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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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