Tag Archives: Dostoevsky

Notes from a Dead House: Dostoevsky Part II

Dostoevsky’s Notes from a Dead House  is a philosophical work. While it’s an intense, incredible read, it’s also, due to its basic thematic format, a surprisingly accessible–and by that I mean it’s not as extensive or as heavy as Dostoevsky’s multi plot later works: Demons or Crime and Punishment. One of the book’s themes is the impact of punishment on human nature, and since Dostoevsky spends some time detailing the crimes and circumstances which have sent men to the camp, this is also a document of social criticism.

So here’s one of my favourite scenes which talks about Orlov “the famous brigand,” a “runaway soldier.” There are many former soldiers mentioned by Dostoevsky as inmates of the prison and they’re there for various things ranging from hitting an officer to killing one. Anyway Orlov, a man whose fearsome reputation precedes him, sticks in Dostoevsky’s mind as seen through the thinly veiled disguise of his narrator Alexander Petrovich Goryanchikov, a former nobleman sentenced to the Siberian prison for 10 years for the murder of his wife. Orlov is about to be punished.

One summer day rumor spread through the prisoners’ wards that in the evening the famous brigand Orlov, a runaway soldier, was to be punished, and after the punishment he would be brought to the ward. Waiting for Orlov, the sick prisoners affirmed that he was to be cruelly punished. They were all in some agitation, and, I confess, I also awaited the famous brigand’s appearance with great curiosity. I had long been hearing wonders about him. He was an evildoer such as few are, who put his knife cold-bloodedly into old people and children–a man with a formidable strength of will and a proud consciousness of his strength. He pleaded guilty to many murders and was sentenced to run the gauntlet. It was already evening when he was brought. The ward was dark, and candles had been lit. Orlov was nearly unconscious, terribly pale, with thick- disheveled, pitch-black hair. His back was swollen and of a bloody blue color. The prisoners tended to him all night, changed the water for him, turned him from side to side, gave him medicine, as if they were caring for some near and dear one, or some benefactor. The very next day he came fully to his senses and paced up and down the ward a couple of times! That amazed me: he had been so weak and exhausted when he arrived in the hospital. He had made it at one go through half the total number of rods he was sentenced to. The doctor had stopped the punishment only when he saw that to continue it threatened the inevitable death of the criminal. Besides, Orlov was a small man and of weak constitution, and what’s more he had been worn out by being kept on trial for a long time.

The narrator is extremely curious about Orlov and contrasts him with another brigand:

I can say positively that I have never in my life met a man of stronger, more iron character than he. Once, in Tobolsk, I saw a celebrity of this kind, the former chief of a band of brigands. He was a wild beast in the fullest sense, and standing next to him and not yet knowing his name, you sensed instinctively that you had a frightful creature beside you. But for me the horrible thing in him was his spiritual torpor. The flesh had won out over all his inner qualities so much that from the first glance you could see by his face that the only thing left in him was one savage craving for physical gratification, sensuality, fleshy indulgence. I am sure that Korenev–the name of this brigand–would even have lost heart and trembled with fear in the face of punishment, though he was capable of killing without even batting an eye. Orlov was the complete opposite of him. This was manifestly a total victory over the flesh. You could see that the man had limitless control over himself, despised all tortures and punishments, and had no fear of anything in the world. You saw in him only an infinite energy, a thirst for activity, a thirst for revenge, a thirst for attaining a set goal.

Drive is of course one of the human characteristics under observation. Some men will kill without compunction for very little gain while others are provoked or stretched beyond endurance before a crime is committed.  Dostoevsky’s narrator (clearly a very thinly veiled Dostoevsky) makes his observations about these two brigands: both very frightening, violent individuals–but one is an example of the triumph of the spirit over the flesh. We see Dostoevsky marveling at Orlov, and finding much to admire in spite of the fact that Orlov is a murderer.

notes from a dead houseDostoevsky is clearly fascinated by the subject of murder & what drives a person to commit this extreme act, yet at the same time, he realizes that one murder cannot necessarily be compared to another, and this is illustrated by the story of Baklushin, one of the many unforgettable characters in the book. Baklushin’s crime was a crime of passion; he murders an annoying German who’s about to marry the woman Baklushin loves.  Another murderer, Gazin, “a terrible creature,” would torment and then knife children “with enjoyment.

That evening, already in the dark, before they locked the barracks, I wandered near the fence, and a heavy sadness fell on my soul, and never again did I experience such sadness in all my prison life. It was hard to endure the first day of imprisonment, wherever it might be: in a prison, in a fortress, at hard labor. But I remember being occupied most of all by one thought, which afterwards constantly pursued me during all my life in prison– a partly insoluble thought, insoluble for me even now: about the inequality of punishment for the same crime. True, crimes cannot be compared with each other, even approximately. For instance, two criminals each killed a man; the circumstance of both cases are weighed, and both end up with the same punishment. Yet look at the difference between the crimes. One, for instance, put a knife into a man just like that, for nothing, for an onion; he came out on the high road, put a knife into a muzhik, and all the man had was an onion. “Look, man! You sent me out to rob: so I put a knife in a muzhik and all I found on him was an onion.” “Fool! An onion’s a kopeck! A hundred men–a hundred kopecks. There’s a rouble for you!” (A prison legend.) But another killed defending the honor of his bride, his sister, his daughter from the lust of a tyrant. One killed as a vagrant beset by a whole regiment of pursuers, defending his freedom, his life, often dying of hunger; another cuts little children’s throats for the pleasure of it, to feel their warm blood on his hands, to enjoy their fear, their last dove-like trembling under his knife. And what then? They both go to the same hard labor. True, there are variations in the length of the sentences. But these variations are relatively few; while the variations in one and the same crime are a numberless multitude. For each character there is a variation. But suppose it’s impossible to reconcile, to smooth over this difference, that it’s an insoluble problem–sort of like squaring the circle–let’s suppose so!

