Sometimes the smallest statement can provoke an argument. Your parents say something that throws all your life choices into doubt. An ambiguous remark in an email creates a huge misunderstanding. Or, a simple statement of preference becomes grounds for debate.
Which, is what I experienced after finishing Elif Batuman’s “The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them.” This was a book I’d been waiting to review for a long time. I had a skinny preview of the preview copy for months. It was basically one of the essays staple-bound with a mockup of the cover. “The Possessed” is very similar to “Shutterbabe” by Deborah Copaken Kogan. Both are non-fiction narratives that allow the authors to write memoirs through experiences in their particular fields.
For the most part I like the book & plan to give it a good review. But as insightful & funny as I found Batuman’s essays, I didn’t get really excited until the titular last piece, where she partially addresses the Tolstoy vs. Dostoevsky debate. My jaw dropped when she admitted she preferred Tolstoy. In part because she had used a previous essay to (less than positively) illustrate the oddness of Tolstoy scholars. But also because, in part, I am a die hard Dostoevskian. I mean, to the point where I literally cannot understand how someone could prefer Tolstoy. This might sound somewhat harsh, but the first comparison that springs to mind is trying to understand why the Confederate flag is sacred to some people. Not that I’m equating a Tolstoy preference to a symbol of ambiguous intent & undisputed bloodshed, no no no! It’s just a personal example to compare the complete foreignness of the concept to me.
I think part of the reason my mind was so blown by Batuman’s statement is that later in the essay she writes the following:
Islamic fundamentalism [as an idea] was the Grand Inquisitor and the Underground Man, it was what the existentialists called “awful freedom,” the reinvention of irrationality by marginalized people, just in order to spite science.
What? Are you serious? Dostoevsky chooses “irrationality” as a spite technique? Dostoevsky’s work in only “irrational” because he recognizes that humans are inherently conflicted & that is what he’s interested in exploring. I scribbled on a piece of paper nearby Has she even read Bakhtin?! (I checked her Works Consulted at the end of the book & yes, Bakhtin’s “The Dialogic Imagination” is listed.)
Any argument I could raise would ultimately come down to this: Reading Dostoevsky is like doing crossword puzzles with your non-dominant hand. The effort is exhausting & completing the work takes a long time, but the act reorganizes your comprehension. Dostoevsky delights in the clash of ideas, the equal argument of many voices & the study of the resulting consequences. He lets his characters follow the full thread of their ideas & allows them (& vicariously us) to learn the result.
Tolstoy is much less challenging. He registers the bustle of the world around a character as cacophony interrupting a single voice. He obscures his point with so many meaningless petty actions that his characters (& vicariously us) are forced to ask what it means. We rely on Tolstoy to show us his specific way. I feel that Tolstoy, like Jane Austen, is interested in the intersection of society’s structures & man’s acts. His focus is without. Dostoevsky, like the Brontes, grounds his vision in a constant concern for the spiritual, in the state of the fellowship of man. His focus is within.
Admittedly, it is harder to live in a world of Dostoevskian design than in a Tolstoy one. It’s easier to sympathize with Levin’s struggles to understand his life choices in the world around him than to fully understand the inner struggles of a Stavrogin or a Raskolnikov. Dostoevsky encourages readers to live their ideals in their acts, even to hardship, while Tolstoy measures the confusion & difficulty of attempting to do so. There is more comfort to be found in one than the other.
So, with that said, if you’d be interested in reading about misadventures in academia or would like to weigh in with your own thoughts on the Tolstoy vs Dostoevsky argument, I would definitely recommend reading “The Possessed.” Even with this rant, any book that causes me to react so thoroughly to one statement is a plus in my mind. Batuman herself, referring to Stendhal & his dislike of the Catholic Church, states that even unhappy reactions or rejection are ways of engaging with an idea.