I found it a bit baffling at first that my reading experiences with The Brothers Karamazov and War and Peace have been equally sublime and edifying even though they are written in such different styles. I couldn’t quite grasp the difference between these novelists until I read George Steiner’s essay Tolstoy or Dostoevsky in which he compares the narrative of Tolstoy’s novels to epic and Homer and Dostoevsky’s to tragedy and drama. For my mind these are the perfect analogies to describe the uniqueness of these Russian greats:
…More, perhaps, than those of any novelist of comparable dimension, Dostoevsky’s sensibility, his modes of imagination, and his linguistic strategies were saturated by drama. Dostoevsky’s relationship to the drama is analogous, in centrality and ramification, to Tolstoy’s relationship to the epic. It characterized his particular genius as strongly as it contrasted it with Tolstoy’s. Dostoevsky’s habit of miming his characters as he wrote—like Dickens’s—was the outward gesture of a dramatist’s temper. His mastery of the tragic mood, his “tragic philosophy,” were the specific expressions of a sensibility which experience and transmuted its material dramatically. This was true of Dostoevsky’s whole life, from adolescence and the theatrical performance recount in The House of the Dead to his deliberate and detailed use of Hamlet and Schiller’s Räuber to control the dynamics of The Brothers Karamazov. Thomas Mann said of Dostoevsky’s novels that they are “colossal dramas, scenic in nearly their whole structure; in them an action which dislocates the depth of the human soul and which is often packed into a few days, is represented in surrealistic and feverish dialogue…” It was recognized early that these “colossal dramas” could be adapted to actual performance; the first dramatization of Crime and Punishment was produced in London in 1910. And referring to the Karamazovs, Gide remarked that “of all imaginative creations and of all protagonists in history none had been claims to being presented on a stage.”
When we read Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, we are not just experiencing the events of a day in the life of this father, son, husband and king; but we are witnessing all of the character traits of the House of Atreus, good and bad, that have seeped into his blood and his soul. We are also given a hint as to the nature of his son’s soul which has equally been affected by these familial ties. Similarly, in The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky immediately launches us into a detailed account of the father, Fyodor, and his history of drunken and sexual debauchery. And anytime one of his sons drinks excessively, seduces a woman, or is quick to anger Dostoevsky reminds us that this is a characteristic of a Karamazov. I am not quite half way through the book yet, but I suspect that the inability of one or more of his sons to break from the father’s soul-destroying patterns will result in tragedy.