But murder isn’t the only crime under scrutiny here. The narrator notes how one man steals from him–even though he likes him–just because he can. There are others, according to Dostoevsky’s narrator who “are simply destitute by nature.” The narrator explains these “certain strange persons, placid and not at all lazy, who are destined by fate to remain eternally destitute.” In prison, these types pop up to offer their cheap services, and as they exist on the bottom rung of humanity, they are misused and underpaid. Another type noted by the narrator are those who “are born with one idea, which unconsciously moves them here and there all their lives; so they rush about all their lives until they find something they really want to do; then they are ready to risk their necks.” Illustrating that some crimes are committed under a unique set of circumstances, he notes that one man who killed his “superior for striking him,” will “lie down so unprotestingly under the rods … as if he acknowledged that he deserved it.”

The narrator also describes daily life in the prison along with its complicated economic system (from the moneylenders to the invalids) and the significance of alcohol. Prison life–a life that teaches patience–has its highs and its lows. Christmas is a particularly poignant time for the prisoners, and at one point, the prisoners put on a play. The importance of work is also scrutinized:

It occurred to me once that if they wanted to crush, to annihilate a man totally, to punish him with the most terrible punishment, so that the most dreadful murderer would shudder at this punishment and be frightened of it beforehand, they would only need to give the labor a character of complete, total useless and meaningless … if he were forced, for instance, to pour water from one tub into another and from the other into the first, to grind sand, to carry a pile of dirt from one place to another and back again–I think the prisoner would hand himself after a few days, or commit a thousand crimes, to die rather than endure such humiliation, shame, and torment.

The narrator observes the often irrational lengths men will go to “to put off the moment of punishment,” the kindness of the doctors, how the prisoners’ verbal altercations rarely escalate into violence, how some prisoners live for the next alcohol binge, and how “blood and power intoxicate.”  While Dostoevsky’s observations about human nature are incredibly detailed, he is never clinical; he never forgets that the prisoners–in spite of the many degradations of their living conditions–are beings whose humanity must be recognized.

Even the much hated major loves his poodle.

Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

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Notes from a Dead House: Dostoevsky Part I

The narrator of Dostoevsky’s Notes from a Dead House is Alexander Petrovich Goryanchikov, a former nobleman now serving a ten year sentence for the murder of his wife. This is a very thinly sketched fictional narrative for Dostoevsky, and the entire spousal murder never really convinces. It exists, as translator Richard Pevear explains, as “a mask for the censors: the notes of a man serving a sentence for a common-law crime were more likely to be passed for publication than the notes of a political criminal.”

In Lermontov: Tragedy in the Caucasus author Laurence Kelly argues that 19th century Russia literature was one of the only avenues for social protest for the times, but that criticisms had to be obscured or layered with double-meaning–even then it was still dodgy. Dostoevsky had to tread very carefully with Notes From a Dead House. This was a book that couldn’t be seen to be social protest, and yet when describing the conditions and punishments, there’s a clear strand of questioning the underlying institutional and loose judicial philosophy at work. Yet even more than the underlying expose of daily life in a prison camp in Siberia, Dostoevsky’s target here is the examination of human nature: how human nature suffers from imprisonment, how we endure punishment, the nature of guilt & sin, and significantly how imprisonment causes some to revert to their basest selves while others overcome their venal passions. Notes from a Dead House is Dostoevsky’s seminal work and one which contains all the themes of his later novels. Interestingly Dostoevsky never finished Netocha Nezvanova, the novel he was working on when he was arrested, and this implies a ‘before and after’ mindset.

notes from a dead houseIn April 1849, Dostoevsky was just 27 years old when he was arrested for ‘revolutionary activities’ and his involvement in the Petrashevksy Circle. He was charged with reading and circulating a letter written by literary critic Belinsky and also of “attempting to set up a clandestine printing press.” Tsar Nicholas I, considered the most reactionary ruler of Russia, did not tolerate anything he considered radical intellectualism, and his rule was marked by extreme censorship and a network or spies and informers. But back to Dostoevsky and his fellow Petrashevksy Circle members who were arrested, imprisoned and then suffered a staged mock execution before being shipped off for their various destinations. Dostoevsky was stripped of his status as a nobleman, given a sentence of eight years of exile and hard labor in a prison in Omsk, Siberia to be immediately followed by compulsory military service. The sentence was later commuted to four years and in 1854, Dostoevsky served as a private in Kazakhstan.

