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Reviewed by:
  • Dostoevsky's Unfinished Journey
  • Susan McReynolds
Miller, Robin Feuer . Dostoevsky's Unfinished Journey. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. xvii + 242 pp. $38.00.

Dostoevsky's Unfinished Journey argues that "there is no closure at the end of any of his literary works," or, indeed, any closure to our engagement with Dostoevsky (174). This study represents a sustained investigation of how his art, and readers' responses to it, "remains open" in multiple ways (174). Robin Feuer Miller, the author of path-breaking studies of Dostoevsky such as Dostoevsky and the Idiot: Author, [End Page 124] Narrator, Reader (Harvard 1981) also focuses on moments when Dostoevsky's literary narrative "without warning, encroaches upon a boundary beyond its typical borders" (174). Like the texts under discussion, Miller's own narrative opens onto wide vistas. In her readings, close attention to Dostoevsky's verbal art leads to consideration of topics such as chaos theory and the state of humanities education. The result is a study that will be of lasting significance to many communities: Dostoevsky specialists, specialists in the novel, scholars of the nineteenth century, and teachers of literature interested in the relationship between literature and public life. Each of the major novels, from Crime and Punishment to The Brothers Karamazov, receives close attention, as do Notes from the House of the Dead and the short story "The Dream of a Ridiculous Man."

Those with a special interest in Dostoevsky and Russian literature will appreciate the perspectives opened onto some of the most pressing current debates in these fields, such as the significance of the peasants for Dostoevsky's art and thought; the nature of the Dostoevskian conversion experience, both biographical and literary; his relationship to Russian spiritual and Western aesthetic traditions; and the contrast between the author of fiction and journalism.

Miller's engagement with these debates always remains accessible and relevant to non-specialists as well. For example, her investigation of Dostoevsky's alleged conversion experience challenges prevailing wisdom within the Dostoevsky community, while also providing a model for literary biography in general. She questions the legitimacy of a certain biographical Dostoevsky, who has been granted too much interpretive authority over his own works. In Miller's account, this Dostoevsky emerges as one of his fictional constructs, and his texts are released from the strictures of biographical criticism.

Notes from the House of the Dead especially benefits from liberation from a biographical paradigm. Miller acknowledges the importance of the peasantry for Dostoevsky, noting that the peasants are "intimately bound up with his most cherished ideas about visionary experience, memory, salvation, and grace—that is, his ideas about transformation and conversion" (2-3). She also shows, however, that this text "resists classification within his own canon" (24). Writing against attempts to use Notes from the House of the Dead as a stable, foundational text, one that allegedly provides a blueprint for Dostoevsky's later development, restores its complexity by examining some of its understudied dimensions: its pondering of the nature of art for art's sake; its links with Dostoevsky's journalism; and its profound ambivalence regarding the Russian people, for example. Countering the impulse to smooth over its glaring contradictions and fill in the many gaps, Miller focuses on factors that make it "elusive," such as its special texture woven out of "verbal snapshots" and "documentary impulses" (23).

In a welcome countermove to a trend among some Russian and Western Dostoevsky scholars to close off Dostoevsky's novels with finalizing, frequently theological readings, Miller instead draws attention to how Dostoevsky, "through the transforming rhetoric of specific characters, could revitalize and reinvent (and even subvert) the traditional Orthodox heritage and render it immediate, modern, and startling" (xv). In the chapter "The Gospel according to Dostoevsky: Paradox, Plot, and Parable," she establishes Dostoevsky as a co-creator rather than mere transmitter of Biblical models. The close readings of Myshkin's parables about faith and Grushenka's tale of the onion reveal the uniquely Dostoevskian recension of Christianity at work in his fiction.

Like many nineteenth-century Russian cultural figures, Dostoevsky was a thoroughly Westernized artist/intellectual who self-consciously strove to define and [End Page 125] express some notion of Russianness...


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