Along with the land, water, air, and fire, money is the fifth element that, in any case, man needs to consider most often. In this fact lies the causes, if not the main reason, for which today, one hundred years after his death, the works of Dostoyevsky still keep a modern character. -Joseph Brodsky, Regarding Dostoyevsky (1980)-.
The life of Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky is marked by several happenings and circumstances. Regarding the events that gave shape to his life and vision of the world, the most striking comes from his detention, sentence to death, execution simulation, and the long years of forced labour in Siberia. This way, the life of the writer is deeply divided into three parts: before his detention (1821-1849); forced labour and deportation (1849-1859), and his period of maturity and greatest works (1859-1881).
The first period is characterized by a prose where the characteristic lines of the writer begin to be drafted: the small man as a great protagonist, the overwhelmed world of this being within an environment marked by the autocratic and bureaucratic order of the Imperial Russia. Following the steps of Balzac, Dickens, or Sue, the author goes into the soul of the man in the street, which are at the end of the day his readers. Dostoyevsky will become very early the narrator of the soul's movements.
After a childhood marked by the grayness of the public hospital in which his father worked as a medic and engineering studies that are completely away from his interests, the literary success reached the author quite early. But the push of this success made him land in the Peter and Paul prison-fortress. But before arriving to this dramatic event, it would make sense to refer in our conference to his infancy and adolescence, and the relationship with his father that we have mentioned.
Regardless of the pain and inevitable deprivation -or who knows, maybe precisely due to the suffering experienced- the imprisonment period became a time of harvest. Even the author himself will confess to his brother Mikhail that the “House of the Dead” compiles more stories than the ones he would be able to tell along the rest of his life.
Again, after the years in prison, success would arrive, only stained by the facility with which he loss money in gambling and due to his many obligations with his relatives. As a matter of fact, we could say that thanks to all his deprivations, and to the only way he could face them: writing, we have received a very extensive and profound set of works.
In summary, the work of Dostoyevsky is a ruthless walk along the trail where sins wander. Guilt and sin are the key elements in the work from this narrator of the human soul. But lets make a stop in some of his works which will be addressed in this presentation. From the work of his early career we will make a stop in White Nights and maybe in The double. White Nights is a fantastic voyage to human kindness and The double takes us to the difficult and painful clash between the human soul and the mechanisms, or even better machinery, of the State.
EM>The House of the Dead -where goodness, love and charity share floor in a hellish prison with murderer, robbing and humiliation- is the first balance of the author’s imprisonment experience where the character rescued, the one resurrected from the dead, shows us the world he has managed to survive, but which will live within him for the rest of his life. But before that, the narrator’s pen will go through other smaller characters and larger feelings. . A Weak Heart or Nétochka Nezvánova can be proof of this.
But for the surprise of the reader, the feverish adventure of the human soul runs along the rest of his narrative creations: the fascinating transmutation that the reality in the minds and souls of the protagonists suffer, advance from The double -probably the most disturbing approach to the schizophrenic universe of bureaucracy (that new modern order that nowadays we can still define as “kafkian”)- and up to The Landlady or Polzunkov, whose name relates to reptiles, creatures that crawl between their infernal stigma and their status of humiliation. The Landlady can still be considered in the present as a good laboratory of the deformation and delusion a weaker personality can go through due to another stronger and more attractive personality.
Until his imprisonment, Dostoyevsky sees his mission as a evangelic and transforming task: bringing the light provided by the potential human kindness to the darkness of a society submerged in humiliation and poverty. But in EM>The House of the Dead everything changes. The novel is no longer an allegation in favour of a better world, but in favour of a better human being. The imprisonment experience of the “House of the Dead” in words of the own author, is a trip through the horror of the prison world, but with an emphasis on the following revelation: mankind is capable of anything, from the most hideous crime, to the most uninterested or suicidal kindness. Or putting it another way, like the author himself wrote in the draft of Crime and Punishment: “NB. The last line in the novel. The paths in which God finds man are unfathomable.”
