Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn

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Hello! I hope you had a happy Mother’s Day. I’ve finished with my final exams at last which is very exciting.

I’ve also just got two super-new books in the mail, one called Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri and the other called A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders, and…

…and you’ll have to wait until next week for my reviews of them.

In the meantime, I’ve read two less-new books. Both are about prison for some reason. Hopefully they’ll tide you over until next week.

The House of the Dead, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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“In our convict establishment there were men whom I was familiar with for several years, and whom I looked upon as wild beasts and abhorred as such; well, all of a sudden, when I least expected it, these very men would exhibit such an abundance of feeling of the best kind, so keen a comprehension of the sufferings of others, seen in the light of the consciousness of their own, that one might almost fancy scales had fallen from their eyes. So sudden was it as to cause stupefaction; one could scarcely believe one’s eyes or ears. Sometimes it was just the other way: educated men, well brought up, would occasionally display a savage, cynical brutality which nearly turned one’s stomach, conduct of a kind impossible to excuse or justify, however much you might be charitably inclined to do so.”

The House of the Dead was a very interesting book. Dostoyevsky wrote it based on his experiences in Siberian prison, and it felt more like a memoir than a piece of fiction. It was especially interesting because Dostoyevsky described a few people who sounded an awful lot like characters in his future works, like The Brothers Karamazov.

For some reason the protagonist came off like a scientist. He was always like, “Something interesting about the prisoners was XYZ” or, “Many people might expect prisoners to be like ABC, but in reality, they weren’t,” or, “As my time in prison went on, I came to more fully understand the psychology of LMNOP.” Because the protagonist felt so much like an outsider, it also sometimes felt like he wasn’t really in the prison with everyone else.

Contrast that with Solzhenitsyn’s huge nonfictional book, The Gulag Archipelago (review coming whenever I finish reading it) where he takes a similar kind of systematic approach to examining the USSR’s gulags. However, in his case, every single page (so far) is brimming with his anguish about being a prisoner in the gulags.

One great thing about Dostoyevsky’s book was that he was very good at seeing the good in the bad (like in the quote above). I felt like I got to understand the prisoners very well. It reminded me a lot of James Berry’s My Experiences as an Executioner for this reason, except that Dostoyevsky’s book felt much less grim (thankfully). This humanity alone makes The House of the Dead worth reading.

Even so, there was a lot of repetition. Dostoyevsky literally wrote things like, “Prisoner X was a cobbler who got into prison because of ABC and now he worked in prison smuggling vodka,” and then went on in a later chapter to retell this prisoner’s story with exactly the same details as if the reader had never heard of him before. Or he’d write about how Prisoner Y stole the protagonist’s Bible once and then told him about it not out of guilt but out of pity for the fact that he’d spent so long searching for it. Several chapters later, Dostoyevsky would retell this story as if he were introducing Prisoner Y for the very first time.

I was listening to this on audiobook, so I felt like I was being told the same story over and over again by someone who kept forgetting what he’d just told me.

The House was also surprisingly unfocused. Dostoyevsky would start a scene with a character entering the prison kitchen, then ramble on for a long time about everything but the character who’d entered the kitchen. Finally, he’d meander back to the character who’d entered the kitchen, but by then I’d forgotten all about him and why he was relevant. Then Dostoyevsky would say something very brief about the character getting called out of the kitchen, and that would be the last we’d see of the character for the whole book. Or he’d go on about the prison’s vodka-smuggling business but then start talking about the bath-houses in the prison and then the first time he’d done hard labor, and his last days in prison, and so on, without any real sense of why he was telling these things other than the fact that he felt like it.

So overall, I’d say this book was very good in terms of its psychological and human insights. I also got the sense that Dostoyevsky was transformed by his experience in prison. That makes this book interesting to read, but it absolutely does not make it his best.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,
by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

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“He began eating [….] This was it. This was good. This was the brief moment for which a prisoner lives. For a little while, Shukov forgot all his grievances, forgot that his sentence was long, that the day was long, that once again there would be no Sunday. For the moment he had only one thought: We shall survive. We shall survive it all. God willing, we’ll see the end of it.”

