on January 9, 2012
This short but rewarding essay on Dostoevsky is one of Girard's best works, and one of his least known and read. This re-issue of the original edition by Michigan State University Press, with an updated foreword by translator James Williams, should please those who wanted a copy of this book but didn't want to pay dearly to get their hands on one. Girard's essay was written just after he published his first book on five major European novelists (Dostoevsky included) and can be read as a companion piece to Deceit, Desire, and the Novel. It's an extended meditation on the interplay between an author's life and his writing, and the way Dostoevsky made use of life experiences, traumas, and love affairs, translating his personal anguish into masterful fiction. At the heart of this book is the idea that by comparing Dostoevsky's early work (now rarely read, even by literature professors) to his widely-known masterpieces, we can see that somewhere between The Insulted and the Injured and Notes from the Underground, something unexpected happened--rather than interpreting his own perversely jealous tendencies as magnanimous generosity, as he had done in such early works as White Nights, Dostoevsky suddenly became incredibly self-aware, and in satirical short novels such as Notes and The Eternal Husband as well as in his great masterpieces (Crime and Punishment, Demons, etc.) he gradually worked out the patterns and structures in which he had been imprisoned and exorcised demon after demon, ultimately triumphing over all Manichean temptations in his final, crowning novel, The Brothers Karamazov. Girard offers a compelling account of how a novelist uses his writing to explore the obsessions and questions that grip him, and he shows that Dostoevsky was engaged in an admirable but dangerous quest to test the limits of the human condition by successively embodying and then describing virtually every one of the individualistic poses and Promethean postures of 19th and 20th century intellectual and ideological life. Gathering together the disparate tendencies of his own personality, Dostoevsky left blind bipolarity and one-sided Romanticism behind, de-essentializing good and evil and presenting us with human beings who seem so real because it is their freedom to choose, enmeshed in the network of human relationships, that makes monsters or saints out of them, and not some Manichean predisposition. An illuminating afterword puts the essay in an explicitly "mimetic" perspective and adds some valuable insights about the paralyzing and self-destructive "obstacle addiction" that characterizes many of Dostoevsky's most vivid characters, while speculating that if we expel Dostoevsky from the cultural scene because of his reactionary journalistic writings, this may be a way for us to maintain our denial of the disturbingly Dostoevskyan bent of our contemporary world. This book will convince you that to be a great writer means more than mastering a literary technique--it means embarking on a quest for truth and self-expression that has led some of our greatest authors, Dostoevsky foremost among them, to the brink of madness and (in this case at least) back again. If you want increased appreciation for the miracle that is Dostoevsky's oeuvre, this book is for you.
on February 6, 2012
Although now an emeritus professor at Stanford, Girard published this work in 1963 in his native French. It was translated in 1996 by Williams, and now reissued in this edition.
There are introductions to both the original edition and this reissue by the translator, and these put me off a bit. They struck me as the overly tangled but ultimately empty prose that too often passes as literary criticism. Fortunately he didn't translate Girard into similar prose, but let the author's voice come through.
That is not to suggest for even a second that this book is an easy read. Girard is intense and thoughtful, and I may need to reread some of Dostoevsky to fully appreciate his arguments. By the way, if you have not read at least the major novels of Dostoevsky you will be lost in this book.
Dostoevsky's later works set up a succession of men trying to lay out a path to a life above the mundane, with failure as the general result. Girard ties these efforts back to the narrator of "Notes from the Underground". The problem Dostoevsky struggles with is how to escape from the "underground", how to avoid the snares that modern life sets for us. As he lays out Dostoevsky's struggle with this question he also explores the great author's struggle with his own beliefs.
An afterword by Girard briefly covers an additional thirty years of his thinking on the matter, and also notes how relevant the questions Dostoevsky wrestled with remain today.
While definitely a book for a hardcore Dostoevsky lover, it is a richly insightful one. Girard says more in fewer than ninety pages than some writers say in hundreds. This is not a book you can skim. These dense and thought provoking pages take time to ponder and digest.
on July 5, 2012
My knowleged of Dostoevsky was largely limited to "The Brothers Karamazov" which I've read and re-read many times over several decades. This book opened my eyes to the wider picture of Dostoevsky's literary work, and even his "evolution" as a writer. So the list of books to read before I die has become even longer, as I stop to pick up novels I've previously overlooked! Now to read more Dostoevsky AND more Girard!!!
on September 24, 2014
This translation is pathetic. James Williams could barely speak French. There are some things that are very subtle in French that are so butchered here that it would be literally impossible for a reader to guess Girard's meaning without referring to the original French version of the book. Some of the lines come off so stilted and bizarre they barely seem like English. "In the universe structured by the Gospel revelation, individual existence remains basically imitative even, and above all, perhaps, when one rejects with horror any thought of imitation." Huh? Terrible hack job. A book about underground pride translated by someone apparently consumed by it. What a shame, too, because this is a great book about Dostoevsky by a great writer.