by Barry Germansky
From a thematic perspective, Tolstoy is the master chronicler of the “everyday” human dilemma. No matter whatever else happens in our lives, Tolstoy understands that we will always be plagued by our competing material and metaphysical desires, one prominent source of which is our limited, contradictory sexual imagination. He is also the greatest aesthetic synthesizer in prose literature, supremely merging external descriptions, historical asides, psychological insights, philosophical fragments, and spiritual conflicts into a singular, multilayered narrative. In my estimation, this makes him the most compulsively “readable” of prose fiction writers.
Dostoyevsky, on the other hand, is an almost unparalleled chronicler of the “everyday” human dilemma. Thematically, he is less original than Tolstoy, for the grotesquerie upon which he relies is borrowed from a multitude of other authors, most notably Edgar Allan Poe. Dostoyevsky’s thematic uniqueness comes from applying this inherited grotesquerie to the realm of the everyday. In aesthetic terms, his prose is immensely readable, but it is less readable and less unique in its readability than Tolstoy’s prose. Dostoyevsky shares with Tolstoy a penchant for compartmentalization, but each author has a different method of accomplishing this feat. While Tolstoy synthesizes his individual areas of focus together, Dostoyevsky keeps his individual areas of focus separate from one another.
I think both authors’ approaches to writing are superior to those of the “High Modernists.” Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky are heightened realists, which means they are not realists. At the same time, they are proto-modernists, which means they are not modernists. They are, like all artists, themselves before they are anything else.