Saturday, 6 July 2013

Lev Tolstoy vs Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Nabokov's view and others' opinions)

I'm reading "Crime and punishment" and have gone as far as part 1 chapter 5. 

I'm perfectly aware that any comparison I make at this stage is invalid and shouldn't be taken seriously, for so far I have read only 1 book by Tolstoy and 4 complete chapters in 1 book by Dostoyevsky, but I can't help comparing these 2 authors in my mind (and now in this blog entry) because both are giant authors in Russian literature (together with, or above, Chekhov, Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Bulgakov, Sholokov, Pasternak, etc.), both have at least 1 book that is always counted among the greatest novels ("Anna Karenina" and "War and peace" by Tolstoy, "Crime and punishment" and perhaps "The brothers Karamazov" by Dostoyevsky) and they were contemporaries but opposite in almost everything. 

In his book "Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: An essay in the old criticism", George Steiner concludes: 

"Thus, even beyond their deaths, the two novelists stand in contrariety. Tolstoy, the foremost heir to the traditions of the epic, Dostoevsky, one of the major dramatic tempers after Shakespeare; Tolstoy, the mind intoxicated with reason and fact; Dostoevsky, the contemner of rationalism, the great lover of paradox; Tolstoy, the poet of the land, of the rural setting and the pastoral mood; Dostoevsky, the arch-citizen, the master-builder of the modern metropolis in the province of language; Tolstoy, thirsting for the truth, destroying himself and those about him in excessive pursuit of it; Dostoevsky, rather against the truth than against Christ, suspicious of total understanding and on the side of mystery; Tolstoy, ‘keeping at all times,’ in Coleridge’s phrase, ‘in the high road of life’; Dostoevsky, advancing into the labyrinth of the unnatural, into the cellerage and morass of the soul; Tolstoy, like a colossus bestriding the palpable earth, evoking the realness, the tangibility, the sensible entirety of concrete experience; Dostoevsky, always on the edge of the hallucinatory, of the spectral, always vulnerable to daemonic intrusions into what might prove, in the end, to have been merely a tissue of dreams; Tolstoy, the embodiment of health and Olympian vitality; Dostoevsky, the sum of energies charged with illness and possession; Tolstoy, who saw the destinies of men historically and in the stream of time; Dostoevsky, who saw them contemporaneously and in the vibrant stasis of the dramatic moment; Tolstoy, borne to his grave in the first civil burial ever held in Russia; Dostoevsky, laid to rest in the cemetery of the Alexander Nevsky monastery in St. Petersburg amid the solemn rites of the Orthodox Church; Dostoevsky, pre-eminently the man of God; Tolstoy; one of His secret challengers." 

In this article 8 experts compare these 2, and explain why:

1 D
2 both
3 D
4 D
5 T
6 T
7 T
8 T 

It can be seen that though most of them give a definite answer, their replies have the same main idea that both authors are great and it's just about personal preference. 

Like in this article:

"... In fact, I have long thought that there are basically two kinds of people in the world: Tolstoy people and Dostoevsky people. But Steiner says it better, and says more:
He quotes the Russian philosopher Berdiaev as saying, “It would be possible to determine two patterns, two types among men’s souls, the one inclined toward the spirit of Tolstoy, the other toward that of Dostoevsky.” Steiner agrees: “Experience" bears him out. A reader may regard them as the two principle masters of fiction –that is to say, he may find in their novels the most inclusive and searching portrayal of life. But press him closely and he will choose between them. If he tells you which he prefers and why, you will, I think, have penetrated into his own nature. The choice between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky foreshadows what existentialists would call un engagement; it commits the imagination to one or the other of two radically opposed interpretations of man’s fate, of the historical future, and of the mystery of God.”" 

Vladimir Nabokov is 1 of those who find Tolstoy great and Dostoyevsky overrated: 

"My position in regard to Dostoevsky is a curious and difficult one. In all my courses I approach literature from the only point of view that literature interests me-namely the point of view of enduring art and individual genius. From this point of view Dostoevsky is not a great writer, but a rather mediocre one-with flashes of excellent humor, but, alas, with wastelands of literary platitudes in between."

(Don't be appalled. Nabokov's famous, or notorious, for his arrogance and his strong opinions). 

Here is another person who prefers Tolstoy:

"... At the same time, one must acknowledge that part of the special enchantment of the novel, considered as a distinct literary form, is the illusion it can create of a fully realized world; a truly great novel is like a magic mirror, whose surface reflects not only the appearances, but the souls of living men and women. Precisely because of its special combination of immensity and intimacy, it affords its author room, scope, time for the subtlest gestures and finest strokes of psychological portraiture. And among the very few novelists who have succeeded at keeping all the forces of the novel in balance—the great and the small, the epic and the homely, the architectonic and the decorative—Tolstoy is unsurpassed. Dostoevsky, on the other hand, is brilliant wherever extreme effects are called for, but almost hopeless at creating a substantial world around the delightful clamor of his characters’ voices, or at creating a credible psychological personality behind any of those voices." 

