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Indulging with Control in Fiction

Tim Parks
Could it ever make sense to include Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground in the same narrative category as E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey?
Egon Schiele: Lovemaking (detail), 1915

Could it ever make sense to include Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground in the same narrative category as E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey? And alongside the works of Tolstoy, but also those of Dave Eggers and Elfriede Jelinek, J.M. Coetzee and Stieg Larsson and Cesare Pavese?

In the first of this four-part series, I looked at a number of affinities between Dickens and Chekhov, suggesting that there was a category of authors whose stories were always structured around questions of belonging: inclusion or exclusion, worthiness and unworthiness. A particular set of emotions and hierarchy of values prevailed, such that, despite their writing in different cultures in different periods, the two authors established a certain family feeling in their fiction. Obsessed with belonging, or not belonging, they belong together.

Among other things, the world of these writers—I mentioned Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, Natalia Ginzburg, Haruki Murakami—is one where considerations of good and evil, truth and falsehood, are subordinated to the well-being of the community. In Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf, though an atheist, describes St. Paul’s Cathedral positively as a place that “offers company,” “invites you to membership of a society,” overcoming the “plaguy spirit of truth seeking” that has led one character, Miss Kilman, to draw Clarissa Dalloway’s daughter away from her mother with her divisive religious fundamentalism.

Turn this hierarchy of values on its head and the atmosphere drastically shifts. In the narratives featured in this second essay in the series, good and evil, truth and falsehood, take on supreme importance in themselves. We’re not talking of battles between beneficent and cruel empires, or even between kind and heinous characters, as in a Harry Potter adventure, or in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga. Martyrs and scoundrels may stake out the territory, but there will be no decisive showdown.

Rather, we have protagonists torn between saintly renunciation and unbridled indulgence, between a powerful urge to be involved in life at its most intense, and an equally powerful apprehension that life is corrupting and degrading. This is an exciting mentality that spawns tormented self-analysis. Words like soul, forgiveness, joy, and disgust are never far away. Sex and violence (and, most of all, violent sex) bring inner conflict to extremes of disorientation. But there’s comedy, too, albeit of a dark sort. Here is Dostoevsky’s anonymous narrator in Notes, superimposing his love of the sublime and the beautiful with his visits to prostitutes:

Remarkably, these influxes of “everything beautiful and lofty,” used also to come to me during my little debauches… yet they did not annihilate the little debauch with their appearance; on the contrary, it was as if they enlivened it by contrast and came in exactly the proportion required for a good sauce. The sauce here consisted of contradiction and suffering, of tormenting inner analysis and all these torments and tormenticules lent my little debauch a certain piquancy, even meaning—in short, they fully fulfilled the function of a good sauce. All this was even not without some profundity.

When Dostoevsky wrote these words, he was just back from a long trip to France and Italy, ostensibly to cure his epilepsy, in reality to pursue his young mistress, who meantime had decided that their hitherto sexual relationship must become platonic. Frustrated, he had drunk and gambled his money away; at length, she had provided him with enough cash to get home to his wife, who was in the last stages of tuberculosis, coughing blood. She would die of the disease as he, in the next room, was writing the novel’s climactic scene, in which the narrator takes cruel pleasure in telling a young prostitute how she will inevitably die of tuberculosis, coughing up her lifeblood in the brothel, with disgusted clients telling her to “Hurry up and croak, you slut!”

“I’m in a frightening state,” Dostoevsky wrote to his brother, in those days, “nervous, morally ill.” “I’ve felt ashamed all the while I’ve been writing this story,” the narrator tells us on the penultimate page, “it’s no longer literature, but corrective punishment.” While remaining, of course, a form of indulgence. It seems impossible either to reconcile these impulses, or even separate them out.

