Dostoevsky Bicentenary Events

In 2021, Dostoevsky turns 200. In 2021-22, Dostoevsky Now at the University of Leeds has collaborated with a number of international partners to co-sponsor a series of events to mark Dostoevsky’s bicentenary.

All events will be held online, are free, and are open to the public (with registration).

Details are below and will be updated as they are confirmed.

Wednesday 22 September 2021, 12pm EDT
Public Roundtable: Dostoevsky at 200. The Novel in Modernity
Event page | Recording on YouTube

Wednesday 20 October 2021, 5pm BST (12pm EDT)
Public Talk: Dr Chloe Kitzinger (Rutgers University), “The lives of characters in Dostoevsky and Tolstoy”, hosted by the University of Toronto
Details coming soon | Part of the North American Dostoevsky Society Bicentenary Speaker Series

Thursday 28 October 2021, 5pm BST (12pm EDT)
Panel: Graduate research on Dostoevsky at 200
Call for papers (Deadline 30 September 2021)

Thursday 11 November 2021, Midnight, GMT (7pm EST)
Virtual Birthday Party!
Details and call for creative proposals coming soon

Monday 29 November 2021, 5pm GMT (12pm EST)
Public Roundtable: Dostoevsky, Russia and nationalism in the global era.
Details coming soon

Thursday 9 December 2021, 6pm GMT (1pm EST)
Public Talk: Dr Kate Holland (University of Toronto), “Temporality in Dostoevsky’s imperial imagination”, hosted by the University of Bristol
Details coming soon | Part of the NADS Bicentenary Speaker Series

Friday 28 January 2022, time TBC
Undergraduate research panel
Details and call for papers coming soon

Thank you to organizers Dr Katherine Bowers, Dr Kate Holland, Dr Sarah Hudspith, Dr Katya Jordan and Dr Sarah J Young.

Thank you also to our sponsors without whose support these events would not be possible:

Sponsors logos

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’.

Reimagining Dostoevsky for the 21st Century (2): Interviewing Dostoevsky

“If there is any place where I can see the seed or the idea of the future, it is in Russia.”

2021 marks the bicentenary of Fyodor Dostoevky’s birthday and yet his work seems more topical than ever. The great novelist takes a pointed position on numerous political issues which still resonate today. Ulrich M. Schmid, Professor of Russian Culture and Society at the University of St Gallen, Switzerland, imagines interviewing Dostoevsky on contemporary matters.

UMS: Fyodor Mikhailovich, in 2014 Russia annexed Crimea. What is your assessment of this event?

FMD: Not long ago I found an article in the Moscow News about the Crimea. The Moscow News advances the bold notion that it is pointless to grieve over the Tatars: let them be expelled and set up colonies of Russians in their place. I agree wholeheartedly because I myself have long held just that view on the “Crimean question”. On the whole, if the resettlement of Russians in the Crimea (gradually, of course) should require large expenditures by the state, then I think this would be a very possible and very profitable course of action.[1]

UMS: The pandemic is another situation which has led to a tremendous increase in government spending in Russia. What would be your advice here?

FMD: My idea, my formula, is as follows: “In order to establish sound finances in a state that has experienced certain upheavals, don’t think too much about immediate needs, no matter how urgent they may seem; think only about restoring the roots, and you’ll get sound finances.”[2]

UMS: The Turks and Russians have a long history of military conflict. Now that President Erdogan has turned Hagia Sophia back into a mosque, how should Russia react in this situation? Should it defend Orthodox Byzantium?

FMD: Yes, I answer, the Golden Horn and Constantinople – all that will be ours, but not for the sake of merely annexing territory and not for the sake of violence. It will happen of its own accord precisely because the time has come.

And so in the name of what, in the name of what moral right could Russia make a claim on Constantinople? As leader of Orthodoxy, as its protector and guardian. And so, sometime, even the  non-Orthodox European Slavs might join such a union, for they themselves would see that without this immense unifying force they, perhaps, would again exhaust themselves in mutual strife and discord.[3]

UMS: The relationship between Europe and Russia is forever troubled. Why is that?

FMD: What was Russia doing in her policy over these whole two centuries if not serving Europe, far more, perhaps, than she was serving herself? Oh, the nations of Europe simply do not know how dear they are to us! To become a genuine Russian will mean specifically: to strive to bring an ultimate reconciliation to Europe’s contradictions, to indicate that the solution to Europe’s anguish is to be found in the panhuman and all-unifying Russian soul, and at last, perhaps, to utter the ultimate word of great, general harmony, ultimate brotherly accord of all tribes through the law of Christ’s Gospel![4]

UMS: After Brexit, the European Union is in crisis. What is your evaluation of the project of European unification?

