Ken writes:

I was scouring your blog for Fyodor Dostoevsky and was surprised to see no mentions. I was just wondering your thoughts on him. Currently reading the Brothers Karamazov and it’s fantastic.

Brothers Karamazov spent seven or so years as my favorite book, starting in high school.  I’m not suggesting it is juvenile, only that I find it hard to go back and enjoy things at lower levels than I did before (I also don’t like to eat in still-good but declining restaurants).  I no longer find Notes from Underground interesting, as I regard its questions as a dead end.  I’d sooner reread Pascal.  I never got through The Idiot or Demons in the first place.  About two years ago I read House of the Dead and liked it, though it felt like a respite from the more typical conception of Dostoyevsky.

How much can you like Dostoyevsky anyway?  My sense is that he is probably underrated as a pure writer (much of it comes across as garbage in English translation, but perhaps is quite biting or comic or interestingly manic), and overrated as a source of the “novel of ideas.”

If you enter “Dostoyevsky” into the search function of Twitter, you don’t come up with much interesting these days.


"If you enter “Dostoyevsky” into the search function of Twitter, you don’t come up with much interesting these days."

That just says so much about so many things not even distantly related to Dostoyevsky that it can be put up as a "Koan for Our Era."

"much of it comes across as garbage in English translation"

What does Natasha have to say about Dostoyevsky?

He is a fine writer, from the point of view of the language, but this is not his most excellent side. He is an excellent psychologist and thinker, with a tragic bent. Those who seek spiritual truth read him, those who think they have already found it (or never tried) either don't read him at all or stop reading him.

The Pevear-Volokhonsky translations of his works seem excellent to me.

Dostoyevsky is still influential in literature as regards narrative construction: Jim Thompson, Cormac McCarthy, et al....

And like Shakespeare, his plot structures and characters have become touchstones in cinema and other media, from Robert Bresson to the countless westerns (Anthony Mann, Duel in the Sun).

And how much interesting stuff would you find if you entered "Pascal" into Twitter. Other than the programming language.

"Other media": Peter Falk's "Columbo" said to be derived from Porfiry Petrovich. (Because FMD himself translated Poe's "Tell-Tale Heart", C&P/Prestuplenie i nakazanie can begin to be seen as a vast extrapolation of Poe's seminal story.)

It could be fair to speak of "the Gogol Brothers"--Gogol himself, Dostoevsky, M. Bulgakov, D. Kharms particularly, with probably A. Bely at least standing close by, in his moments E. Zamyatin, and in his moments A. Platonov, too. M. Bakhtin's critical apparatus generously fuels both its own and the Gogolian enterprise's momentum.

"The Pevear-Volokhonsky translations of his works seem excellent to me. "

Agree completely - their Karamozov is much richer than other translations. For what it's worth Nabokov had a very low opinion of most English translations of Russian classics available when he was alive, particularly those of Garnett.

Quite a few people have a low opinion of Gannett, I think, but such is the power of the public domain that she's presumably the most widely read by far.

Nabokov also had a very low opinion of Dostoevsky and he of course read him in Russian. Called him a hack and melodramist, I believe, or something along those lines.

I read Notes from Underground in high school and loved it. I haven't looked back on it since, but my feeling these days on it are probably similar to yours. The only other book I've read, The Brothers Karamazov, I read in my early 20s and also considered to be one of my favorite books of all time. I still think that there's a lot in there that related to many facets of life.

Shortly after I read it, I read The Sun Also Rises. At the time, I felt like the Hemingway book read a lot like a re-write of one subplot of The Brothers Karamazov with the impotent protagonist, Jake Barnes, taking the place of the celibate priest, Alyosha, as they both get caught up refereeing a love triangle (to overly simplify things).

It's been about ten years since I read either and I honestly don't recall either of them clearly enough to judge them now.

For a change of pace, you might try The Double, which is much shorter than most of Dostoevsky's works, and has much more of a black humor feel. It sort of reminds me of a Gogol story.

Terrorism could have had and effect on Fyodor's works:

"Fyodor Dostoyevsky's father died in 1839. Though it has never been proven, it is believed by some that he was murdered by his own serfs. According to one account, the serfs became enraged during one of his drunken fits of violence, and after restraining him, poured vodka into his mouth until he drowned." (Wikipedia)

Imagine the effect that vodkaboarding could have on a youngster. That is, unless it was considered proper terrorism like in the the

I just read Crime and Punishment, in translation natch. No comment on whether I like "Dostoyevsky."

Saul Bellow was a big admirer of Dostoevsky; Tyler Cowen, not so much. Telling.

Nabokov loathed Dostoevsky, ditto Tyler Cowen. Telling.

See what I did?

Showed that you also need butterflies. Enjoy.

Shrug. The point remains; no matter what your opinion of an Immortal author is, you'll probably find one great author who shares it and another who doesn't. As such criticisms of the sort you made are at least suspect at first glance. For that matter, I believe neither Dostoevsky nor Tolstoy really formed a mutual admiration society, and made pretty back-handed compliments about each others' works. Hopefully one can like one, or the other, or neither, or both of those authors, without having to face opprobrium.