As translator Richard Pevear states, Notes from a Dead House was the first published account of life in the Siberian hard-labor camps. It initiated the genre of the prison memoir.”  But in addition to the book’s significance for that particular genre, the book also marked a shift in Dostoevsky as a writer. Dostoevsky formed Notes from a Dead House from notes gathered during his four years of imprisonment and rather than a novel, the book takes a more thematic approach with sections which cover the celebration of Christmas in the camp, a play performed by the prisoners and the elaborate distribution of alcohol amongst the inmates. Throughout the book, Dostoevsky, struggling with health issues, and recovering from the initial shock of being flung into the company of murderers, brigands and thieves, clearly shows an overriding fascination with human behaviour. There is no other way that Dostoevsky could possibly have written this book without the first hand exposure to a Siberian prison, for it’s here, amongst the prisoners, in this human crucible, that Dostoevsky is exposed to the psychology behind crime, punishment, sin and guilt.

more to follow…

Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

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Monsieur Proust’s Library by Anka Muhlstein

First the disclaimer: I have not read Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Several years ago, I started to read the first volume and while I enjoyed it, something came along which distracted me from my reading project. Since this was a work that I really wanted to pay attention to, I decided that the time wasn’t right. I meant to return to Proust, and I will, thanks to the encouragement of other bloggers, so when I saw the nonfiction book Monsieur Proust’s Library from Anka Muhlstein, I decided to read it as a sort of enticement–an encouragement, if you will. But there’s another reason I decided to read Monsieur Proust’s Library: last year I read and enjoyed Balzac’s Omelette from the same author. As anyone who has read Balzac knows, it would be easy to spend one’s entire life analysing and dissecting La Comédie Humaine, but author Anka Muhlstein wisely chose to examine the place of food in Balzac’s work. This now brings me to Monsieur Proust’s Library, and here the focus is books and reading in Remembrance of Things Past.

I’ll admit that I would have got more out of this book had I read Proust’s work, but on one level, while Monsieur Proust’s Library is an academic work, it’s also very user-friendly, so even if I didn’t know who some of the characters were, their place in Proust’s world was adequately explained. So in other words, if you haven’t read Proust yet, or you’ve only read bits, then don’t be put off of this book as it illuminates a particular accessible thread that runs through Proust’s work. The author acknowledges that while “there are many ways of approaching a novel as complex as La Recherche,” she elected to “shed light on subjects as varied as Proust’s literary affinities, his passion for the classics, his curiosity about contemporary writers, and his knack of finding astonishingly apt quotations to put in the mouths of his characters.” And so for around 160 pages, the author appears to have great fun picking out just how books and reading fit into Proust’s masterpiece. Here’s one of my favourite quotes:

Proust seemed incapable of creating a character without putting a book in his hands. Two hundred characters inhabit the world he imagined, and some sixty writers preside over it. Certain of them, like Chateaubriand and Baudelaire, inspired him, while others, Mme de Sévigné, Racine, Saint Simon, and Balzac enhanced his personages.

The author explores Proust’s early reading life and how books “enabled him to escape the narrow confines” of his world (I’m sure most of us can relate to that), and the influence of Baudelaire and Ruskin on La Recherche before moving onto the contributions of Racine and Balzac’s work. I was delighted to learn that Proust was influenced by Balzac, and yet theirs was not an overwhelmingly positive reader-writer relationship. Anka Muhlstein notes that Proust “never claimed to be fond of the great nineteenth century novelist,” and instead Proust’s noted favourites were Racine, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy and Baudelaire. Proust considered Balzac’s work to show a “certain lack of elegance,” and “an obsession with the ways in which money is made.” At the same time, however, Muhlstein argues that Proust was an avid reader of Balzac and admired him for his use of re-appearing characters and “audacious treatment of sexual deviation.” And I’ll admit a certain gratification to learn that Proust greatly admired Dostoevsky, and when once asked which was ‘the most beautiful novel he ever read,” he selected The IdiotDostoevsky is worked into La Recherche in several ways, including through the analysis of his work in the “literature courses the Narrator inflicts on Albertine.”

The author argues that Proust “establishes a hierarchy” for the book’s characters with some being ‘good’ readers and other characters being poor readers, either for the choice of reading material or for their utter lack of understanding of the material at hand. According to Muhlstein, “every bad reader exemplifies a distinct moral or intellectual shortcoming,” so we see Professor Brichot (“Proust has little regard for academics“), Mme de Villeparisis and Mme de Brissac who are all sadly lacking as readers. Oriane, Duchess of Guermantes, on the other hand, uses books to wield “a wonderfully subtle form of domination” over others in her social circle, while Baron de Charlus, (inspired, argues Muhlstein by Balzac’s Vautrin) is so obsessed with literature that he acts out parts of Saint Simon’s memoirs.

A life without books was inconceivable for Proust. Not surprisingly, he made literary taste and reading habits a means of defining his characters. Everybody in La Recherche reads: servants and masters, children, parents and grandparents, artists and physicians, even generals. Conversations at dinner tables and among friends are mostly literary.

I’ve always thought that if I wrote fiction, I’d have great fun creating characters who were composites of people I really couldn’t stand as well as a few I’d really liked. In other words I’d have a sort of literary and social revenge, so I throughly enjoyed reading about Proust’s characters as good, bad, or indifferent readers.

 Another marvellous aspect of the book is the way glimpses of Proust peer through the pages. We see Proust not just as a writer, but also as a reader–someone for whom reading was a serious business. We learn about how as a child “he cried at the end of every book and was unable to go to sleep, desolate at the idea of leaving the characters he had grown attached to.” But this is Proust in childhood. Anka Muhlstein shows an adult Proust writing La Recherche applying all that was dear to him and yet also playing with those ideas through his characters.

