The Dostoevsky Labyrinth

Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics

by Mikhail Bakhtin, translated by R. W. Rotsel
Ardis, 249 pp., $3.95 (paper)

Dostoevsky and His Devils

by Václav Cerny, translated by F. W. Galan, with an afterword by Josef Skvorecky
Ardis, 77 pp., $2.50 (paper)

When Dostoevsky was a cadet in the Academy of Engineers—the story runs—he designed a nearly perfect fortress, but forgot the windows and doors into and within the place. A guide to the novels: the reader is dropped into the novelist’s claustrophobia, and it must be said that the enormous amount of Dostoevsky criticism since 1880 makes the walls thicker. The task of tunneling one’s way out of his labyrinth is exhausting, and there is disappointment (if there is also relief) in discovering that, after all, the great artist was often, like Balzac and Dickens, also a journalist who skids into a phantasmagoria of the topical and au courant.

This is a phrase of the Czech critic Václav Cerný: all the critics have their phrases. We are helped for a moment and then we are forced to discard: the âme slave was the first to go; it was followed by Dostoevsky as the key to the Russian character; we hesitate over the surely conventional theory of Dostoevsky as the product of medieval Russia in collision with capitalism. Too many “ideas” occur to us. The root of the trouble is that the artist, the man in the act of writing, is lost—he was before anything else an inventing artist. As Mikhail Bakhtin put it in his well-known and difficult book, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, which first appeared in Russian in 1929 and was expanded in 1963.

The subject is not a single author-artist, but a whole series of philosophical statements made by several author-thinkers—Raskolnikov, Myshkin, Stavrogin, Ivan Karamazov, the Grand Inquisitor and others…. The critics indulge in polemics with the heroes; they become their pupils, and they seek to develop their views into a completed system.

Such criticism is concerned with ideology alone and not with the evolving storyteller, at home in the slipshod but struggling against it, and autobiographical to the point of apotheosis.

For the biographer who sticks for the moment to the early pre-Siberian Dostoevsky, as Joseph Frank does in The Seeds of Revolt, the ground is clearer. (There are three volumes still to come.) The great novels are not yet here to obscure the man whom Siberia enlarged and transformed. We are able to see the young man painfully growing. The story has gradually become well known, but it still contains its mysteries and Mr. Frank’s very long book can be called a work of detection and collation at its scrupulous best. Every detail is considered; evidence is weighed and fortunately the author has a pleasant and lucid style, unleadened by the fashionable vice of fact-fetishism. He brings a clearer focus and perspective to things that have been often crudely dramatized, especially in Dostoevsky’s childhood and youth, and we have a more balanced and subtler account of this period than we generally get.

There is no prophetic assumption, for example, that Dostoevsky’s father was a rough, miserly, flogging, lecherous brute like the older Karamazov. The home itself could not be the source of Dostoevsky’s knowledge…

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