View Full Version : Was Dostoevsky a poor stylist?

06-30-2015, 11:36 AM
Was Fyodor Dostoevsky, the great Russian author and master, a bad stylist?
The thought often comes up in some circles that, while Dostoevsky was a genius when it came to creating great stories and rich characters, he was a bad stylist, and some who read Russian have claimed that Dostoevsky was a sloppy stylist and that his real genius was in storytelling and characterization rather than in style (another of the "storytelling vs style" issues).

However, there are also those who argue that while his style is flawed, it's actually genius due to its handle of polyphony, its convulsive tone, its raw passion. Richard Pevear, one of the most respected translators of Russian literature, had this to say:

Dostoyevsky’s roughness, despite the rush and the pressure, was all deliberate. No matter what the deadline, if he didn’t like what he had, he would throw it all out and start again. So this so-called clumsiness is seen in his drafts, the way he works on it. It’s deliberate. His narrator is not him; it’s always a bad provincial writer who has an unpolished quality but is deeply expressive. In the beginning of ‘The Brothers Karamazov,’ in the note to the reader, there is the passage about ‘being at a loss to resolve these questions, I am resolved to leave them without any resolution.’ He stumbles. It’s all over the place

In his introduction to the translation of The Brothers Karamazov, he also says this:

The style of The Brothers Karamazov is based on the spoken, not the written, word. Dostoevsky composed in voices. We know from his notebooks and letters how he gathered the phrases, mannerisms, verbal tics from which a Fyodor Pavlovich or a Smerdyakov would emerge, and how he would try out these voices....The publication of his notebooks in the 1930s finally dispelled the old prejudice that Dostoevsky was a careless and indifferent stylist. All the oddities of his prose are deliberate; they are a sort of "learned ignorance," a willed imperfection of artistic means, that is essential to his vision.

Having read Constance Garnett's translation of Crime and Punishment (which I found fairly readable and predictive of Hemingway's plain style), I can understand why some would feel that Dostoevsky was a plain and indifferent stylist, as sometimes they can feel flat or downright awkward. However, perhaps Pevear and Dostoevsky's defenders might be on to something. Maybe Dostoevsky, along with being a great storyteller and psychologist, was also a genius prose stylist along the likes of Tolstoy, Hugo, Dickens, and Joyce.

06-30-2015, 03:20 PM
Peaver is correct that in his novels, Dostoyevsky is careful to clarify that he, the author, is in no case the narrator. The voice of the narrator is a fictional construction purposely relieved of the distracting and irrelevant burden of poetic and pretty speech.