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.
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’.