I would like to quote this passage from Nabokov's Lectures on Russian literature first before I present the main points in this post.
"Let me refer to one more method of dealing with literature- and this is the simplest and perhaps most important one. If you hate a book, you may still derive artistic delight from imagining other and better ways of looking at things, or, what is the same, expressing things, than the author you hate does.The mediocre, the false, the poshlust-remember that word-can at least afford a mischievous but very healthy pleasure, as you stamp and groan through a second-rate book which has been awarded a prize. But the books you like must be read with shudders and gasps.Let me submit the following practical suggestion. Literature, real literature, must not be gulped like some potion which may be good for the heart or good for the brain-the brain, that stomach of the soul. Literature must be taken and broken to bits, pulled apart, squashed-then its lovely reek will be smelt in the hollow of the palm, it will be munched and rolled upon the tongue with relish; then, only then, its rare flavour will be appreciated at its true worth and the broken and crushed parts will again come together in your mind and disclose the beauty of a unity to which you have contributed something of your own blood".
How well written and as he always did, how stylish! This extract is from Nabokov's essay on Dostoevsky, which I have always found strange reading. Nabokov begins by saying that Dostoevsky "is not a great writer, but a rather mediocre one, with wastelands of literary platitudes". This opinion is based on the point of view of "enduring art and individual genius". And then, Nabokov claims that his views on Dostoevsky can "only be understood by experienced readers".
As is the practice in these essays, Nabokov paints a short biography of Dostoevsky, including his political and social world view. It is widely known that Dostoevsky was a Russian nationalist, who also believed in absolute monarchy, resentful of western domination. I think Dostoevsky is not alone in this. Perhaps that assertion is quite common in Eastern European writers, and I find the theme of Slavic superiority almost as a given in Eastern European and some Russian writers. This is in contradistinction to their general attitudes towards the events of the major wars, and this paranoia and attitude of permanent victim hood is manifest in modern slavophiles like Handke though not in a similar way in Gombrowicz.
Nabokov clarifies further the distinction between a sentimental and a sensitive writer, and banishes Dostoevsky to the legion of sentimental writers, saying that by this is meant "the non-artistic exaggeration of emotions meant to provoke automatically traditional compassion" in the reader. Again, "Dostoevsky lacks taste", with his characters tricking, "sinning their way to Jesus". Nabokov laments Dostoevsky's lack of natural backgrounds, with the novels focusing mainly on a landscape of ideas, a moral landscape. Perhaps, Nabokov misses the almost painting like sketches which Turgenev has achieved in Sketches From A Hunter's Album, which Nabokov and everybody else loves.
Nabokov's main criticism comes later, when against three characteristics that he believes an artist must set out, he finds Dostoevsky lacking in one way or the other. The first is the logical and natural development of events in the plot. Now Nabokov finds it easy to believe that Hamlet could have heard his father's ghost, but finds the plots of Dostoevsky lacking in the "combination and interaction of the forces the artist has set into play".
Secondly, art he tells us "is a divine game and it is only art if we remember it is make believe", that in a Shakespeare play, people are not actually murdered while he finds the reality of the same occurrences in Dostoevsky as too hard to shrug off as just art! Nabokov says that "there is less balance between the aesthetic achievement and the element of criminal reportage in Dostoevsky's other novels". Thirdly, the reactions of some of Dostoevsky's characters are not valid because they were "raving lunatics, or characters from a madhouse, poor, deformed, warped souls, often no longer human"! Then he goes on to list certain clinical conditions with which some characters suffer from, namely epilepsy, senile dementia, hysteria and psychopathy.
I find the above three assertions slightly absurd. Firstly, The ghost theme in hamlet, otherwise nearly perfect, is so contrived, so mean to the reader that even if one believes in ghosts, that particular ghost seems to ready to talk. And how can art remain art if it is make believe?. Do we only visit literature for diversion? Is poetry only an escape from reality? I think that literature, real literature is just the opposite, it is the affirmation of our hidden lives, the bringing to lips of songs that we dare not sing usually, or melodies that we yearn to hear, for these are to us truer than life for they are life, for this literature is not an escape from reality into make believe but an escape from make believe, into the reality of so many worlds, through words, through which, to a certain extent, we are able sometimes to make sense of a melancholic, cruel and sordid world.
And even though the clinical conditions mentioned can lead to altered mental states, they are by no means insane states, even with our present knowledge notwithstanding. Yes, post epileptic confusional states are common and altered consciousness in dementia's, but Dostoevsky , in my opinion, uses these diseases to absolve his characters of flaws, mistakes and sins and attributes those to these states, so that his firm belief in the general nobility and moral superiority of his hero or heroes remains intact. It is intriguing how Nabokov unhinges all the absurdities of Dostoevsky plots on psychopathic characters is hard to understand, for forensic criminology is not an exact science and any psychoanalytic explanation w'd seem superfluous. Nabokov also asserts that Dostoevsky's characters do not develop as the stories progress. This is not the case as Ivan Karamazov and Alyosha, if we only think of The Brothers developing, through not a natural background but through discussion, through ideas that are circulated freely. Dostoevsky's novels are novels of ideas and to call him "a mystery writer", as Nabokov does, seems an injustice.
But Nabokov's essays are brilliant, and only he can write the way he writes for he is the stylist par excellence. I intended above to reflect on a few pages from his Dostoevsky essay, and considering that I wrote the above, I find myself in the category of inexperienced readers, those who claim to know the difference between true and pseudo-literature! But, fabulous though Nabokov is as a writer and as a literary critic, maybe he too might have been wrong once in a while!