It’s always interesting to know who authors were influenced by, who their favourite writers and their favourite books were, and the fact that Proust read & was influenced by Balzac, in spite of his flaws, tells me that I’ll really like La Recherche when I get to it, and I sense that reading Monsieur Proust’s Library has not only prepped me for The Big Read, but will also help me enjoy the novels when I finally get to them.

 Review copy


Filed under Muhlstein Anka, Non Fiction

Humiliated and Insulted by Dostoevsky

“There’s a peculiar gratification to be derived from the sudden tearing-down of a mask, from the cynicism of not deigning to betray any sense of shame in suddenly exposing oneself to another indecently.”

I wanted to read Dostoevsky’s novel Humiliated and Insulted after watching a Russian biopic television series about this incredible writer. Apparently this novel, first published in 1861 in the magazine Vermya, isn’t read much these days, and after finishing it, I can see why. The novel lacks the lively humour and craziness of Notes from Underground, and it also lacks the magnificent sense of impending doom found in Demons. In fact, I’d have to say that more than anything else, Humilated and Insulted reminded me of Dickens –a St Petersburg version, of course, but the Dickens influence seems present nonetheless. Dostoevsky was an admirer of Dickens and read David Copperfield and The Old Curiosity Shop during his time at a penal colony in Siberia.  Dostoevsky travelled to London in 1862 and there’s some speculation whether he met Dickens during his eight day stay in England.

But what of Humiliated and Insulted? This is a new translation by Ignat Avsey and this edition from Oneworld Classics comes with a number of pictures of the important people in the author’s life along with a couple of the book’s original illustrations.   

The novel is narrated by a writer, Vanya (Ivan Petrovich), and the story begins with Vanya looking for lodgings in the cheaper areas of St Petersburg. Needless to say the writer is very poor, but he’s also feeling ill when he spots a skinny old man followed by an equally skinny old dog. The writer is intrigued by the sight of such abject misery and follows the decrepit pair, dog and owner, into a coffee house. Later he follows the man into the street and witnesses his death. It seems fated that Vanya will rent the room now left unoccupied by the old man. There’s a great deal of mystery about the circumstances the old man lived in, but his death seems to be the end of the thread. It isn’t, of course.

The book starts off very strongly indeed with Vanya and the last mysterious words of the old man, and then we discover that Vanya is in love with Natasha (Natalya Nikolayevna) the only daughter of a minor landowner named Ikhmenev. Vanya, who was orphaned, was unofficially adopted by Ikhmenev, and so naturally Vanya and Natasha grew up with a close bond but they were separated when Vanya went off to boarding school. Since we’re told that Ikhmenev took in Vanya, we know that he’s a good man, but he’s also had a troubled past:

Nikolai Sergeich Ikhmenev came of a good family which had long since been reduced to poverty. However, after his parents’ death he came into possession of a sizeable piece of property with some hundred and fifty souls. At about the age of twenty he decided to enlist in the Hussars. Everything went well until one disastrous evening in the sixth year of his commission when he gambled away his whole fortune at cards. He didn’t sleep that night. The next evening he again turned up at the gaming table and staked his horse–his last possession–on one card. He won, then a second time, then a third, and half an hour later he had recouped one of his hamlets, Ikhmenevka, an estate which at the last census had numbered some fifty souls.

Apparently Ikhmenev knew to stop while he was ahead, so he resigned from the Hussars and retired to his small country estate. He never gambled again. Ikhmenev married a “dowryless” woman and carefully tended his estate. His reputation as an excellent manager grew to the extent that the visiting owner of the adjoining estate, Vasilevskoye “which numbered nine hundred souls,” a certain prince Pyotr Alexandrovich Valkovsky begins to cultivate a friendship with Ikhmenev and his wife. Although the Prince has a nasty reputation, Ikhmenev and his wife, Anna find him charming, and this is partly due to the fact that Valkovsky appears to single them out for attention. Then Valkovsky fires his German steward and offers the job to Ikhmenev, and he unfortunately accepts….

One of the book’s themes is the inability of good, honest people (the humiliated and insulted) to cope with truly evil characters, and this is apparent through several relationships in the book. Valkovsky is an evil man, and just how evil becomes apparent as the plot plays out.

Most of the plot gravitates around two situations: Vanya takes Nelly, a filthy epileptic orphan girl under his wing and saves her from being pimped to a pedophile, and part of the plot concerns the mystery of her background. Another huge chunk of the plot concerns Natasha, the daughter of Ikhmenev and her love affair with an emotionally immature nobleman, Alyosha. 

Dostoevsky’s narrator has a problematic role. He’s a bystander for a huge chunk of the plot, and so he sees and relates the events that take place. There are many scenes of Vanya running over to see Natasha who’s in tears (again) thanks to the latest neglect from her lover. Then the lover appears and dashes off again only to disappear for another 4 days or so.  This cycle is repeated several times. A large chunk of the book appears to have very little forward motion as it hovers on Natasha’s stagnant love affair. Another fault can be found in the fact that Vanya is a bit slow to catch on to the true story behind the orphan’s mysterious past, and as a narrator, he isn’t particularly savvy.

