Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press
Critical Essays, Reviews
Literature, Literary History, Literary Study

« Positive and Ennobling | Main | The Realm of Elegance and Grace »



Nigel Beale

Come on Dan. What about the poodles?

Frances Madeson

Mrs. Rosenberg, my Russian language teacher at U. City High, was a woman of grace—spare, but not austere. Thick gray braids coiled on her head adding inches to her stature. Behind cat-eyed glasses, her eyes would tear as she recited Vechernyy zvon, Vechernyy zvon, or flare while blasting arias from Boris Gudonov and Eugene Onegin on the portable record player brought from home for the purpose. The daughter of Jewish doctors who had fled the revolution (and who maintained a post office box stuffed with Tsarist rubles), she assigned Lermentov’s A Hero of Our Time, and softly lectured us about “the plight of the superfluous individual.” In her specially curated bundle of Russian culture, Dostoevski was nowhere to be found.

Steven Augustine

Christ, if only more comments were this amusing/picturesque/experience-grounded... what a wonderland Litblogville would be! Sigh.

Souva Chattopadhyay

A nice and off-beat take on Dostoyevsky's works. I partially agree with it. Is there any way to read the complete lecture? I am asking this because currently I'm revisiting the works of those Russian masters, like Bunin, Lermontov and Turgenev.

Eric Rosenfield

I have to say I disagree with Nabokov here quite a lot. I think he comes off as a snob and to say that Dostoevsky's characters were merely ideas dressed up as people seems to indicate that Nabokov didn't understand the complexity of Dostoevsky's characterizations.

Also, the second half of Notes from Underground is hilarious, as are many passages in the Brothers Karamazov.

Steven Augustine

"...Nabokov didn't understand the complexity of Dostoevsky's characterizations."

Well, how could he? He was merely a literary super-talent who'd read Dostoevsky in the original. He couldn't even *blog*.

Dan Green

Nabokov on "the complexity of Dostoevsky's characterizations":

"Besides all this, Dostoevski's characters have yet another remarkable feature: throughout the book they do not develop as personalities. We get them all complete at the beginning of the tale, and so they remain without any considerable changes although their surroundings may alter and the most extraordinary things may happen to them. In the case of Raskolnikov in *Crime and Punishment*, for instance, we see a man go from premeditated murder to the promise of an achievement of some kind of harmony with the outer world, but all this happens somehow from without; innerly even Raskolnikov does no go through any true development of personality, and the other heroes of Dostoevski do even less so. The only thing that develops, vacillates, takes unexpected sharp turns, deviates completely to include new people and circumstances, is the plot. . . ."


For what it's worth, here's a post I wrote about Nabokov & Dostoevsky two years ago, in which I discuss, in part, the possibility that his critical attitude wasn't always as indicated in the excerpts Dan quotes.

Steven Augustine


I read your post (from 2006) with great interest; another thing to consider is that the Nabokov of Berlin was a young man, and young men are often less recognizable to their much older selves than strangers nearby on a sidewalk.

Eric Rosenfield

"Well, how could he? He was merely a literary super-talent who'd read Dostoevsky in the original. He couldn't even *blog*. "

Heh. Logical fallacy of course. Just because Nabokov was a great writer doesn't mean he got Dostoevsky.

I'm reminded of an essay I read by TS Eliot in which he opines that Hamlet is one of Shakespeare's lesser works...

Steven Augustine

Nevertheless, what troubles me is the profound lack of a sense of proportion here. And, re: the Eliot essay: I'd have to read yours first before hazarding a comparison.

Rodney Welch

I've read Nabokov's lectures many times, and this one in particular; it's a perfect example of how a writer can best define who he is by defining who he is not, by outlining all that he dislikes about Dostoevsky. He also, for my money, delivers the single best definition of sentimentalism ever put to paper: "the non-artistic exaggeration of familiar emotions meant to evoke automatically traditional compassion in the reader."

