On this day in 1821, the great writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky was born. As always, it is hard to know exactly how to judge a writer in translation. But I think that Dosteyevsky’s voice comes across as well in translation as does Cervantes. While Cervantes was clearly a sly and funny man, Dosteyevsky was, well, not. He was more idealistic and thoughtful. He is also profound in a way that I have never found Tolstoy. But that is probably because Dostoyevsky is more of a spiritual writer.
Crime and Punishment is the only novel of his that I know really well. What’s interesting is the process of development of Raskolnikov. He starts off as a kind of Ayn Rand character: rational and evil. It is only as he becomes less rational that he’s able to glimpse the broader truth of life. But that doesn’t make him irrational. It is just, as I see every day, that the fanatical pursuit of ideological truths lead to the most vile of behavior.
If you find someone who is obsessed with Rand or Nietzsche, the logical antidote is Dostoyevsky. Rand especially shows the propagandistic power of a simple idea. But its effectiveness and simplicity does not make it correct. And what Dostoyevsky understands, in Crime and Punishment and elsewhere is that certainty is generally not a good thing. And he didn’t have the Nazis as an example. (Not that it is necessary; in the long history of humanity, the Nazis really aren’t that unusual.)
Happy birthday Fyodor Dostoyevsky!