David B. Hart, the author of the article, says "It might be protested, I acknowledge, that I am simply expressing the disposition of my own private sensibility. After all, the two novelists are, as George Steiner so well argued in his Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, very different in their intentions, techniques, and (above all) artistic temperaments. Tolstoy, for instance, is an epic writer, whose books overflow with physical details and frequently threaten to overflow their own narrative structures and become as vast and as inconclusive as life itself, while Dostoevsky is a dramatic writer, whose books are full of fraught and urgent voices, at times almost disembodied, trapped in situations of immediate and pressing crisis, and surrounded by a physical world usually having no more substance than a collection of painted canvasses or pasteboard silhouettes at the back of the stage. And so on." 

And adds "But I am convinced that this is a matter not of personal taste—I love drama as much as epic, in the abstract, and I probably enjoy Dostoevsky’s books as much as Tolstoy’s, if in a very different way—but simply of good taste." 

I find myself having no right to say which author is better before I've finished at least 3 books by each, "Anna Karenina", "War and peace" and "The death of Ivan Ilyich" by Tolstoy, "Crime and punishment", "The brothers Karamazov" and "Notes from underground" by Dostoyevsky, and my opinion may change later on, but for the time being I believe myself to be 1 of the Tolstoy people. 

David B. Hart pretty much sums up what I think at the moment: 

"... I do admire, however, any writer who can create the beautiful effect of an emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually complete and vivid and utterly believable personality. And, in this, Tolstoy’s art so far surpasses Dostoevsky’s that any comparison can only be invidious.
In either case, Tolstoy’s ability to immerse himself entirely in a seemingly real consciousness other than his own and then emerge again appears utterly effortless (though obviously it is not). Both of these scenes—as well as innumerable others like them in Tolstoy’s fiction—are simply far beyond Dostoevsky’s range as a writer; he could never have produced anything remotely like them." 

And this is very true: 

"There are too many passages in Dostoevsky’s fiction that one simply has to tolerate, for the sake of the whole, and all too often they are crucial passages. One that I find especially difficult to endure is the climactic conversation between Raskolnikov and Sonya in book four of Crime and Punishment, with its unremittingly forced portentousness and the embarrassingly obvious (but entirely unconvincing) device of Raskolnikov asking Sonya to read the story of the raising of Lazarus in John’s gospel—which culminates in one of the most egregious displays of authorial heavy-handedness in the history of serious literature." 

As a matter of fact, when I read "Anna Karenina" I was hooked right from the 1st page and, despite the length, I loved and enjoyed every page (though part 8 was a bit difficult to read), never felt like I was enduring something, and never, even once, wondered how much was left and how long I had to read; reading "Crime and punishment", on the contrary, is difficult and tiresome, I started yesterday but so far have completed only 4 chapters and honestly am wavering between continuing or moving onto "100 years of solitude" instead. The truth is that I even put the book down several times, and only picked it up again because I felt I should read all the books considered the greatest of all time. This book so far has been unendurable to me, there are parts in it I can't read without thinking of Fitzgerald and his economy of language. If Tolstoy writes very thick books from which no passage can be removed and Fitzgerald writes very thin books in which every word is perfectly chosen and to which nothing else needs to be added, Dostoyevsky's writing can be made much shorter without being worse, or actually I think doing so would make it better. 

Well, we'll see. 

Update on 8/7: Part 2 chapter 5. 
"Crime and punishment" makes me think of, 1st, Knut Hamsun and 2nd, Franz Kafka. I believe anybody can see the similarities between Dostoyevsky and Kafka, which are probably due to the fact that both were introverts who lived and experienced  and grew mostly in their own world, who didn't go out very often and didn't have much contact with other people. Writing dialogues apparently wasn't their strength. 
Still, the novel becomes much better now. The similarities between Kafka and Dostoyevsky are unescapable. I've started liking "Crime and punishment" and its author and may write more in the future, when it turns out that the novel deserves (at least) a whole entry for itself. Tolstoy remains to be the greatest novelist I've ever known. 

Update on 9/7: Part 4 chapter 2. More than a half. 
Surprisingly enough, in contrast to my early negative impression, I now love "Crime and punishment". Glad that I decided to cling to the novel. 
Now I do not know if I want to make a comparison between Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. All mediocre writers are alike; each great writer is great in his own way. They each had enormous talent and contributed to world literature in their own way, I feel blessed having discovered them both (the same way I love writers that are very different and who may even dislike each other). 
Interested in Russian literature, I'd like to read other books by Lev Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Vladimir Nabokov and Mikhail Bulgakov, and other Russian/ USSR authors such as Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Turgenev, Anton Chekhov, Aleksey Tolstoy, Mikhail Sholokov, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Konstantin Paustovsky, Aleksandr Kron, Chinghiz Aitmatov, Nodar Dumbadze, etc. 

Update on 14/7: Having finished "Crime and punishment" the other day, I should say, while I find it difficult, and perhaps unfair, to say who's greater between these 2 giant authors, I still say "Anna Karenina" is the greatest novel I have ever read and it's my favourite novel of all time hitherto, which is impressive, striking, overwhelmingly brilliant and at the same time deeply touching, indeed a masterpiece, and which has changed my way of looking at literature and life and people, whereas "Crime and punishment" is a great novel like other great novels I have read. Somehow I feel that it doesn't matter if Dostoyevsky had a greater number of novels acclaimed and praised, Emily Bronte wrote only "Wuthering heights" and that's enough, it would be fine to me if Tolstoy had written nothing else but "Anna Karenina". Since "Anna Karenina" is not a work of art, it's a piece of life. 

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