Tolstoy vs. Dostoevsky


#1

I got involved in this discussion today about who was the better writer Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. I prefer D.sky and my interlocuter tried to tell me that Russians all think that Tolstoy is the superior writer, or at least that Dostoevsky is unreadable. Now my suspician is that my friend (who speaks some Russian) personally prefers Tolstoy and his Russian just isn’t up to Dostoevsky.

My problem is that I know only a bit about Russia, certainly not enough to evaluate that statement. Leaving aside “all Russians,” do a majority of Russians hold that view? Any Russians, Slavicists, or folks who’ve lived in Russia who can tell me whether or not he’s bluffing?


#2

Well, I’m not russian but I can tell you that most anybody who cares to read the last 100 pages of moralistic drivel at the end of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina should most certainly be turned off of Tolstoy forever!!

I MUCH prefer Dostoyevsky and imo, there really isn’t much comparison between the 2 in terms of literary depth and enduring value. But that’s just my opinion…


#3

Personally, I like Tolstoy much more because he captures the “spirit” of pre-communist czarist Russia. He’s also considered one of the greatest humanists of all time. I enjoy the writings in his “confession” and they parallel a lot of my own views about religion and spirituality. All in all I learned a lot more about Russian culture from Tolstoy. Tolstoy was also a tremendously inquisitive person he didn’t lock himself into a purely eurocentric point of view that was common during that period. There are extensive writings about his views on the entire world including China. If I could choose one person that defines Russia it’d definitely be him. He was also a very progressive forward thinking man for his time…a lot of what he said then is still relevant today if you have experienced Russian society.


#4

Picasso,

Have you ever read any Bahktin? He was a Russian literary theorist, who argued that D was better than T. His basic reasoning was that D provides an dialogic space where ideas can be thrashed out. It’s a pretty interesting piece.

I started reading Anna K on a train from Beijing to Kunming which was the only reason I ever finished it.

ABC24,

So how does T relate to contemporary Russia? And while you were there did it seem like people still enjoyed reading him? And finally, although he was certainly interested in China, how much did he really understand it (sincere question)? A lot of people of that era were interested but mostly in their own projections.


#5

I think Doestoevsky is more exciting by far - do you remember the scene in the Brothers K where the guy (sorry it’s a little hazy, it was high school) decides he’s going to kill himself, so he throws a wild party all night, planning to blow his brains out with a pistol as the sun comes up? Riveting stuff, you can never forget it. But don’t sell Tolstoy short. His stuff seems much more conventional and elegant, maybe even snobby, but his achievements are pretty phenomenal. I just read War & Peace (because it was like NT 100 at Caves, so page for page by far the best value) and if you read closely he’s describing personal transformations just as shocking as those of D’s characters, he just does it very quietly. He understood people and he could write about it with uncanny accuracy. No matter who you are, I bet if you read closely you will find a character who experiences something you thought nobody but you ever had, in that one book alone. And who in the twentieth century can keep a consistently good writing style for even 5 or 6 hundred pages, let alone 1100? Though I do have to advise you to skip the historiological essay in the appendix, it’s about as dry as baby powder and just repeats things he already said in the book.

Go on, read it!


#6
quote:
Originally posted by Grizzly: ABC24,

So how does T relate to contemporary Russia? And while you were there did it seem like people still enjoyed reading him? And finally, although he was certainly interested in China, how much did he really understand it (sincere question)? A lot of people of that era were interested but mostly in their own projections.


Well for one, Tolstoy’s observation about the interaction of the political elite/privileged class versus the peasant working class. He showed the disparity in the two groups and the attitude of the common Russian regarding this. Tolstoy in more ways than one predicted the shift to communism. I can’t say he was an advocate of it but he certainly did foreshadow it. Another thing… Russia in its current state is not really as free of a market as the west likes to tout. It’s more of a oligarchy which is just a different version of Tolstoy’s pre-communist czarist/nobility ruling over peasants. The wealth disparity is extreme in Russia today. There is no real Russian middle class…either you have money or you’re just barely scraping by. I met a doctor who earns a few hundred a month…while the few new russians who got their hands in the deregulation pie are earning millions. Another thing, the Russian government and its ‘free market’ constituents frequently screw over the working class russian. Delaying or nonpayment of wages…etc… this is fairly well covered in the press.

Of course most people I talked to in Russia were all familiar with tolstoy, dostoevsky, gogol, pushkin etc… these are their national writers. I’m sure it’s still read in their schools…it’s like Mark Twain for Americans. Most people are familiar with literature in Russia. Remember the Soviet system stressed education heavily to keep up as a superpower so a lot of the people in their late 20s+ are well educated. I even met quite a few people who had a better than working knowledge of english literature…

Tolstoy was very interested in the spiritual side of China as well as the cultural. He corresponded with a couple chinese scholars during that era about buddhism etc. There’s an actual book detailing his academic interactions during his ‘awakening’ period. There’s one book specifically written regarding his interest in China…called Tolstoy and China. You have to remember that Russian/China interaction was far more common in history because they share a common border.


#7
quote:
Originally posted by Grizzly: Picasso,

Have you ever read any Bahktin? He was a Russian literary theorist, who argued that D was better than T. His basic reasoning was that D provides an dialogic space where ideas can be thrashed out. It’s a pretty interesting piece.

I started reading Anna K on a train from Beijing to Kunming which was the only reason I ever finished it.