But this is still Dostoevsky, and in my book, he’s untouchable. It’s not his best of course, but still well worth reading. One of the interesting aspects of the book is its look at sexual depravity:

There used to be a mentally sick clerk in Paris–he was confined to an asylum after he was finally pronounced unbalanced. Well then, during his bouts of madness this is how he used to amuse himself: he’d undress at home, stark-naked as the day he was born, down to his shoes, throw a large, ankle-length cloak over his shoulders, wrap himself up in it and, affecting a grand and self-important air, step out into the  street. To look at he was just like anyone else. A man in a large cloak strolling for his pleasure. But no sooner would he see some lone passer-by ahead with no one else about than he’d walk straight towards him, with the most serious and profound expression on his face, stop in front of him suddenly, fling his cloak open and expose himself in all his… glory. He’d stand for about a minute in silence, then cover himself up again and, keeping a straight face and with perfect composure, glide past the thunderstruck observer regally, like the ghost in Hamlet. He’d do that to everybody–men, women, children–and that’s all he needed to keep him happy.

While there are some shady and flawed characters, the Prince, who is unleashed in the final section, is the nastiest and also the most interesting character in the book. He’s a supreme pervie, and Dostoevsky’s frank approach to these sexual matters was refreshing for the 19th century:

Ideals I have none and have no wish to have any, never having missed them anyway. One can survive in this world so comfortably, so nicely without them…

The poverty and vice connection combined with the condemnation of a flawed social system that allows evils to thrive reminded me strongly of Dickens, and Dostoevsky’s novel also contains the sort of sentimentality found in Dickens through its two female victims, the orphan and Natasha. Here’s a speech made to Nelly  from a woman who sells children to wealthy pedophiles:

“Oh you damned bloodsucker, you louse, you!” The woman screamed, letting out an unpuncuated stream of abuse, gasping but not pausing for breath, “so this is how you repay me for all my care, you shaggy wretch! I send her off for some gherkins and off she sneaks! I knew it in my heart when I sent her she’d slope off. I felt it in me bones, I did! Last night I practically scalped her for it and today she’s up to the same old trick! Where’ve you been, you strumpet, where? Who could you go running to, you damned freak, you poisonous wretch, who? Tell me, you bog-trotting vermin, or I’ll strangle you on the spot!” 


Filed under Dostoevsky, Fiction

The Eternal Husband by Dostoevsky Part I

“She was faithful to her lover–though only until he bored her.”

The Eternal Husband, written by Dostoevsky in 1869,  explores the relationship between two men–Velchaninov, a middle-aged bachelor who suffers from hypochondria, and Trusotsky, a widower from the provinces. The two men are connected by relationships with a woman who’s now dead. The woman, who died from consumption, was Natalya Vasilyevna, Trusotsky’s wife and Velchaninov’s lover. The affair took place nine years earlier when Velchaninov stayed in a provincial town named T. ostensibly to oversee his interests in a lawsuit but, in truth he lingered to conduct the “liaison” with Natalya. The affair lasted for a year, and during this time Velchaninov was in “thrall” to his mistress. This was a new experience for Velchaninov as he was used to being the one in control in amorous relationships–“neither before, nor after had anything like ever happened to him.” Velchaninov, at Natalya’s insistence and argument that she thought she was pregnant, agreed to return to St Petersburg for a short period of time to allay her husband’s suspicions. But once there, Natalya writes to Velchaninov and tells him the affair is finished.

Due to the affair’s abrupt conclusion, Velchaninov has deeply buried unresolved feelings, and there’s “the question which was to remain forever unsettled for him: had he really loved that woman, or had it been just ‘pleasure’ alone?”

Don’t imagine that Velchaninov suffers from a broken heart. Velchaninov is a classic Ludic lover, a man who enjoys the game and the strategies of love and who avoids commitment at all costs. With Natalya, he was simply outmanoeuvred. Dostoevsky paints Velchaninov as a spoiled, vain, self-focused man who’s thoughtlessly ruined more than one woman. Here’s one of Velchaninov’s more shameful amorous adventures, including an instinctive justification which concerns:

 a young girl, a simple townswoman, whom he had not even found attractive and of whom, without knowing why himself, he had had a child, and how he had simply abandoned her, together with the child, without even saying goodbye (true, there had been no time), when he had left St Petersburg. He had spent a whole year hunting for the girl later on, but was already quite unable to find her. Moreover, there proved to be all but hundreds of such memories–and it was even as if each memory dragged dozens of others along after it. Little by little his vanity began to suffer too.

Fast forward nine years when the novel begins. It’s St. Petersburg, and Velchaninov at age 38 or 39, in some aspects already seems to be elderly. Perhaps it’s his ill-temper, or even his hypochondria. He is peevishly waiting for the resolution of  yet another lawsuit:

This case–a lawsuit concerning an estate–was taking an extremely bad turn. Only three months before it had looked not at all complicated, almost indisputable; but everything had somehow suddenly changed. ‘Every thing in general has started changing for the worst!’ Velchaninov had started repeating this phrase to himself often and with malicious exultation. He was employing a lawyer who was cunning, expensive and well-known, and he was unsparing with his money; but in impatience and out of mistrust he had taken to dealing with the case himself too; he read and wrote documents which the lawyer entirely rejected, he ran from one office to another, made enquiries, and probably hindered everything greatly; at least, the lawyer complained and urged him to go away to a dacha. Dust, stifling heat, the white St Petersburg nights irritating his nerves–that is what he enjoyed in St Petersburg. His apartment was somewhere near the Grand Theatre, was newly rented by him, and was not a success either; ‘nothing was a success!’ His hypochondria increased with every day; but he had already long been inclined to hypochondria.

