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Book Review: Tolstoy or Dostoevsky – An Essay in the Old Criticism by George Steiner

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The greatest form of writing is melodrama, the acme of literature at which letter becomes scripture. But only Fyodor Dostoevsky has written that kind of melodrama. George Steiner, the "European metaphysician," takes on the difficult task of comparing him with Count Leo Tolstoy.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, the man with God's print etched on his heart, is once again the unconventional hero, in George Steiner's book Tolstoy or Dostoevsky.  An older and perhaps wiser Steiner in his preface makes it clear that he wrote the book as a young man.  What does Steiner mean by that?

Maybe, it is that we shouldn't judge Steiner's later work by this. But why shouldn't one, since the book itself is a masterpiece of literary criticism?

Steiner often comes close to confessing his partiality to Dostoevsky, but suddenly pulls back when he starts thinking of Tolstoy, the Russian Hercules. Under the looming shadow of Leo, he flinches. George Steiner flinches in slow motion, over 300 pages, and is a delight to read.

Dostoevsky wrote intense classics that throw light on the dark crevice of the human mind. Tolstoy, on the other hand, was more adept in composing fugues that could be played till the end of time. The key to both these masters lie in their religious conscience, that is, predominantly Christian.

There must have been a point at which Dostoevsky could have taken the mystical path and become a guru, like Tolstoy, inspiring generations and even people like Gandhi (the settlement that Gandhi founded in South Africa was named after Tolstoy). But Dostoevsky plodded on, searching for those truths that he was convinced lay deeper still. Beyond was a great waste, an oblivion. Fyodor showed the utmost integrity in depicting it. But Steiner, who obviously likes him better, is in awe of Count Leo Tolstoy.

One is never in awe of Dostoevsky, like one is never in awe of Jesus. Steiner hints that Doestoevsky was the Christian and Tolstoy, the pagan. Dostoevsky, with his prophetic insight into the soul of man, turned history, religion and psychology into chapters in his great books. Tolstoy on the other hand, expended his creative urge to the end, aided by superhuman stamina and nervous capacity. Dostoevsky was weak of body, like Nietzsche, but not weak of soul. Tolstoy shared his physical strength with the great German writer, Goethe.

An interesting fact is that the two masters, who were contemporaries, never met each other. They were about to meet once, but Tolstoy pulled back at the last moment. They obviously had great respect for each other, but Dostoevsky was the pauper, and Tolstoy the prince, and there is no getting over that.

In the course of his writing, Steiner also mentions how essential the vast landscape of Russia was for Tolstoy, and the Christian conception of redemption for Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky was once condemned to death and reprieved at the last moment. The intensity of that experience is present in every page of his oeuvre.

It is evident where Steiner's sympathies lie: Dostoevsky is the winner. The epileptic who wrote wordy paragraphs as creditors banged down the door, had more insight into the human soul than any other modern writer. Tolstoy was the popular one with the Bolsheviks.

Thankfully, Steiner seems aware of his partiality towards Dostoevsky, which seems mostly preconceived.  Steiner uses most of the book to persuade himself against his own conviction. There is an interesting dialectic at work here.

Fortunately, Steiner fails in this business of proving himself wrong. In the end he almost collapses with the effort. But one feels like standing up and applauding the effort. 

Fans of Pasternack may not like this, but next to Crime and Punishment, Dr.Zhivago reads like pulp fiction. Steiner says that of all modern authors, Dostoevsky is the rightful inheritor of Shakespeare's mantle; equal to the bard in dramatic felicity.

It is a delight to read Dotoevsky. If you are reading Crime and Punishment and have to take a break in between, then this feeling keeps tugging at you that a great treasure awaits you back in your room. It won't be an exaggeration to say that the same can be said about Steiner's book.

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