Reading Dostoyevsky For Kicks and Giggles
Every few days I read a bit of Augustine; he is magnificent reading, but difficult, irregular, and strange.
I read Augustine in the middle of the day, in snatches.
Even in his word choice I can feel the chaos and confusion of his age. In the irregularity of subject and the novelty of the autobiographical voice, we see for the first time what I call the Christian difference. Before Augustine the chief figure of the age were nobles. Augustine was a common school teacher, and a bishop. After Christ, it is the common folk who make history.
But the palpable darkness of Augustine frightens to me. His profound seriousness is the only relief from human nature. His century is a frightening place.
In comparison to Augustine, Dostoyevsky is a blaze of light.
Before I sleep I read as much Dostoyevsky as I can. Before sleep is best - his work is liminal - that is, on the edge of unconsciousness. Reading him when you first wake up or after meditating seems altogether too cheerful to me, but in the dark hours Dostoyevsky shines.
I'm reading Demons; the new Penguin translation is flat out fine work. Translator was Robert A Maguire. I love how well Penguin has translated his work. Maybe the choppy rough Russian just moves better into modern English than the French? I don't know.
Demons is confusing and superb. First I had trouble with the names, and had to bookmark the cast of characters list at the end of the text and refer to it constantly (I still do a bit). Second I had to deal with the allusive and hysterical way characters have of delivering major plot points. My thinking goes something like this:
"So... Stephan Verkovensky is maybe betrothed to some nobody called Sonya or Dunya who is the protege of his patron Vavarya Stravogina, for manifold deeply suspicous and impure reasons other. But Vavarya's maybe looney son, is returning home soon, bringing along with him Stephan's son who is an unknown and sundry complications. And Kirilov thinks everyone should commit suicide to prove there is no God. And Liputin is a vile gossip who seems to know everything and say nothing. And there is a new governor in town whose wife doesn't like Vavarya Starvogina. And everyone speaks French when they're excited, which is all the time, which is tiresome to deciper into English but simpler than having to stop to look it up in the stupid notes at the end of the Penguin Book because you know what it means anyhow if you stop reading for a minute and dig out the French vocab but that means you have to stop reading to translate French."
Jeebus himself couldn't sort out this kind of absurd mess, but it sort of makes sense, if you ignore the many maybes in the plot. Reading a summary online would take away the surprise and leave the hysterics.
At 17 years of age, when I last read Demons, I doubt I understood it anyhow.
Do you know why I find him funny? Because I really enjoy Dostoyevsky's company. I really like Fyodor Mikhaylovich the man. I empathize with him. I feel his wild humor. I see how he sees the Russian people. Dostoyevsky cannot see the future, the Bolsheviks and the present Russian Mafia kleptocracy. Instead he sees the foolishness genius and passionately misplaced devotion of the Russian intelligentsia to French frivolity and sentimental vacuity a la Russe. He sees it clearly, and sees it fully, accepts it all in himself, and he laughs.
Do I love Dostoyevsky most of all because he laughs at himself? I don't mean him to reduce him to a character out of Gogol. He is much more than anything Gogol could invent.
Hm. Please allow me to help non-Dostoyevsky readers understand what kind of experience they are missing out on:
Reading Dostoyevsky is like being trapped in a big hessian sack with twenty-seven affectionate lapdogs: it's unpleasant at the time but when its over you secretly enjoyed it so much. All those flickering pink tongues. Mmm.