Dostoevsky published his first novel, Poor Folk, in 1846. Three years later he was sentenced to death for membership of a group planning to publish revolutionary pamphlets. He was told that his sentence had been commuted whilst facing the firing squad—an experience recounted in The Idiot (1868). He served ten years in Siberian labour camps, before returning to St Petersburg and a life of magazine publishing, writing, bouts of gambling, and constant indebtedness.
His novels, among the greatest ever written, explore characters whose behaviour, in extreme situations, is contradictory and paradoxical. They also tackle big ideas. In his lifetime some critics accused him of melodrama and even of ‘metaphysical obscenity’. Start with Crime and Punishment (1866) in which poverty-stricken ex-student Raskolnikov decides to murder a greedy moneylender. Raskolnikov's motives are rational; the evil old woman's death will be no loss to mankind, and he can give her wealth to more deserving people. But his disturbed mind makes it difficult for him to cling to his own motives; even before the murder, he is tormented by doubt and self-loathing. After the murder his guilt, rage, and distress intensify; he is pursued with uncanny cleverness by a detective who seems able to read his mind, and encounters a range of characters who seem to embody the different attitudes he has to his own guilt, ranging from self-indulgent, amoral Svidrigailov to innocent, God-fearing, loving Sonya. This novel plunges the reader into an intense, nightmarish world where it is at times impossible to tell the characters' dreams from reality; as Dostoevsky later wrote of himself: ‘I am a realist in a higher sense; that is, I depict all the depths of the human soul.’
Dostoevsky's handling of suspense is masterly; in Crime and Punishment every scene turns the screw and it is impossible to guess whether Raskolnikov will eventually be arrested, escape, give himself up, or kill himself. In Dostoevsky's masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov (1880), suspense is created by the murder of an old man by one of his sons. There are three of them, and a bastard half-brother who works for his father as cook. Dmitri, the oldest, is passionate, violent, and desperate for money, and seems most likely to be guilty; Ivan is an intellectual and atheist, subject to terrible despair; while Alyosha, the youngest, has love and faith and compassion (without any kind of priggishness) for all. The structure of a murder mystery provides a framework inside which Dostoevsky explores the depths of the mind under extreme pressure, the selfish and destructive nature of romantic love, and argues for and against the existence of God. If this sounds daunting—and the first ninety pages are daunting, being largely concerned with the death of a monastic elder—persevering with this book is one of the most rewarding reading experiences ever.
Of Dostoevsky's other brilliant novels and stories, there is only space here to recommend one: Notes From Underground (1864), which opens with characteristic directness: ‘I am a sick man … I am an angry man. I am an unattractive man. I think there is something wrong with my liver.’
Franz Kafka, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy. See RUSSIA JR