Farrell and Dostoevsky

By Flynn, Dennis | MELUS, Spring 1993 | Go to article overview

Farrell and Dostoevsky


Flynn, Dennis, MELUS


On 20 September 1943, James T. Farrell typed this diary note:

Dostoevsky interfered with my dreams. I dreamed of the brown-covered edition of KARAMAZOV BROTHERS, which I am reading, and of ideas about it, of D[ostoevsky], himself, of the strains of passion and idea in it. I was trying to come to conclusions in my interpretation of the book.... Against black slightly grayed, I saw the book slightly aslant in my head. It remained fixed. There was no motion, no movement in the dream. The movement was a feeling of the movement of ideas in my head.(1)

In the dream Farrell feels the ideas and passions of Dostoevsky's novel moving inside his head, motion symbolized in the dream by the highly charged image of the book itself, an image of his copy of The Brothers Karamazov. Regarding the terms of this dream, we can say that Dostoevsky had not merely "interfered with" Farrell's dreams. The intensity of feeling and the image of the book "slightly aslant" but significantly "fixed" in his head, as well as the obscure undercurrent of mental agitation - these things suggest that Dostoevsky, through The Brothers, not only had entered and "interfered with" Farrell's dreams but had become an unconscious part of his critical and artistic persona, animating his own ideas and passions as a critic and an artist.

A few days prior to the night of this dream Farrell had contracted for fifty dollars to write for the New York Times Book Review an essay on Dostoevsky, published early in 1944 and later reprinted in his collection of essays, The League of Frightened Philistines. By the night of his dream, Farrell had for the past two weeks been rereading The Brothers Karamazov for the third time; he had read it first in 1927, as a college student working nights in a gas station in Chicago; and then again in 1938 on an ocean liner taking him on his second trip to Europe.

Beginning in 1927, then, The Brothers Karamazov had had a profound and continuing effect on Farrell's own sense of himself and his practices as a writer at the beginning of his career. In a letter to his publisher James Henle, ten days before having the dream about The Brothers, Farrell recalls that," after I finished reading it for the first time years ago, I was limp. At times, there is such passionate intensity in the novel that one doesn't even remember what one has read" (To James Henle, 10 September 1943). In rereading it for the third time he still finds The Brothers "to me, a curiously personal book" (To James Henle, 7 September 1943). Similarly fascinated excitement characterizes his immediate rereading of Crime and Punishment, taking only about three days after finishing The Brothers in the third week of September 1943: "I raced along reading it, having to trust to unconscious absorption more than to conscious and all-sided understanding of the book as I read" (To John Farrell, 24 September 1943). Reading Dostoevsky seems to have been and to have continued to be one of Farrell's overwhelming experiences as an artist, something that marked and influenced him repeatedly over a period of many years.

Farrell's interest in Dostoevsky relates to one of his own main aspirations as a writer of fiction: the creation of novels and characters with psychological realism. Farrell's fascination with Dostoevsky was primarily with his psychological realism. As he says in his New York Times essay, "Dostoevsky was a novelist of the consciousness of man. His work is an objectification of the human consciousness presented on the plane of action." But at the same time, Farrell understood Dostoevsky as an intense explorer of the depths of the human mind: "While his beliefs and ideas were traditional, his psychology was revolutionary .... As a psychologist, he anticipated Freud. In an operational sense, he introduced the unconscious mind in fiction" (40-41). These qualities in Dostoevsky's fiction - his realistic presentation not only of consciousness but of the unconscious depths of human psychology - are among those animating similar qualities in Farrell's own writing. …

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