on 6 December 2007
Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, the two greatest novelists who ever lived, happened to be Russian contemporaries. The radical differences in their ideologies are perhaps most concentrated on their own versions of Christianity. Tolstoy the empiricist firmly believed in the notion of heaven on earth, of equality to all enlightened men. His two greatest novels, War and Peace and Anna Kerenina, include moments of luminous, effervescent and utter transcendence through the dousing sense of redemption his main characters find in the simplicity of goodness, hard work, and social justice and responsibility. Dostoyevsky's religious faith was catastrophically opposite. To Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy's idea of heaven on earth was actually a vision of hell. If god is found, undeniably, then man is unable to not believe in him, thus his free will is eliminated and the whole of mankind is enslaved. It was Dostoyevsk's obsession with one basic tenet- that if man must be free to believe in god, then he must be free not to believe in him with equal passion- that incites the friction and fever of his novels, the sense of reckless abandonment, of motivelessness, murder, suicide and abject despair.
The Possessed is perhaps unique among Dostoyevsky's novels in that it explores and explodes a very particular moment in time, a specific social movement that basically came down to the clash of extremes in the ideas of one generation and the next. The author's passionate, vitriolic distaste for the nihilism of the younger generation is demonstrated by the character of Verkhovensky, a petty, parasitic revolutionary with no purpose or sense of social resolve beyond a mischievous and amoral taste for tumult and destruction. Yet the most interesting character is the 'leader' of this troupe of petty revolutionaries- Nicolas Stavrogin. Stavrogin is as complex a character as Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment. His amorality, his misdeeds, cruelty and incitements to murder, come from a much more anguished soul. Seemingly an extreme form of the nihilistic youth, he is in fact torn apart by the obvious futility of this ideological bent. In typical style, The Possessed tightly works its way toward climaxes of terrifying intensity. While this novel has as much eccentric, wild humour as any other of the author's works, it also, to my mind, contains some of the most frightening scenes in dramatic literature's history (the suicide of Kirilov chief among them- you will be haunted by his inexplicable cry of 'Directly! Directly! Directly!' ten times as Verkhovesnky flees the scene for the rest of your life).
Structually, The Possessed is a train wreck. Dostoyevsky wrote at break-neck speed and rarely had time for revision. But neither this fact, nor the inconsistency of the the narrator's stance, alter the sheer manic pace, fervour and fever of the story. While many consider this great novel the lesser of D.'s four greats, I think it is perhaps the most perfect, concentrated and powerful demonstration of the panic, terror, anguish and violence that epitomise Dostoyevsky's ouvre.
The Possessed is a stunning novel, and one I will never forget. If Tolstoy belonged to the epic, to the traditions of Homer, then Dostoyevsky was his mirror as the arch dramatist, the most potent since Shakespeare.