Thursday, 16 March 2023

The Brothers Karamazov: Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky

I’m about halfway through The Brothers Karamazov—or The Karamazov Brothers in this edition—in Ignat Avsey’s translation. 

Perhaps the greatness of The Brothers Karamazov is undeniable, perhaps I picked the right translation, or perhaps I, a Tolstoy fan, have found the way to read Dostoyevsky. I’m very much enjoying the book.

People often say that we are either a Tolstoy person or a Dostoyevsky person, and I think it’s largely true that each reader would be more inclined towards one than the other. But as I read The Brothers Karamazov, I’ve realised that they have different visions, different styles, and different strengths, focus on different aspects and reveal different truths about human nature. Dostoyevsky fans like to say he’s the greater psychologist, his novels have more depth or reveal something deeper about human psyche, but I don’t think it’s true. I think they do different things: Dostoyevsky prefers to focus on the extreme and the abnormal, and he’s especially great at depicting spite, degradation, and humiliation. Through them, he reveals human beings’ irrationality. 

In The Brothers Karamazov for example, why does Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov keep playing the buffoon and debasing himself? Why does Alyosha visiting the grave of his mother, i.e. old Karamazov’s second wife, make the old man donate money in remembrance of his first wife, who beat him? Why does Katerina Ivanovna chase after Dmitry then take out her hatred on Ivan, who loves her? Why does the boy bite Alyosha’s finger to the bone when his father was humiliated by Dmitry, not Alyosha? Why does the old Captain crumple up the money and throw it on the floor, knowing how much it would help his family? 

Human beings are irrational. We sometimes, out of pride or spite or mere perversity, do things against our own interests. Dostoyevsky is extremely good at examining and depicting this. 

But something even more interesting I’ve discovered, reading The Brothers Karamazov, is that in some other ways, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky are quite similar whereas Chekhov is apart. They’re both religious, placing religion at the heart of their works, whilst Chekhov is a humanist, sceptical of big ideas.

Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy have different views also when it comes to religion, but in the chapter about Zosima’s life history, the young Zosima has a duel with another man and the experiences forces him to rethink everything and changes his life—does that not remind you of Pierre in War and Peace? He then meets a murderer, who for 14 years has been living with the terrible secret and with great guilt—does that not sound like it could be one of Tolstoy’s fables? 

They’re more similar than people think.

In a blog post about The Brothers Karamazov, Himadri (Argumentative Old Git) writes about a mother’s grief, and writes: 

“…  I doubt too many other writers would have depicted so overpowering an emotion with such disconcerting directness.

But Tolstoy, I think, would. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky are often held to be extreme opposites, and, in many ways, they are, but at points such as this, they seem to touch. For Tolstoy, too, depicted human emotions with a disconcerting directness.” 

I agree. Chekhov, in contrast, prefers subtlety and restraint, and tends to go out of his way to avoid overt drama.


  1. I generally agree -- although I haven't read enough Chekhov to have a good read on him. I've seen/read about three or four of his plays a while ago. I don't know his short stories at all.

    Anyway, I think the dichotomy between Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky is often overplayed, as I think you do. I really don't think of myself as a Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky person. I love them both equally, albeit differently. Yes, they are very different and approach their material in very different ways. On the surface level, Tolstoy is more naturalistic, but the depth and truth of his characters cannot be denied; nor his unquestioned mastery in inhabiting the souls (and allowing his reader to do so) of every character, important or minor, to whom he turns his attention.

    Dostoyevsky focuses primarily on the darker and more extreme parts of human experience -- irrationality, uncontrollable passions, rage, cruelty, despair, humiliation, and also extremes of evil and of goodness. Comparing them is a little like trying to compare Rembrandt and Van Gogh to me -- both great, both "true," but so different.

    (By the way, I think Fyodor explains his need to play the buffoon and debase himself very well -- he does it out of spite to those who already think of him as a buffoon, to show that he despises those who despise him; and out of habit; and because he knows it makes people uncomfortable and throws them off balance. In other words, he's the original internet troll.)

    1. I know you don't prefer one, but that's the exception that proves the rule. There have been debates for years and the general impression is that people would eventually pick one over the other. There is nothing wrong with preference, nothing wrong with feeling personally closer to one than the other.
      The fact that you yourself love both equally doesn't disprove that it's generally the case.

    2. For Chekhov, I recommend this book:
      It has some of his greatest stories from later in his career, and it was the book that helped me rediscover Chekhov.

    3. Oh I agree, there's nothing wrong with preferring one over the other. I just don't. Thanks for the ht on Chekhov.

    4. I think you'll like Chekhov.

  2. [Spoilers below, if you care!] I love The Brothers Karamazov. A tremendous book. I don't understand the idea of choosing between Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, but certainly people do, and feel strongly about it. Maybe since neither of them is my favorite writer, or even my favorite Russian writer, I don't feel compelled to get rabidly into the fight.

