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In honour of Fyodor Dostoevsky's 200th birthday, U of T faculty celebrate his work

Kate Holland, of the department of Slavic languages and literatures, is the co-editor of the new book, Dostoevsky at 200: The Novel in Modernity (photo courtesy of Kate Holland)

When Kate Holland was an undergraduate student, she had a “boring summer job” in a fishing museum café that had an unexpected upside. 

Because there were few visitors to the small seaside museum in the United Kingdom that summer, Holland had the chance to delve into the novels of Russian literary icon Fyodor Dostoevsky.

“That was an intellectually galvanizing experience that has defined my career,” says Holland, an associate professor in the Faculty of Arts & Science’s department of Slavic languages and literatures, and president of the North American Dostoevsky Society.

This year is important for Dostoevsky lovers, including Holland, as Nov. 11 marks the 200th anniversary of his birth.

To mark the occasion, she co-edited a new book, Dostoevsky at 200: The Novel in Modernity, with Katherine Bowers, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia.

It’s a collection of 10 scholarly essays written by international academics, including one by Holland. They examine how Dostoevsky’s novels explore the clashes between science, capitalism, materialism and technology with traditional cultural, religious and family values.

“I was particularly interested doing an edited volume, because that way, you can choose the scholars whose work most appeals,” Holland says. “It's mostly quite young, emerging scholars. We didn't want to go straight to the reigning monarchs of the field because there are a lot of exciting young scholars in Dostoevsky studies right now.”

Holland’s essay is about the dying art of slapping people in the face as a response to being insulted or offended – a common Dostoevskian literary gesture – and its subsequent invitation to a duel. She examines how old forms and codes of behaviour in Dostoevsky's universe, such as slapping and bowing, were breaking down amid an evolving culture.

Holland wanted the essay collection to focus on Dostoevsky as a writer of modernity because she’s intrigued with how he tackled big questions about the future. He is regarded as one of the first European writers to raise concerns about science, technology and how the world was rapidly changing amid shifting political, social and spiritual atmospheres.

“Dostoevsky is one of the first 19th century Russian writers to struggle with what technology means,” Holland says. “For example, his novel The Idiot opens on a train. What does it mean to go from traveling in a horse and carriage to traveling by train? The train is a metaphor for what happens to Russian cultural and social life in this period.”

He also questioned the validity of new and emerging areas of science such as statistics.

“There was a view about statistics that if you had enough data, you'd be able to explain everything,” says Holland. “Dostoevsky was very dubious about different types of claims that science was making.”

Holland found it ironic that much of the book was created over the COVID-19 pandemic, a recent example of the world suddenly changing, paired with an acceleration of technology.

“There's an appropriateness to it,” Holland says. “In Dostoevsky’s novels, there's always a lot of fear about the future. Who could have guessed we would all be communicating via technology and that it would be the only way we’re able to conduct a conversation with friends and family?”

In addition to the book’s launch this summer, Holland and Bowers have organized several online events such as a roundtable discussion of Dostoevsky at 200 earlier this fall that attracted 80 students and scholars. It was part of a series of events to mark Dostoevsky’s bicentenary, co-hosted by the department of Slavic languages and literatures and the North American Dostoevsky Society and supported by a SSHRC Connection Grant.

For Dostoevsky’s 200th birthday, a special online party is planned. “We’ve put out a call for creative projects – performances, videos, stories, poems inspired by Dostoevsky’s works. Other talks, panels and roundtables will take place later this year and in early 2022.

“In a way Dostoevsky would be horrified,” says Holland of these digital celebrations. “One of his criticisms of modernity was that it was atomizing – everybody would be divided into individuals and that one of the problems of modernity is the breakdown of old senses of community.

“But at the same time, his ideas about modernity are double-edged. He also dreams that out of that brokenness, out of that atomization, something better might be able to be achieved.”

In other words, Holland believes he might applaud the creation of online communities meeting on Zoom from around the world to celebrate his work.

With physical distancing easing, Holland is overjoyed to be teaching her students in person again, as there’s no substitute for witnessing Dostoevsky’s profound impact in the classroom.

“Dostoevsky was able to portray some of the questions teenagers have about themselves in the world,” Holland says.

“Students get into him so much. Some of his characters, like the protagonist from Notes from the Underground, is an extremely unappealing character. But he also gets under your skin in a way, especially if you're 19 or 20. Students will tell me they're so into his text.

“That’s why I feel it's an extraordinary privilege to study and to teach Dostoevsky, and to be able to have this connection with students.”

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