Archive for Fiodor Dostoïevski

the 101 favourite novels of Le Monde readers

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 1, 2020 by xi'an

Le Monde called its readers to vote for their five favourite novels, with no major surprise in the results, except maybe Harry Potter coming up top. Before Voyage au bout de la nuit and (the predictable) A la recherche du temps perdu. And a complete unknown, Damasio’s La Horde du Contrevent, as 12th and first science fiction book. Above both the Foundation novels (16th). And Dune (32nd). And Hyperion Cantos (52). But no Jules Verne! In a sense, it reflects upon the French high school curriculum on literature that almost uniquely focus on French 19th and 20th books. (Missing also Abe, Conrad, Chandler, Dickens, Ishiguro, Joyce, Kawabata, Madame de Lafayette, Levi, Morante, Naipaul, Rabelais, Rushdie, Singer, and so many others…) Interestingly (or not), Sartre did not make it to the list, despite his literature 1953 Nobel Prize, maybe because so few read the (appalling) books of his chemins de la liberté trilogy.

I did send my vote in due time but cannot remember for certain all the five titles I chose except for Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit (2nd), Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (74th) and maybe Fedor Dostoievski’s Brothers Karamazov (24th). Maybe not as I may have included Barbey d’Aurevilly’s L’ensorcelée, Iain Pears’ An instance at the fingerpost, and Graham Greene’s The End of the affair, neither of which made it in the list. Here are some books from the list that would have made it to my own 101 list, although not necessarily as my first choice of titles for authors like Hugo (1793!) or Malraux (l’Espoir). (Warning: Amazon Associate links).

Отцы и дети [Fathers and Children]

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , on April 7, 2019 by xi'an
Following a mention made of this book on the French National Public radio, I read Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons for the first time last month. This is a fabulous novel, reflecting about the failed modernisation of Russia after the abolishing of serfdom and the rise of nihilism in the younger generation. Having re-read Dostoievski’s Demons a few years ago, I appreciate the earlier Fathers and Sons and its role in shaping Dostoievski’s book, maybe in a less magistral way but also with a much more humane feeling in Fathers and Sons, while pretty much everyone sounds like an idiot in Demons. The plot of the nihilist attitudes of the sons being gradually swept away when falling in love may sound like a cheap trick, aggravated by the tragic and rather absurd ending of the most extreme character, but this is a more balanced image of the rural Russian society at the time, still exposing the shortcomings of a agrarian system that could not survive the (limited) emancipation of the serfs but also reflecting on the atemporal love of the parents for their prodigal sons!

the nihilist girl [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 7, 2017 by xi'an

When stopping by an enticing bookstore on Rue Saint-Jacques, in front of La Sorbonne, last July, I came across a book by the mathematician Sofia Kovaleskaya called the nihilist girl. Having never heard of non-mathematical books written by this Russian mathematician whose poster stood in my high school classroom, I bought it (along with other summer reads). And then discovered that besides being a woman of many “firsts”, from getting a PhD at Heidelberg (under Weirstraß) to getting a professor position in Stockholm, to being nominated to a Chair in the Russian Academy of Sciences, she also took an active part in the Commune de Paris, along with many emigrated Russian revolutionaries (or nihilists). Which explains for this book about a nihilist girl leaving everything to follow a revolutionary deported to Siberia. While not autobiographical (Sweden is not Siberia!), the novel contains many aspects inspired from the (amazing if desperately short) life of Sofia Kovaleskaya herself. A most interesting coincidence is that Sofia’s sister, Anna, was engaged for a while to Fyodor Dostoyevsky, whose novel The Demons takes the opposite view on nihilists. (As a feminist and anarchist, Anna took a significant part in the Commune de Paris, to the point of having to flee to Switzerland to escape deportation to New Caledonia, while her husband was sentenced to death.) The book itself is not particularly enjoyable, as being quite naïve in its plot and construction. It is nonetheless a great testimony of the situation of Russia in the 19th Century and of the move of the upper-class liberals towards revolutionary ideals, while the exploited peasant class they wanted to free showed no inclination to join them. I think Dostoyevsky expresses much more clearly this most ambiguous posturing of the cultivated classes at the time, yearning for more freedom and fairness for all, but fearing the Tsarist police, unable to connect with the peasantry, and above all getting a living from revenues produced by their farmlands.

Бесы [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 4, 2016 by xi'an

Demons (or The Possessed) is a book of Dostoevsky I read many (many) years ago.  Thirty-five years, maybe more. I remember finding this old nrf edition of the book in a local fair (local as deep inside the Norman countryside!). With pages roughly cut and a definitely yellow paper. And reading the book then with some degree of disappointment about the shallowness exhibited by the revolutionaries. Hence ranking it [in my personal hit list] of lesser importance than the masterpiece Brothers Karamazov. I took the book with me on my August travel(s) thinking it would be a perfect read for long plane trips, but ended up reading it rather quickly over the first week of vacations.

This second and more recent read of The Possessed led me to reconsider and opt for a much more balanced perspective on the book, which as I remembered does show the local revolutionaries as shallow dupes, their leader as a cynical crowd manipulator, and the few deep thinkers in the group set aside and eliminated. But Dostoevsky actually draws a very bleak picture of the entire Russian society in this book, with no group or category escaping shallowness and pettiness. No one seems to escape Dostoevsky’s cruel depiction, including the liberal elites represented by  Stepan Trofimovich and Varvara Petrovna, which are depicted as ready to cater to any revolutionary group to keep their influence, while still living on serfdom revenues. And the governor circle, which is essentially clueless. The only character escaping this dreadful condition is Nikolai Stavrogin, whose quest beyond good and evil turns him into a fascinating (and monstrous) anti-hero. The tension around belief and nihilism, the rejection of the influence of the West and a return to the roots of the Russian soul, a prescience of the incoming dictatorial follow-up to a revolution Dostoevsky saw as inevitable, all those threads make The Possessed a major book I should have re-read years ago…