FMD: Lacking the instincts of the bee and ant, which flawlessly and accurately construct their hives and anthills, people sought to construct something in the nature of a flawless human anthill.[5]

It would be good if we could also realize that at the moment England is in the most critical situation it has ever been in. This critical situation of hers can be formulated most accurately in a single word: isolation, for never before, perhaps, has England found herself in such terrible isolation as now.[6]

UMS: In your work you mention Karl Marx only once in passing, although you were almost exact contemporaries. What is your assessment of Marxist philosophy and its revolutionary implementation?

FMD: The socialists do not go beyond the gut. They even boast that boots are more important than Shakespeare, that one should be ashamed of talking about the immortality of the soul, and so on.[7]

Some of our worthy generation cast in our lot with socialism and accepted it, without the least hesitation, as the final answer for the unity of all human beings. In such fashion, to achieve our goal we accepted something that was the acme of egoism, the acme of inhumanity, the acme of economic bungling and disorder, the acme of slander on human nature, the acme of destruction of every human freedom; but this did not trouble us in the least. At the same time we became so alienated from our own Russian land that we lost all conception of the degree to which such a doctrine is at odds with the soul of the Russian people. In fact, not only did we have no regard at all for the character of the Russian People, we did not even acknowledge that they had any character. We forgot even to think of it, and with complete and despotic equanimity were convinced (without even raising the question) that our People would at once accept everything we told them.[8]

UMS: Given that you criticize socialism so strongly, do you believe that liberalism offers better prospects?

FMD: What is liberalism, speaking generally, if not an attack on the existing order of things? It is so, isn’t it? The liberal has gone so far as to deny Russia herself – that is to say, he hates and beats his own mother. Every Russian failure and fiasco excites his laughter and almost delights him. He hates national customs, he hates Russian history, he hates everything. If there is any justification for him, it is perhaps that he doesn’t know what he is doing and thinks that his hatred of Russia is the most beneficient kind of liberalism. [9]

UMS: Let’s talk about religion. You are a staunch supporter of the Russian Orthodox faith.

FMD: The Russian knows nothing higher than Christianity and cannot even conceive of anything higher. His whole land, all the commonality, the whole of Russia he has called Christianity, or Krestianstvo. Take a closer look at Orthodoxy: it is by no means only clericalism and ritual; it is a living feeling that our People have transformed into one of those basic living forces without which nations cannot survive.[10]

UMS: What is your opinion of other denominations and of atheists?

FMD: Roman Catholicism is even worse than atheism. Yes, that’s my opinion! Atheism merely preaches a negation, but Catholicism goes further: it preaches a distorted Christ, a Christ calumniated and defamed by it, the opposite of Christ! It preaches Antichrist – I swear it does! Roman Catholicism believes that the Church cannot exist on earth without universal temporal power, and cries: Non possumus! In my opinion, Roman Catholicism isn’t even a religion, but most decidedly a continuation of the Holy Roman Empire, and everything in it is subordinated to that idea, beginning with faith.[11]

UMS: In what way are things better in Russia?

FMD: If there is any place where I can see the seed or the idea of the future, it is in Russia. Why is that? It’s because we have had and still preserve among the People one principle: that the land for them is everything, and that they derive everything from the land; this is still what the huge majority of them believe. But the main thing is that this principle is the normal law of humanity. There is something sacramental in the land, in one’s native soil.

I think that children should be born on the land and not on the street. One may live on the street later, but a nation – in its vast majority – should be born and arise on the land, on the native soil in which its grain and its trees grow.[12]

UMS: These days we often hear the demand that people face up to the challenges posed by climate change, populism, and the pandemic. What is your advice?

FMD: The truth is not outside you, but within; find yourself in yourself; submit yourself to yourself; master yourself, and you shall see the truth. Conquer yourself, humble yourself, and you shall be freer than ever you imagined; you will embark on a great task and make others free, and you will find happiness, for your life will be made complete, and you will at last understand your People and their sacred truth.[13]

 

All of Dostoevsky’s answers are original quotations.

