David Foster Wallace on F.M. Dostoevsky

Today I read an essay by David Foster Wallace in Consider the Lobster about Joseph Frank’s biography of Fyodor Dostoevsky. I had wanted to read the biography, and wondered what Wallace’s take on it would be.

In the essay, Wallace brings up a couple of good points:

1)      Canonizing a literary giant somehow makes her inaccessible. How many people get excited over reading classics? “To make someone an icon is to make him an abstraction, and abstractions are incapable of vital communication with living people.”

2)     “There is real and alienating stuff [this I know—very few of my friends or family have actually found Dostoevsky even mildly interesting] that stands in the way of our appreciating Dostoevsky and has to be dealt with [for starters there are obscure military ranks, complicated social hierarchies, poor translations, and perhaps most damning of all—the use patronymic and Christian names so that the same character can be called three different names on the same page]—either by learning enough about all the unfamiliar stuff that it stops being so confusing, or else by accepting it (the same way we accept racist/sexist elements in some other nineteenth-century books) and just grimacing and reading on anyway. But the larger point (which, yes, may be kind of obvious) is that some art is worth the extra work of getting past all the impediments to its appreciation; and Dostoevsky’s books are definitely worth the work…His novels almost always have ripping good plots, lurid and intricate and thoroughly dramatic.” Couldn’t agree more. Brackets are mine.


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