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Why Not Both?

CAVEAT LECTOR: What follows is a sort of troika of more-or-less related thoughts triggered by an extraordinary paragraph–not mine–uncovered on the web. It served to derail the throbbing gray matter that keeps my ears six inches apart from posting a heaping helping of unnecessary vitriol. Well almost. I let just a dollop fall onto the plate that is this post, but you can skip the first paragraph following this trigger warning to avoid it. The second of three sections indulges my nostalgia impulse, and indispensable photos are hidden in plain sight throughout.


Один: Dead souls

Tolstoy or DostoevskyIn the wake of Alabama’s latest shameful outrage, I am struggling mightily with the temptation to indulge my worst impulses in a scorched-earth blog post reaction to the hypocritical, self-anointed “evangelical Christians” of Trump’s unholy coalition: the “force onto others the morality you believe your god has demanded of you, unless it might involve raising your own taxes” opportunists.[1] But, today I’ve run across a distraction that I will use to keep me from soiling my website with the sort of divisive, ineffectual, anger (however heartfelt) that can be found elsewhere above.

Q: To what do the beleaguered just-want-to-play-nice readers of Bachblog have to thank for this happy turn of events?

A: The newest book on my ever-climbing (virtual) stack o’ to-be-read books.

Oh boy, you must be thinking, the only thing sure to be more captivating than this guy’s half-microwaved “book reviews” is his thoughts on a book he hasn’t read. I know, I know, but the best thing about this post is not anything I’ve written, but an extended quote from Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. A quote Google conjured up for me as I tried to decide whether or not I might enjoy reading this 400-page, 60-year-old book of literary criticism. Yes, it turns out, I might.

From George Steiner’s 1959 book, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky:

Thus, beyond their deaths, the two novelists stand in contrariety. Tolstoy, the foremost heir to the traditions of the epic; Dostoevsky, one of the major dramatic tempers after Shakespeare; Tolstoy, the mind intoxicated with reason and fact; Dostoevsky the contemner of rationalism, the great lover of paradox; Tolstoy, the poet of the land, of the rural setting and the pastoral mood; Dostoevsky, the arch-citizen, the master-building of the modern metropolis in the province of language; Tolstoy, thirsting for the truth, destroying himself and those around him in excessive pursuit of it; Dostoevsky, rather against the truth than against Christ, suspicious of total understanding and on the side of mystery; Tolstoy, “keeping at all times,” in Coleridge’s phrase, “in the high road of life.” Dostoevsky, advancing into the labyrinth of the unnatural, into the cellarage and morass of the soul; Tolstoy, like a colossus bestriding the palpable earth, evoking the realness, the tangibility, the sensible entirety of concrete experience; Dostoevsky, always on the verge of the hallucinatory, of the spectral, always vulnerable to daemonic intrusions into what might prove, in the end, to have been merely a tissue of dreams; Tolstoy, the embodiment of health and Olympian vitality; Dostoevsky, the sum of energies charged with illness and possession; Tolstoy, who saw the destinies of men historically and in the stream of time; Dostoevsky, who saw them contemporaneously and in the vibrant sense stasis of the dramatic moment; Tolstoy, borne to his grave in the first civil burial ever held in Russia; Dostoevsky, laid to rest in the cemetery of the Alexander Nevsky monastery in St Petersburg amid the solemn rites of the Orthodox church; Dostoevsky, pre-eminently the man of God; Tolstoy, one of His secret challengers.

Два: The dream life of Sukhanov

Now that’s a heck of an excerpt and, unless the end of the Coleridge quote can really be said to split it, its second sentence is particularly impressive. By my count, this War and Peace of sentences weighs in at 265 words and a typesetter’s full inventory of commas and semicolons. It promises a lively and scholarly debate, Steiner v. Steiner.

Beyond its obvious snob appeal, this excerpt really makes me nostalgic for the days when I was so much a Russophile that in addition to reading the complete novels of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Turgenev (most more than once), all of the Puskin, Gogol, and Chekhov I could get my hands on at my favorite used bookstore, and the Soviet-era novels of Solzhenitsyn; I took a subscription to the USSR’s Life magazine knockoff and propaganda vehicle, Soviet Life (while I served in the US Navy, possessed a secret-level security clearance, and flaunted a morally suspect sweatshirt; you think I’m not on file at the FBI?). And more: I bought a few Russian study guides and attempted to teach myself the language (later going so far as to write a Commodore 64 vocabulary-building game–remapping the keyboard to produce Cyrillic characters), fell in love with Russian music (starting with Rachmaninov’s most dripping-with-Slavic-pathos works), later named a dog “Lt Kizheh” after Prokofiev’s suite, and much later spent a rushed and completely inadequate two days touring Saint Petersburg (but I stood on Nevsky Prospekt!).

Три: Bend sinister

Nabokov's Lectures on Russian LiteratureMany years ago, I read Nabokov’s Lectures on Russian Literature, a collection of essays derived from the writer’s time teaching at Wellesley College in the 1940s.[2] I remember two things especially from it: he venerated Tolstoy, and he loathed Dostoevsky. The D+ grade (as I remember it) he awarded Dostoevsky was rather low, I feel. Professor Nabokov wrote:

This is rather like grading my students’ papers, and no doubt Dostoevsky is waiting outside my door to discuss his low mark.

Naïf that I was, I was unaware of Nabokov’s reputation for the merciless evisceration of other writers. Witness The Meanest Things Vladimir Nabokov Said About Other Writers. There is some amusing stuff there, but his brutal personal attacks on Boris Pasternak (after Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for Literature for Doctor Zhivago), were really beyond the pale. (See the Boston Globe’s Vladimir Nabokov was such a jerk.) Sure, Nabokov was the more important writer of the two and probably deserved a Nobel of his own. But clearly, the green-eyed monster can be a potent malevolent force when it seizes a powerful pen such as Nabokov’s.

I’m looking forward to reading Mr Steiner’s book, which I now know (thanks to Google) is considered to be a classic in its field. I don’t have to wonder what Nabokov thought of it.[3]

So which will it be, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?

Both, I think. I’ll soon see what George Steiner thought.


  1. I am compelled to point out, again, that I do NOT lump my parents with the HECs (Hypocritical Evangelical Christians). They were “Never Trumpers” before the term was coined. So let no one assume I am attacking them here. Unlikely as it may seem, I’ve apparently lost one long-time friend over a misunderstanding of this very point. [^]
  2. I read Lectures… at some time prior to 1987. I was but a pup. I have read VN’s Look at the Harlequins (forgettable), Pnin (twice), Despair (okay), The Luzhin Defense (later a minor motion picture!), and finally Lolita (brilliant, yes probably so, but disturbing). I tried and failed to read Pale Fire (it’s all yours; have at it). [^]
  3. Steiner in The New Yorker in 1990 (as quoted in the Boston Globe article linked above): “Nabokov’s case seems to entail a deep-lying inhumanity, or, more precisely, unhumanity,” [he] wrote. “There is compassion in Nabokov, but it is far outweighed by lofty or morose disdain.” [^]


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