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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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