This is another book about prisons, written by another Russian ex-prisoner named Alexander Solzhenitsyn. His book was literally published 100 years after Dostoyevsky’s account of prison-life (Dostoyevsky’s in 1862 and Solzhenitsyn’s in 1962).

It was interesting to see what changed and what stayed the same. For instance, prisoners could rely on going to the hospital to get reprieve in Dostoyevsky’s time, but this was no longer the case in Solzhenitsyn’s time. However, prisoners still stole each other’s belongings in both accounts, even if prisoners in Solzhenitsyn’s book seemed to show slightly more camaraderie than the ones in Dostoyevsky’s account.

On its own terms, One Day chronicled a day in the life of a fictional prisoner named Ivan Denisovich Shukov. It was told very mundanely: He woke up, pretended to be sick, failed to get admitted to the infirmary, went to get a meal, knew the best way to hide his food in his jacket, and so on. It was very casual in that way. I kept expecting something dramatic to happen but it never did.

In the meantime, I was continually surprised by how much meaning people could find in small things, like a spoon or a piece of bread or a cigar-stub.

Understatement also made the book’s ending more powerful. I won’t spoil it, but it really put life into perspective.

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Hugo, Dickens, and Dostoyevsky

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Hello! I hope you are all well. I have reviewed three great books for today. Beforehand, I tried to read other books (like Moby Dick and The Red and the Black) but I couldn’t get through them, even though I’m sure they are also great books. Meanwhile:

Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo

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“[Javert’s] brow was not visible; it disappeared beneath his hat: his eyes were not visible, since they were lost under his eyebrows: his chin was not visible, for it was plunged in his cravat: his hands were not visible; they were drawn up in his sleeves: and his cane was not visible; he carried it under his coat. But when the occasion presented itself, there was suddenly seen to emerge from all this shadow, as from an ambuscade, a narrow and angular forehead, a baleful glance, a threatening chin, enormous hands, and a monstrous cudgel.”

I saw the musical first, then read the book. The book is better.

It’s also super-long, but somehow it’s still interesting. It’s about the French Revolution and focuses on a criminal named Jean Valjean who strives for redemption while being pursued by an inspector named Javert. It’s also about the lovers, Marius and Cosette, a feisty kid named Gavroche, and many others. It’s also about sewers.

The sewers are a digression. There are a lot of digressions in Les Mis that try to develop the writer’s ideas about the problems in France and how to solve them.

If the book just consisted of digressions, it would have been boring. Fortunately, there’s also a fascinating story with well-written scenes and vivid characters. Hugo wasn’t afraid to explore the highs and the lows of life. That means the reader can become super-involved with the story to the point that he or she doesn’t mind the digressions as much. Maybe that was just my experience, but maybe it will be yours, too.

David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens

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“We went downstairs, one behind another. Near the bottom, somebody fell, and rolled down. Somebody else said it was Copperfield. I was angry at that false report, until, finding myself on my back in the passage, I began to think there might be some foundation for it. A very foggy night, with great rings round the lamps in the streets! There was an indistinct talk of its being wet. I considered it frosty [….] A man, sitting in a pigeon-hole-place, looked out of the fog, and took money from somebody, inquiring if I was one of the gentlemen paid for, and appearing rather doubtful (as I remember in the glimpse I had of him) whether to take the money for me or not. Shortly afterwards, we were very high up in a very hot theatre, looking down into a large pit, that seemed to me to smoke; the people with whom it was crammed were so indistinct.”

This book is filled with surprises.

For one, I read Dickens when I was younger and found him uninteresting, but maybe I was too young to enjoy it, because this book was surprisingly-good.

David Copperfield is about David Copperfield. That’s it (I’m kidding). David Copperfield is a boy in Victorian England who endures hardships and grows up to become a famous writer. The story starts out detailing Copperfield’s hard upbringing. Later on, the scope widens to include the numerous subplots he becomes involved with. It is here where he meets notorious characters like Mr. Micawber and Uriah Heep.

