them serving a prison term for theft) and made efforts to help them personally. Moreover, he vigorously denied that he was a “hater of the Jewish people,” and declared “there has never been such a hatred in my heart.” Clearly, he was preoccupied with this problem himself and raises it in such a way as to justify devoting to it the close scrutiny that Mr. Goldstein has finally provided.
I have now read his book twice and each time have been impressed by the thoroughness of the documentation, the rigor of the analysis, and the scrupulous impartiality that Mr. Goldstein maintains in presenting the evidence. None of the facts is left out so far as my knowledge goes; opposing points of view are invariably given; and Mr. Goldstein always firmly distinguishes between Dostoevsky’s opinions as a polemicist and public figure and his …