Many people avoid reading Fyodor Dostoevsky because they are put off by the Russian names. This is a shame, because he is one of the greatest writers of all time and some of his novels rank among the best the human mind has yet to come up with. In fact, no one less that Sigmund Freud said that The Brothers Karamazov, perhaps Dostoevsky’s best known novel, is the greatest novel ever written. Well, Freud would say that; it involves patricide, one of Freud’s favorite themes. But then many agree with Freud and so far as I know these critics don’t have any hidden psychological theories to confirm. Dostoevsky simply could write and his novels reveal a great deal of us to ourselves — perhaps more than we might choose to know — and about the world in which we live.
Great novels are not all about plot, to be sure. But if they were, many people would say that Dostoevsky’s life is even more captivating than any of his novels. As a young man he dared to meet with some of his fellow students to discuss anarchistic ideas at a time when Russia was suffering from paranoia under the Czar and as the revolution was brewing beneath the calm surface of Russian life. He and his friends were caught, tried, and found guilty. He was sentenced to death and moments before the firing squad shot him dead he was pardoned by a “humane” Czar — a device apparently designed to turn Dostoevsky’s affections toward Mother Russia and away from revolutionary ideas. The version of the story I read was that a soldier came riding up to the scene of the execution on his horse with a pardon in his hand just as the firing squad was taking aim. Whether this is true or not, and despite the fact that it had to be traumatic, the ploy may have worked, since the author became increasingly conservative in his later life — but not before he spent five years in Siberia in lieu of execution. He later wrote The House of The Dead expressing some of the horrors he himself experienced in prison. But this was not his only largely biographical novel: as I shall explain in a moment, he later wrote another one out of necessity.
After prison, perhaps as a result of the traumas he had suffered, he became a compulsive gambler and also suffered from epilepsy. His gambling placed him in debt time after time and he lived from hand to mouth for many years as he developed his distinctive writing style and began writing short novels, exhibiting a fascination with odd psychological types and conditions, such as schizophrenia. His first novel, The Double, is about a man who gradually goes mad and one day goes to work to find himself already there! But Dostoevsky’s gambling placed him in the debt of his publishers who advanced him money on future publications until one crafty publisher gave him a large advance on the condition that he agree to sign over all his past and future works if he failed to meet a deadline to deliver a novel of roughly 200 pages by a specified date. He gambled away the advance and fell behind the writing of the novel until he realized that he couldn’t possibly meet the deadline as the novel he had started was becoming a major work, well over 200 pages. He hired a stenographer and dictated a shorter novel in the mornings which would meet the terms of his agreement with his publisher. His stenographer spent the afternoons writing up what he dictated in the mornings, as Dostoevsky spent those afternoons working on the longer novel — Crime and Punishment. He finished the shorter novel, called The Gambler (that other biographical novel mentioned above) in time to meet the terms of his agreement with his publisher. He then went on to finish the longer, and more important novel. He also fell in love with and married his stenographer and she managed to help him turn his life around. He no longer gambled and he had fewer and fewer epileptic fits. He also wrote four of his five greatest novels after this marriage, including The Brothers Karamazov.
So, despite the fact that his novels are extraordinary, there are those who would argue that his life was even more fascinating than his novels. It is certainly the case that his remarkable life revealed to him the dark sides of the human psyche — his own and others — and deepened his interest in the New Testament, human suffering, redemption, the problem of evil, human freedom, and the close relationship between love and hate. He was a remarkable man who was also an extraordinary writer who saw more clearly than most what was true and what is false about human existence. If you haven’t read any of his novels, you owe it to yourself to do so. Once you plunge in you will get used to the Russian names, and if you don’t read Russian (!) those who do so agree that the best translations are the ones by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.