Tolstoy stories also unfold in a compelling atmosphere of sin and repentance, albeit with the constant hope that some “solution”—a marriage, immersion in manual work, military glory, philanthropy, religion—might put an end to inner turmoil. Again, life and work intertwine. A week before their marriage, Tolstoy, then thirty-four, gave his diaries to the eighteen-year-old Sophia Andreevna Behrs, allowing her to discover that he had had sexual relations with an almost endless list of women of every social extraction, had caught gonorrhoea from a prostitute, and had whored compulsively even as he abhorred sex as filthy. Fortunately, Sophia was thrilled by the idea that marriage would save the great author from himself. Twenty-five years later, in The Kreuzer Sonata, at a point when Tolstoy had decided that novel-writing itself was a lamentable self-indulgence, a man who has murdered his wife expresses his disgust for the compulsive sex in which they had engaged over so many years, and proclaims his desire for apartness and sanctity. Even in marriage, copulation was an abomination. A thirteenth child was born to the Tolstoys as the novel was being written.


People “ought to be riven with self-doubt but are not,” J.M. Coetzee protested in The Good Story, Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy. In an interview with the psychologist Anna Kurtz, he complained that psychotherapy essentially offers people “the liberty to reconstruct their personal histories without fear of sanction.”

Personally, peskily, he claims to seek “the one and only truth.” Reconstructing the truth of his own personal history in Boyhood, Coetzee describes a boy fascinated and repulsed by violence—above all violent punishments, of young black servants by their white masters, or schoolboys by their teachers. He is determined to be good, to avoid punishment, but afraid that, in doing so, he is missing a crucial initiation into life—constantly in fear also of the “judgment” of his good mother. In Youth, he is ruthlessly honest about his bad behavior with women and yearns for some kind of redemption through writing and literature; in Summertime, he has a lover say of him: “His life project was to be gentle… [He] announced to me he was becoming a vegetarian… He had decided he was going to block cruel and violent impulses in every arena of his life… and channel them into his writing.”

Among notes compiled while writing Waiting for the Barbarians, a novel that focuses on the conflicted erotic attraction of a magistrate to a tortured and crippled barbarian girl, Coetzee speaks of his own “lifetime of heroic repressing.” Desire and guilt consume and intensify each other. In Elizabeth Costello, he created an advocate—significantly, a female one—of vegetarianism so fierce that she equates the slaughtering of animals with the Holocaust; the reader is encouraged to be “riven with self-doubt.” In general, in novels of this kind, the fiercest satire is reserved not for the straightforwardly evil figures, around whom a certain awe accumulates, but for the complacent herd, those who live as they wish, pursuing their desires, but nevertheless think of themselves as good. Because they never confront the “one and only truth.” These might be the narrator’s officer friends in Notes from Underground, who cheerfully get drunk and visit prostitutes without its posing any ethical issues; or it might include Coetzee’s extended family in Summertime, who follow their bourgeois values unconcerned by the disgrace of apartheid. Or meat-eaters who just don’t see the problem. Or the average reader.

If all this seems depressingly male—man’s fear that his desire for woman is necessarily violent and transgressive—the Austrian Nobel winner Elfriede Jelinek offers a woman’s take on the predicament, one of unparalleled extremity. Men appear violent and disgusting, but Erika Kohut, Jelinek’s protagonist in the avowedly autobiographical Piano Teacher, is fascinated by them, escaping the watchful eye of her good mother to sniff at the tissues on which they have ejaculated at peepshows and to spy on them having sex in their big cars, describing their carnal violence with a mix of relish and repulsion that Tolstoy would have recognized only too well. Erika is sufficiently attracted to her handsome student Klemmer to put broken glass in the pocket of a girl (another piano student), who, she fears, interests him. But when she gets Klemmer in her room, she has him read a letter begging him to mistreat her, flog her, tie her up, sodomize her—which paralyzes Klemmer and makes it impossible for him to do anything.

Like our other writers in this category, Jelinek is scathing about those not sensitive or intelligent enough to suffer as her protagonist does, ordinary people who don’t see the problem. Women as Lovers offers a brutally reductive vision of “ordinary life” where violence is the norm, all too compatible with conventional values of the lower middle class characters, whose names are not capitalized, as if to rob them of all dignity. So, for “heinz,” “unbuttoning and into brigitte, only takes a moment and today we can announce, that something has clicked at last between these two young people…[that is, she is pregnant] and so brigitte will not after all have to end her life in cold and loneliness.” The guilt and inner questioning typical of these narratives are made conspicuous by their absence. Why are these people not tormented, the reader wonders?


