I. DOSTOEVSKY’S LIFE
Dostoevsky was born only three years after Turgenev and one year before Grigorovich. Pisemsky, Nekrasov and Maykov were born in the same year. He was thus a contemporary of the literary Pleiade of the 1840′s.
Yet this contemporary of the Pleiade of the ’40′s was in no sense a match for them. He was a man from another world, born in another milieu, whose upbringing and development proceeded along lines different than theirs. In their midst, he appeared as an alien, as a lonely, even hostile man.
Turgenev, Pisemsky, Grigorovich, Nekrasov and Maykov were kindred spirits not only on account of their age but also because of the circumstances of their birth and upbringing. They all belonged to one and the same milieu, i.e. that of the economically secure and juridically privileged gentry. Individual distinctions notwithstanding, they were first and foremost landowners and were conscious of themselves as such, i.e. as men who, juridically equal to each other, constituted a socially homogeneous class, enjoying to the full its rights and privileges as landowners.
Dostoevsky was not a landowner either by birth or upbringing and did not belong, therefore, to the privileged milieu. He came instead from the poor, laboring, civil service petite bourgeoisie, a class juridically snubbed in the landowning feudal state. Even his artistic genius, clearing a path for him into the society of the Turgenevs and the Maykovs, was absolutely powerless to overcome the barrier of social inequality separating the shy and awkward petty bourgeois from the worldlywise society in which he would one day land. He was an alien among them. In his heart, Dostoevsky believed that he was a genius worthy of society’s supreme respect and that he fell short of the success enjoyed by these scions of the gentry only because of his petty bourgeois origins. Son of a preEmancipation petty bourgeois, Dostoevsky felt throughout his life the oppressive weight of poverty and social disparagement. He felt this with extraordinary intensity bordering on hysteria and with an excruciating sense of mental disarray, as befits an extraordinarily sensitive nature touched with genius. This circumstance left in its wake, both in his life and work, a special mark completely absent in the lives and works of the Pleiade of the 1840′s.
F. M. Dostoevsky was born on October 30, 1821. His father, Mikhail Andreevich Dostoevsky, came from the ranks of the clergy. He went through the arduous training of a seminarian and thereupon completed his education at the Academy of Medicine and Surgery. The year 1812 marked the beginning of the lifelong toil and drudgery of his professional career first in the military, then as a civilian. From 1820 on, Mikhail Andreevich Dostoevsky occupied the post of staffphysician in the outpatient clinic affiliated with the Mariinsky Foundling Hospital. It was here, within the walls of the hospital, in a two or threeroom apartment provided to the Dostoevskys by the state that the future novelist was born. This infant looked out upon the world for the first time not through the window of a landowner’s estate or a gentleman’s private residence, but through the windows of a bureaucrat’s apartment, and his eyes immediately fell upon the hospital yard. He passed his childhood in the crowded apartment and hospital courtyard and in the arms of parents who, having gone through the harsh school of life, were engrossed in work and petty calculations.
There was little laughter and carefree unconcern for this child: An earnest and, evidently, even sullen father, perpetually busy, who, day and night, pounded into his children the theme that life is a long and arduous path; a mother, engrossed in household chores, which she lay aside only on holidays, piously and strictly enforced in her family; a lifelong, monotonous roundtheclock regimen, calling for an earlytobed and earlyto rise routine, for set hours of work and rest, with rare entertainments reserved for holidays all this exposed the young Dostoevsky not to the festive and lighthearted side of life but to all that was humdrum, hard and bleak. The early years of Dostoevsky do not breathe of that atmosphere of expansiveness, of pampering, of careless merriment and laughter, which were so familiar to his literary contemporaries from the gentry class.
His childhood was marked by a premature seriousness, and it is, of course, no accident that scenes of a happy, carefree childhood, of the sort we meet with in Oblomov or Bagrov’s grandson or Nikolen’ka Irtenev, are nowhere to be found in Dostoevsky’s oeuvre. Neither poverty nor the strict, frugal bourgeois way of life attendant upon it, excluded cultural interests in the home of the Dostoevskys. Here we find a need for books and a respect for learning. Indebted for his modest petty bourgeois success exclusively to his accomplishments at the seminary and at the Academy of Medicine and Surgery, the father could not but show respect for education. In it he saw the only tool with which he could arm his children for the coming battle for survival. The Dostoevskys considered it a task of the highest importance to give the children an education, to inspire in them a love and respect for books, and to teach them to see in them a reliable support amidst the burdens of life. Confronting such a task demanded all of their efforts. Father and mother taught their children themselves, taking pains to pass on to them their learning. In addition, they hired private tutors for them at home. From an early age, the children were taught not only the three R’s but also Latin and French.