Crime and Punishment was always be my favourite

sic ..."will" always be

When I think about D.

1) Noted how the rise of the mass media (newspapers) so easily leads one to despair of the human race

2) Deep skepticism of linear spiritual narratives (I wish he could write a review of "Eat, Pray, Love")

3) An attachment (loyalty) to the chatter inside his head that feels very contemporary, where the illogical, outrageous, and often very funny pensees dwell in uneasy proximity


I don't know Russian, but Dostoyevsky's and Tolstoy's novels, rendered in English, are among the finest books I've ever read, and that's good enough for me.

no mention of Crime and Punishment? In my opinion it is the best anti-rationalist tract that has ever been written. I personally think Dostoevsky is the forerunner of keynes, shackle and taleb on non-probabilistic uncertainty, the forerunner of Shiller and Thaler on behavioural economics and the forerunner of Stiglitz on imperfect information.

I continue to rely on Dostoyevsky's character of Andrei Semyonovich Lebezeyatnikov from Crime and Punishment as an archetype of the student radical driven by enthusiasm but little intellectual reflection.

I had high hopes for The Idiot when I got through with Book 1, but found the rest of it incredibly disappointing. Then again, I am not a huge fan of Russian philosophy in general.

Nietzsche said he was the only psychologist he had anything to learn from. That's good enough for me.

"If you enter “Dostoyevsky” into the search function of Twitter, you don’t come up with much interesting these days."

Whereas back in the mid 1800's, the Twittersphere was nothing but.

I am glad that someone else offered this particular piece of snark so I didn't have to.

On a serious note, there are other spellings of the name Dostoyevsky in English which do not illustrate Cowen's Twitter popularity claim.

I am glad that Nathan Tankus mentioned his relation to economics

Below are two passages from C & P that relate to economics and one sounds like the invisible hand.

"But Mr. Lebeziatnikov who keeps up with modern ideas explained the other day that compassion is forbidden nowadays by science itself, and that that's what is done now in England, where there is political economy." (economics used to be called political economy)

"if I were told, 'love thy neighbour,' what came of it?" Pyotr Petrovitch went on, perhaps with excessive haste. "It came to my tearing my coat in half to share with my neighbour and we both were left half naked. As a Russian proverb has it, 'Catch several hares and you won't catch one.' Science now tells us, love yourself before all men, for everything in the world rests on self-interest. You love yourself and manage your own affairs properly and your coat remains whole. Economic truth adds that the better private affairs are organised in society--the more whole coats, so to say—the firmer are its foundations and the better is the common welfare organised too. Therefore, in acquiring wealth solely and exclusively for myself, I am acquiring, so to speak, for all, and helping to bring to pass my neighbour's getting a little more than a torn coat; and that not from private, personal liberality, but as a consequence of the general advance."

Yeah yeah yeah. Jesus (and St Martin) weren't dividing sewn coats with sleeves and buttons. Of course one sleeve will leave you cold. But if you take a Roman military cloak and cut it in half two people could get pretty decently warm out of the situation.

Context isn't everything, but it sure helps.

I read most of Dostoyevsky's novels when I was in my early twenties, some multiple times. I can't force myself to read them now. For what it's worth, Nabokov didn't think much of Dostoyevsky and certainly didn't think much of him as a "pure writer" - the garbage, according to Nabokov, is all there in the original.

Clicking through gets me to the NYT, in a review of Nabokov's book on Russian literature:

"Nabokov, having a problem with that which is carnal and that which is ''animal nature,'' seeking ''order'' and ''harmony,'' denies Dostoyevsky and Freud and chaos, because he needs butterflies, and they are not permitted to be bloody or burned like Gogol's bank notes.

Where are Isaiah Berlin, Philip Rahv, Irving Howe, V.S. Pritchett? Where is Gogol's nose? Nabokov trashes Dostoyevsky, declines to talk about ''War and Peace,'' fails to prove - because of time, space, feeble conviction or envy - his extravagant assertions on behalf of ''The Overcoat,'' ''Fathers and Sons,'' ''The Death of Ivan Ilyich'' and (heaven help us) ''Manon Lescaut.'' His criticism, like Turgenev's phrasing, is reminiscent ''of a lizard sun-charmed on a wall.'' He was the lizard, and he was charming, but Dostoyevsky - and Turgenev and Jane Austen and Charles Dickens and Sigmund Freud - deserved much, much better. They invented him, at night, in the library."

I don't know how Tyler (and others) have time to read fiction. I am hopelessly behind on my economics-related reading (not with blogs though!). Writing papers, teaching, administration, and kids is about all my non-sleep time allows. Has Tyler or other jack's-of-all-trades written about this? They must be incredibly efficient. I want to learn.

Tyler reads really, really fast (probably in no small part because he reads A LOT).
He's also very willing to drop a book if it sucks. Here's his advice:

If you mass transit, the kindle increased my reading (mostly fiction) by an order of magnitude. I read on almost all commuting time.