Despite her relentlessly ethical stance, Jelinek offers no positive vision to counter the torment of attraction and disgust. Erika Kohut constructs a fragile form of goodness in the perfection of her piano-playing; otherwise, there is only retreat and isolation. Jelinek herself speaks of living and writing in isolation. “I have always avoided experience,” she declared in an interview with Hans-Jürgen Heinrichs. “My knowledge is a knowledge of non-experience.”

In Jelinek’s 2000 novel Greed the protagonist Gerti is a middle-aged woman who has been both pianist and translator (another profession Jelinek has practiced), living alone in the country with her dog. Having “for a long time behaved with excessive reserve,” at the opening of the novel she suddenly “can’t stop herself busily and tirelessly” chasing a policeman who stopped her for a minor traffic offense. The policeman turns out to be violent and murderous, and eventually she retreats, definitively: killing herself. Her fate in fiction recalls that of Cesare Pavese in real life: a brilliantly gloomy writer who constantly fled disgusted from experience, and whose characters almost always end up doing the same; Pavese talked about the ethical purity of suicide, before taking the step himself.

Characters in novels of this category dream of solving their problems by becoming more controlled and many have delusions of “election”—the sense of oneself as “chosen,” “special,” a celebrity perhaps. “For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well,” Coetzee opens his great novel Disgrace. The aspiration is to indulge always with control, without being overwhelmed. The reader knows that is not going to happen.

Dostoevsky believed he had perfected a system for gambling at roulette, but it would only work, if, in the excitement of the game, he could control himself. He never could. He further believed that if he nonetheless won, it was because God had forgiven him, and chosen him. In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov believes he is special and that this legitimizes his murdering someone for money to continue his studies: a person who is “chosen” will be permitted a sin or two.

In Dostoevsky, fantasies of control and election blend together in the idea of artistic creation. The narrator of Notes tells us he once wrote a short story that was rejected, throwing him into paroxysms of resentment. Had it been accepted, he rages, he would have been saved and “all this [his squalid, debauched life] would be drawn aside like a curtain, and a wide horizon would open out before me, a field of suitable activity, philanthropic, noble and… I would emerge into God’s sunlight, practically riding a white horse and crowned with laurel.”

The sentence would sit well in Dave Eggers’s novelized memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Freed by her death from the stern eye of his good mother, the adolescent Dave pursues pleasure and artistic celebrity with Dostoevskian wildness, seeking to exploit his victim status, having lost both parents young, and turn it into a vehicle for achieving fame. “Fame is, essentially, God,” observes his critical younger brother: it puts order into chaos—in particular, the chaos of the conflicted mind. Dave starts up an ethical magazine, but is anxiously haunted by the idea that he is doing so only to promote himself. His magazine sets out to ridicule the public obsession with celebrity, but again, this might be mere virtue signaling on Dave’s part in his own search for celebrity. Monomania and altruism chase each other’s tails. “The more conscious I was of goodness,” observed the narrator of Notes, “the more deeply I sank into my mire.”

To return to my opening premise, what possible place can genre works like Fifty Shades of Grey and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo have in this company? These novels move in the same world of values but, while the literary heavyweights draw us into their torment, this lighter fare offers more complacent, crowd-pleasing solutions. The heroine Anastasia in Fifty Shades is a good girl, a virgin; she has never so much as been kissed or had her hand held, perhaps because, like all the leading characters in this category of novels, she “overthinks”—her “Inner Goddess” is hungry for pleasure and status, but her “Subconscious” is a severe censor. The super-rich, hyper-controlling Christian Grey is also good in a conventional sense: he’s a philanthropist on a grand scale, thoughtful and generous—and an excellent pianist. It is just that, as well as these things, he wants sado-masochistic sex with Anastasia.