Thus, books occupied an honorable place in the Dostoevsky household and were devoured with enthusiasm and love. The daily regimen called for reading by the entire family. Gathering in the drawing room in the evening for tea, they read Karamzin, Zhukovsky and Pushkin by the light of a tallow candle. It was here that a love for literature and a passion for reading were kindled in Fyodor’s soul, flaring up into a bright, glowing flame. Zhukovksy and Pushkin were followed by Schiller, Dickens, George Sand, Hugo. As Fyodor read by the guttering candle, images of another world, of a radiant, rich life in every way unlike the poverty that surrounded him on every side poured into his soul. Side by side with these gloomy impressions of want and destitution haunting him day and night there arose in the child’s mind other seductive apparitions and dreams of a bright and beautiful life. Already in childhood, Dostoevsky knew of the clash between a reality of want and a rosecolored dream. This incompatibility troubled Dostoevsky throughout his entire life and became one of his favorite novelistic themes.
Early in 1837, Dostoevsky’s mother died. In the same year, his father sent him along with his older brother Mikhail to Petersburg to enroll at the Engineering Institute. The 16year old adolescent left for the capital as a passionate dreamer who, though nearly impecunious, was nevertheless imbued with a faith in his high, though somewhat ill-defined destiny:
“It was the month of May,” related Fyodor, “we were traveling by sledge almost at a snail’s pace, stopping at stations for two or three hours at a time. I remember how this journey, which had been stretching out for nearly a week, had begun to annoy us. My brother and I were at that moment of our life eager to launch a new life, and we fervently dreamt about something we knew not what, about all that which was beautiful and sublime. We believed in that something passionately, and although we knew our mathematics well enough, yet the entrance exams were furthest from our minds. Instead, day and night we dreamt of poetry and poets. My brother wrote poems…, while I endlessly spun in my mind a novel set on Venetian soil.”
Soon, however, their dreams began to fade in an atmosphere of meager financial resources accentuated by a chronic shortage of cash. The ambitious youth could dream to his heart’s content of his lofty mission, but the reality of his socioeconomic position visavis his schoolmates placed him at once in an unenviable state. It was beyond his material means to hope to place himself on an equal footing with them. This fact, evidently, sorely wounded the dreamer’s selfesteem. One need only peruse a few lines from young Fyodor’s letter to his father to feel this wound:
“My dear kind father! Is it really possible that you, my father, believe that your son would ask you for money for mere trifles? God be my witness if I wish to cause you any hardships, either for my own personal gain or from mere necessity. How my parents toil and sweat to provide for me. Why, I have a head on my shoulders and a pair of arms. Were I at liberty, where I free to live my life as my own, I would not ask for so much as a kopeck from you. I would learn to live within the iron laws of necessity. It would have been shameful for me in that case so much as to hint at money… But now, on the other hand, my dear, kind papa, remember that I am, in effect, already enrolled in government service in the full sense of the word. Whether I like it or not, I must conform to the rules and regulations of the society in which I presently move. Why should I exclude myself from it? Those who shun society are often exposed to horrible unpleasantries. You have moved about in society yourself.”
How much bitterness, how much buried resentment wells up from the pages of this letter, in which the young Dostoevsky, whose proud spirit had borne so many injuries, is pleading with his father for a paltry forty rubles.
Lacking sufficient funds for a life style in conformity with the rules of the society in which he now moved and dreading the stinging glances and comments of his classmates, Dostoevsky remained on his guard, locked up in his shell. At the Engineering Institute, he lived a secluded, reticent and gloomy life, burying deep within himself his wounded pride and bitterness. Dostoevsky felt this pain all the more acutely when he reflected on his intrinsic superiority over his classmates. And, yet, for financial reasons, he could not take his place in their society even as an equal. What roused Fyodor to a high pitch of indignation and led him to dark and brooding thoughts was the worldly fact that “lofty, refined spirituality” is accorded such an ignoble place here on earth. In this, he saw a certain unnatural, crude violation of the law of nature:
“Life,” he writes to his brother, “is loathsome… It is man’s fate that he appears on this earth in one and only one state of being, i.e. the atmosphere of his soul constitutes a merging of heaven and earth. What an illegitimate child of Nature man is: the law of Nature has been violated. It seems to me that the world has since assumed a negative value, and that a lofty, refined spirituality has degenerated into satire.”
