Reimagining Dostoevsky for the 21st Century (3): Blogging about Dostoevsky, Part 2

The continuation of our conversation with George Pattison about his blog Conversations with Dostoevsky. Part 1 can be found here.

DN: Tell me more about the embodied Dostoevsky and the setting of the blog. Will the conversations all take place in the narrator’s apartment? And why is it important to emphasise Dostoevsky’s physical presence, whilst simultaneously acknowledging that he has been dead for 120 years? Does this device give a certain authority to his voice?

GP: I’ve dropped a few little comments in – and I think this is as close to Dostoevsky’s view as we can tell – to the effect that immortality isn’t just an eternal soul transferring from a mortal body into a constant state of heavenly bliss, but that there is some kind of post-death development. We can use Bakhtin’s phrase of unfinalizability: even the dead person hasn’t learned all they need to learn. I don’t think authors have the last word, even if they want to. But they do have a significance, which I want to show. However, even as an embodied voice he is not from our time or our place, and whilst there may be parallels and continuities we are in a very different place globally, nationally, and intellectually from his situation. That is, I think, typical of our relationship with writers of the past: they are and are not part of our world. There is also a sense in which, after someone dies, their life ceases to be their own and it passes into the universal spectrum of human experience. This changes how we relate to them. Dostoevsky now belongs to what people call ‘world literature’ in a way he couldn’t have done when he was alive.

Regarding the setting, Scottish cities have always struck me as having something a bit Russian about them, Glasgow in particular. I mention in one of the blogs that modern Glasgow and Dostoevsky’s St Petersburg, as it was in his lifetime, were shaped by a mad period of capitalist and industrial expansion, juxtaposing extreme poverty and desperation with extraordinary wealth. They are the kinds of cities where those two worlds are separate but also meet in all sorts of ways, in strange combinations of social groups. However, the conversations won’t all take place in the apartment. We will encounter Dostoevsky in some other settings.

DN: Let’s talk about the overall arc of the blog. Why did you pick ‘The Gentle Spirit’ to start with?

GP: Partly because the conclusion of that story is, for me, one of the most succinct statements of existential despair you can find. I think it’s saying something similar to Ivan Karamazov’s Rebellion but more concisely. There is also a certain critical opinion that ‘A Gentle Spirit’ is one of Dostoevsky’s most perfect or classic works, as a piece of writing. It is very compact, balanced and focused. It also has a close connection to one of his most autobiographical passages, the notes written after the death of his first wife, beginning ‘Masha is lying on the table. Will I ever see Masha again?’ The ‘Masha’ text is one that, out of all of his writings, states most explicitly some of his speculations about death, the afterlife, Christ,. It’s also important to take something that’s less well known, for the more general reader, to look at Dostoevsky from another side. A case of ‘defamiliarization’, perhaps.

DN: Are there particular subjects you will focus on in subsequent blogs?

GP: The blog started with the question of individual existential despair. The discussion of literature then moves towards the role of the Bible, and then the ‘Christmas Cards’ conversations leads on to the role of Christ. I’ll be taking a break over the summer, but the next conversation will begin with a dinner party where we discuss Dostoevsky and existentialism, and Dostoevsky’s view of women (it turns out our narrator’s wife has strong views on this subject). Dostoevsky will appear in the kitchen to give his side of the argument, while the narrator is washing up! For Dostoevsky, the role of Christ can’t be separated from his ongoing presence in the world, which broaches big questions on the relationship between faith, church and society, so I want to address those in a further conversation. Another topic one should not ignore is the question of Dostoevsky’s anti-Semitism; that will be dealt with via a very critical seminar that our narrator attends, though Dostoevsky will appear to give some feedback on that. Finally I’ll move on to the question of God and immortality, and this brings in the question of literature and our relationship to the literature of the past, to the dead voices of the people we know about like Dostoevsky, but also of the people we don’t know about such as those in the prison camps.

DN: What else do you feel readers should be taking away from Dostoevsky about today’s world?

GP: For me, Dostoevsky gives a voice to those who don’t have one. He enlarges compassion. One of the things I recycle is the story from Diary of a Writer where Dostoevsky sees a young man in the street walking home with his child, and he invents a whole story around them. Whether it’s true or not, it makes us look at people differently. It makes us realise that everyone we see in a crowd has an amazing story. He reveals something about the humanity of people in the most unexpected places and reminds us that people are much more complex than we like to think. That leads on to the nature of the self. Dostoevsky’s Underground Man attacked the rational, autonomous egoist who believes that economic self-interest is the only real guide to what motivates people; this view is still very much present in our society today and I think it is a limiting, mistaken one. Dostoevsky can help us see beyond that.

