The other night I was with friends at a bar—my fifth bourbon of the night in the books—and one of my friends said out of thin air, "You told me once that for your money you'd always take Tolstoy over Dostoevsky. You can't really believe that, can you?"
When I drink I tend to believe everyone has gone deaf: take my tone up three decibels while assuming no one will remember any of the malarkey I start spewing from my word-cutter. I had no reason to doubt that I had indeed made this assertion and I could safely assume I had been soaking in bourbon when I did so—I generally talk literature with this particular friend and we're always drinking together.
Of course I had no intention of backing down at this point. If you start a fight, as my father once said, you better damn well finish it.
I went with the old chestnut: "If you read War and Peace and you don't think that it is the most structurally sound and engaging book you've ever picked up, you're probably just not as smart as I am."
Of course this sentence has so many mistakes, I'm not sure where to begin correcting it. It's hyperbolic, not to mention incredibly pompous—which happen to be two things I might enjoy more than casual drugs. I have proven nothing to my friend at this point. And the rest of the conversation would dissolve into my being somewhat of a sissy for enjoying War and Peace and Anna Karenina more than The Idiot and Crime and Punishment. Keep in mind, however, I'm not even certain I believed what I was arguing, but the boat was knee deep in water and I was determined to go down with the ship.
We left the topic for something else—perhaps I strategically steered my friends away when I realized I was the cello player on the Titanic. But, as you can see, I've done a lot of thinking on the topic since.
I've read enough of both to form an educated opinion (Tolstoy: War and Peace, Anna Karenina, The Death of Ivan Ilych, The Cossacks, stories I'm too lazy to Google; Dostoevsky: Brothers Karamazov, The Idiot, The Gambler, Notes from Underground, a handful of short stories). I'd like to believe I know their styles and their story-telling techniques well enough to take either as my horse and ride it to victory. But, as you can see with all these shitty metaphors, I probably don't know diddly-squat poo about the topic. With that said, however, let's take a look at where I (soberly) stand on this topic.
The first book I ever read by Dostoevksy, Notes from Underground, I actually stole from Barnes and Noble (a story I've told ad nauseum). I lifted it because one of my co-workers, an old guy who wore bow-ties and smoked a pipe and was a card-carrying MFA, encouraged me to check out the Russians.
"They're the only reason to get out of bed."
He was a pretentious prattler, but he was spot on with the recommendation. I was hooked from the moment I read these lines: “I am a sick man... I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased."
To this day these words are special to me. How Depraved and Desperate I am. I read Brothers Karamazov shortly thereafter and secretly believed there couldn't possibly be a better book on the planet (it has been a dozen years and a revisit is in order). When I went to Russia a few years later, I was in the last stages of the obsession and he tagged along on the journey. Skulking lonely and drunk in the streets of Moscow, I imagined I was him—role-playing like an adolescent schoolboy. In my room at the Rosiya, overlooking the Moskva with the Seven Sisters and its grey majesty in the distance, I jotted half-mad notes in a journal wishing I could harness some of Fyodor's madness.
After Dostoevsky, I read Bulgakov, Turgenev, Chekhov, but none of them—save fleeting moments in Chekhov—evoked the fiery desperation of Dostoevsky.
My first experience with Tolstoy was War and Peace, followed almost immediately by Anna Karenina. Scholars have speculated that the latter was the superior work, a more meticulous effort. But I found War and Peace to be everything a novel should be: laid out perfectly with a cast of characters that would make writers of "The Simpsons" look like hacks. For me, it always come back to the structure of the novel. It is pieced together seamlessly, as if he had been born to tell that particular story. That's the only way it made sense to me. This was a man who God had intended to be a writer. And, by the way, Karenina isn't a bad effort either.
Being older and somewhat more seasoned—having already visited Russia and naively believing I knew more about the world than those around me, Tolstoy stirred in me a passion to know myself, my surroundings and challenge myself as a story-teller. Tolstoy, too, writes with an air of arrogance and self-confidence that Dostoevsky and many other writers seem to lack. Tolstoy writes like a man who is certain everything he is saying is the beautiful truth.
Certainly Leo seems to lack the intensity of Fyodor and therein lies the rub, I believe. In my 20s I was a silly, mad fool. I climbed mountains, hitchhiked Australia, got blackout drunk in Moscow, Paris, Tokyo. In my 30s I read books and peaked over my shoulder at mortality (it's a shame morality didn't accompany it).
Dostoevsky speaks to the younger, scrambling, spontaneous side of my mind while Tolstoy speaks to the older, wiser, slightly more heedful side. Both are important. Both are irreplaceable. I can't choose. I'm almost certain my friend will count this as a victory for himself. But since we've both had the pleasure of reading these two guys, I don't think either one of us could be a loser.