Winter Thoughts on Summer Impressions by Dostoevsky Pt II

In part I, I mentioned that when I picked up Dostoevsky’s Winter Thoughts on Summer Impressions I anticipated reading a travel book. I was completely wrong; I see the book as primarily political but couched with satire.

So while reading the book, I went on Dostoevsky’s travels with him, and I saw various famous European cities through his eyes. As I read Dostoevsky’s descriptions (which were immensely entertaining), I couldn’t help but wonder which authors would make the best travelling companions. Not that I regretted Dostoevsky. Far from it. He made me laugh out loud, and he also gave me moments of great sobriety.

At the beginning of the book, Dostoevsky sticks to his itinerary, more or less, but this devolves as the book continues, and it’s not long before Dostoevsky gives up any pretense that he’s a writer making tourist observations. It’s almost as if Dostoevsky gets the travel preliminaries over with as quickly as possible before he moves on to his real task–criticising French society.

Dostoevsky begins at first with Germany, and this section is hilarious.  Berlin, he says, “made a very sour impression on me.” And he stays for 24 hours:

But I know  I have wronged Berlin, that I have no right to my assertion that it makes a sour impression. There is a dash of sweetness in it, at the very least. And what was the cause of that fatal mistake of mine? Simply the fact that, though a sick man, suffering from an attack of liver, I sped along through rain and fog to Berlin for two whole days and nights, and when I arrived after a sleepless journey, yellow, tired and broken, I noticed suddenly and at the very first glance that Berlin was incredibly like St Petersburg.

So he leaves….

Then Dresden:

In Dresden I was unfair even to German women. I decided immediately when I stepped out into the street that no sight was more horrible than a typical Dresden woman.

And so he leaves.

Next stop Cologne–a city which fares no better than Berlin or Dresden in Dostoevsky’s estimation. Cologne’s fault, however, is that it’s the source for eau de Cologne. Dostoevsky cannot hide from its smell or its aggressive, pesky vendors.

So he leaves.

By the time Dostoevsky gets to Paris, there’s an established pattern of digression afoot. It should come as no surprise that Dostoevsky dislikes Paris, and in fact, Paris seems to be the low-point of the entire trip. After Paris he goes to London, and while it’s described as a hell-hole with rampant childhood prostitution, Dostoevsky seems somewhat in awe of the city. He finds English women the most beautiful in the world, and while he’s horrified by the poverty, he concludes that the English aren’t hypocritical about poverty as they face it, and don’t try to hustle it away. He also makes a couple of digs at the catholic church while noting the sly catholic propaganda in London:

A Catholic priest would search out and insinuate himself into a poor workman’s family. He would find, for example, a sick man lying in his rags on a damp floor, surrounded by children crazy from cold and hunger, with a wife famished and often drunk. He would feed them all, provide clothes and warmth for them, give treatment to the sick man, buy medicine for him, become the friend of the family and finally convert them all to the Catholic faith. Sometimes, however, after the sick man has been restored to health, the priest is driven out with curses and kicks. He does not despair and goes off to someone else. He is chucked out again, but puts up with everything and catches  someone in the end.

Catholicism is not the only religion to come under fire. Dostoevsky also takes note of mormons hunting for converts in London and “rich and proud” Anglican minister and bishops.

Dostoevsky saves his nastiest and funniest barbs for the French. At one point he notes that a room of French men extol the virtues of a fellow countryman. One of his virtues includes the fact that he didn’t embezzle any money from the funds he oversaw. Dostoevsky notes the peculiarity of the fact that the honesty, which other people might take for granted, is seen as a rare virtue by the French, and he draws the obvious conclusions from it. Then there’s one chapter called “An Essay on the Bourgeois” and another “Bribri and Ma Biche” and here Dostoevsky ventures into French domestic life–the cuckolded husbands, the unattractive, aging wives and the shabby lovers. “Bribri and Ma Biche” reads almost like a critical overview of tawdry French melodramas (all the lovers are called Gustav), but this is Dostoevsky’s condensed version of the sad state of bourgeois domestic life. He also lampoons snotty French shopkeepers and notes the plethora of spies.  

Dostoevsky is into national characteristics. Here he is on French history and the French national characteristic of eloquence:

But the Frenchman’s most characteristic trait is eloquence. Nothing can extinguish his love of eloquence, which increases more and more as the years go by. I should terribly much like to know when precisely this love of eloquence began in France. Naturally it started mainly at the time of Louis XIV. It is a remarkable fact–it is indeed–that everything in France started at the time of Louis XIV. And what it is he had, that king–I cannot understand! For he was not really particularly superior to any of the other previous kings. Except perhaps he was the first to say–l’état c’est moi. This had a great success and resounded all over Europe at the time. I imagine it was just that quip that made him famous. It became known surprisingly quickly even in Russia.

One of the main points that Dostoevsky makes about France is the utter failure of the French Revolution–a revolution that he saw as serving the interests of the bourgeoisie. Translator Kyril Fitzlyon explains that Dostoevsky saw the French revolution as a “mere sham” :

The hollowness of the revolution, he says significantly enough in his Diary of a Writer, was exposed by the execution of Babeuf, the apostle of early communism.

