The essay "Poetics" which opens the book is the most interesting and challenging of all. In it, Louis Allain rejects Mikhail Bakhtin's reading of Dostoevskii's characters, arguing that Bakhtin's main mistake was in confusing the aesthetics of the novel with the aesthetics of the theater. Ultimately Allain concludes that Bakhtin 'underestimated the ambitions of Dostoevskii the ideologue, Dostoevskii the thinker.' (19) Emphasizing the illusionary nature of theatricality in the novel, Allain suggests that the characters are merely 'marionettes' in the hands of the author and not living people or theater actors with their own personalities, fates and world views. Dostoevskii never gives away his right to the word; his voice is audible within the voice of each of the other characters, especially those of secondary characters who are more likely to enunciate philosophical tirades for their author. This convincing anti-Bakhtinian stance seems to me a real contribution to Dostoevskii studies.
The first essay continues with an illuminating analysis of the 'semiotics of the gesture and of speech' in Dostoevskii. Drawing on most of the major novels and some of the minor ones (especially The Gambler), Allain argues that Dostoevskii's own relationship to his body (perceived as weak and unreliable in contrast to the mind) shapes the physical descriptions and actions of his characters. Dostoevskii's lack of the 'gift of gesture' (as opposed, we may assume, to the gift of loquaciousness) made him uncomfortable with others, and his characters inherit from him this discomfort and alienation. (22-23) An analysis of 'the phrase' in Dostoevskii focuses on the 'snake-like' logic often found in the speech of narrator and character alike; calling Dostoevskii psychologically indecisive, Allain suggests a Tiutchevian attitude toward the word in the great novelist, echoing Tiutchev's 'a thought spoken is a lie.' This line of thought leads into the final section of the essay, one devoted to 'the poetics of the unspoken' in The Devils.
In the second essay, "World-sensation," Allain plays with the idea of seeing versus sensing, experiencing the world, by not using the more familiar, and more translatable, concept of world view, Weltanschauung. Allain describes Dostoevskii's search for coherence in the world, for a system by which man can operate, identifying that search as a struggle between the law of order and the law of accident. (82) The most fascinating section of this second essay addresses what Allain calls 'Dostoevskii's Bestiary.' There are three main groupings of animals in Dostoevskii's oeuvre, Allain argues, 'reptiles and wild animals, domesticated animals in the broad sense, and insects.' (99) Allain discusses these animals type by type, animal by animal, focusing particularly on the use of animals to describe human beings through metaphor, simile, or association. The author finds that the horse is the most valued of animals for Dostoevskii, the bull is despised because it is too crude and violent (see Bykov in "Poor Folk"); the monkey is a particularly hated image in Dostoevskii (which stems, Allain suggests, from Dostoevskii's attitude toward Darwin and Darwinists). Insects in general and the spider in particular, as any attentive reader of the great novels knows, is connected with sexual violence and sensuality, a connection Allain identifies through a poem by Schiller translated into the Russian by Tiutchev. This ordered scheme of animals and humans may indeed be Dostoevskii's systematic way of perceiving the world around him.
The third essay, subtitled "Dostoevskii before God," details the novelist's search for belief, for Christ, for salvation and for God. Allain argues that Dostoevskii's anthropomorphism 'irresistibly aspires to egomorphism;' (168) thus Dostoevskii takes any attacks on Christ personally, and indeed Christ becomes one of Dostoevskii's own characters. (170) Allain ultimately concludes that Dostoevskii was able to find God by believing in himself and his art, and thus in the Russian people and their soul, which led him to Christ and from Christ to God. Thus the proof becomes circular: Allain asserts that Dostoevsky was able to perceive various reflections of the divine within himself (172) and it was precisely such evidence of the existence of God which he sought.
In all three essays, the incomprehensibility of Dostoevskii's characters constitutes a repeated theme. 'Dostoevskii's heroes,' writes Allain, 'are not fully clear not only to themselves but also to the author himself, not to mention the occasional bewilderment of the reader.' (85)
Having rejected the Bakhtinian reading of the relationship between characters and narrator, as well as between characters and author, Allain tries to find another route to understanding Dostoevskii. His approach is essentially biographical and psychological, treating material from The Diary of a Writer and Dostoevskii's letters on an equal basis with the author's fictional works. A slightly more problematic characteristic of Allain's approach is its non-chronological nature, which gives one the sense that Dostoevskii's literary works are being examined as if they had been written simultaneously. While each essay has its individual merits, the book remains essentially a disconnected collection; the essays do not seem to have been reedited to form a whole. One result is that occasionally, the same quotes are used to bolster arguments throughout the book with no acknowledgement of their earlier mention and no sense of building upon the author's previous theses. The reader finds her/himself wishing for a bit more credit in assimilating the material and for a wider range of textual support drawn from Dostoevskii's work.
The series in which F.M. Dostoevskii was published, titled Fates, Evaluations, Memoirs, represents an exciting development in the realm of interlinguistic scholarship. The links between France and Russia exemplified by this book offer a vision of cross-cultural conversation that is often lacking in the field. But this fact points to an additional frustration with this volume for the American audience: while the book demonstrates cultural connections forged by French and Russian scholars, Allain's essays might have gained an extra dimension if such American scholars as Michael Holquist, Joseph Frank, David Bethea and Harriet Murav had been referenced. David Bethea's theories of the horse in Idiot would offer interesting dialogue with Allain's bestiary (The Shape of the Apocalypse in Modern Russian Fiction, Princeton 1989); Harriet Murav's recent Holy Foolishness: Dostoevsky's Novels and the Poetics of Cultural Critique (Stanford 1992) could have shed more light on Dostoevskii's God-seeking. However, while we continue to hope for more such interaction between scholars publishing in different languages, readers will enjoy meditating upon the abundant and rich quotations and reiterations of important themes and issues in Dostoevskii's work to be found in these essays by the French scholar Louis Allain.
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The Sarmatian Review
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