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On Reading Dostoevsky

2 February 2011

So I'm about halfway through Dostoevsky's Demons (often incorrectly translated as The Possessed. It's the last of his major novels that I haven't read, so I'm fairly well acquainted with his methods. I love his writing - no other fiction author has influenced my thinking and my life more - but I won't deny he's kind of difficult. There are a few things I might suggest to someone embarking on his work for the first time:

1. Learn how Russian names work. The same character might be referred to as Rodion Romanovich, Rodion Romanych, Raskolnikov, Rodya, Rodka, or Rodechka. These are all the same dude. Roman, however, is not the same dude.

2. Either read quickly or take notes, because you will be expected to remember who borrowed money from whom, how much, and for what, as well as which unfortunate has-been academic was the illegitimate child of someone-or-other's tutor and was shipped off to the provinces as a child to be raised by aunts and who has now returned after decades of absence and general mediocrity to propose marriage to the daughter of whoever it was who lent the first guy money, what the motives are for the proposal, and how much the dowry will be. Also, expect the tutor to possibly make an appearance roughly three quarters into the novel. So keep up.

3. You might find it helpful to learn French (I'm led to believe this applies to Tolstoy as well).

4. Get an edition that has some notes. Google nihilism, determinism, slavophils, and various other -isms that appear. Also, read the introduction, especially if you have the excellent Pevear/Volokhonsky translations. This will clear up a lot of maddening mysteries, as well as give you a clue as to what on earth Dostoevsky was driving at.

Some absolutely delicious things about him, though, are his fascination with murder, the frequency with which his characters suffer "attacks of cholerine", and his habit of describing, when a new character suddenly shows up in a scene, not only his appearance or dress, but also his level of sobriety. Something like "All eyes turned to the door; there stood Jerk Loser-ovich, in a tattered waistcoat and a neatly pressed tie, silent, resolute, and not drunk" (that's not an actual quote, but you'll find lines like it).

Best of luck to you. Really, he's brilliant.

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tips on reading Dostoevsky