I’d never heard of Babeuf before, or if I had I’d forgotten the name. Reading about Babeuf gave me some insight into Dostoevsky’s sympathies and also his radicalism.

Dostoevsky, at this point in his life a Slavophile, did not look to the west for a solution to Russia’s problems, so when he slams Paris, he’s really slamming Russian Westernisers. While Turgenev adored France and felt more at home there than he did in Russia, Dostoevsky despises this attitude. As I read Winter Thoughts on Summer Impressions, I felt that Dostoevsky was busily pointing out the problems of France as if he wanted to say ‘look at the country you worship. Do you really want to emulate Paris–a place with so many problems of its own.’

At one point, Dostoevsky makes the point that English Anglican ministers are very silly indeed when it comes to missionary work; they travel thousands of miles and ignore their own domestic problems:

They travel all over the earth, penetrate into darkest Africa to convert one savage, and forget the million savages in London.

Are Westernisers, to Dostoevsky, a bit like misguided missionaries? Russians turn to the West as a model for Russia to emulate, but really, in Dostoevsky’s opinion can that model withstand much scrutiny?

As I concluded this strange little volume, I came to the conclusion that Dostoevsky, with his volcanic intelligence, lively sense of humour, and most peculiar vision of life has become one of my favourite authors.

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20 responses to “Winter Thoughts on Summer Impressions by Dostoevsky Pt II

  1. Well, this is a s far from being so-called politically correct (a term I hate) that it is quite amusing. I liked the last quote best as it is so spot on. I also think that this sounds quite political. I wasn’t aware of this side in Dostoevsky at all. I wonder what he thought of Zola ? Or literature in general. Does he even say anything about it?

    • Winter Thoughts on Summer Impressions was published in 1863 and Zola’s career hadn’t really taken off. Dostoevsky died in 1881 and so he missed many of the great Rougon-Macquart series. I’d hazard a guess that he would have liked Zola (he loved Balzac), but then you never know as there was such seething bitter rivialry between some of these authors. Turgenev said that Nana was the most boring novel he’d ever read.

      I’ll take a look in the mega 5-volume bio and see if it mentions anything.

  2. May I steal your line? I was waiting for this one and it didn’t disappoint.
    I’d like to read that book, that would be the healthy counterweight to Wharton’s lyricism about France. And it sounds funny.

    Several things come to my mind as I’m reading your review:
    - the part on catholic propaganda in London reminded me of the Muslim Brotherhood. When you read Naghib Mahfouz, they use the same methods.

    - what he describes from France sounds very Balzacian, don’t you think? Or I am influenced by my current reading?

    - About eloquence : have you seen the film “Ridicule” ? I think this started before Louis XIV but it was enforced by the cult of personality he created. What had that king ? He reigned a long time and came after “civil war” between Catholic and Protestants. He was handsome, literate and had a great political sense. He was a new kind of king, very modern, sealing his power over the aristocracy through his “cult”. I wonder what that kind of man would have done with today’s media. But Henri IV was also a beloved king (still very present in nowadays imagery) and Louis XI was very good at politics too.
    - Historians confirm what Dostoevsky writes about the French revolution. It was a bourgeois revolution and I believe they supported it for economical reasons. However, it’s a pity to disregard the progressive laws passed during that time for private life (divorce, women’s rights, abolition of slavery…) and quickly abrogated during the Restauration.
    - Yes Babeuf was the ancestor of communism, at least that’s what we’re taught when we study the Russian revolution in school.

    How can he point out French eloquence when he seems to have the same kind of witty speech? The “Bribri and ma biche” chapter seems priceless. “Ma biche” is really really the typical hypocritical love name you give to a spouse. And bourgeois too. Have you seen the films Le Gendarme à St Tropez with Louis de Funès ? These are cult French comedies and De Funès always calls his wife “ma biche”.
    And the “Bribri” !! Is that a nickname? You remember my post on Proust ? I pointed out these silly short names in the aristocracy.

    What strikes me is that he criticizes France but as the same time this book reminds me of Monstesquieu and Voltaire. I thought of Lettres persanes when I read your first post and I still think about it now. Strange, isn’t it?

    • I used to think of Dostoevsky as dour and serious. No longer true.

      Yes Balzacian now you mention it. Dostoevsky adored Eugenie Grandet and translated it into Russian, I believe. Have you read that one as it’s easy to grasp why he loved it–the old miser’s meanness–his house, the tatty curtains, the locked up food supplies etc. While I’m on the subject, it was one of Maxim Gorky’s favourite novels as the old miser reminded him of his grandfather.

      As for Bribri:
      “When the bourgeois is in a sentimental mood or wants to be unfaithful to his wife he always calls her ma biche–my doe. And conversely a loving wife in an excess of dainty skittishness calls her darling bourgeois Bribri, to the great delight of the bourgeois.”

      I have seen neither of those films but I’ve heard of them. I’ll see if I can find them with subtitles. I am currently, BTW watching a 10 hr Russian television version of Queen Margot.

