The Mirror Held Up

The Mirror Held Up

Before we get started, I have a disclaimer to make. I am a Dostoevsky fanboy. If you are not, there is nothing here for you. If you haven’t read him, why are you wasting your time reading me. Go read him.

I forget when I read “Crime and Punishment” for the first time, but I suspect it was back sometime in college. I had just moved to Delhi and for the first time was around people who were not studying science. All of a sudden, a whole new world opened up before me. Now I had known Dostoevsky wrote Crime and Punishment ever since we read books and authors in the Upkar General Knowledge book back in 3rd grade but that was the extent of my knowledge. I think it must have been Aasi, an English major, who recommended Dostoevsky to me. To his credit, he introduced me to a lot of great stuff.

I have not read all of Dostoevsky’s work but for a very weird reason. I am saving him. I know that I will get to read his books for the first time only once so I want to pace myself. Which is why I haven’t even touched “The Idiot” yet. But recently, I finally broke down, frustrated at a terrible book I had read for a book club, and read “Notes from the Underground”.

Now, I have always liked Dostoevsky, but Notes finally made me realize what his true genius is. If you had asked me a week ago why I like him, I might have said something about his writing style, or the long, leisurely ambling he does into someone’s head, but I have finally understood the true reason. This man knows his characters.

As a writer, you are expected to know your characters. After all, one of the most common adages in writing is “Write what you know”. To be fair, many writers do know their characters. They know how they grew up, what makes them tick, what do they want, what are they afraid of, all that jazz. But where Dostoevksy earns his name is by knowing the deepest, darkest, inner-most thoughts of the characters he is writing about.

Take “Notes” for example. It is about a cynical, unpleasant man who is deeply unlikable. But Dostoevsky goes a step further. His character knows he is unlikable. He does not own it for sure. He contradicts himself. He revels in it at times, rebukes himself for it at others. But isn’t that true for all of us? Who has a consistent perception of themselves all the time? We are all saints and all sinners alternatively in our own minds. A good writer would have stopped here and gone home with his laurels. But not our boy Fyodor, oh no Sir. He digs even deeper and manages to hold up a mirror to whoever is reading the story.

I sound like a broken record at this point, but we are all more alike than we are different. In his exploration of a depraved, misanthropic character, he shows us glimpses of  the dark thoughts we all have had. Where we dislike ourselves, we see the follies in us and shrug and move on, passing it off as our immutable nature. We are deeply aware of our own failings as people, often chiding ourselves for them as it keeps us from being the ideal selves that we all aspire to. Dostoevsky plucks these thoughts right out of our heads and plonks them on the paper, forcing us to acknowledge all of our failings. These are not fleeting flashes anymore, they are unchanging, unrelenting words on paper. We can not hide behind our excuses of “It was just a passing thought”. He forces us to pull back the curtain that hides away our Id and confront all the unsavoury parts of ourselves. I would be lying if I said that reading Part 1 of the book did not make me sit up and say that perhaps Dostoevsky, a Russian man who was dead long before my Grandfather was born, knows me better than I know myself. He had found the fleeting thoughts of self-loathing and inadequacy and stood them eye to eye with me, making me look into the void that I had avoided all my life.

Humans are possibly unique in the aspect that we do suffer from self-loathing as a part of our human condition. No animals, at least that we know of, looks into the mirror and hates what he sees. Strangely enough, all of us do. Not all time, not for all the reasons, but we do. It is the one thread that binds us all together. This man plucks it out and pulls it, unravelling the tapestry of all that we think we know of ourselves.

But possibly, that was his purpose. I have often heard a criticism of Dostoevsky that he wasted his talents as a novelist. He would have revolutionised the field of Psychology if he had not been busy wasting his time writing silly stories about axe murders and family disputes. I have always defended him, indignant on his behalf. “How dare you tell someone what they need to do with their talents?” But now, I kind of understand the point. Freud, who has fallen out of grace in the current times, would have been usurped from his throne before he even ascended to it, had Dostoevsky taken his gloves off. His understanding of human nature is unrivalled. I am going to repeat myself, but living and breathing as your characters this deeply, that you are privy to their innermost thoughts, is a skill that I have not seen any one exhibit as effortlessly as Dostoevsky does. And that is not all, somehow. He displays a brilliant understanding of the outside World as well. I think it was a line in “Brothers Karamazov” that made sit up and reach for a pen (I am not entirely sure though, I read it a long time ago) that went in the vein of “People often ascribe malevolence to actions where in reality they stem just from a lack of thought.” In a single sentence, Dostoevsky manages to create a sympathetic figure of every antagonist in his story.

Dostoevsky is not without his faults of course. I ignore them but you may not. He is a very self-indulgent writer, and possibly a terrible editor. So if you don’t generally read classics, work your way up to him. Take a dose of Dickens, a helping of Hugo, before your unbottle Dostoevsky. But remember, once you have, there is no going back.

Ask Raskolnikov. He will agree.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *