THE BLOG
11/11/2014 07:33 pm ET Updated Jan 11, 2015

A Purveyor of Truth: The Writer's Life (Part 2)

The way Notes From the Underground was written itself marked a shift in both personal and professional philosophies for Dostoevsky. It must be remembered that at this point in history, what we now know as the novel was still in its nascent stages of development. The fact that Dostoevsky wrote Notes From the Underground from first person perspective marks a dramatic shift in technical skill. In fact, almost all pieces were written in third person; and philosophies, if they were espoused, were not taken directly from the narrator, dare they be the words of the author himself.

Notes From the Underground took only a year to complete; in a whirlwind of creativity, Dostoevsky was able to revolutionize the inchoate art known as the novel; simultaneously defying personal and professional expectations. When the novel was published shortly thereafter, critics and the general public responded with applause.

Though he was certainly not the first to weave together creative writing and piety, Dostoevsky, for his part, manifested questions of faith throughout his novel -- and particularly more so after his brother's death in Notes From the Underground. However, he was able to introduce philosophy into his work in a way that was never seen before. Indeed, the novel as a treatise had not been conceptualized in the way Dostoevsky wrote it. For his part, the author was able manifest not merely a profound story, but a profound piece of philosophy that transcended a simple parable. This, concomitant with a newly stylized means of writing, propelled the literature to new heights: in the ways it was perceived as a serious art, its ability to convey serious, philosophical thought and its malleability as a creative form.

Dostoevsky abandoned Russia a few years after with a new bride. He would not return for many years -- stricken by both the desire to see Western Europe, and escape the Russian world (and the haunting memories), that followed him. And, directly in line with his skepticism of the Notes From the Underground a few years after the publication of the aforementioned novel (1869), Dostoevsky, in a letter to his publisher, N. Maikov, states:

A great number of things, which I cannot do without, have been left behind in Russia! Did I or did I not tell you that I had a certain literary idea (a novel, a parable on atheism), compared with which all my previous literary career has been negligible, a preface merely, and to which I am going to devote all my subsequent life? But I cannot write it here; utterly impossible; I absolutely must be in Russia. Without Russia I can't write it...

The liberation of the serfs--those same serfs that killed his father--seems somehow contradictory to his personal motivations. And without religion, what motivation could Dostoevsky have had to truly promote this radical shift in society? Herein lies some of the consistency the author always possessed. Indeed, whether by piety--or through existential crisis--Dostoevsky was profoundly impacted by human suffering and the rights of man.

By the time The Brothers Karamazov was finished in 1880, Dostoevsky was recognized as one of the greatest living authors. His canon was well known and highly respected by the public and critics alike. Few questioned his intellect. However, conflict still surrounded the aging author. His life crises had played out through his work. Yet the question remained: had the author himself reconciled himself to his tragedies, and the piety--or lack thereof--that accompanied it?

He was married again, this time to Anna Grigoryevna Snitkina. Yet this relationship appears no less fraught than his first marriage to Maria. Very shortly into the marriage, they lost their first child; this was not uncommon for the mid to late 19th century. However, Dostoevsky was apparently terribly distraught by the incident, with immediately turned Anna against him. She went so far as to state that he: "wept and sobbed like a woman in despair."

Fyodor's emotions--and passions, still mired him in doubt, despite his best intentions. Dostoevsky's self-imposed exile from Russia from 1864-71 was intended to help him heal from his tragedies. Yet, as mentioned previously, he quickly sunk into old behaviors. His philosophical milieu of this period is well documented in Crime and Punishment and The Idiot. The radical existentialism he espoused earlier in his career certainly did not lose any force moving into the next few pieces. Religion now seemed a distinct afterthought--particularly when compared to his earlier self. He returned to Russia in 1871 after selling off most of his possessions, in dire need of financial assistance.

He published a few novels during the next few years, solidifying his wealth while maintaining his status as a brilliant writer. It was not until he began work on The Brothers Karamazov however, that the true immensity of personal struggles and philosophies would come to fruition. Indeed, the novel was not finished until 1880--less than a year before Dostoevsky died. Suffering through epileptic seizures, the death of another child, and the continued burden of writing, Fyodor managed to complete the manuscript.

In it, he would reveal more of his personal life than he ever had before. He would also, in his progressed age, harken back to the religious life that had seemingly been abandoned years previous.

In The Brothers Karamazov, three siblings compete for the affection and wealth of their father. The youngest, Alyosha, wishes to become a monk. The oldest, Ivan, thinks only of finances. And the middle child, Dmitri, is driven by his passions. Though clearly an analogy for the tripartite model of Christ, these brothers also serve as different pieces of Dostoevsky himself. As much as he seemingly exalts these brothers--and no one more so than Alyosha--he mocks their qualities as well. It seems counterintuitive to think Dostoevsky would turn his back on every philosophical point, every religious tenet, every family member, he held dear during his lifetime. Yet time and time again throughout the novel, Dostoevsky finds fault in all ideologies and people he superficially held fast to during his lifetime.

In one moment, a character admits:

'I love mankind, he said, 'but I find to my amazement that the more I love mankind as a whole, the less I love man in particular.' (Book 2, Chapter 4)

One would find it easy to think of this as his admission of the same
existentialist turmoil he had become famous for--of the same ideology he helped popularize. The perspective in The Brothers Karamazov, however, would not be nearly as succinct.

In one of the most renowned parts of the novel, entitled The Grand Inquisitor, Dostoevsky lashes out at not only his religion, but also his philosophy. Nothing, it seems, would escape the writer's wrath. He writes: "Nothing has ever been more insupportable for a man and a human society than freedom." Anyone familiar with Dostoevsky's canon will immediately draws back upon reading this. How could Dostoevsky reject both his religious life and the philosophical movement that gained him fame?

Existentialist philosophy appears to be replaced with existential guilt. And the Russian Orthodoxy Dostoevsky grew up with--the word that guided him through so many periods of personal reconciliation--appears to be a subject for fodder. As the author states in The Brothers Karamazov:

There is only one salvation for you: take yourself up, and make yourself responsible for all the sins of men. For indeed it is so, my friend, and the moment you make yourself sincerely responsible for everything and everyone, you will see at once that it is really so, that it is you who are guilty on behalf of all and for all. Whereas by shifting your own laziness and powerlessness onto others, you will end by sharing in Satan's pride and murmuring against God. (Book 6, Chapter 3)

Dostoevsky's struggles--and his genius--were undoubtedly dependent on one another. Continuity never truly existed for the writer. In the few moments of stability, Dostoevsky seemed aligned by his belief in God. However, more often than not, he existed in a perpetual state of tumult. It was this tumult, though, that produced some of the greatest literature of the 19th century.

To understand Dostoevsky's genius is to know his story; as great as the novels he produced, his life informed his work, and vice versa. For the writer, a simple life will never suffice. For Dostoevsky, perhaps the complexity that surrounded him was greater than he would have ever asked for. Yet it produced some of the greatest literature man has known. These pieces stand as equally complex--equally as riddling and provocative--as the days they were written. And so does Fyodor Dostoevsky's brilliance.