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critical works on Dostoevsky

An annotated list of critical works on Dostoevsky, and definitely a work in progress… I’ll focus on posting details of and comments on recent works (starting with things I’ve reviewed) and the ones that have stood the test of time.


Apollonio, Carol, Dostoevsky’s Secrets: Reading Against the Grain (Northwestern University Press, 2009). I am very rarely truly surprised by studies of Dostoevsky, but this book really does show him in a completely different light, and offers interpretations I had never dreamed of. Starting from the idea of language distorting the truth, Apollonio undertakes an ‘apophatic reading’ which questions many of our traditional assumptions, overturns the standard readings, and comes up with something that’s not only exciting, new and completely original, but also very convincing, and backed up with close readings of the texts. Characters we are accustomed to viewing as innocent turn out to be predatory, and vice versa, while actions and events that appear disastrous prove to be a source of salvation. Sexuality is related to the sacred, and plays a central and positive role in her unusual interpretations Crime and Punishment, Demons, and The Brothers Karamazov (the chapter on The Idiot is a bit disappointing in comparison). I don’t want to say any more because I don’t want to deprive other people of the pleasure of seeing how the interpretations develop. Read it!

Bakhtin, Mikhail, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, trans. Caryl Emerson (University of Minnesota Press, 1984). One may feel that Bakhtin has been overdone in recent years, and this is certainly a problematic book in some respects, but it is still essential reading. Bakhtin frequently underplays the negative features of Dostoevsky’s works — the ways in which dialogue is cut off and denied or becomes a foundation for abuse, and the threatening potential of carnival, for example. He also has a tendency to see things in black and white, which sometimes result in distortion as he attempts to make aspects of the novels fit into areas of analysis where they don’t really belong. Nevertheless, he does say something very true about Dostoevsky’s novelistic technique, and has to be taken into account in any interpretation. One can argue with specific points, but I’ve never come across a convincing refutation of the whole thing.

Frank, Joseph, Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849 (Princeton University Press, 1976); Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859 (Princeton University Press, 1983); Dostoevsky: The Stir of Liberation, 1860-1865 (Princeton University Press, 1986); Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865-1871 (Princeton University Press, 1995); Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871-1881 (Princeton University Press, 2002). Frank’s five-volume biography takes a bit of commitment and is perhaps better dipped into than read from start to finish. It’s brilliant as a work of intellectual history, the examinations of Dostoevsky’s milieu and influences providing an extremely enlightening background for the discussion of his works. The analysis of Dostoevsky’s novels, stories and publisistiki is solid, detailed and frequently highly illuminating. It’s always one of my first ports of call, and one of the first places I direct students to. The major problem is the final volume, which I really don’t think stand up to the quality of the first four. It’s far too long and rambling, and doesn’t seem to have an idea to hold it together — the study of The Brothers Karamazov is longer than a good many monographs on the book, and doesn’t really say anything new. Compared to the succinct, one-chapter interpretation of The Idiot in the preceding volume, it’s a bit of a disaster. The series as a whole is unlikely ever to be superseded, but it’s a pity that it ends so weakly. I haven’t read the recently-published one-volume abridged version, Dostoevsky: A Writer in his Time (Princeton University Press, 2009), yet. I’ve no doubt it’s worth reading (albeit with the same problem in its final section), but I can’t help feeling it won’t have the richness of the complete version.

W. J. Leatherbarrow, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Dostoevskii (Cambridge University Press, 2002). With contributions from Robert Belknap, Malcolm Jones, Derek Offord, and William Mills Todd III, among others, this volume could hardly fail, but I think it’s in fact the choice of topics — folk heritage, the intelligentsia, psychology, religion, the family etc — that makes it such a worthwhile collection. It just does a really good job of covering some of the most important aspects of Dostoevsky’s work, and the context out of which it grew, without ever becoming formulaic. It provides a very good starting point for a good number of different areas in Dostoevsky studies, and acts as a really good introduction for students and newcomers.

Miller, Robin Feuer, Dostoevsky’s Unfinished Journey (Yale University Press, 2007). Robin Feuer Miller’s  first book, Dostoevsky and The Idiot: Author, Narrator, and Reader (Harvard University Press, 1981), is a personal favourite, and played a large role in my decision to write my PhD thesis on that novel. Dostoevsky’s Unfinished Journey also shows her wonderful ability to produce interpretations that are both compelling and imaginative. The central theme of this study is transformation, whether spiritual or literary. Her analysis of the conversion narratives which appear with such frequency in Dostoevsky’s works is brilliant, and in emphasizing its connection to the figure of the peasant — capable of both good and evil — she shows that such moments of transformation can turn either way in Dostoevsky. The transformative potential of art, meanwhile, is apparent in Myshkin’s and Zosima’s parables, and the artistic endeavours of the criminals in Notes from the House of the Dead. I wish there had been more on the transformation of the reader/student, the subtext of the chapter on Crime and Punishment, but this seems like an unfair criticism of a great, and very readable, book.

Ruttenburg, Nancy, Dostoevsky’s Democracy (Princeton University Press, 2008). Finally, a book that gives Notes from the House of the Dead the attention it deserves — it’s amazing how many studies of Dostoevsky omit it entirely or only mention it in passing, when it seems to me at least as important as Notes from Underground in establishing Dostoevsky’s mature style and preoccupations. I’m not entirely persuaded by some aspects of Ruttenburg’s analysis. The use of Agamben as a theoretical basis for the study is enlightening in some respects, but strikes me as dubious. I’m really not sure the experience of the prison camp as Dostoevsky depicts it is extreme enough to count as ‘bare life’ or be compared to the Holocaust, which is implicit in references to Remnants of Auschwitz.  The book also becomes rather repetitive, particularly when it keeps revisiting the story of ‘Akulka’s Husband’ (a sign of a problem with the structure, I suspect). However, it is original, it has interesting and important things to say about the relationship between the narrator/Dostoevsky and the convicts, and, above all, it establishes a new area for debate that allows us to move on from Robert Louis Jackson’s interpretation of Notes from the House of the Dead, which has dominated for rather too long. That’s not remotely to deny the importance of Jackson’s interpretation — its staying-power indicates the strength and validity of his approach — but it is refreshing to have a completely different perspective on the text, which opens up new possibilities.

Williams, Rowan, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction (Continuum, 2008). One is often suspicious of books on Dostoevsky written by non-specialists — he does attract attention from many quarters, and the results can be a bit mixed, to say the least. Rowan Williams’ study is, however, interesting and thought-provoking. I wouldn’t describe it as spectacularly original — the idea of Dostoevsky’s novels depicting different modes of life based on the religious faith of the protagonists, or their repudiation of it, is also the starting point for Stewart Sutherland’s remarkable Atheism and the Rejection of God (Blackwell, 1977) — but Williams’ analysis is frequently acute, particularly in relation to connections between the devil, story-telling and silence (the latter two being constant preoccupations of mine), the role of faith and its absence in interpersonal relations, and the overarching idea of exploring evil as a means to understanding good. I would dispute Williams’ dismissal of The Idiot, and I think he relies rather too heavily on Demons and The Brothers Karamazov, and there is an annoying tendency, probably inevitable given the intended audience, to devote too much space to rehearsing overly familiar arguments and plot details, but this book has undoubtedly already reached many people who would otherwise never dream of touching literary criticism, and I certainly don’t think that’s a bad thing.



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