Mention Dostoevsky to a lot of people and they will immediately picture long, gloomy novels full of the worst types of spiritual torment — as much for the reader, as for his characters. And there is a grain of truth in this. His novels, and the characters that populate them, are preoccupied with what Dostoevsky himself called the “accursed questions”: life and death, faith and doubt, good and evil. This can be hard going, even for the most ardent fan. I found re-reading Brothers Karamazov for teaching during the pandemic a real trial — the style felt very oppressive, exacerbating my already gloomy lockdown mood, which is something that hadn’t happened to me before. But that reputation – and the length of some of his novels – shouldn’t put anyone off Dostoevsky, because even when he’s dealing with exalted suffering, it’s in the context of plots that have more in common with adventure fiction than high-brow literature, and the blackest of comedies is never far away.
Dostoevsky’s own life reads like the plot of one of his novels. From youthful radicalism that saw him reprieved from a death sentence and serving four years in a Siberian hard labour camp, Dostoevsky eventually became a conservative, establishment figure. In between, suffering from epilepsy and a gambling addiction, he narrowly avoided losing the rights to all his works after signing an ill-advised contract with an unscrupulous publisher, and spent several years wandering round Europe to escape his creditors. Despite the grief of losing two of their four children, his second marriage to Anna Snitkina, who was less than half his age, ultimately brought order to his life, but without impacting on his creative methods that had seemingly thrived on chaos. On the contrary, his writing continued to flourish.
There are many places where you could start exploring this huge, rich body of writing, but here’s what I’d recommend to set you off on your Dostoevsky journey.
The Crocodile (1865) would probably not feature as many people’s starting point, but I think it should. It’s a short story about a “cultured” man, Ivan Matveich, who is swallowed whole by a crocodile being exhibited in a fashionable St Petersburg shopping arcade. Yet, from the belly of the reptile, Matveich continues to pontificate about the economic theories of the day. His predicament, and the popular spectacle it creates, have a great deal to say about property ownership, commerce, modernity, and westernisation. But as much as anything else, it’s worth reading because it’s laugh-out-loud funny, and will dispel any preconceptions about Dostoevsky being miserable, worthy, and obsessed with suffering. And the absurd scenario will show you quite how far Dostoevsky is from the sort of mid-19th century realism he’s often associated with.
If The Crocodile is Dostoevsky at his most ridiculous, then my second choice, the short story Dream of a Ridiculous Man (1877) may, ironically, represent the author at his most sublime. Here we follow the unnamed narrator — one of Dostoevsky’s much-despised radicals, an atheist, rationalist misanthrope — as he comes to the conclusion that there is no point in living. He dreams of suicide, and a journey beyond the grave to an edenic world of absolute beauty, harmony, and bliss. But is it as perfect as it seems? And what effect will the narrator’s arrival have? Crystallising some of Dostoevsky’s most important ideas, including the nature of innocence, the existence of other worlds, and how we access them, the story is the most fully developed version of a dream that also appears in his novels Demons (1872) and The Adolescent (1875). Dreams play an essential role in Dostoevsky’s fictional world, acting as premonitions, warnings, and calls of conscience, revealing the proximity of death and the potential for life. In only a few pages, the Dream of a Ridiculous Man is all of these, and more.
Winding back to the very beginning of Dostoevsky’s career, my third choice is his first original published work, the short novel Poor Folk (1846, also translated as Poor People). This may on the surface look like a fairly staid and (by the standards of the period) old-fashioned novel in letters, with sentimental overtones, but apart from the seething passions hidden just beneath the surface, it’s also an excellent place to understand how Dostoevsky conceives of and constructs characters, and how differently he does that from other writers. The story follows the unrequited love of Makar Devushkin — an impoverished, middle-aged government clerk at the bottom of St Peterburg’s bureaucratic hierarchy — for his young relative Varvara Dobroselova. Whether this is simply an innocent crush, or Devushkin is a would-be predator, and the extent to which Varvara is manipulating him, is, as so often in Dostoevsky, left to the reader to decide. But of equal interest is Devushkin’s reflection on his own poverty, and in particular on how he is viewed by other people. When he reads Gogol’s short story The Overcoat, he’s convinced he’s been spied on, and that it’s a lampoon about himself. In the novella’s most tragic scene, standing dishevelled and pathetic in front of his superior at work as a button falls off his ragged uniform, he understands that the depths one can sink to are revealed most excruciatingly in the other’s gaze.
After this gentle introduction, you’ll be ready to dive into the works Dostoevsky is most famous for: his psychological and ideological novels. At this point I’d recommend turning to Notes from Underground (1864), because this is where Dostoevsky first sets up a lot of the ideas he goes on to explore in his ‘big’ novels — and it’s a manageable length as well! The narrator is driven by spite and remains a serious contender for the title of the most unpleasant literary protagonist you’re ever likely to encounter. In part one, he regales us with his ideas, notably the rejection of rationality in the name of freedom that is humanity’s most precious possession and the key to maintaining individuality. But in part two we see him 20 years earlier, driven to reject others and harm himself in order to prove that freedom, and unable to accept love and redemption when they are offered. And we understand that he is in fact more trapped than the rationalists whose embrace of determinism he decries, and that for all his talk of freedom and individuality, nobody would see him as a figure to emulate, or choose to live as he does. Notes from Underground has long had a reputation as a foundational text of existential philosophy, and that has led to some quite simplistic and narrow interpretations of Dostoevsky. I think it’s better by far to avoid those sorts of labels, and to take the paradoxes, tensions, and often uncomfortable truths revealed by his works on their own merits.
Finally, if you’ve got this far, it’s time to tackle one of the “big” novels, and for my final choice I’d suggest starting with the most accessible of them: Crime and Punishment (1866). On one level it’s an excellent companion piece to Notes from Underground, developing some of the same ideas to their logical extremes. On the other, it’s a genuine page-turner, a gripping why-dunnit, with nobody more in need of understanding why he committed the brutal double murder than the protagonist Raskolnikov himself. Oppressed by the fetid atmosphere of the slums and taverns of St Petersburg’s Haymarket in the heatwave of July 1865, Raskolnikov — student dropout and wannabe Napoleon — is pursued by a seemingly omniscient detective, incidentally the inspiration for TV’s Columbo. But even as his own conscience proves to be the real source of punishment, the question of whether the murderer will achieve — or even wants — redemption, has never been explored in a more compelling way.