Since Velchaninov has successfully buried many unpleasant memories in his past, perhaps it makes sense that when he starts seeing a man everywhere he goes, at first he doesn’t recognise him. The man is, as it turns out, none other than Trusotsky, the husband of his former lover. The two men form an uneasy relationship, and from Trusotsky, Velchaninov learns of the death of Natalya and that she left behind a little girl. Velchaninov does the arithmetic, wonders if the child is his, and sees a chance for redemption….

Dostoevsky’s tale explores the relationship between the two men–Trusotsky, the cuckold, and Velchaninov, the lover. Since Trusotsky appears to be a complete idiot, the perfect cuckold, Velchaninov isn’t quite sure what Trusotsky knows about his relationship with Natalya. His conversations with Trusotsky are fraught with danger and nervous tension. Things heat up when Trusotsky announces his engagement and then, rather strangely insists that Velchaninov accompanies him to meet the girl he intends to marry.

At one point, Velchaninov muses on the relationship between Trusotsky and Natalya. “She was one of those women,” he thought, “who just seem to be born to be unfaithful wives.” And then he reasons that conversely there exists “a type of husbands corresponding to those women, whose sole purpose lay only in corresponding to that female type. In his opinion, the essence of such husbands consisted in their being, so to speak. ‘eternal husbands’, or to put it better, being only husbands in life and absolutely nothing more.” Velchaninov gets to test his theory of Trusotsky as Eternal Husband or perpetual cuckold.

The Eternal Husband contains Dostoevsky’s characteristic humour, and as usual, he gives his characters nowhere to hide when it comes to the illumination of the baser self, the petty spitefulness of human nature and the sly ulterior motive. There’s a sadistic element afoot emanating from the sanctimonious Trusotsky who very possibly knows more than Velchaninov thinks, and yet both men are pathetic creatures for their exploitation of the women in their lives. The scene that takes place of the Zakhlebinins (the home of no less than 12 marriageble daughters) shows the plight of women who are at the mercy of whatever replusive eligible men come to visit. The Zakhlebinin family is on the brink of financial disaster, so it is imperative that the girls are married off. Dostoevsky shows the plight of sweet-natured Katerina, the eldest girl, who now has few prospects of marriage, and contrasts her to Nadezhda, the youngest girl. Nadezhda, very much a modern girl in the Nihilist camp, is brunette whereas her sisters are blonde. Is Nadezhada, hardly a pliable girl, the result of yet another Eternal Husband? And it’s over Nadezhada that the two men, Trusotsky and Velchaninov form a strange truce when they find themselves trumped by youth.

My copy from Hesperus Press includes a foreword by Andrew Miller and is translated by Hugh Aplin


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Dostoevsky Translations Part II

Here are two more passages comparing translations of Dostoevsky’s The Demons

The Constance Garnett translation free on the kindle:

Part I, Chapter 5–The Subtle Serpent:

Varvara Petrovna rang the bell and threw herself into an easy chair by the window.

“Sit here, my dear,” She motioned Marya Timofyevna to a set in the middle of the room, by a large round table. “Stepan Trofimovitch, what is the meaning of this? See, see, look at this woman, what is the meaning of it?”

“I …I …” faltered Stepan Trimovitch.

But a footman came in.

“A cup of coffee at once, we must have it as quickly as possible! Keep the horses!”

“Mais, chere et excellente amie, dans quelle inquietude…” Stepan Trofimovitch exclaimed in a dying voice.

 “Ach! French! French! I can see at once that it’s the highest society,” cried Marya Timofyevna, clapping her hands, ecstatically preparing herself to listen to a conversation in French. Varvara Petrovna stared at her almost in dismay.

We all sat in silence, waiting to see how it would end. Shatov did not lift up his head, and Stepan Trofimovitch was overwhelmed with confusion as though it were all his fault; the perspiration stood out on his temples. I glanced at Liza (she was sitting in the corner almost beside Shatov). Her eyes darted keenly from Varvara Petronova to the cripple and back again; her lips were drawn into a smile, but not a pleasant one. Varvara Petronova saw that smile. Meanwhile Marya Timofyevna was absolutely transported. With evident enjoyment and without a trace of embarrassment she stared at Varvara Petronova’s beautiful drawing-room–the furniture, the carpets, the pictures on the walls, the old-fashioned painted ceiling, the great bronze crucifix in the corner, the china lamp, the albums, the objects on the table.


Here’s the Pevear/Volokhonsky version. Part One Chapter 5: The Wise Serpent:

Varvara Petrovna rang the bell and threw herself into an armchair by the window.

“Sit down here, my dear,” she motioned Marya Timofeevna to a seat in the middle of the room, by the big round table. “Stepan Trofimovich, what is this? Here, here look at this woman, what is this?”

“I … I…” Stepan Trofimovich began to stammer …

But the footman came.

“A cup of coffee, now, specially, and as quickly as possible! Don’t unhitch the carriage.”

“Mais, chère et excellente amie, dans quelle inquiétude …” Stepan Trofimovich exclaimed in a sinking voice.

