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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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Turgenev by Henri Troyat Part I

I’ve enjoyed a couple of Turgenev novels (Home of the Gentry & Fathers & Sons) and I plan on reading other titles starting in 2011. It seemed like a good time to move into a Turgenev bio,  so I picked up Henri Troyat’s study of Turgenev to get the details. Troyat (real name Lev Tarasov) was born in Russia in 1911, but the family left in 1920 and settled in Paris.  When dealing with some aspect of Russian history (and Troyat does discuss certain names and beliefs in this book), it’s a good idea to know where the author stands on the subject of 19th century Russian politics.

Troyat was a prolific author and produced over a vast number of books before his death in 2007. One of his specialties was the biography. His Russian subjects include:

Dostoevsky

Pushkin

Tolstoy

Pasternak

Gogol

Gorky

Turgenev

Apart from covering a fair number of 19th century Russian authors, Troyat also tackled monarch biographies and later in his writing career moved onto the French giants of literature including: Balzac, Maupassant, Flaubert and Zola. According to someone who’s read nearly all Troyat’s Russian bios, at just over 160 pages, Turgenev is a relatively light analysis when compared to the Pushkin bio which clocks in at well over 600 pages.

Russian journalist Leonid Parfyonov, calls Turgenev “the main author of conflicts of the epoch” –the most prominent 19th century so-called Westernized Russian author. Turgenev, a tireless promoter of Russian literature in Europe, was reviled by most of his Russian peers, but then the Russian literati scene was as fractured as Russia itself:

In those days the literati of Russia were divided into two camps: the Slavophiles, for whom there was no salvation, in art, philosophy, or even politics, except in traditional, Russian, Orthodox, grassroots sources; and the Westerners, who maintained that all thing good came from abroad. The former vibrated solely to the nation’s past, its specific personality; they feared pollution from new ideas, they claimed that Russia should become the spiritual guide to all mankind. The latter proclaimed themselves open to the world, to progress; they wanted to see Russia merge with Europe.

Here’s another quote from Parfyonov who states that “Turgenev was seen as the leader of the ‘Western’ liberals and Dostoevsky was the leader of the Slavophile conservatives”:

They were authorities of those doctrines, rulers of other people’s minds. But they themselevs were free from those doctrines. But they were not free from their own minds.

It seems difficult to slot someone like Tolstoy into either the camp of the Western liberals or the Slavophile conservatives. Plus where do the revolutionaries fit in? I don’t feel comfortable with catch-all terms such as ‘left,’ ‘right,’ ‘radical’ and ‘liberal’. Real life is much more muddled and complicated than that. Here’s a quote from The Magical Chorus by Solomon Volkov on exactly where Tolstoy was supposed to fit in the scheme of things. Hint: he didn’t:

Since Tolstoy the writer was cast by critics as the patron saint of everything from realism to socialist realism, it comes as no surprise that politically he was variously labeled as well. Contemporaries tried to pin him down as a repentant aristocrat, or the voice of the patriarchal Russian peasantry, or a Christian anarchist, and even as a die-hard revolutionary. It was all true to a point: Tolstoy preached an extreme simplicity of life and took a hard libertarian stance toward government, which he considered immoral and illegal, yet he also rejected all forms of violence. In his famous 1909 article ‘I Cannot Be Silent,’ he protested capital punishment in Russia and did not recognize the authority of organized religion. This inevitably led the rebel count into conflict with the autocracy and the Russian Orthodox Church. Many believed that a confrontation with Tolstoy gravely weakened both institutions.

Polyglot Tolstoy, who doesn’t fit neatly into either the Slavophile or the Western camp, is often described as an anarcho-pacifist. 

But back to Turgenev….Turgenev’s era was hardly the first time the Western/Slavophile debate raged in Russia. After all Tsar Peter the Great founded St Petersburg with the idea that it would serve as a ‘window to the west’, but the debate was gathering steam. For most of his life, Turgenev, with a lifelong horror of violence and “radicalism,” found himself increasingly alienated from his Russian peers. While the Slavophile author, Aksakov found much to admire in the pure Russian sensibilities of the 1852 story Mumu, within a few years, in increasingly turbulent political times, Turgenev’s great novels were largely trashed by critics on all sides.  Russian critical appreciation of Turgenev’s work came, finally, towards the end of his life.

Troyat takes a strictly chronological approach and begins with some initial background information about Turgenev’s parents. This sets the scene for the family dynamic–a tyrannical mother who failed, in spite of her superior material circumstances, to rule her indolent husband–a man who appeared to prefer the easy company of serf girls. Turgenev’ s mother, Varvara Petrovna sounds as though she was a tough, hard woman. After her mother’s death, at age 16, Varvara’s stepfather tried to rape her:

She left home and walked sixty versts half naked through the snow to Spasskoye an estate belonging to a maternal great-uncle.

A verst is about 2/3 of a mile, by the way. Life at Spasskoye sounds rather explosive, for while the great-uncle allowed Varvara to stay there, they fought continuously, and Troyat tells us that:

Just as he was about to disinherit her, he died, in rather peculiar circumstances.

