In honor of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 200th birthday, University of Toronto faculty celebrates his work

When Kate Holland was an undergraduate student, she had a “boring summer job” at a cafe in the Fisheries Museum which had an unexpected edge.

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

“It was an intellectually galvanizing experience that defined my career,” says Holland, associate professor in the Department of Slavic Languages ​​and Literatures in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and president of the North American Dostoyevsky Society.

This year is important for Dostoyevsky lovers, including Holland, because November 11 marks the 200e anniversary of his birth.

To mark the occasion, she co-edited a new book, Dostoyevsky at 200: the novel in modernity, with Katherine Bowers, Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia.

This is a collection of 10 scientific essays written by international academics, including one by the Netherlands. They examine how Dostoyevsky’s novels explore the clashes between science, capitalism, materialism and technology with traditional cultural, religious and family values.

“I was particularly interested in writing an edited volume, because that way you can choose the researchers whose work is most appealing,” says Holland. “These are mainly young emerging researchers. We didn’t want to go straight to the reigning monarchs of the field as there are a lot of exciting young researchers in Dostoevsky’s studies at the moment. “

Holland’s essay deals with the dying art of slapping people in response to an insult or offense – a common Dostoevskian literary gesture – and its subsequent invitation to a duel. She examines how the ancient forms and codes of behavior of Dostoevsky’s universe, such as slaps and bows, crumbled amid an evolving culture.

Holland wanted the collection of essays to focus on Dostoevsky as a writer of modernity, as she is intrigued by how he approached the big questions about the future. He is considered one of the first European writers to be concerned with science, technology and the rapidly changing world in a changing political, social and spiritual context.

“Dostoyevsky was one of the first 19th-century Russian writers to grapple with the meaning of technology,” says Holland. “For example, his novel The idiot opens on a train. What does it mean to go from a carriage trip to a train trip? The train is a metaphor for what was happening to Russian cultural and social life during this time.

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

“Statistics thought that if you had enough data, you would be able to explain everything,” says Holland. “Dostoyevsky was very skeptical about the different types of claims that science made. “

Holland found it ironic that much of the book was created during the COVID-19 pandemic, a recent example of the sudden change in the world, coupled with an acceleration in technology.

“There is relevance to that,” says Holland. “In Dostoyevsky’s novels there is always a lot of fear for the future. Who would have guessed that we would all communicate via technology and that would be the only way to have a conversation with our friends and family? “

In addition to the book launch this summer, Holland and Bowers hosted several online events such as a Dostoevsky Roundtable at 200 earlier this fall that drew 80 students and academics. It was part of a series of events to mark Dostoevsky’s bicentennial, co-organized by the Department of Slavic Languages ​​and Literatures and the North American Dostoevsky Society and supported by a Connection Grant from SSHRC.

For Dostoyevsky’s 200e birthday, a special evening online is planned. “We have launched a call for creative projects – performances, videos, stories, poems inspired by Dostoyevsky’s works. Other conferences, panels and round tables will take place later this year and early 2022.

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

“But at the same time, his ideas about modernity are double-edged. He also dreams that from this rupture, from this atomization, something better can be achieved.

In other words, Holland thinks he could applaud the creation of online communities coming together on Zoom from around the world to celebrate his work.

With the relaxation of physical distance, Holland is thrilled to be teaching her students in person again, as there is no substitute for witnessing Dostoevsky’s profound impact in the classroom.

“Dostoevsky was able to describe some of the questions that adolescents ask about themselves in the world,” says Holland.

“The students are so interested in him. Some of his characters, like the protagonist of Metro Notes, is an extremely unattractive character. But it also puts you in your shoes in a way, especially if you’re 19 or 20. The students will tell me that they are so in his text.

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


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