“Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious.” – Peter Ustinov
I know some people who would agree with me that Dostoevsky is a great writer, but none of them think he’s as funny as I do.
Funny is an understatement – as my girlfriend has witnessed many times, reading certain sections of his work make me laugh harder than almost anyone I know personally. While she finds this amusing, others are not so understanding. For example, I was once laughing on my stoop while reading Demons when I kindly looking old lady passed by. Curious as to what author could be so funny, she tried to see the front cover. Obligingly, I tilted the book so as to allow her to see it clearly (without stating my reasons for doing so out loud). This turned out to be a mistake, for when she saw what the book was, her smile vanished and she walked on a bit more briskly.
So what do I find so funny about a man most people associate with gloom almost as much as Edgar Allen Poe? The answer is that I have never read an author who can write such hysterical scenes. But I don’t mean hysterical as in funny; I mean hysterical as insane and even surreal. To give one instance of what I mean, the entirety of The Idiot is dominated by less than ten conversations, one of which lasts almost a fourth of the novel. By the end of each one, a normal, civil discussion among reasonable adults has devolved into a madhouse of screaming, shouting, epileptic fits, and threats ranging from simple curses to attempts at physical violence. And when almost every sentence ends with an exclamation point and you think, “Surely this can’t go on for much longer,” that’s when things really get crazy.
It is this excess of passion, this wildness in his writing that I love so much. When I read such scenes, I feel as if I am watching an author strip away our reason bit by bit to expose the beast within. It is this same surgical precision that also allows him to write such sobering scenes, for while it is amusing to see ridiculous characters be driven to extremes, it is equally heartbreaking when sincere, pure characters become just as desperate. In fact, as I write these words, it occurs to me that what the graver scenes in his work have in common is that the characters are usually alone or in a small group. When at a party or some other social event, the bedlam that erupts invariably involves at least one ridiculous person making a fool of himself. But Ivan Karamazov’s mental breakdown when he confronts the Devil occurs when he is alone, with no one to come to his rescue. True, his final (and most crazed) speech occurs in a courtroom, but even here it is as if he is alone, faced against a world as uncomprehending as his own Devil is sadistic. The same goes for Alyosha, whose urgent prayer to God following the death of his beloved teacher is sad in private.
Regardless of whether the scene is tragic or comic, public or private, Dostoevsky cannot help but infuse his characters and even the fabric of his plot with the viciousness and madness that he came to believe lurked within our souls (the reasons for this require a separate post). And because of this, reading his novels is like being half-awake, one moment aware of the order of reality, the next submerged back into the realm of dreams, where no order exists at all.