      When I read Zola’s His Excellency, there’s one scene in which the discussion of making new aristocrats comes up, and it hits you how ridiculous the revolution was–power shifted from one base to another and was not disseminated. You kill off one lot of people to grab their stuff so you can give it to someone else.

      There’s another great scene in Zola when the crowds gather to cheer the emperor and the pomp and worship of the adoring onlookers hit many false notes.

      The translator says the book is “a strange amalgam of slavophile prejudice and Fourierist ideals.”

      • I’ve read Eugénie Grandet and really liked it.

        I’d never heard of “Bribri” before. I’m going to try this on my husband tonight, I’m sure he’s going to think I’m nuts or making fun of him. (both assertions may be true though). I never thought Dostoevsky could be funny, I’m glad to be wrong.

        I think you can find Ridicule, it’s worth seeing. As for “the gendarmes” I’m not sure and if you find it, don’t expect something intelligent. You’ll need subtitles, de Funès speaks very fast. It’s a cult movie, like Les Bronzés.
        Btw, how do you find 10 hours Russian TV films about La Reine Margot ?

        About the French revolution : “You kill off one lot of people to grab their stuff so you can give it to someone else. ” Sure, that’s what happened. But then you forget that the Revolution suppressed the “corporations” that prevented free entreprise. I don’t think these were reinstalled after. (that’s difficult for me to explain in English)

        • I forgot to mention in my answer that I’ve seen Ridicule. Leconte is one of my favourites–especially since he is one of the few directors to get Simenon right (Monsieur Hire).

          Well as for the Russian film. I have a special fondness for Russian cinema so I follow (through various blogs and film studio sites, Mosfilm, Russico etc) the releases. Most of them do not make it to a N. American release unless they get film festival attention or something along those lines–I’m thinking Admiral here.

          Chekhov’s Ward 6 will be released in N America in May. But many of the Russian releases do not get subtitles. There are TV series of Crime & Punishment and The Idiot (excellent), so I took the plunge with Queen Margot. I cannot for a moment forget that these are Russians playing 16th century Frenchmen & women but it is riveting nonetheless.

          Dostoevesky gets into the nation of shopkeepers idea–he sees that nation as France not England which is a switch from Napoleon.

          PS. re: the revolution–Agree that France was long overdue for social change but I cannot really accept the violence of it and then the return to opulence & titles–Napoleon’s crowning etc seems retro.

          • Wharton has also passages about shopkeepers. That’s a strange part for me as I don’t see us as a nation of shopkeepers. This must have changed, I suppose.

            Re-Revolution : I never said the violence was right or could be justified or that what Napoleon did was acceptable. I wanted to point out that some good things came from it. I can’t imagine what it must have been to be born in 1770 and live, let’s say 70 years.

            • I seem to learn many things from films (didn’t mean to imply you thought the violence was ok), but when I saw the Auteuil film Sade a few years ago there’s that sobering scene of the carts full of heads taken to the mental hospital for burial. I realised I’d never thought of the guillotine executions in that way–the heads and the bodies detached.

              BTW, I have Queen Margot’s memoirs on the Kindle.

              • I remember that film. Yes you’re right things get more concrete when practical consequences are shown.
                Talking of massacre and of Queen Margot, the Saint Barthelemy was something too.
                I don’t have her memoirs, but two of her short stories.

                On a lighter tone, for example of hypocritical French ‘love’ names, see Cousin Bette, chapter 90.

  3. Don’t you have chapter titles? It is named “Autre guitare”. It’s the scene where Valérie makes sure that Crevel doesn’t give to Adeline the 200 000 francs she asked.
    Here are the quotes:
    Valérie talking to Crevel “Qu’as-tu MA BICHE ? Est-ce qu’on entre ainsi chez sa petite duchesse? Je ne serais plus une duchesse pour vous, monsieur, que je suis toujours ta PETITE LOULOUTE, vieux monstre!”
    or
    “Allons, dis, MON GROS MINET, la rive gauche a baissé?”
    or
    “Peut-on avoir un nez comme ça, reprit-elle, et garder un secret pour sa Vava-lélé-ririe!…Vava, le nez allait à droite ; lélé, il était à gauche ; ririe, elle le remit en place”
    or “Valérie, MON BIJOU”, “Valérie, MON PETIT ANGE”

    PS : I’ve tried the “Bribri”, thank god, we’re on the same page, he thought I was suddenly nuts.

  4. No there are no chapters and no titles. Odd.

    Thanks for the quotes. I’m going to look at my translation.

  5. Thanks. Will do. (I have it in English also on the Kindle as well as the paper and ink version)

  6. It still sounds very good. I can see why it’s overlooked though. Readers like narratives and this is more a conversation about political issues long dead (as much as such issues ever die).

    Ridicule is one of my favourite films from one of my favourite directors.

  7. If I could do it all over again, I’d take the chronological approach or at the very least start with the early stuff (pre House of the Dead).

    I’d leave the powerhouse books (C&P, The Brothers K, The Idiot, The Demons) for later.

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