Dostoevsky Project Wrap-Up #3: Final Thoughts (part A) – The Experience of All This Reading

(It turns out I’ll make this final post multi-parted.  Just too much to say…)

By my estimation, Dostoevsky’s published works run somewhere between 7500 and 8000 pages.  That means I’ve read more words written by him (at least published words) than by any other human being.  I might have come close with George Eliot when I was in college.  But her collected works probably are more in the 5000 page range.  There’s also Proust, seven volumes each around 600 pages (?), but still not quite up to the level of the Dostoevsky books.  I guess Neal Stephenson might be close too, because those books are huge, but they’re also such lighter fare, it’s apples and oranges.

It’s probably worth asking why I wanted to do this, or why I followed through with it.  I’m really not sure.

The experience of reading almost all of these books was kind of like an experience I have nearly every day – eavesdropping on annoying conversations people are having in public.  I know everyone does this, but I’ve often thought I had a real problem with it.  Like, once such a conversation starts (and the more annoying and shallow the more this is true) I simply cannot concentrate on anything else I’m trying to do, whether I’m reading, writing, or talking with someone (presumably less annoying) who’s sitting with me.

When I overhear these sorts of conversations, their internal logic obsesses me.  I become preoccupied in a very powerful way with establishing the boundaries of such a person’s character by listening to them talk.  I listen keenly for little bits of proper-noun-type knowledge from which I make deductions.  I pick up on turns of phrase such a person uses repeatedly, syntactic tics they exhibit, moments when they seem nervous about what the others in their conversation will think of them, moments when they seem to notice me listening, things that my presence makes them talk about they wouldn’t have otherwise talked about, whether and how often they fidget, how they modulate the sound of their voice, how opinions expressed later on in the conversation contradict with or make sense in light of things said earlier, how selfish they sound, how self-involved, how judgmental, how much the conversation is equal or how much one person dominates and the other person just says “uh huh” over and over, how well the people seem to know each other, whether the people like each other or are just tolerating each other’s presence, whether one likes the conversation and the other doesn’t… I could go on.

I become quite literally obsessed with this.  It puts me in a terrible mood – “annoyance” seems like too simple of a term to say how I feel then (though I do feel better if I have someone to share the annoyance with, so we can both joke about it together).  By the end of a four-hour flight or a two-hour train ride where some of these interlocutors are within earshot, I feel exhausted and trapped.  I will put on earphones and try to listen to music, only to discover their voices seeping in between songs, or at moments when the music is quieter, or really, you can hear them the whole time.  You just don’t hear whole sentences, but it’s still the tone that permeates.  And it could be any old tone – once I’ve heard a few minutes of it, and identified its principal annoying features, I am transfixed.  As I reflect on this, I realize it’s not that much different from the feeling I get when I can’t sleep.  Then it’s my voice that’s annoying me, or at least its tone.  Things are turned over and over again, they are impossible to turn down; music doesn’t help then either.

Reading Dostoevsky has something in common with eavesdropping on strangers’ conversations or lying awake in bed and being unable to sleep.  The voices of the characters and the narrator take on such tones that you are forced to reckon with their annoyances, verbal tics, and syntax until the book is over.  I’m trying to make a point beyond just that the characters’ voices are “realistic.”  In fact, they’re not always.  It’s not that they’re “so real you almost feel like you’re there” (standard boilerplate from by C students).  It’s the mode of their realism I’m trying to isolate and describe.  Reading a character’s diatribe, a narrator’s description of a character’s shifting mental state, or a complicated seven-way manic-and-drunken argument becomes sort of like trying to integrate a pair of gears without putting in the clutch.  Your brain is spinning at one speed, and has one size of teeth on its gears, and then the novel has another.  The two touch and spark, you’re pushed away from them for a few sentences (or even paragraphs) then they bump again, and eventually, the two are going at the same speed, become intertwined, and cannot be disconnected.  But then each time you pick up the book, the same process repeats itself.  I suppose you could say the same for all authors, but it’s especially apparent (to me anyway) with Dostoevsky.

I know that doesn’t sound like a real reason to read 7500 pages of text written in the 19th century and translated from Russian.  It’s not a reason in the sense of a compelling normative utterance, I’m sure, but it’s something like an explanation for what happened to me over the course of these two years.

But then, the question remains, what did I get from all of this?  I did actually have the help of two significant secondary sources – all along the way, Joseph Frank’s five-volume Dostoevsky, and at the end, after having finished all the original Dostoevsky writing, Mikhail Bakhtin’s Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics.  These two works represent two significant, and significantly opposed ways of reading Dostoevsky – the one “top down” and the other “bottom up.”  I will try to explain the opposition in my next post.

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