Dostoyevsky’s Chaos and Form

Reading Dostoevsky’s Memoirs from the House of the Dead and some relevant parts of Joseph Frank’s Dostoyevsky, The Years of Ordeal, 1850-59 brings into focus what I think I find most interesting in Dostoevsky’s novels. The narrative texture of Memoirs from the House of the Dead is very different from his other novels in that Dostoevsky avoids didacticism and narrates using what is almost a direct reportage style. Nowadays we’d classify it as fictionalised autobiography.

The flat narrative texture is far less forgiving and shows up the imperfections in Dostoevsky’s form to a greater degree than the other novels. It recalls the Beckett quote that I wrote about once before:

…there will be new form…and this new form will be of such a type that it admits the chaos and does not try to say that the chaos is really something else…That is why the form itself becomes a preoccupation, because it exists as a problem separate from the material it accommodates. To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.

In a sense, Dostoevsky steals a march on Beckett’s 1961 comments by finding a form that accommodates his chaotic themes, characters, all the stuff he chucks into his narrative. Style and artistry are secondary to his psychological intuition. The insight that lies within Dostoevsky’s ideas and thoughts are what makes his novels so interesting, and so worthwhile to read and ponder.

2 thoughts on “Dostoyevsky’s Chaos and Form

  1. in english, one of the struggles is to write clearly and convey subtle distinctions simultaneously; i wonder if writing in Russian presents the same kind of challenges… well, he says, it must; D was seemingly adapting the writing style to the subject; using a more baroque structure for his novels and, as you say, a straight forward manner in his description of reality. so the next question is, i guess, can subtlety in Russian be translated at all? or maybe subtleties remain the same regardless of what language they”re in? how about chinese? probably i shouldn’t print this, but i’m curious…


    • It is a very good question. How does one avoid applying one’s own cultural perspectives and accompanying biases when thinking about Russian or Chinese thought? A commenter recommended Francois Julien’s The Book of Beginnings, which I believe addresses this theme.


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