A moment With Dostoyevsky, James Wood, and an obscure Hungarian Writer

A few weeks ago while I was reading the June 1, 2020 issue of the New Yorker, I came across a James Wood review of a book of essays by an obscure Hungarian writer named Laszlo F. Foldenyi. The book had an arresting title: Dostoyevsky Reads Hegel in Siberia and Bursts Into Tears, and James Wood is of course James Wood, the critic and New Yorker staff writer, not James Woods, the Hollywood actor with the, ah, I think this is precise, longest schlong in the movie industry.

What got my attention wasn’t that Foldenyi’s name has a raft of linguistic markers my word processing program can’t reproduce or that Hungarian writers are currently suspect because their country’s nuttily nationalistic government, or because I began to wonder about the length of James Wood-the-critic’s pecker, or whether James Woods-the-actor’s device was famed for simply its length or if it was notable for its girth and volume as well—or was it girth and volume rather than length.  And it wasn’t that I felt surprise that the mention of Hegel didn’t instantly cause me to fall asleep the way it has for most of the last forty years, and it even wasn’t that there was a small possibility that the article might reveal something new about Dostoyevsky’s stay in Siberia, a subject that would normally get my rapt attention for as long as it took.

It was a chance remark that Wood made, in which he decribed Foldenyi’s premise that Dostoyevsky might weep at reading Hegel as “faintly farcical, deliberately exaggerated—another of Dostoyevsky’s self-consciously scandalous ‘scenes'”.

Now, I haven’t much liked the writing of James Wood-the-writer even since I stopped conflating him with James Woods-the-actor, of whom I remain, like most Euro-American males, if not exactly afraid, then at least apprehensive, as in, “Well, he looks fairly normal so how can you tell,” and so on.  James Wood-the writer reminds me of John Updike despite Wood’s interestingly plebeian British background. Wood, like Updike, seems unnaturally at home in New England, as if he’s always chatting up people in a bookstore just off the campus boundaries of Harvard, driving down back roads in a Volvo wagon to a writing retreat in those New England hills where it is uppercase Autumn twelve months of the year. He has a similar cultural self-confidence, too—I mean, the kind that allows him to write a book with title How Fiction Works, a subject on which I know damned well that Updike believed himself an expert.

But no, this isn’t to do with my slightly embarrassing but impossible-to-expunge envy of people like Wood and Updike, either.  It’s about how I disagree with his characterization of Dostoyevsky.

I read Dostoyevsky while I was a teenager in northern British Columbia, which is a locale with very distinct seasons: very long, cold winters, muddy, miserable springs in which the recurrence of snow, ice and deeper mud are depressingly regular events, short intense summers and distinctly lowercase autumns so brief that they’re called “fall” and may occur in a single afternoon and never last longer than a week.  It is, I suppose, much closer to the climate Dostoyevsky experienced in Siberia between 1849 and 1854 before he was sent to only-slightly more benign Semipalatinsk, which is somewhere south of Siberia but still geographically remote and inhospitable weather-wise enough that Hegel, Updike and James Wood-the-writer couldn’t seriously imagine what it was like. Still, that’s not what got my attention, either, and it’s not why I’m writing this.

I’m writing this because of an insight I had about Dostoyevsky while I was reading The Devils, or as it’s more often called, The Possessed, fifty years ago.  The insight actually arrived not while I was reading but while I was talking to someone about reading The Possessed, a woman who offered the opinion that she couldn’t get around the way Dostoyevsky wrote dialogue, and she said to me that it all felt like scatter to her—or filler, she added, now triumphantly, remembering that most of Dostoyevsky’s work was written for serialization in magazines and therefore, the more words the better.

My insight was that Dostoyevsky’s dialogue had nothing to do with scatter or serialization filler. To me, Dostoyevsky’s dialogue sounded like real life.  Yes, there was a lot of it, and yes it went all over the place, but no, it didn’t sound scattered or like filler to me.  It sounded like the way the people around me talked—not very coherently, often just to make enough noise to drown out the other people yapping around him or her, who were also talking nearly always as incoherently and inarticulately.  Or maybe people talked like that because they wanted to get enough words in the air around them that they could, with their educations less extensive and certainly less prestigious than those of James Wood-the-writer or John Updike, make sense of them, understand what they were saying, or maybe just get a vague sense of what might be possible to understand.

I’d spent most of my life listening to people who didn’t make any sense when they spoke. To me, that seemed to be the way of the world. And because I was young and not very confident—possibly because I was reading writers like John Updike who wrote as if it was always Autumn and everyone around him knew exactly who they were and who the others around them were, and why it was natural that everyone had a Volvo instead of a muddy pickup truck and spent endless amounts of time either driving to retreats in the always Autumny woods, or actually inside the retreats where the red and yellow leaves were falling outside the windows in ways that complimented the deep confident thoughts of the people inside the retreats, thoughts which seemed to issue from their large, culturally-confident brains in orderly, calm trains, whereas any thought entering my Northern B.C. brain felt so alive and chaotically surprising it felt as if it was going to electrocute me.

And so, at 6:30 AM of a sunny July morning in downtown Toronto where I now live, remembering that Dostoyevsky wrote dialogue the way the people around him spoke and thought and not as an exaggerating instrument of “self-consciously scandalous ‘scenes’ ”, I was able to reaffirm my solidarity with the vast diaspora that James Wood-the-writer and John Updike knew and know nothing about, the landscapes and climate and social polity of places like Siberia and Northern British Columbia and probably 95 percent of the rest of the world, and which I shared with Dostoyevsky.

Moments later, because I am now old enough to be confident about both what I know and don’t know, I ordered both Laszlo F. Foldenyi’s Dostoyevsky Reads Hegel in Siberia and Bursts Into Tears, and How Fiction Works, by James Wood-the-writer.

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

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