Thursday, April 12, 2007

My Debt to Dostoevsky, Part II

Last August I made a pilgrimage to St. Petersburg. One of the places I visited was the Dostoevsky Museum at 5 Kuznechny Lane (shown below). It’s housed at the address of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s home from 1878 to his death in January 1881, the place where he wrote his last work, the masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov.

Again (see my earlier post), there is something heroic in the writing of this book. The family decided to move to the new apartment after suffering a terrible loss. Anna Dostoevskaya, the author’s wife, wrote in her memoirs: “On May 16, 1878 an awful tragedy struck our family: our youngest son Lyosha passed away.” The 3-year-old boy died of epilepsy which he had inherited from his father. The loss was a profound blow to Dostoevsky, who was devastated by the thought that his son had died of “his disease.” It’s significant that he gave his son’s name to the hero of the novel that came out of the tragedy.

The courage and strength to go on undoubtedly came from a pilgrimage Dostoevsky made to the monastery of Optina Pustyn, where he was consoled by a famous monk called Father Ambrose. This individual provided the model for the elder Zosima, the spiritual father to his dead son’s fictional namesake, Alesha Karamazov.

When I came to write my own Dostoevsky-inspired novel, The Gentle Axe, I couldn’t resist including an episode set at the monastery of Optina Pustyn, including a character that Virginia Rounding described in her review for Britain’s Independent newspaper as “the statutory holy monk on his deathbed.”

Rounding also noted the presence of “forbidding tenements, ominous stairwells and dank courtyards familiar to readers of Dostoevsky,” as well as “a tender-hearted prostitute (no Dostoevskian novel would be complete without one).”

The image I have of what I was about here is based on an analogy with painting. I imagined Dostoevsky as a painter. I imagined myself walking into his studio, picking up his palette, on which he had already laid out his characteristically somber colors, and painting my own picture with his brushes. Monstrously cheeky of me, I know, but I was motivated, I believe, by a sincere desire to pay homage.

I like to think of it as a collaboration, admittedly one in which Dostoevsky had no say in whether he participated. But I believe Dostoevsky was a writer of great humanity, and unexpected humor, so I like to think he might have been more indulgent than one or two of my critics have turned out to be. Besides, he was a devout Christian. Forgiveness was part of his creed.

In common with all of Dostoevsky’s homes, the apartment at Kuznechny Lane was in view of a church, symbolizing the centrality of Dostoevsky’s faith in his life as a man and a writer. To do justice to this aspect of Dostoevsky (which is perhaps the hardest one for some modern readers to take on board), in developing my Porfiry Petrovich--a character taken from Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment--I deliberately made him a man of faith, giving him a concern for the souls of those who commit crimes, as well as a wooden crucifix around his neck. So there is something of Dostoevsky, in addition to the characteristics I borrowed from his fictional creation, in my Porfiry Petrovich. It seemed to me, too, that the role of investigating magistrate, Porfiry’s job title, is akin to that of confessor.

The character of Porfiry Petrovich is “on stage” for just about three chapters of Crime and Punishment; his presence is felt, however, in Raskolnikov’s obsession with him from the moment his name is first mentioned. Obviously, I read those chapters closely, picking up clues that would help me flesh out my own Porfiry--and indeed to flesh him out enough that he could become the protagonist in his own novel. I’ve been teased by The Washington Post for my attention to Porfiry’s eyes: “nowhere else in the world's literature have I encountered such closely observed eyes.” The reviewer, Patrick Anderson, admits that he cannot say “[w]hether all this is Morris’s invention or that of Dostoevski.” I feel I did take my cue from Dostoevsky--the sense Raskolnikov has of Porfiry watching him closely (he “did not once take his eyes from the guest”) was something that evidently made a big impression on me. The watchfulness--and observational skills--of Porfiry are key to his role as a detective. I think that the motif is consistent with the period and setting too, when the paranoia of being watched, the possibility that anyone could be a spy, must have been very keenly felt.

Dostoevsky’s characters, though they often originate as the embodiment of ideas, or intellectual positions, soon become remarkably alive. They are elusive, contradictory and difficult to pin down. What one character says of another is often at odds with how that second character in fact appears to us, the readers. We must make our own minds up about them, a little like the people we meet in real life. His villains, like the nihilistic suicide Svidrigailov, are fascinating and complex.

In Crime and Punishment, Porfiry is said to be something of a prankster. In fact, his reported unreliability and mischievousness precede his appearance in the novel. Apparently, he once pretended to be getting married and even purchased a wedding suit. At another time he claimed to be about to enter a monastery. There turned out to be nothing in either story. In my novel, this comes out in his psychological manipulations, which at times may seem quite cruel. In addition, there is the sense that no one, not even his colleagues, quite trusts him. The games he plays, though, are all in the service of a higher end: to discover and thereby bring about the salvation of the perpetrator.

I admit that I was highly delighted when the San Francisco Chronicle observed that “The story is told ably in the classic whodunit twisty-arc style, reminiscent of the sleuthing of Nick Charles, Sherlock Holmes and Columbo.” I was certainly influenced by the last two, being an avid reader of Conan Doyle at about the time I first attempted Crime and Punishment, which also happened to be more or less the time that Columbo was on television. It’s common knowledge that the character of Columbo was based on Porfiry Petrovich. I will confess that I had Lieutenant Columbo in mind when I came to re-create my own Porfiry.

I can reveal exclusively to readers of The Rap Sheet that a second R.N. Morris Porfiry Petrovich novel is already written and has, in fact, gone into production with my UK publisher, Faber and Faber. When I first pitched the idea of using Porfiry in my own tales years ago, I had four story lines mapped out. Faber (and Penguin U.S.) have so far committed to the first two, though I have had discussions with my UK editor about what will happen in future books. If the first two go OK, I think there is a willingness from Faber at least to take the series on.

Some of you might be thinking that a person can perhaps be forgiven for writing one novel using somebody else’s character, but four? Isn’t that pushing it just a wee bit? You may have a point. However, for me Porfiry Petrovich is such a great character that he deserves more than just a three chapter walk-on, and the Dostoevskian universe is so rich and fertile a bed of criminality, that I feel there are plenty more tales to be told. Besides, I’m having fun. And for that I will make no apology.

When I visited the Dostoevsky Museum last year I had a quiet moment with the great man’s ghost. I found myself humbled, a little ashamed--my face became hot and flushed. I felt close to tears. But I also felt an incredible warmth and understanding coming back at me. I may be deluding myself, but I had the definite feeling that we’re cool, Fyodor and I.

(Part I of this essay can be found here.)

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