After dropping that nugget of information, Troyat explores it no further. Frustrating.

Varvara inherited the “vast estate” of Spasskoye which included twenty villages and over 5,000 serfs. When making tallies of serfs women and children were not counted, so we can extrapolate the real total from 5,000. Varvara, naturally, had her pick of suitors  and selected Sergey Nikolayevich Turgenev. He was, according to Troyat “a lover of luxury” and of course, “drowning in debt.” The marriage does not sound happy. He “lived in idleness and opulence” bedding the serf girls. Varvara “took her revenge for the humiliations she suffered at her husband’s hands by maltreating the servants.” According to Troyat, this became a lifelong habit, and at one point she actually told Turgenev that she’s beat the serfs if he didn’t come home and visit. How’s that for transparent manipulation?

Troyat argues that Varvara–a powerful, indomitable and controlling woman–had a profound impact on the lives of both of her sons. Not only did they stay away from her as much as possible, but they both consequently sought out similar women for their lasting relationships. Here’s a wonderful quote from the book which particularly stands out as it describes Varvara as a veritable unchallenged tsarina of her own kingdom at Spasskoye:

The domain over which she ruled as an absolute monarch included, in addition to the ordinary household staff, tutors, and governors, singers, serf actors and an orchestra. The household servants formed a brotherhood of some sixty families; they all lived within a few hundred yards of the main house, which had forty rooms. They worked as locksmiths, blacksmiths, carpenters, gardeners, cooks, land surveyors, tailors, shoemakers, upholsterers, coachmakers. It was like a rural principality living in a closed economy. Everything needed for survival could be produced on the estate. Varvara Petrovna took great pride in the fact she could sustain her little world without any outside help. She called her butler “court  minister,” and it was the “minister of the post” who brought her her letters from Mtsensk, after they had been scrutinized by the court minister, who decided, in light of their contents, whether the mistress of the house should be prepared for their perusal by a cheerful tune or a mournful one. Every morning at the same hour she sat in her office to hear the reports of her private secretary, estate manager, and steward, and, from her seat in a throne-like armchair on a raised platform, issued orders to her minions, who stammered with subservience. She had her own police force composed of retired guardsmen. Her justice was implacable. On her ruling, two serfs were sent to Siberia for failing to take off their hats in her presence. She had a waterfall rerouted because it disturbed her sleep. There were horsemen whose task it was to bring her a sort of porridge that could be made to her taste only in one village a long way from the house. 

 That’s a long quote, but it’s included to show both the absurd and the despotic behaviour Turgenev grew up with.  Both Turgenev and his brother were kept on an allowance with their mother refusing to loosen the purse strings. The widowed Varvara, by the way, later bore an illegitimate child with her doctor–none other than the father of Sonya, who later became the wife of Tolstoy.

Troyat charts the major events in Turgenev’s life: his most significant love affair was with opera singer Pauline Viardot. Turgenev adored Pauline and he followed her around Europe, setting up house upon several occasions with Pauline, her husband and her children. One of those children may possibly have belonged to Turgenev. This premier relationship, however, did not stop Turgenev from “capricious” dalliances with several women of the gentry class (the list included Bakunin’s sister, Tatyana and Tolstoy’s sister, Marya, and this may partly explain why both Bakunin and Tolstoy were often out-of-patience with Turgenev). Turgenev engaged in several relationships in which he jettisoned right before that crucial commitment, and it seems that he left more than one woman feeling confused and anguished about the disrupted courtship.  He also sired a child, named Paulinette (after his married idol), by a serf girl. The child was later raised by the Viardots.

I mentioned earlier the reference to the “mysterious death” of Varvara’s great-uncle. No explanation is given,  just innuendo, but since Troyat brought up the subject, he really should have dug around a bit more.  Later Troyat mentions that the Viardots had some financial difficulties due to the Franco-Prussian war, and money troubles were compounded by the gradual loss of Varvara’s voice. At one point she was giving singing lessons to augment the family’s income, and according to Turgenev the Viardots were “virtually ruined.”  Later, Turgenev wrote to a friend that “The Viardots and I have bought a wonderful villa” at Bougival.  Turgenev had a modest “chalet” built close by, and there is some indication that his friends found Turgenev’s living conditions alarming–not that his place was a dump by any means, but it hardly met the standards of his previous residences (the book includes a photo of the palace Turgenev built but could not afford to furnish at Baden-Baden). In addition, he was forced to sell his painting collection at a huge loss as he needed money so badly. Putting these facts together, it seems very likely that Turgenev, who’d more or less ‘adopted’ the Viardots, was footing the bills. There is mention made that Pauline Viardot was concerned at one point that Turgenev might stay in Russia. Troyat says she “needed him at her side to make her ‘household’ complete.” While Troyat wisely avoids any nastiness towards Pauline Viardot, once again, there’s significant unexplored innuendo that Pauline Viardot’s desire to keep Turgenev in France was very possibly rooted in financial interest.  

Troyat’s book seems slight but competent at 162 pages. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by Patrick Marnham’s excellent bio of Simenon

Part II up next….

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