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date: 27 November 2022

Forms of Realism in Dostoevsky and Célinelocked

Forms of Realism in Dostoevsky and Célinelocked

  • Max LawtonMax LawtonDepartment of Slavic Languages, Columbia University

Summary

Many critics, Michael André Bernstein prominent among them, have noted similarities between the 19th-century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky and the 20th-century French modernist Louis-Ferdinand Céline. These critics often compare the underground man and similar characters in Dostoevsky’s work to Céline’s singular, auto-fictional narrator. Two novels, Crime and Punishment and Death on Credit, grounded in a common literary-historical narrative—that of French Realism and Romantic Realism—show that Céline has a distinct philosophical vision, which is the opposite of Dostoevsky’s.

At first glance, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Céline’s Death on Credit seem to be entirely different in terms of their aesthetics, engagement with national traditions, and thematic preoccupations. The former is a novel with a religious message and a traditionally teleological narrative, while the latter reflects a deeply nihilistic vision of human existence and deconstructs narrative structure and style. Examining the two novels in another light, however, draws attention to Dostoevsky’s treatment of squalid, modern situations and puts Céline into a different, nonnational lineage of authors, while also highlighting the unity of his philosophical vision. For both authors, desperately poor people and acts of extreme violence create the impression of a godless world. The two novels’ focus on poverty and crime seem to have their origin in the two epic cycles written by the most famous practitioners of French Realism and Romantic Realism, Balzac and Zola. In Balzac’s La Comédie humaine and Zola’s Les Rougon-Macquart, the two authors’ most consistent focus is the way systems of economic power force people to commit crimes and the consequences that ensue. This might be said to be so of Realism and Romantic Realism in general: all of the intensive worldbuilding it entails is performed to offer verisimilitude to the desperate crimes by impoverished people it dissects. At the very least, this is what Dostoevsky and Céline both took from the genre.

Subjects

  • 19th Century (1800-1900)
  • 20th and 21st Century (1900-present)
  • Slavic and Eastern European Literatures
  • Western European Literatures

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