Say the name Dostoevsky and what do you think of?
Russian bloke? A bit mad?
Well, sure. Obviously. Anything else? What about his novels?
Crime and Punishment? The Idiot? The Devils?
How would you define those works?
I don’t know. Intense?
Yes, they’re intense to say the least. They’re all thrillers, after a fashion, novels which unstitch the threads of the human psyche and inspect the DNA that constitutes it.
They’re also loaded with social realism; unremitting poverty, the prison cell of ignorance, of homelessness, and of substance abuse. The treatment of women. Of children. Even of animals.
Sounds awesome. Uplifting.
And of course, there’s the Christian messaging that runs through his novels like an unyielding river. Misha’s Christ-like patience in The Brothers Karamazov, and his brother Dmitri’s satanic, self-destructive impulsiveness. Raskolnikov’s guilt and ultimate confession in Crime and Punishment.
Anti-rationalist. Social realist. Defender of the weak and vulnerable. Got it. Thanks.
Yes, I suppose so. Actually, I went back and read his The Humiliated and Insulted a few weeks ago. I don’t know why. I tried to read it in the original once upon a time, and though I got through it, I didn’t understand it much.
But reading it now, in English, I could see how this earlyish work set the ground for so much of what came later – the golden period of his writing.
So, a depressing read then?
Interesting, not depressing. See, all these tropes are present in the book – the weird dichotomy between genuinely good people and genuinely terrible people. The abject poverty and the impossible decisions forced upon you as a result of having no financial freedom. And of course, the Christian messaging is everywhere.
But there was something in the book that really struck me.
Besides the one thousand pages of dense prose?
Yes. Something about Ivan, the protagonist of the book.
What about him?
He constantly feels as though he is being followed, pursued by something he cannot see but can feel, that defies definition and articulation but for all that is as real as the blood that pumps through his heart.
And I remembered that Ivan is not alone in Dostoevsky’s back catalogue to experience this sensation. Freud called it the uncanny. This really strange experience you have when walking down the road, or reading a book, or doing the dishes. You feel someone’s eyes on you, you think someone is behind you. There’s this presence – thing – unidentifiable and undefinable – that has you in its sights. Have you ever felt that?
Maybe. Yes, sometimes. But there’s nothing there, right? Because if there were, you would see it.
Would you? What if it was supernatural? Or had magical powers of invincibility? Then you wouldn’t.
So Dostoevsky writes about magic?
Sort of, yes. I think. Why not? If there’s this thing, this force, that you can feel around you, and that has a psychological and sometimes physical effect on you, isn’t that magic?
Raskolnikov has this feeling throughout Crime and Punishment. Prince Myskin has it in The Idiot. The unnamed narrator of Notes from Underground experiences it all the time. The Double is practically a discussion of this feeling in novel form.
This feeling or force is often monstrous and persecutory, but it is never explained, never spelt out. And it preoccupies Dostoevsky’s characters to the point where often they are driven mad by the sensation. Is it a malevolent ghost driving them towards destruction? A wicked phantom? Is it God testing them? Or is it just a projection of their own inner states? Their guilt? Their discontent? Their alienation from life?
If you ask me, Dostoevsky’s characters have a serious case of delusion syndrome. I mean, imagining something that isn’t there. Not being able to tell the difference between what is real and what is fantasy. Pretty mad.
But isn’t that where fantasy gets its power from? The fact that it could be real? Think of some great fantasy works – the Narnia series, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Stardust, Harry Potter, His Dark Materials. It’s that intersection between reality and fantasy, between the natural and the supernatural, that’s really interesting.
And if you think about it, Shakespeare was talking about that liminal space between reality and fantasy two hundred years before Dostoevsky. Macbeth, wondering whether or not the dagger floating before him is real, ends up going mad by the prospect that the supernatural has some sort of objectivity in the world. That fantasy has entered reality, and now constitutes it:
Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
God, don’t. I suffered enough of Shakespeare at school.
Fair enough. Anyway, that’s my contention. That Dostoevsky, aside from writing about the social problems of his day in St Petersburg, as well as discussing that salvation from human stupidity and evil lies in Christ, was also pretty steeped in fantasy. Sure, there are no portals, no magicians, no dragons. But there are other worlds, worlds that are internal to a character but which they inhabit and are drawn by as much as what you and I would call ‘the real world.’ Sometimes it’s disorientating reading him. Whose world are we in now? From whose perspective are we seeing things at the moment? What is the nature of this force or feeling they are compelled by, which throws them into the future or drags them back into the shadows of the past.
Look, here’s an example of what I’m talking about.
Ivan is discussing this very force in the opening chapter of The Humiliated and Insulted.
“The sun’s rays vanished. The frost was getting sharper and beginning to numb my nose. Dusk was falling. Up and down the street the gas lamps were being lit in the shop windows. As I drew level with Müller’s coffee house I came to a dead halt and gazed across the street as though expecting something out of the ordinary to occur, and at that very instant I caught sight of the old man and his dog on the Part One humiliated and insulted 4 opposite side. I recall very well that my heart sank with some awful presentiment – but of what, for the life of me I couldn’t fathom. I’m not a mystic; I’m no believer in premonitions or fortune-telling. However, possibly like everyone else, I have experienced incidents in my life that were somewhat inexplicable. Take this old man for instance. Why did I, seeing him on that occasion, immediately feel that something rather unusual would happen to me that night?
Ivan ends up following the old man around the city, and eventually speaks with him. The old man lets him into his flat, and Ivan goes to make a cup of tea for both of them. When Ivan returns, the old man is dead.
Bad timing I guess?
Is it? The meeting with the old man, it turns out, is purely secondary. What’s important is that Ivan finds himself a flat right next door, and this is where the story jumps off from.
So, you’re saying?
Essentially, in Dostoevsky’s works, free will is really just an illusion. People are governed by a force that they cannot explain and will never be able to, yet they make decisions based upon thinking that they understand it.
Or take Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. He is in the middle of planning the murder of the old miser woman, and stealing her money. He falls asleep in the park whilst thinking about it, and Dostoevsky writes the following:
A sick man’s dreams are often extraordinarily distinct and vivid and extremely life-like. A scene may be composed of the most unnatural and incongruous elements, but the setting and the presentation are so plausible, the details so subtle, so unexpected, so artistically in harmony with the whole picture, that the dreamer could not invent them for himself in his waking state. Such morbid dreams always make a strong impression on the dreamer’s already disturbed and excited nerves, and are remembered for a long time.
The dream is brutally real. Raskolnikov dreams of an event in his childhood, when, living with his parents in the village, he witnesses a drunk peasant whip the eyes of the family horse. Others then join in ‘the fun’, beating the poor animal to death with crowbars and axes. When Raskolnikov awakens, he wonders if he can actually “take an axe. . .split her skull open. . .tread in the sticky warm blood. . .[and] hide.” At the end of the novel, he even renounces ‘that accursed dream of mine,’ as though recognising the link between dreams and reality, and how the realm of the fantastical has very real influence over reality.
OK, but what has any of this got to do with Immortal?
Well, part of the motive behind Immortal was thinking about the nature of fantasy and reality, of their definitions, and how they interact with one another. I can’t give away the plot, but I think those metaphysical questions are pretty much at the centre of the novel. What is the real? How do we know? Can fantasy ever take over reality? In what ways? Those questions led me to start thinking differently about things I take for granted. I think Immortal examines those questions well, actually.