Downing Dostoevsky–Book the First, Part I

Ok, so “Book, the First” sounds pretentious and sooo nineteenth century, but given that my summer is going to be devoted to downing, devouring, deciphering, and otherwise drowning in 19th century Russian depressive Fyodor Dostoevsky, it seemed somhow vaguely appropriate.

(Sidenote, somehow I feel that it must be incumbent on me to make some comment on the fact that I HAVEN’T POSTED A WORD IN FOUR MONTHS, but I guess that I have arrived at the conclusion that, hey, it’s my blog and I’ll go dark if  I want to.  Not that anyone has missed me enough to so much as send a single note asking after my health and well-being.  For all any of you knew I had finally passed away of the heart attack that I must so richly deserve since I spend my days eating donuts and sitting at a computer rather than sweating off my sins like a materialist Puritan.  Ok, enough chastisement of my readers–who are apparently non-existent–for their obvious disinterest in my silent spring.  Back to Dostoevsky.)

Why?  you ask.  Why? Let’s say I ask that myself.  I remember a New Yorker cartoon of a guy on a beach being arrested for reading Dostoevsky, evidence of inappropriate summer time reading. (Yes, it is available on the web--check here;  I wonder if the New Yorker will send me a free subscription for all the traffic I will be sending their way.  I am not wondering too hard.)  Seriously though, I had a lot of things on my agenda this summer, and it looks like reading the gray russian will get in the way.  Among other things, it would be nice to go to the opera in Italy, or parasailing in Florida, or learning to kayak in the Alaskan hinterlands.  Who am I kidding, it would also be also be nice to get a massage at the Y and sleep through the night.  These things being mostly impossible or embarrassing, I do have longings to read.  I’ve wanted to spend a summer reading Vonnegut, or, since my late great hero John Updike died, maybe reading all of Updike never gave myself time to get to.  Or maybe J.D. Salinger, or Joyce Carol Oates, or the latest by Toni Morrison.  Instead I am stuck with Dostoevsky, the grey one, whose novelistic worlds i imagine in shades of black and white.

This verb, “stuck,” is, I realize, something of a heresy, isn’t it.  I feel that I should be a good example of a devoted reader, or at least an English prof–not always the case that these two go together.  Isn’t admitting that as the summer starts I can imagine pleasanter things to do with my days than Dostoevsky a little gauche, something like a gourmand or the food critic admitting that he could do without a weekly repast at Sardi’s, and maybe, just maybe, would be Ok with something a little more middle class like Chili’s or TGI Fridays.  Well, summer is for slumming, and reading Dostoevsky in June is a bit like working for a company that insists on dark suits and ties all summer.  Seriousness.

Still, this doesn’t answer the question.  The basic answer to the question posed is that I am directing an honors project for a worthy student who wants to go to graduate school, and will do well.  What he doesn’t yet know is that graduate school will quickly turn reading and all the intellectual and imaginative excitement that he feels for the world of books in to what Dostoevsky is for me, first and foremost: work, an act of labor, a responsiblity, something that must be done.

To be sure, it is always a great and guilty pleasure to get new books, especially when I can get someone else to pay for them since I am, after all, fulfilling the responsibilities of my position. I’ve taken great joy in the many packages that have arrived over the past couple of weeks bearing those weighty Dostoevskian tomes.  A bunch of Everyman’s library editions, and then other editions for those books no one felt were good enough to be canonized.  Among other things, who knew Dostoevsky wrote so much?  The Brothers K and Crime and Punishment.  The canon within the canon.  That should be enough for anyone, and could take a summer in themselves, but the list is almost endless.

And in order to know Dostoevsky, of course, I must read them all.  I have not yet started counting pages, though there are thousands.  I am like the bird in the old story around the campfire at church camp.  I fly and remove a single grain of sand from the highest mountain in the world, flying to the other side of the world to deposit it in my nest, returning trip after trip for a single grain of sand.  When the mountain has been leveled to  a plain, a single day of eternity shall have passed.

Dostoevsky, my summer’s mountain;  my summer’s eternity.

1 thought on “Downing Dostoevsky–Book the First, Part I

  1. Nathan H.

    The Peavy translations read much smoother and easier than the Constance Garnett ones, though I am a fan of Garnett. Just a thought to ease the burden.

    Then again, I am doing the same task this summer simply because I enjoy Dostoevsky.


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