cover image Dostoyevsky in the Face of Death: or Language Haunted by Sex

Dostoyevsky in the Face of Death: or Language Haunted by Sex

Julia Kristeva, trans. from the French by Armine Kotin Mortimer. Columbia Univ, $26 (336p) ISBN 978-0-231-21051-5

Kristeva (The Sense and Non-Sense of Revolt), a linguistics professor emerita at the University of Paris, delivers a soporific, unfocused study on Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky. An opening account of what Dostoyevsky’s work has meant to Kristeva is the volume’s modest highlight (she recounts reading “Saint Dosty” to rebel against her father’s condemnation of the author as “demoniacal”). Unfortunately, her vague goal of “introducing the man and his work into the third millennium” devolves into rambling musings without a coherent framework to order them. Among the haphazard reflections are a Freudian reading of The Brothers Karamazov as a dramatization of “Oedipal desire,” a consideration of Dostoyevsky’s novels’ “Christocentrism,” and an inscrutable attempt to liken the writer’s evocations of “inner experience” to living through Covid lockdowns. The prose reads like a parody of academic jargon (“The erotization of suffering plays a part in the ‘grand mal’ [or ‘haut mal’ in old French] epileptic aura: an exaltation of humors that inverses the pain into an incommensurable ecstasy”) and the analysis is often impenetrable. This makes Crime and Punishment look like a beach read. (Dec.)