It's also worth pointing out, as many Nabokovians have, that Nabokov was possibly responding to Dostoevsky's stature in the west in the 1950s, which as he saw it had simply gotten completely out of hand. Freud, existentialism, Dostoevsky, absurdity ... these things all kind of go together, and Nabokov had no use for any of them.

Also, he possibly wouldn't have gone on the all-out attack were it not for the fact that everyone seemed to think Dostoevsky ranked with Tolstoy (whom VN revered.)

Also, keep in mind that Nabokov's attack was mainly aimed at "Crime and Punishment," which he was teaching, and he's a little less harsh on "Notes From Underground." Also, he's rather neutral on "Demons," which is one of the most truly stunning books I've ever read.

There's a problem I've always had with Nabokov's views on Dostoevsky, though. I think they are, if possible, too influential; people who come to love Nabokov's novels almost invariably come to love him and his notoriously strong opinions, and so they tend to discard Dostoevsky out of hand. If the great Nabokov rejected him, why in the world should I bother -- so goes the thinking, particularly among immature readers. I must admit, whenever I read Dostoevsky, I sometimes find it hard to get Nabokov out of my head.

It pays to separate the two. Dostoevsky was not Nabokov's kind of writer; he was not a graceful stylist and his works did not have the kind of high structural craft that Nabokov so enjoyed in Tolstoy or Austen or Dickens or Joyce. You will not see in Dostoevsky many mirror-like reflections and refractions, no intricately-woven trail of images. Dostoevsky's strength is philosophical and psychological -- he penetrates the illusions and delusions of his characters, and he digs very deeply, and I think when his novels work, that's the reason.

Don't reject one for the other -- let the two of them fight it out in your imagination.

But I agree with Dan that Feodor just isn't all that funny.


There are some utterly (and very possibly intentionally) hilarious scenes in Idiot.

Souva: Nabokov's Lectures on Russian Literature is, I think, still in print.

The overrating of FD in the post-WWII U.S. may have been part of a Cold War Liberal moralism that VN thought inappropriate to literary study: good for him. But his view is indeed best read, like Twain's comments on Austen and Cooper or Baldwin's on noir fiction and "Protest Fiction," as the work of an artist carving out a distinctive place for himself: I feel no great obligation to side with Baldwin against James M. Cain or vice versa. Dostoevsky, Cervantes, and Dickens are rather better than VN was willing to give them credit for being --in the case of Fyodor, I find René Girard's first book a useful "way in" to appreciating his efforts.

Steven Augustine

"Dostoevsky, Cervantes, and Dickens are rather better than VN was willing to give them credit for being..."

I think the ultimate point is that no one can be proven "wrong" or "right" for thinking more, or less, of these, or any, artists. I only object to someone who's never (presumably) read Dostoevsky in the original (as a native speaker) opining that Nabokov didn't "get" Dostoevsky. Evangelical zeal can be great but it can be grating, too. I happen to love Harold Brodkey's work but almost everyone I know who's read him finds him unreadable. They're all careful readers and I'm sure they "get" him... they just don't *like* his work. Fair enough.

Steven Augustine

PS "I only object to someone who's never (presumably) read Dostoevsky in the original..."

To be clear: not a reference to your comment, Josh


I dont really agree with Nabokov (though I too cannot digest D's messianic slavophilism and harping on christian suffering); only his point about Dostoevsky's sentimentality and his outrage at the ending of Crime and Punishment I'm willing to take seriously. I have read D only in english translation and so commenting on style would be rather difficult, but yes my opinion is that in parts (especially Brother's Karamazov) his writing becomes too cumbersome and superficial. Bakhtin's analysis of Dostoevsky (in 'Problem of Dostoevsky's poetics')- carnivalization and polyphony has impressed me more. 'The Gambler' I believe is a expertly crafted novella, one of my favourite. So are some of D's shorter works like 'Bobok' and 'The eternal husband' even his early 'White Nights'.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)

The Art of Disturbance--Available as Pdf and Kindle Ebook
Literary Pragmatism--Available as a Pdf