———————————————————————-

Ulrich Schmid writes: Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) was a contentious writer who often fell out with his editors, publishers and fellow poets. As a young man he belonged to a more romantic than revolutionary circle in which the abolition of serfdom and the lifting of censorship were discussed. However, the Tsarist authorities were very nervous in the European revolutionary years of 1848 and 1849. Dostoevsky was arrested, sentenced to death and subjected to a mock execution. He then spent almost ten years in Siberian exile. This decisive experience made him not only a devout Christian, but also an ardent admirer of Tsarism. In the last years of his life he published his Diary of a Writer on a monthly basis, in which he commented on world political events from a very subjective perspective. Dostoevsky’s chauvinist and anti-Semitic remarks are notorious. At the same time, with his great novels, Dostoevsky also presented a radical criticism of Russian society, which, in its imitation of Western lifestyles, he believed remained blind to the expected return of Christ.

Ulrich Schmid’s original article was first published in Neuer Zürcher Zeitung on 7 January 2021. This translation by Sarah Hudspith is a slightly abridged version of the original text.

[1] Diary of a Writer July-Aug 1876 (A Writer’s Diary, vol. 1, trans. by Kenneth Lantz, London: Quartet, 1994)

[2] Diary of a Writer Jan 1881 (A Writer’s Diary, vol. 2, trans. by Kenneth Lantz, London: Quartet, 1995)

[3] Diary of a Writer June 1876 (A Writer’s Diary, vol. 1, trans. by Kenneth Lantz, London: Quartet, 1994)

[4] Pushkin Speech 1880 (A Writer’s Diary, vol. 2, trans. by Kenneth Lantz, London: Quartet, 1995)

[5] Diary of a Writer Nov 1877 (A Writer’s Diary, vol. 2, trans. by Kenneth Lantz, London: Quartet, 1995)

[6] Diary of a Writer May-June 1877 (A Writer’s Diary, vol. 2, trans. by Kenneth Lantz, London: Quartet, 1995)

[7] ‘Socialism and Christianity’, Notebooks 1864, trans. by S. Hudspith

[8] Diary of a Writer Jan 1877 (A Writer’s Diary, vol. 2, trans. by Kenneth Lantz, London: Quartet, 1995)

[9] The Idiot Part 3 Chapter 1 (trans. by David Magarshack, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1955)

[10] Diary of a Writer Sept 1876 (A Writer’s Diary, vol. 1, trans. by Kenneth Lantz, London: Quartet, 1994)

[11] The Idiot Part 4 Chapter 7 (trans. by David Magarshack, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1955)

[12] Diary of a Writer July-August 1876 (A Writer’s Diary, vol. 1, trans. by Kenneth Lantz, London: Quartet, 1994)

[13] Pushkin Speech 1880 (A Writer’s Diary, vol. 2, trans. by Kenneth Lantz, London: Quartet, 1995)

Digital event on Dostoevsky and Ferrante 6 May 2021

On Thursday 6 May 7pm UK time, Sarah Hudspith and Olivia Santovetti, University of Leeds, will be in conversation on the subject “Illuminating the chaos and the obscurity: Ferrante and Dostoevsky in dialogue”. They will discuss the congruences between the two authors and read passages from their novels, followed by Q&A with the audience. The event will be chaired by Richard Hibbitt, co-director of the University of Leeds Centre for World Literatures, and it will be hosted online by the Ilkley Literature Festival.

The event is free to join and will be broadcast on Crowdcast. Click here for full details together with the registration information.

A recording of the event is available on the Ilkley Literature Festival YouTube channel.

Reimagining Dostoevsky for the 21st Century (1): Dostoevsky the Master Builder

In 2021 we mark 200 years since the birth of Fyodor Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky’s works continue to be read, translated, and adapted into a variety of media, demonstrating his enduring popularity and relevance. I recently turned my own hand to adapting Dostoevsky, after a seeing on Twitter a Venn diagram by @fyodor76, putting herself in the overlap between circles representing lovers of Dostoevsky and fans of Lego. Amongst the replies @johnayliff commented “The Minifigs Karamazov”, and an idea was born. Lego’s track record of capturing key story moments from various movie franchises such as Harry Potter and Star Wars in their construction sets seemed suddenly to chime with Dostoevsky’s talent for depicting scenes that spark the imagination. Anyone who has read one of Dostoevsky’s novels will have, fixed in their mind, their vision of the most striking episodes: Raskolnikov bringing the axe down on the unsuspecting Alyona; Rogozhin and Myshkin keeping vigil beside the covered corpse of Nastasya Filippovna; Father Zosima bowing down to the astounded Dmitry Karamazov. Whilst being driven to a large extent by dialogue, Dostoevsky’s novels also have a distinctly scopic quality, generating powerful images of significant moments in the story, expressing ideas that exceed the words in which they are written. This makes his work eminently amenable to visual adaptation.