Dickens tries to tie everything together at the end, and partially succeeds. A lot of the book is truly impactful due to plot twists that work out amazingly. Other parts (including the very end) are super-contrived due to plot twists that don’t work.

Parts of the book made me think Dickens was anticipating the advent of cinema. He included the literary equivalents of jump-cuts and time-lapses, for instance (like in the passage I quoted). This made the book feel surprisingly modern.

Another surprise to me is that, while Dickens is sometimes thought of as a depressing writer, I didn’t find that to be the case. Yes, he occasionally writes about depressing topics, but the story’s outlook on life is much more hopeful than depressing. It’s like the difference between a story that recounts tragedies and is suffused with a sentiment of, “Everything is awful” and a story that recounts tragedies but whose spirit is more, “All is not lost, there can still be hope.” Maybe that is just the way I see it. I’d love to hear your thoughts about this if you have read Dickens.

The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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“It’s God that’s worrying me. That’s the only thing that’s worrying me. What if He doesn’t exist? What if Rakitin’s right—that it’s an idea made up by men? Then if He doesn’t exist, man is the chief of the earth, of the universe. Magnificent! Only how is he going to be good without God? That’s the question. I always come back to that. For whom is man going to love then? To whom will he be thankful? To whom will he sing the hymn? Rakitin laughs. Rakitin says that one can love humanity without God. Well, only a sniveling idiot can maintain that.”

I found this book somewhat interesting and somewhat boring.

The idea of the main plot is interesting. A guy named Dmitri Karamazov is accused of murdering his father. His two other brothers, Ivan and Alyosha, are horrified, and chaos ensues.

The rest of the book is somewhat boring. It’s filled with all sorts of philosophical talk that sometimes seem relevant to the characters and sometimes don’t. I found the relevant philosophizing to be interesting, but not the irrelevant philosophizing.

Overall, while Dostoyevsky seemed keen on developing every nuance of every thought, he seemed to do it at the expense of telling an engaging story. Unlike in the case of Les Mis, I didn’t find that the remainder of The Brothers Karamazov could make the digressions worthwhile. In Les Mis, you could take out the digressions and still have a good experience. In Dostoyevsky, if you take out the philosophizing, you’re not left with much that’s actually interesting (other than the idea of the plot).

In Les Mis, the plot is interesting and the characters are interesting, because they have consistent and understandable motivations. In The Brothers Karamazov, the characters are unfathomable and inconsistent. That’s perfectly alright in the emotionally-fraught scenes where the characters themselves probably don’t understand themselves. However, this also happens in less-tense scenes. For instance, a lot of this book consists of the youngest brother, Alyosha, desperately wanting to see one of his other brothers, only for him to conveniently forget about them a second later when Dostoyevsky wants to develop other characters instead. After a scene of developing the character of Mrs. So-and-So, Alyosha would suddenly remember, “Oh yes! I desperately need to visit my brother! I can’t believe I forgot that!”

So in the end, I found that Dostoyevsky’s book has big philosophical digressions and unfathomable characters.

I will say that I found one part of the book interesting. It’s a subplot that stars a bunch of kids who act consistently and also philosophize. The only difference is that their philosophizing is relevant to their characters, and doesn’t bog the story down. If the rest of the book could have been like that, I would have loved it.

As it is, it’s great that Dostoyevsky explored his ideas about the future of Russia, but I was left wondering why he did so in story-form when the story itself doesn’t seem exciting enough to make all the philosophy worth it. Then again, these are just my thoughts in the 21st century. I would imagine that this book would have been very exciting to read when it was originally published. Also, I would imagine that this book is still very exciting for people to read in the 21st century. Maybe you’ll find it more engaging than I did. If you don’t, there’s always the juggling group called the Flying Karamazov Brothers.

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Keep healthy, keep safe, and keep reading!