Search This Blog

Friday, April 9, 2010


Not long ago, I finished George Steiner's Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. His argument is essentially that these are the two greatest novelists of the twentieth century, but, given their radically divergent conceptions of life, would benefit the general reader by being compared and contrasted.

Steiner designates Tolstoy as an author who writes in the "epic" mode, in which we have a "primacy of form." Simply stated, this means that Tolstoy's novels are preoccupied with details that lend them a great deal of verisimilitude. He follows the Homeric tradition in concentrating on events occurring within a broader time frame. As an example, Steiner points to an instance in War and Peace in which one of the characters encounters an acquaintance several years later in a war hospital. We the reader will remember this acquaintance from several hundred pages back. Though this is clearly quite a convenient coincidence for the author, it allows him to breath a great deal of life and dynamism into his story, while at the same time keeping it from feeling forced or embellished. Tolstoy, as many have stated, was a master of details and capturing the concrete facets of life. Reading his stories is intoxicating. You feel them, hear them, smell them. In short, you're there. Think of the famous plowing scene from Ana Karenina.

Conversely, Dostoevsky operates within the "dramatic mode." This means a "primacy of action" dominates his stories. Much more in the mold of Shakespeare, his characters writhe, seethe and overflow with life. A voracious consciousness seems to characterizes their many speeches, which, incidentally, should probably be called monologues. Moreover, immediacy plays a great role here as well. Dostoevsky's stories all take place within a relatively short timespan. Part of the power of his prose is the raw, undiluted, unrefined and even vociferous feel of it. Read Notes from Underground aloud and see if your spirit isn't stirred, and see if you don't begin sharing the protagonist's feelings. The criticisms often heaped upon Dostoevsky for his clumsy style are here met with an adequate explanation in my view.

Most importantly, however, the two men saw God in different ways. Boiled down, Tolstoy's Gospel is a secular one from which Christ is ejected and Reason is supplanted. Tolstoy never could understand the musings of Christ and had no time for speculations on the afterlife. He used to chide that, once we die, two and two is still four. In other words, no matter what spiritual contortions wrack our minds, the rigid laws of logic and common sense remain inviolable. Dostoevsky, flying in the face of this hyper-rationalism, stated that he would believe in Christ in spite of any evidence opposing him. Christ superseded reason and even truth for Dostoevsky, a fascinating assertion from a man who probably launched the most profound argument against Christianity with his Grand Inquisitor. Steiner makes the suggestion that perhaps this Inquisitor is a stand-in for Tolstoy. His words would indeed find ample support with the sage of Yasnaya Polyana. Perhaps it's just speculation.

At any rate, it's a book well worth your time as well as a vital aid to confronting two elusive, but necessary giants.


  1. good stuff man, that sounds like an interesting read. as it happens i'm finally reading "brothers karamazov" right now, about halfway through. it's taken me till now to really get into it - for a long time i was wondering how on earth this was supposedly one of the greatest novels ever written. never read tolstoy, what would be a good one to start with do you think?

  2. Either Hadji Murat or the Cossacks. Both are short, but are emblematic of Tolstoy's method--vivid details and characters. Incidentally, the first of these two was a favorite of Wittgenstein's. Quite enough to spur my interest on...