“Ah! French! French! You can see right off it’s high society!” Marya Timofeevna clapped her hands, preparing rapturously to listen to conversation in French. Varvara Petrovna stared at her almost in fright.

We were all silent, awaiting some denouement. Shatov would not raise his head, and Stepan Trofimovich was in disarray, as if it were all his fault; sweat stood out on his temples. I looked at Liza (she was sitting in the corner, almost next to Shatov). Her eyes kept darting keenly from Varvara Petrovna to the lame woman and back; a smile twisted on her lips, but not a nice one. Varvara Petrovna saw this smile. And meanwhile Marya Timofeevna was completely enthralled; with delight and not the least embarrassment she was studying Varvara’s beautiful drawing room–the furniture, the carpets, the paintings on the walls, the old-style decorated ceiling, the big bronze crucifix in the corner, the porcelain lamp, the albums and knickknacks on the table.


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Dostoevsky Translations Part I

The issue of Dostoevsky translations arose recently, so here are some comparative samples for anyone interested:

The Possessed or The Devils translated by Constance Garnett. This is available free on the kindle:

 Chapter 1:

In undertaking to describe the recent and strange events in our town, till lately wrapped in uneventful obscurity, I find myself forced in absence of literary skill to begin my story rather far back, that is to say, with certain biographical details concerning the talented and highly-esteemed gentleman, Stepan Trofimovitch Verhovensky. I trust that these details may at least serve as an introduction, while my projected story itself will come later.

I will say at once that Stepan Trofimovich had always filled a particular role among us, that of progressive patriot, so to say, and he was passionately fond of playing the part–so much so that I really believe he could not have existed without it. Not that I would put him on a level with an actor at a theatre, God forbid, for I really have a respect for him. This may all have been the effect of habit, or rather, more exactly of a generous propensity he had from his earliest years for indulging in an agreeable day-dream in which he figured as a picturesque public character. He fondly loved, for instance, his position as a “persecuted” man and, so to speak, an “exile.” There is a sort of traditional glamour about those two little words that fascinated him once for all and, exalting him gradually in his own opinion, raised him in the course of years to a lofty pedestal very gratifying to vanity.

Here’s the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation (which I think is worth the price plus you get a foreword & translator’s notes):

The Demons

Chapter One-Instead of an Introduction:

In setting out to describe the recent and very strange events that took place in our town, hitherto not remarkable for anything, I am forced, for want of skill, to begin somewhat far back–namely, with some biographical details concerning the talented and much esteemed Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky. Let these details serve merely as an introduction to the chronicle presented here, while the story itself, which I am intending to relate, still lies ahead.

I will say straight off Stepan Trofimovich constantly plays a certain special and, so to speak, civic role among us, and loved this role to the point of passion–so much so that it even seems to me he would have been unable to live without it. Not that I equate him with a stage actor: God forbid, particularly as I happen to respect him. It could all have been a matter of habit, or, better, of a ceaseless and noble disposition, from childhood on, towards a pleasant dream of his civic stance. He was, for example, greatly enamoured of his position as a “persecuted” man and, so to speak, an “exile.” There is a sort of classical luster to these two little words that seduced him once and for all, and, later raising him gradually in his own estimation over the course of so many years, brought him finally to some sort of pedestal, rather lofty and gratifying to his vanity.

To be continued….


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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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Winter Thoughts on Summer Impressions by Dostoevsky Pt I

We are all familiar with the way in which DVDS are released with a certain packaging of special features to tempt us to buy a particular release (I’m thinking Kino or Criterion). This idea came to mind when I picked up my Oneworld Classics edition of Dostoevsky’s Winter Notes on Summer Impressions. This edition includes photos of Dostoevsky’s family, their dacha, a bio, essential info on Dostoevsky’s works, and guess what, the translator also writes the intro. No celebrity intro here, and good for Oneworld for having the courage to release this edition without the aid of a celebrity. Half the time I wonder if the celebrities have even read the book they’re writing about, and even if they have they can’t possibly have the sort of specialised knowledge possessed by the translator. So it was nothing less than refreshing to see the translator here, Kyril Fitzlyon, also writing the intro. Note to publishers: In translated classics, we don’t need celebrity intros to attract us to a new translation.

I hadn’t read a lot about this slim volume: Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, but I was aware that Dostoevsky (1821-1881) wrote this following his release from prison. It was first published in Russia in 1863. Dostoevsky was arrested in 1849 and confined in the Peter Paul Fortress for his involvement with the Petrashevsky Circle. He was “found guilty of plotting to subvert public order and was initially sentenced to death by firing squad.” This was commuted to “four years of hard labour [in Siberia] and subsequent conscription in the army,” but he still suffered through a mock execution–only he didn’t know it wasn’t the real thing.

After his period of hard labour, he had to serve 5 more years in the army (first as a private and later as a lieutenant)–still in Siberia. When Dostoevsky returned from Siberia in 1859, he was a changed man. This period of Dostoevsky’s life not only interrupted his literary career, but it also led to his turning away from Westernising ideals and instead he turned to Slavophilism for several complex reasons.