DN: What, finally, do you hope readers will gain from your blog?

GP: I hope they will read more Dostoevsky! They will see that he makes all the points I wish to make better than I do, but they will also be alerted to the need to read him critically and not be over-reverential. He too was a human being with all the limitations that involves. And, of course, I also hope that these conversations will also help readers who are confused or sceptical about religion see better why and how Christian faith makes human sense.

Reimagining Dostoevsky for the 21st Century (3): Blogging about Dostoevsky, Part 1.

For the latest of our series ‘Reimagining Dostoevsky for the 21st Century’, we chatted with George Pattison, Professor of Divinity (retired) at University of Glasgow, about his blog Conversations with Dostoevsky, and how he himself has reimagined Dostoevsky for a 21st Century audience. The interview is published in two parts; Part 2 is here.

Illustration from The Brothers Karamazov, used as ident for Conversations with Dostoevsky


DN: When did you first become interested in the works of Dostoevsky?

GP: I started reading him in the early 1970s when I was in my early twenties, having already read some Tolstoy as a teenager. I started getting interested in him in a more academic sense when I was teaching a course in Cambridge on the background to modern theology, which included a class on The Brothers Karamazov­. Around that time I also met Diane Thompson, who became my guide into the world of Dostoevsky scholarship and together we worked on a conference which turned into the book Dostoevsky and the Christian Tradition (CUP, 1999). Then when I went to Oxford I taught a whole course on Dostoevsky under the rubric “Special Theologians”.

DN: So has your connection with Dostoevsky always been through the interface of theology and philosophy?

GP: Yes, that’s largely where I’m coming from. The religious question has always been there for me, although in the beginning, back in the 70s, this was more related to existential despair and the anxieties of that era, and that’s changed somewhat over the years. What attracted me at that time, by contrast with Tolstoy, was the way that Dostoevsky contextualised the questions about Christianity, faith, and the struggle for meaning in existence in a social world that is so extraordinarily varied. Several of his novels are set in a world undergoing rapid social change, depicting the fragmentation of existing social relationships, the emergence of the accidental family (as opposed to the aristocratic family of the ‘classic’ novel), and political unrest. Dostoevsky therefore speaks to a very destabilised social reality and looks to stage questions of faith in that, which makes him a writer who can also speak to our time. I should add, though, that he is just such a great read, he writes so wonderfully even when there are no metaphysical issues at stake. An example is the tension he builds in The Idiot when Prince Myshkin breaks an extremely valuable Chinese vase at a party. It’s so enjoyable from a readerly point of view.

DN: Can I explore with you the contrast with Tolstoy? Do you feel that Tolstoy does not contextualise in quite the same way?

GP: I think the social world of Tolstoy is somehow more static than Dostoevsky’s, it lacks that chaotic element. To compare them in another way, I came late to Russian and still only read Dostoevsky in Russian with difficulty. I find reading War and Peace or Anna Karenina far more straightforward than reading Dostoevsky. In Dostoevsky there is far more variety in voices between characters. But this is in praise of Dostoevsky, not in criticism of Tolstoy.

DN: What made you decide to start your blog?

GP: I’m recently retired. I’ve published various papers on Dostoevsky and taught various courses, so in my retirement I had planned to put together some of that into a book; but then I was at the International Dostoevsky Symposium in Boston and saw so many wonderful Dostoevsky scholars there who have the philological background and the knowledge of Russian literature that I lack. This made me think that actually it would be more useful to try a different tack. I had the idea that I could do it as a series of conversations, and then decided to do it as a blog. It was a way of working it through, rather experimental, and with no commitment. The long term view is to turn it into a book, however, and I’ve had discussions with a press about that. The target is to reach out to the sort of reader who might have read one or two of the big Dostoevsky novels but who doesn’t have a critical apparatus and would like to know more about some of his ideas.

DN: Let’s talk about the pros and cons of blogging. What are the advantages and disadvantages to the online serial format  and how will that compare with producing Conversations with Dostoevsky as a single piece?