Thus inspired by @johnayliff’s comment, I began with The Brothers Karamazov. This novel makes use of expressive chapter titles, some of which are quotations of lines of dialogue, and which are often oblique and whimsical. These suggested themselves perfectly for identifying buildable and recognisable scenes and providing the captions. Having worked out which scenes I would build, I then took to thinking about how to make each character distinctive, and representative of their role and traits. Here I was slightly hampered by the Lego available to me: although the amount of Lego acquired by my family over the years was, in all seriousness, a factor in our recent decision to buy a bigger house, I knew my children would not wish me to tamper with their favourite sets. So I was restricted to a collection of non-franchise-related minifigures that mainly comprised soldiers and emergency services workers. Not a great casting pool for 19th century female roles. Fortunately, some characters acquired through a few years of those extravagant Lego advent calendars diversified my selection, and also provided a range of ready-made set props such as fire places, tables and chairs.

Two Lego minifigure women, one with brown hair tied back and lilac dress, one with loose blonde hair and green dress
Katerina and Grushenka

Choosing the right hair and facial expression required careful thought; thus Grushenka’s status as a woman shaped by men’s treatment of her is signalled by her loose hair style and more overtly feminised features, compared with Katerina’s tied-back hair and more neutral expression. Like any screenplay writer worth their salt, I conflated some elements of the story: in the novel, Smerdyakov, for example, is not playing his guitar when he is encountered sitting by the garden gate by Ivan and he comments that it is nice to have a chat with a clever man; but the visual signifier of the frivolous guitar for this crucial conversation adds to the image of Smerdyakov as dismissive of the value of human life.

Ultimately the scale of the novel exceeded my skill and patience, and my episodisation stopped at Dmitry on the threshold of murder (those of you who have not read the novel will have to do so to find out whether he did it or not). But the response on Twitter was very positive, and I was requested to do a follow-up of Crime and Punishment. So the following weekend, back I went to the brick boxes. This time, I resolved to summarise the whole novel, and found it easier than with The Brothers Karamazov. Indeed, as @kevinobriencha1 observed, Crime and Punishment “uniquely marries action and philosophy”. The novel provides a number of important visuals, such as Raskolnikov’s hat that is too eye-catching for a would-be murderer, Sonya’s three windows in her apartment, symbolic of the divine light of the Holy Trinity that infuses her outlook, or the liminal spaces such as thresholds or street junctions where pivotal events happen that could take the action in a number of directions.

Lego minifigure old woman holding package, with grey hair in a bun, angry expression and black dress
Alyona

Again, I wanted the figures to be emblematic of their characters. For Raskolnikov I chose a head with a rather crazy grin and lines round the eyes, to signify his mental turmoil. For Sonya, I used the same body and hair as the sexually exploited Grushenka, but chose a child’s head to indicate her innocence and purity despite her profession. In the case of Alyona, being short of bodies befitting an elderly widow, I had to breach my injunction to borrow from my children’s beloved franchise sets, and used the body of a Harry Potter Death Eater, but I think that Fyodor Mikhailovich would have found that rather fitting for a moneylender.

Some readers may feel that Lego is too flippant a medium to render such a serious author as Dostoevsky, who grappled with the ‘accursed’ questions of the nature of good and evil, the immortality of the soul and the despair that attends upon self-interest and pride. However, there is subtle, but significant humour in Dostoevsky, that exists alongside the dark philosophical probing, indeed throws it into sharper relief. There is black comedy in Raskolnikov slipping and slithering, panic-stricken, in the blood of his victims as he tries to locate Alyona’s hidden riches, or in the heavily accented soldier wearing an incongruous helmet, telling Svidrigailov “Dis is not de place” as he puts the gun to his head. The humour reminds us not only of the breadth of human nature, so memorably lamented by Dmitry Karamazov, but also of the fictionality of the stories, which paradoxically signal their truth. Dostoevsky believed that only fiction, particularly that which presented its poetic idea as a “whole image”, could fully capture the essence of the human condition. Or, as Emmet Brickowski says in The Lego Movie, “The prophecy is made up. And it’s also true. It’s about all of us.”