Among his principle works, Crime and Punishment shines. A mature novel where together with the a polyphony of voices, the author offers us a picture of its time and its moral creed, while at the same time tries to open our eyes to sins –the religious understanding of crime- and repentance. In regards to EM>Crime and Punishment, this creation marks the point of maturity of the author, and for many is the finalization of the process that started at the beginning of his literary career. The novel summarizes the key concerns of Dostoyevsky; freedom is what makes a man be a man. This is, his responsibility, he is the only one who can stand up for his actions. But apart from the myriad of thoughts included in the novel, we cannot forget about its huge literary power, the unmatched capacity of the author to drag us into the experiences of the different characters.
In The idiot -where the disturbing personality of prince Mishkin intends to be a fusion of Christ and Don Quixote, as described by the own author- Dostoyevsky already speculates about the toxic nature of goodness in our world; it is clear that in order to access happiness, goodness is not the best way to go. The close relation that author had with his own world and time is also expressed in another of his principle novels, a creation that he repeatedly calls “a pamphlet”. Demons are almost a reply to a publicity impulse. Just as he explains it in one of his letters, he needs to make his voice heard “even if I am accused of being pamphletary”. A real event obliges the author to speak out his thoughts about those building false paradises in Earth, the fake sellers of future happiness based in past and present destruction and death. Demons was strongly criticized in its day, and is still read in the present as a premonition which was ignored by his peers, a prophecy of what currently is named by many “real socialism”.
Nevertheless, the narrations which from my perspective are most disturbing, from the point of view of both metaphysics and psycology are Notes from Underground and, among the stories included in A Writer's Diary, The Dream of a Ridiculous Man. In both, the author goes beyond the limits our culture sets between sanity and madness. In the first one, Dostoyevsky tends to absurdity and looks from the most perverse dimension at the behaviour of the “superfluous man”, an unsatisfied character who is worried for the evolution of society, yet completely incapable of transforming it. It is the archetype of a Russian intellectual, a weak man in the hands of the author that goes from being an idealist to becoming a spiteful and treacherous creature. This is what happens with the lonely voice of the ridiculous man, which causes more disgust than laughter even in his most elevated expressions, like when it is stated that no noble act is worth the tear of a little girl.
Another immersion into the a world of moral and vital doubts is The Adolescent, a novel that for some reason is always considered secondary among the creations of the author. Here, Dostoyevsky already suffering from old age and illness, nevertheless explores the soul of a youngster that painfully balances between the earthly realm of success and the natural aspiration to goodness and “true” happiness. Among the complex chorus of characters, the young Arkadi debates in first person between the disturbing and passionate personality of Versilov, and the moral example of his legal father that incarnates the author’s own ideals.
And if The idiot is an experiment –what would happen if a being as similar as possible to Christ, a 19th Century Don Quixote, would arrive among us to the 19th Century society of Saint Petersburg, what would be the effect of goodness– The Brothers Karamázov is a return to the internal struggle of the author between sin and responsibility. In the sound and psychological polyphony of the last novel written by Dostoyevsky, the character of a father and his sons, the Karamázov, build an entire arch of ethic sensibilities. in opposition to a never-ending list of characters. Although The Brothers Karamázov was initially proposed as a new literary and spiritual cycle of the author, it turned out to be his last literary adventure. His final legacy to the World in which apparently Dostoyevsky makes his final twist: all brothers, in a way or other, are responsible for the tragic fate of their father Fiódor Karamázov. It is not only that each of us is responsible for our own actions, the prophet’s main lesson –which will not be listened, as it is usually the case with any prophet-, but we are also responsible for everything that happens in this world.
In parallel to his last works, during his last 20 years of life the author also wrote A Writer's Diary, a Magnus Opus that all in all is the starting point of modern prose. The truth is that Dostoyevsky’s work is still surprisingly modern, not only because it ignores the sacred boundaries of fiction and what we call reality, but more importantly because it subjects the formal writing resources to the object narrated. In the extensive and controversial Diary, theoretical reflection are mixed with articles containing hot news, stories and fiction with essays, or what we would currently define as “documentary prose”. To finalize this short overview of Dostoyevsky’s extensive work we can say that the author is the vehicle of a superior message: the torn voice of humanity speaks, and a superior force feeds plots, feelings and reflections that are put together by the author in a narrative flow. Dostoyevsky was a man aware of his limitations who decided to transport a huge message that many felt, guessed and even discussed, but that no other has been able to capture like he did.