Clearly, Tyler is not following this user on Twitter:

I slogged my way through Demons recently and felt it wasn't worth the effort. The 'scandalous' censored chapter (which appeared as an epilogue at the end of the version I had) was entertaining though. It holds up pretty well as a short story.

Isn't Dostoyevsky also know for characters and as a talented "psychological" author, just as much or as more than as a writer of "ideas"? Notes from Underground is sort of like ur-existentialism that is easy for young men to find "intellectual" and attractive, and there are famous passages from Brothers Karamazov that explore philosophical ideas, but a lot of Brothers Karmazov is about the conflict within and among the characters. Crime and Punishment also seems mainly about character and psychology, and less so about abstract ideas. I doubt his strong point is style (which I take it is what you are getting at with "pure writer").

On a metacommentary note, the comments to this post are orders of magnitude better than comments to most recent economics posts on MR. My recollection is that this is the result of a gradual but large reversal over the years. In early days, the signal-to-noise ratio was much worse in cultural topic threads compared to economics threads.

I've long theorized that you get a higher quality of comments on those blog/message board posts not directly related to the main thrust of the blog/message board.

I'm curious to know whether Prof. Cowen's upcoming book will have a chapter on how only Mexicans can truly appreciate Mexican food, and then if and only if it's prepared by a Mexican cook.

All literature is ethnic literature?

About the first idea (only mexicans can appreciate mexican food) i think there's no support to that.

And for the second one: as a mexican I have no trouble eating meaxican food made by foreigners. That happens a lot in tourist destinations and it is delicious food =)

My favorite Dostoyevsky work is the Gambler!

Not that it would have much relevance for today in economics or finance. :).

Yes! I'm a bit late to this show but I gotta show some love for The Gambler. (Karamazov is still on my to-read list.)

The Gambler is, I think, a perfect Russian story--not very long but offers rich exposition on characters. The old grandmother shouting "zero! zero!" is seared into my consciousness.

I thought Demons was hilarious, and eerily anticipated our own radical chic era by 100 years.

Not anticipated. Reflected the radical chic era of its' own time.
There's nothing new.

Quote from Einstein : "Dostoevsky gives me more than any scientist, more than Gauss."

Dostoyevsky is one of the giants of 19th century literature. Prince Mishyin. More than any other writer of fiction, his works anticipate the 20th century.

I had meant to include that Prince Mishyin is one of the most intricately crafted characters in all of literature.

I am glad Dostoyevsky (and other Russian novelists like him) wrote what he did or else we would never have gotten "Love and Death." I read Brothers Karamazov and would certainly recommend it for a first reading. Second reading, maybe not. I love the "Grand Inquisitor" part of the book.

My sense is that he is probably underrated as a pure writer (much of it comes across as garbage in English translation, but perhaps is quite biting or comic or interestingly manic), and overrated as a source of the “novel of ideas.”

I am not sure what "pure writer" is supposed to mean but if it means "stylist" then Dostoyevsky is way, way overrated. Practically every Russian literary giant wrote a much better prose. (I am a native speaker). As a thinker, however, I don't think he is overrated at all. It was 150 years ago and much of his thinking was very original then. Not to mention right on target most of the time.

As far as translations go, the only readable ones are by Pevear & Volokhonsky (god bless them for all their work!). Everything else is pretty painful to read.

The Brothers Karamazov is said to have been Wittgenstein's favorite novel. Not surprising if you know something of his family history.

What aphilistine and you liked Daddy yankee instead.
Really Notes of the underground , death end?
Well, i wil never read this blog again . your books were already sent to the trash

Non-Russian readers do not realize two things: that not all Russians love Dostoevski as much as Americans do, and that most of those Russians who do, venerate him as a mystic and not as an artist. He was a prophet, a claptrap journalist and a slapdash comedian. I admit that some of his scenes, some of his tremendous, farcical rows are extraordinarily amusing. But his senstive murderers and soulful prostitutes are not to be endured for one moment---by this reader anyway.

Doestoevski's The Double is his best work though an obvious and shameless imitation of Gogol's "Nose".

Interesting .... While I thought Crime & Punishment was great, Brothers Karamazov was the second book of two books I recall ever putting down half way through because I was reading for pleasure and I wasn't enjoying it, the first being Don Quixote. Perhaps it was an issue of a poor translation in both cases, given that I thoroughly enjoyed most of the other hundreds of classic that I've read. I'm currently reading The Trial, which also suffers from challenges in translation, but it is nevertheless interesting given that I have been going through my initiation to West Africa in recent months and I now feel that I have an elevated understanding of the word Kafkaesque.

Dostoevsky is the closest thing the 19th Century had to a historical prophet. He, not Adam Smith, is the true intellectual antagonist of Marxism.

Reading Dostoevsky is like rummaging through a dumpster in search of envlopes full of hundred dollar bills -- they're in there but looking for them is unpleasant. The guy badly needed an editor and, of course, translators.

Yeah Dostoevsky is not so interesting anymore after Ayn Rand answered all of the big questions.

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