    I think you're right that FD and LT are primarily religious writers, and their viewpoints are wildly different. Tolstoy cries, "Mankind is fundamentally good; embrace your true self!" while Dostoevsky cries, "Mankind is fundamentally sinful; turn away from your natural inclinations!" But both of them (maybe Dostoevsky more than Tolstoy) believe in the real possibility of goodness, though clearly (as in The Idiot) Dostoevsky has doubts about how well goodness can fare in the real world; even so, the ending of Karamazov is full of hope and light. It's a beautiful, surprising ending.

    Chekhov was an atheist, but he held to the ideas of charity and service to humanity his whole life, and he had great respect for the Orthodox clergy. A few of his stories ("In the Ravine" and "Enemies," for example) dig around in Dostoevsky's territory. He completely rejected Tolstoy's ideas of fiction as moral instruction, even though he pretty constantly pointed out how badly we all mistreat each other.

    Karamazov left me out of breath a lot, the last time I read it. Everyone is constantly running to and fro, jumping on horses or into carriages, hurrying off to do foolish things. People only sit still in order to threaten one another (except for Alyosha's scenes).

    1. You have to read Anna Karenina, Scott. It's stylistically better and psychologically deeper than War and Peace. When I was reading several Chekhov collections earlier, I discovered that Chekhov was constantly responding to, reacting against Tolstoy's works, especially Anna Karenina (both strands) and The Death of Ivan Ilyich. I like the relationship between them: Chekhov was clearly influenced by Tolstoy, and constantly "rewriting" Tolstoy, and I love those stories Chekhov wrote too.
      When I reread Tolstoy's big two recently, I realise that complaints about his didacticism were very much exaggerated: he's not as didactic as people say (and nowhere near as George Eliot).
      As for your last paragraph, you might like this tweet of mine:

    2. As for choosing between Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, you can't imagine how often I've encountered on Twitter annoying Dostoyevsky fans who can't talk about Dostoyevsky without bringing up Tolstoy, saying nonsense like Tolstoy's novels are too sunny, he only wrote about aristocrats whereas Dostoyevsky understood poor people, he was a terrible thinker, etc.
      Recently when I tweeted about Dostoyevsky (without mentioning anyone else), there was still someone appearing and denigrating Tolstoy.

  3. Haha, that's great, that tweet. Funny because it's true. I think Dostoevsky couldn't sit still, so he thought that sort of frenetic behavior was just normal everyday life.

    Tolstoy told Chekhov to his face that his stories were inferior because they didn't teach a clear moral lesson. Chekhov ruined the endings of a couple stories trying to give the reader guidance, but then thankfully knocked that nonsense off. But every Russian writer was influenced by Tolstoy. His presence was inescapable; he was like the earth and sky, everywhere you went. He also made no secret that he thought he was the only mature writer around, and everyone else was a child at his feet. Younger writers resented that attitude but were at the same time afraid that it might be true, that Russia didn't need anyone but Tolstoy, who could say everything and speak for everyone.

    I plan to read Anna Karenina this year, maybe in a month or so. I'm trying to wrap up big projects at work and home first, so that I have mental space to concentrate.

    1. Haha, yeah, the characters are all insane. Even Alyosha isn't chill.
      Which translation of Anna Karenina are you gonna read? Please don't say Constance Garnett or Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky.

  4. I have the Bartlett translation. I can't stand P&V. I love Constance Garnett.

    1. Ah nice.
      I love Constance Garnett for Chekhov, maybe Turgenev, but not for others.

    2. Garnett's Karamazov is quite fine. I haven't seen her Tolstoy. I like the Maude War and Peace.

    3. Yeah but she's known for smoothing things out and throwing out difficult passages, and because there have been so many translators since her, I think it's best to avoid her translations, especially those of Dostoyevsky.

    4. From what I've seen, most of those kinds of complaints have been made by newer translators as justification for their own work, so it's marketing material. Also, these things she's "known for" appear to be few in number and also arguable, as translation is always an act of paraphrase, of rewriting. I have read with interest a lot of the debates about Garnett, and nobody has really made a convincing case against her; it's all a matter of taste. As I say, her Karamazov is very good, very readable, very Dostoevsky.

    5. If you say so...
      Personally I think throwing out difficult passages is a serious problem, and as for mistakes, I don't speak Russian, so I have to rely on those who do.
      As I hope people listen when I tell them not to read something translated from Vietnamese lol.
      The criticisms of Garnett don't only come from new translators.

  5. My thought now is that Garnett is the Karamazov that Faulkner read every year, and am I going to do more with the book than Faulkner did? Garnett must be good enough.

    1. Still, we do have more options.
      Before other translators, Nabokov already had it drilled into me that she's a bad choice for Dostoyevsky.
      She may have been good enough, but if there are better translations, why not read them?
      But as I said, I like Constance Garnett for Chekhov. I don't like P&V, and Ronald Wilks is not good with dialogue, or at least it seems stilted, unnatural to me. I do like the prose of Rosamund Bartlett and Ann Dunnigan, but they don't translate much Chekhov.


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