GP: The key word is ‘serial’. This has opened my eyes to Dostoevsky’s own practice of writing things in serial form, which was common for many 19th century novelists, and to just how different that is from the practice of most of our contemporary novelists. It has heightened my respect for novelists like Dostoevsky who wrote in serial form, because you can’t go back and change things, you have to have a good sense of where you are going with the material from the outset—or, at least, have the courage to stick with your choices! In a sense I’m giving myself the best of both worlds by doing it as a blog and then revising it for a book. A disadvantage is that the episodes have ended up significantly longer than I originally imagined. I personally prefer not to read long extracts of imaginative prose online, and I find there’s a limit to online readability—but others may not have that problem. With regard to the serial aspect, there is a need every now and again – something that Dostoevsky and Dickens do so well – to introduce a climactic moment. I don’t quite have cliff-hangers but there is a little pressure to have a dramatic moment.

DN: Another feature of a blog is that it has the facility for readers to leave comments. What do you do with readers’ comments?

GP: Most of the comments don’t go very far but I have developed a slightly more extensive email interaction with some of those who have commented and gathered some very helpful feedback, such as about the narrator’s wife – are we going to see more of her, what role is she playing? With the serial form I hadn’t thought too much about that at the beginning but then I realised I would have to think about it seriously for the sake of the coherence of the whole.

DN: Do you feel that the readers’ comments shape your ongoing production of the blog?

GP: Yes, they are shaping my thinking. There is both the internal dialogue going on between the narrator and Dostoevsky, and then other dialogues, like our conversation, that wouldn’t be happening if I hadn’t set the blog up. Part of the idea of doing it as a dialogue has come from the philosophy of religion; the dialogue is one of the oldest forms of philosophy we have. It’s a genre that is proper and appropriate to philosophy and emphasises the theme of dialogue in Dostoevsky himself.

DN: It’s similar in many respects to Dostoevsky’s Diary of a Writer, where Dostoevsky responded to readers’ interactions with him and used those to shape his ongoing entries.

GP: That’s right, and that’s become an important text for me in the last few years. Especially in the anglophone world, people tend to write that off as the place where Dostoevsky expressed all his dreadful nationalistic views, but I think that misses something very important in Dostoevsky; the correspondence with his readers was clearly very important to him.

DN: This leads on to another question: the fictionalised nature of your blog. You’ve given a fictionalised persona to Dostoevsky, and then there is the narrator. You haven’t given him a name; should we assume he is called George Pattison?

GP: No, we definitely shouldn’t! Later on in the summer I’ll be publishing an entry about a dinner party where the narrator and some of his friends talk about Dostoevsky, and I made a very deliberate decision not to name the narrator. Others in that scene will address each other by name, but not the narrator. So no, he isn’t me. I’ve also left the time somewhat indeterminate; it’s early 21st Century but I don’t want to be too explicit. The narrator belongs to a milieu I’ve known pretty well. He’s a mid-career academic, he may have slightly lost his way, he doesn’t have a top professorship and doesn’t know if he wants one, he’s having a slight mid-life crisis, a kind of re-evaluation, and that’s when he rediscovers this story by Dostoevsky that brings him back into conversation, not just with Dostoevsky, but also with his own life.

DN: How did you decide on the persona for Dostoevsky? Did you draw on diaries, letters, biographies, or was it more intuitive?

GP: It was more intuitive, but I have read all five volumes of  Joseph Frank’s biography, and I think Diary of a Writer is very important, and yes, I drew on letters, diaries, but also his novels. Dostoevsky says his ugly mug doesn’t appear in his novels but in a way it does because the selection of themes he writes about already tells you something about what makes him tick. Photographs and portraits are also significant.

DN: What else would you say about the advantages of engaging with Dostoevsky through a fictional dialogue?

GP: In a lot of the critical literature, especially in the theological and philosophical readings, we see the argument that Dostoevsky’s characters are embodied voices, that he doesn’t just give us philosophical views or tractates but shows us what it is like for a person to hold these views. So I’ve tried to do that with Dostoevsky himself: to show that he is not just a container for these views but someone who holds them and gives them expression. Also, this is a format in which some of the critical discussion can reach a wider readership. I hope in the finished book to have extensive footnoting. Most of the views I ascribe to Dostoevsky can be found in his stories, or in his letters and other documents. I can use the footnotes to point the reader to the evidence I’ve used in my portrayal of Dostoevsky and his views and to where else they might find more material on the relevant theme in Dostoevsky. I would also credit the sources I’ve used, such as a recent Russian study that provides an unusual interpretation of the story ‘The Boy at Christ’s Christmas Party’.