Yes I’m familiar with Mikael Bahktin, but I have to admit, I’ve never studied him in any depth. My art form of choice is painting, not literature…but in any case, it would seem that we end up sharing similar views on why Dostoyevsky’s style of creativity appeals and can offer so much. To somewhat corroborate what you wrote, I’ve always really admired D.'s ability to transcend the vicissitudes of culture, class, religion, and to use these as literary tools to play with and explore much deeper more enduring themes.
Remember, D. found himself standing in line one morning, about 5th from the front of a group of people who were being executed by firing squad when he was saved by a letter of reprieve. That’s a really hard experience to top in terms of being able to put life into perspective afterwards.
And that’s what I like in D.'s works. His sense of perspective is second-to-none, the way he addresses deep humanistic themes relative to our existence by using the literary tools of culture, class, religion, etc. he’s not sucked in by the superficialities in life, but rather, understands how to use these to create a literary space where some of the most profound human elements imaginable can be freely explored.
Mind you, I found this to be true also in one of my most favorite short stories of all time “Three Deaths” which also happens to be written by Tolstoy.
I have to say though, that my all time favorite writer (a Russian as well), has to be Nabokov. He never ceases to amaze me even after many rereadings, and the discernible influence that he’s had on writers as diverse as Don DeLillo to Naipaul, to Ondaatje, etc. is also quite remarkable.


#8

Dostoyvesky is certainly my favorite of the pair.

One thing I find interesting about him personally is that his art and lifestyle are so closely related. As an author he seemed to be really serializing a lot of his life experiences. Most of his books were written as monthly installments in magazines.

The best Russian book I ever read was called “A Hero for Our Times” it was a short story the author of which I can never remember. Perhaps somebody can help me out here.


#9

Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841)
There’s a copy at Project Gutenberg.


#10

Nice one Cranky.

He died in a dual I believe and that is the story as well.

Thanks


#11

The ever-opinionated but undeniably brilliant Nabakov adored Tolstoy but was no great fan of Dostoevsky. (“The latter is a third-rate writer and his fame is incomprehensible.”)

A snippet from Brian Boyd’s Nabakov biography:

I think Tolstoy is the better writer, but I would not have swapped the time I spent reading The Brothers Karamazov for just about anything. (Grizzly, I agree that those long novels are the things to have on trains. I read The Brothers Karamazov on the way from Beijing to Urumqi. Anna Karenina, though, is probably the more appropriate train book. :wink: )

Many years ago I was speaking with a big-shot literary critic, who asked me if I had read Tolstoy. “I recently finished War and Peace and think it’s wonderful,” I told her.

But when I admitted I’d not read Anna Karenina yet, she dismissed my three weeks with War and Peace, saying, “Well, you haven’t really read Tolstoy then.” :bluemad:

So then I dutifully read A.K. but didn’t like it nearly as well as War and Peace. Perhaps I’d just become prejudiced against it.

For those of you who feel like dipping into War and Peace (which isn’t a difficult novel, just a really long one), I recommend springing for it in a format larger than mass-market paperback. My eyes still haven’t recovered from all those pages of tiny print and tight margins.

Among contemporary Russian writers, I recommend Victor Pelevin.


#12

Dostoyevsky is more interesting if you want to understand humanity in terms of an individualistic analysis of the predicament that we “find” ourselves living: especially in terms of having acquired a new and modern ability to understand the Christian experience… Tolstoy was trying hard to be the wise sociologist… Nabokov was a fine novelist, but was very much a wind-bag, and full of incomprehensible opinions, and I think, often inspired by sheer jealousy: he didn’t like Thomas Mann, and god knows why, because he himself certainly wouldn’t have been able to explain; Nabokov was basically insecure because of his caste privileges, and some people naturally doubted his “right” to be the doyen of Russian-English literature on that account alone… Anyway, read Nabakov’s novels, but skip the forwards he wrote – all full of nonsense…

Anyway, I prefer Dostoyevsky, maybe because he shakes you profoundly, even if you disagree – he puts you inside the experience of his characters, and the dilemmas they experience become your own… Of course, nobody has approached the epic panorama of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”…

Notice the division among the oriented crowd: social butterfly-consumers versus pseudo-intellectuals...  I laugh at this situation: I bet all the ones writing about their favorite restaurants are big and fat, and all the above guys are skinny......  Anyway, may the ghost of edgar hoover rest in hell, for you won't catch me dead belittling what little is left of our post-modern intellectual culture by calling anybody names, like oinks and geeks...  I am a monster, and Dostoyevsky would have loved me for it...

see ya...

#13
quote:
Originally posted by popo: Nabokov was a fine novelist, but was very much a wind-bag, and full of incomprehensible opinions

He’s just toying with you, you can bet on that. His “Invitation to a Beheading” seemed to be more of a mind-game than a novel. I’m sure that Nabokov was well aware of the “incomprehensibility” of his opinions to most people. I like the fact that he translated his own novels from Russian to English. Somehow you know you’re not losing too much by reading the English version when it’s done that way. Unfortunately Nabokov’s rise to prominence also coincided with the fall from prominence of the literary novel in general. Back when Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy were writing, they were revered as gods, nowadays that kind of admiration is reserved for people like Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, etc. But, such is the nature of Western society in post-modern times…


#14

And the winner is …

Dostoyevsky.

The Taipei Tiems yesterday had an article fromt he Guradian about a poll of authors which declared himt he 2nd best read fo all time. (First was Don Quixote, don’t knwo where Tolstoy polled).

Bri


#15
quote[quote] a poll of authors which declared him the 2nd best read of all time [/quote]

Ah ha, but the poll asked for the most meaningful or significant book of all time, which, as James Joyce showed, don’t always = good read. Boom boom.


#16

Here’s something kind of funny:

I read Crime And Punishment when I was in L.A. County Jail when I was 23.