Translator Kyril Fitzlyon makes the point that Dostoevsky’s works fall into “two fairly definite periods” while he finds it “odd”  that “the opening of the second and more characteristic phase of Dostoevsky’s literary activity should up till now have been so unanimously ascribed by all critics to Notes from Underground.” Fitzlyon argues that Winter Thoughts on Summer Impressions is a sadly neglected Dostoevsky work, and the fact that it is so neglected explains why it’s often ignored as the true beginning of Dostoevsky’s second phase. At the same time Fitzlyon acknowledges that Dostoevsky, who was “never a good stylist” is in this volume “obviously trying to evolve a way of writing that would enable him to put his ideas across in the most digestible form.” Fitzlyon lists the stylistic problems that plague the book. He choses to “disregard” them, and so did I.

Winter Thoughts on Summer Impressions was published a year before Notes from Underground (1864), and came before Dostoevsky’s powerhouse novels, including Crime and Punishment (1866) , The Idiot (1869), Demons (1872), and The Brothers Karamazov (1880). It’s easy to see why Winter Thoughts on Summer Impressions gets lost next to these great novels. For one thing, this book is almost impossible to categorise. Before picking up this slim volume, I thought I was going to read a book about Dostoevsky’s travels in Europe, and while Dostoevsky does indeed touch on a few geographical locations, I see this as primarily a political book couched in satire.

Here’s how the book opens with chapter 1 titled: Instead of a Preface

For months now, my friends, you have been urging me to give you a description of my impressions while travelling in foreign lands, never suspecting that you are thereby placing me in a quandary. What shall I tell you? What shall I say that is new, that has not been told before? Who of us Russians (those, at least, that read periodicals) does not know Europe twice as well as he knows Russia? I have put down “twice” merely out of politeness, I should probably have said “ten times better”.  Besides, apart from these general considerations, you are well aware that I, of all people, have nothing to tell and least of all can I give a methodical account of anything, because there was no method in my sightseeing, and even when I did see anything I did not have time to examine it very closely. I visited Berlin, Dresden, Wiesbaden, Baden-Baden, Cologne, Paris, London, Lucerne, Geneva, Genoa, Florence, Milan, Venice, Vienna and a few other places (to which I went twice), and the whole tour took me precisely two and a half months! Now, I ask you, is it possible to see anything throughly while travelling over so many roads in the course of two and a half months?

This is the set-up created by Dostoevsky for the reader, and in this opening paragraph he’s already making sly digs at Westernising Russians.

As readers, we can see that he doesn’t seek to impress with his superior knowledge, and I suppose this is one of the things that is so endearing about him. In this opening paragraph he is setting the seeds for the fact that he is going to give us his impressions only, but at the same time he acknowledges that those impressions may not be worth a great deal. After all, how can he give any serious intimate knowledge of a town in which he stayed a day or two, and by extension, the underlying idea, well one of the underlying ideas in this clever, strange little book, is reflected back at the Westernising-Slavophile divide within Russia. How can Russians say that Russia would benefit from the influences of Western civilization when they are, at best, foreign travellers only seeing and experiencing certain aspects of a new culture? Or if they even live abroad (like Turgenev), how can they say what is good for Russia?

In part II: Dostoevsky looks at the western world and doesn’t like what he sees & why this book should come with a disclaimer for French readers.


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On Writers: Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment

After reading Dostoevsky’s The Demons, a few years ago, I felt traumatized. That’s not to say I didn’t like it. Actually I loved the book, but at the same time, I felt the building of a slow, agonising dread. I knew a horrible, ugly murder was going to take place and I felt powerless to stop it yet compelled to read on. It took me some time to recover from the experience.

So I was delighted to come across a wonderful quote about the traumatizing impact of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. This is a quote from The Miraculous Years (1865-1871) –the fourth volume in a 5 volume biography set on Dostoevsky from Joseph Frank. Crime and Punishment initially appeared in serialised form in The Russian Messenger.

Dostoevsky had every reason to be pleased with the public response. “I have already heard many enthusiastic utterances [about it]. It contains daring and original things” he proudly told Wrangel. To be sure, “these daring and original things” were by no means to everyone’s taste, and the radicals on The Contemporary, just as they had done with Turgenev’s Fathers and Children four years earlier, responded immediately to Dostoevsky’s challenge. “Has there ever been an instance in which a student killed someone in order to commit a robbery?” asked its critic G.Z Eliseev. “If such an instance occurred, what can it prove regarding the state of mind of the students as a group? What would Belinsky have to say about this new ‘fantasy’ of Mr. Dostoevsky, a fantasy according to which the entire student body is accused without exception of attempting murder and robbery?” A month later the same critic wrote that, from the artistic point of view, Dostoevsky’s depiction of a sordid murder, “in the sharpest exactitude and with all the most minute particulars,” was “the purest absurdity,” and no justification for it could be found in the annals of either ancient or modern art.

Such predictable reactions did not prevent the book’s installments from being a sensational success with the reading public; many years later Strakhov still recalled the furor they had created. “Only Crime and Punishment was read during 1866,” he testifies, “only it was spoken about by lovers of literature, who often complained about the stifling power of the novel and the painful impression it left, which caused people with strong nerves almost to become ill and forced those with weak ones to give up reading it  altogether.” Strakhov also remembers what he considers “most striking of all”: the coincidence “with reality.” On January 12, 1866, a student named A. M. Danilov killed a moneylender and his manservant in order to loot their apartment, and many of the details surrounding the crime instantly brought Raskolnikov’s deed to everyone’s mind.

It appears I am not alone….


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