The Brothers Karamazov: selected scenes

(Original Twitter thread here)

Lego minfigure old man with long white beard, lying face down in front of Lego minifigure soldier, two other Lego minifigure men watching
Why is such a man alive?
Lego room with four Lego minifigure men holding glasses sitting around a fireplace
Over the brandy
Lego room with two Lego minifigure men sitting at a table holding cups
The brothers get acquainted
Lego room with two Lego minifigure women and one Lego minifigure soldier
Lacerations in the Lego house
Lego minifigure holding a guitar sitting on a wall, Lego minifigure man coming towards him
It’s nice to have a chat with a clever man
Wall of Lego house in background, Lego fence in foreground, Lego minifigure soldier holding a small club sitting on the fence
Dmitri’s delirium

Crime and Punishment: selected scenes

(Original Twitter thread here)

Lego horse drawing a cart overloaded with Lego bricks, with Lego minifigures brandishing a whip and a stick
Raskolnikov’s nightmare
Lego minifigure old lady in a Lego room holding a package, Lego minifigure man holding axe behind her
The murder
Lego room with two Lego skeletons on red tiles representing blood, Lego minifigure man holding axe and sack, two Lego minifigure construction workers outside the door
The decorators try to get into the apartment
Small Lego room crowded with two male and two female Lego minifigures
Raskolnikov is visited by his mother, sister and Razumikhin
Lego policeman sitting with Lego minifigure man in a Lego room
Porfiry interviews Raskolnikov at the police station
Lego minifigure lying on red tiles representing blood, under a Lego horse pulling a carriage, with Lego minifigure man watching
Marmeladov is run down in the street
Lego room with three windows, in which a Lego minifigure girl reads a book to a Lego minifigure man. In an adjacent Lego room a Lego minifigure man listens.e
Sonya reads the Raising of Lazarus to Raskolnikov while Svidrigailov eavesdrops
Lego minifigure woman pointing a gun at Lego minifigure man
Dunya faces Svidrigailov
Lego minifigure man holding gun to his head, and Lego minifigure soldier, by a Lego lamp post
Svidrigailov shoots himself
Lego minifigure man lying face down near a Lego lamp post, watched by a Lego minifigure girl
Raskolnikov prostrates himself in the street
Lego minifigure convict with Lego minifigure girl with Lego snowman in background
Raskolnikov and Sonya in Siberia

Counting down to D-Day!

We are all set for our Dostoevsky Day on 19 February, and we have two piece of good news.

Firstly, our guest Oliver Ready‘s translation of Crime and Punishment has been shortlisted for the PEN Translation Prize. We wish Oliver every success.

Secondly, Eduard Chasovitin, the creative force behind Adipictures Dostoevsky Film and the designer of the artwork for our Dostoevsky Day, has made us a short welcome cartoon. Enjoy!

Guest post: On rereading Crime And Punishment in the era of Making A Murderer

R. N. Morris, one of our guest speakers for Dostoevsky Day on 19 February, has shared with us this great blog on revisiting Dostoevsky’s classic novel.

“2016 is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, Crime and Punishment. To celebrate, Leeds University is holding a Dostoevsky Day on the 19th of February and I’ll be taking part.

It seemed like a good excuse to read the novel again, especially as Penguin have recently published a new translation. And the translator, Dr Oliver Ready, is going to be there too.

It’s been a few years since I last read the book. The last time I did was when I was writing my own Dostoevsky-inspired novels, which feature Porfiry Petrovich, the investigating magistrate from Crime and Punishment. So, in all honesty, I wasn’t really reading as an average reader would. I was a little too focused on my own purposes.

There is a freshness and an immediacy about this new translation that I really like. The characters come alive with a clarity and energy that’s incredibly impressive. It doesn’t feel like you’re reading a translation – there’s none of that usual stiltedness, particularly in the dialogue. Yes, there are some oddities of expression, but that is as much to do with the different culture and the historic distance. (Thankfully it doesn’t follow the trend of many BBC adaptations, where they make everyone from the past speak like a character from Eastenders. Remember The Ark?)

There seem to be things that I notice in this version that had never struck me before. I would even say the novel makes more sense to me now than it has ever. I’m more awed than ever by its greatness. And, too late I’m afraid, more sensitive than I ever was at the time to the complete effrontery of my outrageous act of literary purloining. In retrospect, I am almost unable to forgive myself for my own ‘crime’. I can only turn my face to the wall and stare at the fascinating flower in the pattern of my wallpaper, as a hot sweat of shame breaks out all over me.