This is off-limits for Anastasia until she persuades herself that Grey only wants violent sex because he was abused by an evil older woman as an adolescent and orphan; he is damaged goods, trapped in the repetition of an ancient crime. If she goes along with him, she believes, she may eventually wean him off these compulsions, drawing him into a conventional marriage—of the variety that Tolstoy imagined would save him from debauchery and self-disgust. With this framework of moral behavior established, pornography-shy readers can join the couple in Grey’s SM “play room,” feeling that everything is under control. The cake can be had and eaten, too. Over and over.

Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—or Men Who Hate Women, as it was originally called—more disturbingly offers readers the chance of fantasizing violent sex made ethically acceptable because it is perpetrated by a young woman, Lispeth Salander, who flips the script of victimhood on the bestial men (straight out of Jelinek) who have abused her. Meanwhile, Blomkvist, the detective who teams up with Salander, enjoys plenty of sex, but it is invariably initiated by the women, who invariably take control in bed. He’s thus a good man. Strict emotional regulation is maintained over these relationships, which include a long affair with a married woman whose husband is affably acquiescent. All the while, both detective and author zealously pursue those other, monstrous men who do things differently because they hate women. Readers are never invited, as they are by Coetzee, Tolstoy, and others, to wonder whether there might be anything morbid and perverse in these obsessions. As a rule of thumb, the literary work is more honest, and more unhappy, than the genre.

Flaubert to finish. Aged fourteen, he became infatuated with a good woman he met on the beach, who was married and nursing a baby: “one could see azure veins snaking across that brown, rouged bosom.” Aged sixteen, he wrote: “the good man’s home is a mask,” because in reality our bodies are “composed of mud and shit and equipped with instincts lower than those of a pig, or crab-louse.” “I call bourgeois,” he clarified, “anyone who thinks in a base manner.” Of his first experience of sex, in a brothel, he wrote, “A woman presented herself before me, I took her; and I came out of her arms full of disgust and bitterness.” In his early twenties, in Genoa, he was profoundly impressed by Breughel’s The Temptations of St Anthony: “the saint between three women… turning his head away to avoid their caresses.”

Fleeing a lover in Paris for the company of his good mother in the country, he spent years writing The Temptation of St. Anthony, a novel in which the saint is constantly tempted and constantly saves himself in extremis. When friends told him the story was a repetitive bore, he took an eighteen-month break to explore the Middle East, experimenting with pederasty, finding piety in prostitutes and vice in priests. And catching syphilis. On return to mother, at age twenty-nine, he began Madame Bovary. Emma marries a man who is dull and good (his home life is a mask); she herself is tempted and sins, withdraws into renunciation and sanctity, then succumbs to temptation again, and, finally, kills herself. Writing the book, Flaubert boasted of the control he was achieving; his art would “resemble science,” it would be “impersonal.” At the same time, he felt repulsion: “the vulgarity of my subject sometimes makes me nauseous.” “My characters… deeply disgust me.” Then he admitted that it was because they disgusted him that he chose to write about them. It hardly matters whether he really did or did not say, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.”

Many different novels, then, of wildly different qualities, but all moving in the same force-field of conflicted values, driven by the difficulty of living intensely while at the same time wanting to think of oneself as good, all sharing similar emotions, all flattering and frightening in the overwhelming importance they afford to the soul. When ethical decisions are faced, it is never the moral consequence for others that concerns us—a prostitute abandoned to her fate, an old woman murdered, an animal butchered—but the state of the protagonist’s soul. Fear in this scenario is fear of being negatively judged or, alternately, of being condemned to a dull life deprived of pleasure. Winning is achieving the control that permits the indulgence without disrupting a sense of self-worth.

Unlike the novels of my first category, belonging is not belonging to this or that group, but to an elect: the artists and celebrities who will be forgiven their foibles. Unable to belong in his homeland of South Africa, Coetzee, in Youth, aspires to belong to literature, to place his book in the British Library.

I began to notice this category some twenty years ago, when a psychologist, Valeria Ugazio, wrote to me asking if she could quote from my novel Tongues of Flame, presenting it as an example of exactly the conflicted mindset that led to obsessive-compulsive disorder. It was a story of an “overthinking” adolescent torn between eroticism and charismatic religion. No doubt, she guessed it was autobiographical.

For the full series on literary categories, click here.

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