In their salute to Russian literature yesterday, the NYT Book Review asked their Bookends writers the fascinating but awkwardly worded question, "What Makes the Russian Literature of the 19th Century So Distinctive?" About Dostoevsky, my personal fave, Francine Prose writes, "Dostoyevsky’s people seem real to us, vivid and fully present, even as we suspect that no one ever really behaved as they do, flinging themselves at each other’s feet, telling their life stories at extraordinary length and in excruciating detail to a stranger in a bar."
I still like the explanation that apparently comes from one of Dostoevsky's own characters in A Raw Youth, a book I have never read. This character says that he "feels ideas," a condition that applies to many of Dostoevsky's people--at least to the men (the women seem to just plain feel). It's true that in real life, we rarely see people driving themselves to actual madness over what God really wants from us, or why there is evil, or how we can contribute the most to humanity during our short time on earth. But maybe they should.
Such characters also inhabit Iris Murdoch's novels, which is probably why I've gone a bit nuts for her, too. What I love about these characters is that they deeply care about ideas, about morality, about thinking and meaning. Ideas and morality aren't abstract concepts that one contemplates instead of living. For these people, thinking is living. That probably seems rather foreign, in an American context particularly; but in these novels, ideas are life blood. Thinking makes us more human, and more alive--not less so.