What I had forgotten was the novel’s amazing psychological focus. It’s as if Raskolnikov is being observed under some kind of psychic microscope. Every twist and turn of his thought process is laid out for us. Dostoevsky has entered into the mind of a murderer and he compels us to enter it too. Needless to say, it’s not a comfortable experience.

The narration of the events leading up to the murders, and the murders themselves, as well as the immediate aftermath, could hold their own against any piece of crime fiction writing in any era. It’s the observation of the telling detail that does it for me. There is a remorseless, not to say ruthless, honesty to Dostoevsky’s gaze. He refuses to look away, refuses to flinch, even at the most dreadful moment. And he holds our head in his his grip so we’re forced to look too. For example, he just has to show us the tortoiseshell comb – or the fragment of a tortoiseshell comb – pinning up the old pawnbroker’s hair, the second before Raskolnikov strikes her on the crown of her head with the butt of his axe. Genius.

But with its moral, philosophical, social and religious preoccupations, the book is so much more than just a crime novel.

I think one of the most extraordinary sequences in the book is Raskolnikov’s feverish dream in Part One, Chapter V, where he dreams he is a boy again with his father, and together they witness a group of drunken peasants gleefully beat an old nag to death. It’s one of the most savage, humane, awful, devastating, vivid passages in literature. Is it simply the dream of a criminally insane man, or a metaphor for the fate of Russia? Or an elegy for a lost innocence?

So I’m rereading the book at the same time as watching the Netflix documentary everyone is talking about, Making a Murderer (not literally, but you know what I mean). I’m up to about episode 5, so don’t spoil it for me. Anyhow a thought struck me the other night as I was watching it. It was the episode where the learning disabled sixteen-year-old Brendan Dassey is making and retracting his various statements. His mother asks him how he could say the things he said in his ‘confession’. He says he was ‘guessing’ – just like he used to guess when he did his homework. In the end, he writes a letter to the judge trying to set the record straight, with the heartrending postscript “Me and my mum think you are a good judge”. The whole thing just seemed so Dostoevskyan to me, especially as Crime and Punishment features a young man who falsely confesses to the crime.

Dostoevsky used to scour the newspapers for true crime stories, as well as tales of suicide and tragedy. There are references to real crimes in the novel. I couldn’t help thinking that he would have been riveted by the series.”

Click here to read more of Roger’s ‘Bloody Blog.’

Dostoevsky Day: 150 years since the first publication of Crime and Punishment

To commemorate the publication anniversary of this iconic landmark of Russian literature, the University of Leeds invites you to an afternoon of events devoted to the author Fyodor Dostoevsky on Friday 19 February 2016, featuring talks, screenings of film and photography,  interactive web art and games.

For the full programme, see our previous Events posting.

The event is free of charge, and open to all.

For any enquiries please email dostoevskynow@gmail.com or tweet us @dostoevskynow.

All welcome!

Dostoevsky Day Programme!

Dostoevsky Day
Celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the Publication of Crime and Punishment
Friday 19 February 2016
Room B10, Parkinson Building, University of Leeds, Woodhouse Lane

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14:00     Welcome and introduction

14:15     Discovering Crime and Punishment

Screening of an extract from the BBC’s 2002 adaptation of the novel, followed by discussion.

15:00     Translating Crime and Punishment

Oliver Ready (St Antony’s College, Oxford), translator of the 2014 Penguin edition of the novel, talks to Jacob Blakesley (Centre for Translation Studies, University of Leeds).

16:00     Being Dostoevsky

The work of Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe, performance artist and Dostoevsky impersonator, displayed and discussed by Olga Andreevskikh (PhD student, University of Leeds).

16:30     Playing Dostoevsky

Eduard Chasovitin‘s Dostoevsky-inspired online games and web art, explored by Dan Fuller (PhD student, University of Leeds) in an interactive session. Bring your tablets/smartphones!

17:00     Re-imagining Crime and Punishment’s detective

R. N. Morris, author of a series of detective novels featuring Crime and Punishment’s Porfiry Petrovich, talks to Sarah Hudspith (School of Languages, Cultures and Societies, University of Leeds).

18:00     Concluding remarks, followed by Dostoevsky-themed quiz in The Packhorse pub (Woodhouse Lane). Prizes featuring original artwork!