Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: An Essay in the Old Criticism

Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: An Essay in the Old Criticism

by George Steiner

An essay in poetic and philosophic criticism that bears mainly on the Russian masters, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky deals also with larger themes: the epic tradition extending from Homer to Tolstoy; the continuity of a "tragic world view" from Oedipus Rex to King Lear and The Brothers Karamazov; the contrasts between the epic and dramatic modes, between irreconcilably opposed views of God and of history."A must for the teacher, student, and intellectually serious reader."Kirkus Reviews"This is a book that provides new and stimulating insight into the literary masterpieces and thought of the great Russian novelists.

Steiner's book is a must for the student, scholar, or general reader who wishes to approach the Russian giants in their full literary and philosophical ambience."Robert L.

  • Language: English
  • Category: Nonfiction
  • Rating: 4.21
  • Pages: 386
  • Publish Date: October 30th 1996 by Yale University Press
  • Isbn10: 0300069170
  • Isbn13: 9780300069174

What People Think about "Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: An Essay in the Old Criticism"

Dostoevsky, on the other hand, belongs within the bounds of the "tragic" writers descending from Oedipus Rex. My friend Julie and I used to play "Tolstoy or Dostoevsky".

Either/or juxtapostions might be a little philosophically dubious, of course, and could arguably be seen as essentially reductive but I'm more prone to thinking in this kind of symbolic, quasi-Hegelian way myself so I generally ignore the naysaying argument and dive right in. For contemporary readers (the book's from 1960, and Steiner himself says in a 1966 foreward that he would have phrased almost the entire book differently had he written it later) I don't know if it's outdated or fogeyish or what, but here it is: "Thus, beyond their deaths, the two novelists stand in contrariety. You could argue that this is antiquated thinking, and who knows but you might be right, but if this is high-blown critical language I for one am totally in favor. Read, enjoy, and comment!

Having a girlfriend devoted to Russian literature I endeavored to read everything by Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.

I'm surprised and delighted by this analogy: the more I ponder it, the more clear it becomes!

The title is a bit misleading in that it's not really about deciding whether Tolstoy or Dostoevsky is "better" but about contrasting their literary modes: the point of the book, in fact, is that these two figures represent poles of thought and value between which western culture has been torn since its beginnings. Steiner insists that the New Criticism reigning in the 1950s when he wrote--with its focus on the well-wrought urn, the formally balanced lyric poem, the necessity of cool irony, the functionally authorless text--can't handle Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, can't address their old-fashioned creation of fiercely passionate religious/philosophical novels bursting with a moral urgency that can hardly be contained by the slyly ironic indirections of a T. This book abounds in quotable passages--on the reasons America and Russia produced the weirdest and most intense nineteenth-century novels, on why Anna Karenina is better than Madame Bovary, on the function of Homeric metaphor, on the Gothic sources of Dostoevsky's manner and matter, on the two authors' varying fates under communism and liberalism, and more.

Additionally, Steiner accepted the post of Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Geneva in 1974, which he held for 20 years, teaching in four languages. He has since held the positions of the first Lord Weidenfeld Professor of Comparative Literature and Fellow of St. Anne's College at Oxford University from 1994 to 1995, and Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University from 2001 to 2002.