Archive for fyodor dostoevsky

The Best Stories of Fyodor Dostoevsky

Posted in book reviews with tags , , , , on March 4, 2011 by acousticchick

Well, the unthinkable has happened. I have read a book of Dostoevsky’s writing, and I have absolutely nothing to whine about. Dostoevsky positively shines in short form. Each of the seven short stories in the collection I read featured both a plot and a perfectly acceptable amount of rambling so acceptable, in fact, that I can’t even really call it rambling.

The collection starts out with “White Nights,” which the author calls “a sentimental love story.” It was nice of Dostoevsky to warn me about what I was getting into, but I didn’t find it sentimental at all. Given that it’s a Russian tale, there was a nicely subtle bitterness to it that kept me from wanting to puke. Basically, a girl likes two dudes. The expected drama ensues, she picks one, and the other is all, “Well, at least I had her for a moment,” except it’s Dostoevsky, so he says, “Good Lord, only a moment of bliss? Isn’t such a moment sufficient for the whole of a man’s life?” As far as happy endings go, that’s one of the more sorrowful I’ve ever read.

“The Honest Thief” and “The Peasant Marey” are character sketches. In both stories, the plot is straightforward and static and the characters are complex and thoughtful. This sort of writing makes me squirm it’s so easy to identify with the scummy motives or intense feelings the characters are experiencing.

“The Christmas Tree and a Wedding” is a pleasantly creepy story of pedophilia and greed. Over the course of nine pages, a sticky-fingered old man hits on a little girl born to a rich family, charms her mother, and marries the child, who is just old enough to realize that she’s going to live the rest of her life in despair.

“Notes From the Underground” was the first story that I was apprehensive about. Given that it’s the longest in this collection, I was expecting Dostoevsky to relapse into tangents, but instead he takes you through the ins and outs of his main character’s brain as he analyzes himself and philosophizes about the world. And as an added bonus, things actually happen. The story hops back and forth from introspection to action frequently enough to keep even my attention span engaged.

“A Gentle Creature” and “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” I read during the delirium of illness, so while I got the general idea of the stories, I didn’t pick up on any of the subtleties. I’m going to go ahead and assume they were as awesome as the others.

So kudos to Dostoevsky. In short form, the philosophy and psychology of his writing is clear and sharp. I’m not recanting what I’ve said about him before, but I have a new appreciation for his writing after having read these stories.

The Idiot

Posted in book reviews with tags , , , , , on September 21, 2010 by acousticchick

At first, ‘The Idiot’ was encouraging. I knew exactly what to expect from Dostoevsky streams-of-consciousness and lots of dialogue and the beginning of the book sneakily masqueraded as lucid. Then, about halfway through, I realized that there wasn’t exactly a plot (surprise!).

Dostoevsky is not an action writer. It’s not that nothing happens in his books, it’s that the events are like towns in South Dakota. You drive through lots of boring stretches, and then you pass a town so small you’ll miss it if you blink. The things that do happen in ‘The Idiot’ murder attempts, impulsive marriage proposals, drunk guys doing drunk-guy things are intriguing if not intense, but they take place over the course of exactly a paragraph, and then the author moves on to the much more pressing matter of rambling.

There were, however, some pretty good conversations in ‘The Idiot.’ Myshkin (the main character, who probably pretends to be timid to cover up the fact that he’s secretly a super-spy) gets into a talk with three chicks about executions and the thoughts that would run through a person’s head the moment before death. Later in the book, a bunch of people get bored at a party so they decide to talk about the worst thing they’ve done in their lives. Instead of a huge guilt-fest, Dostoevsky uses his characters’ stories to blur morality lines. The guy is a philosopher he wants you to think. He also wants you to perform the super-human feat of keeping your brain engaged while he gets to the point, but I think if you do the former you’re allowed to cheat on the latter.

The characters in ‘The Idiot’ are particularly compelling, and “compelling” here has the meaning “basically insane.” The aforementioned Myshkin is the only one who seems chemically balanced. Everyone else is described as frantic or frenzied about ninety percent of the time, while Myshkin hangs out, pining over a girl and acting meek. In fact, the only real difference between Myshkin and any character played by Michael Cera is that Myshkin has enough of a backbone to take everyone’s bullying because he’s actually indifferent, and not, in fact, spineless. The center-stage crazies are Nastasya, the love interest, who has the romantic attention span of a gnat and whom everyone loves despite the fact that she’s frankly a bitch, and Rogozhin, a loose cannon with a propensity for murderous rages. Not a good combination.

If you make it through all the pow-wows and psychosis, you are sort of rewarded with the ending. Murder! Homoerotic subplots! Nervous breakdowns! It’s all very exciting! I just wish it hadn’t been squished into the last ten pages, because by the time I got to it I was so fed up that I didn’t care at all.

Crime And Punishment

Posted in book reviews with tags , , , on August 29, 2010 by acousticchick

Pseudo-intellectuals the world over name-drop Dostoevsky to impress their lesser-minded peers; maybe I fall into the second category, because reading ‘Crime And Punishment’ made me feel like a cat playing with a ball of yarn. While Dostoevsky unwound his story through the house, I chased after it, trying to make it stop for a minute so I could figure out what the hell was going on. 

Sure, the murder scene was intense. But it takes place seventy pages into the story, and the next four hundred just drag. Raskolnikov, the killer, fumbles around feeling guilty and everyone around him seems moments from yelling, “It was you!” Then, crammed into the last dozen pages or so, old Raskol goes and turns himself in. The end. 

To give credit where credit’s due, Dostoevsky writes emotion really well. You feel Raskolnikov’s guilt and terror, sympathizing with him when he justifies his crime and almost rooting for him while all the jerks around him are trying to get him to confess. None of his characters are unimportant, either; he delves into their motives with abandon, never leaving you to doubt exactly why they’re doing what they’re doing. Unfortunately most of this exposition is in the form of dialogue. Most of the action scenes in ‘Crime And Punishment’ are people walking from place to place, and then they sit down and have a lengthy, lengthy chat, until you’re drowning in it and start to forget who’s saying what. 

My main gripe with everything I’ve read by Dostoevsky is that he starts with such good ideas, but his streams-of-consciousness style dampens the effect. About three-quarters into the book, another character, Sonia, gets framed for stealing. The girl endures a few pages of haranguing before an eyewitness calls her accuser out as a liar. It would have been a clever bit of contrast if she’d been punished for a crime she didn’t commit. 

Come to that, Raskolnikov should have gotten off scot-free. Maybe Dostoevsky wasn’t trying to satirize the justice system and I missed the entire point of the story, but I think a less straightforward plot would have made the book more compelling. Don’t expect any surprises; the title gives it all away. Crime and lots of talking and then punishment.