The flagrant contradiction between the extraordinary richness of his inner life and the humiliating poverty of his real life pressed upon his soul with crushing force. To feel oneself an eagle poised for flight, yet shut up and confined within that cramped chickencoop which was the lot of the poor petty bourgeois in an aristocratic society, was for him a deeply oppressive fact.
Only now, having come into contact with life from closeup, did the young Dostoevsky begin to appreciate the full extent of the chasm that lay between his childhood dreams, imbued with a faith in his high destiny, and his real position in life as an impoverished petty bourgeois. He fell prey to fears that he might never leap over that chasm, that he might find himself stuck in that petty bourgeois coop for the rest of his life. The letters addressed to his brother are filled with disquiet and doubts.
“I don’t know,” he writes to his brother, “whether my melancholy will ever subside…. I am entertaining the idea of driving myself crazy… My dear brother, it is sad and distressing to live without hope. l look ahead of me and the future fills me with horror…. I am swept along a certain cold, polar atmosphere, where the sun’s ray never penetrates. It has been a long time since I have felt any bursts of inspiration…. On the other hand, I often find myself in the kind of mood that the Prisoner of Chillon fell into upon the death of his brothers in the dungeon. No bird of paradise will fly towards me to warm my soul, now grown cold! You say that I am reticent. Yet, just think, my former dreams have vanished into thin air, and the marvelous arabesques which I had woven in the past have lost their gilded hue. Those ideas which, like the rays of the sun, once set my soul aflame, have by now lost their fire and heat. My heart has become hardened and callous. I feel too much horror to be able to go on speaking any further…. I am terrified… perhaps my past was nothing but a golden dream.”
A cold despair exudes from these lines, a hysterical depression, almost, indeed, mental derangement. The youngster’s mental equilibrium, evidently rather precarious by nature in the first place, was acutely disturbed by the gulf between individual and social valuations, between his inner sense of importance laying claim to a lofty destiny and an external social disparagement allotting to him for the time being a modest little perch in the chicken coop of the petty bourgeoisie.
By petty bourgeoisie I mean that social group or subclass forming part of the socalled middle or third estate, whose members earn their living as independent entrepreneurs, combining in themselves the roles of both employer and employee. This juridical class of the selfemployed, from the craftguilds to the free professions, inclusively, is highly unstable: while some get rich enough to host gala entertainments for themselves and their friends, others, on the edge of penury, plummet headlong to the bottom of the social order. In the case of Dostoevsky, we are dealing with that part of the petty bourgeoisie which, weary and faint in its struggle for its daily bread, and lacking a sure economic base, is sinking into that pit of hell from which there is no escape.
We have here before us the first symptoms of that abnormal psychology which, under the relentless pressure of the aforementioned strain, produced, in time, extraordinarily acute manifestations in the life and art of Dostoevsky.
In 1843, Dostoevsky completed his studies at the Engineering Institute and entered government service. This change of affairs brought little real change in the life of the future writer. The position of a petty bureaucrat did not flatter his selfesteem. The “lofty refined spirituality,” having donned the humble attire of a proletarian intellectual, remained unrecognized and scorned.
Convulsed, as before, with the pain of social disparagement, Dostoevsky shunned people, for fear they might wound his self-pride. Alternating between moods of self-confidence and skeptical disenchantment, he dreams again as in the past of his lofty destiny. Outwardly submissive, shy, even timid, he bubbles and trembles to the full extent of his being with a repressed selfpride that burns redhot within him.
Hardly a year after entering upon it, he abandons his civil service career. We find him occupied at that point with a host of plans promising, or so it appeared to him, a most dazzling success. And so, for instance, Fyodor reveals to his brother a plan for the translation of a certain foreign novel into Russian. Anticipating heaps of gold, Dostoevsky exclaims in rapture: “The novel will sell out… 300 copies will cover the entire costs of printing. If the novel is issued in 8 volumes and at 1 ruble per set, we’ll realize a profit of 7,000 rubles.”
Not a single one of these plans ever came to fruition. Yet, success arrived from another corner, a success as giddy as it was unexpected. Already at the Engineering Institute, Dostoevsky conceived the idea and began the writing of his novel POOR FOLK. In the midst of all his aforementioned projects, he nevertheless did not forget this work. Pouring his love into it, he brought it to conclusion early in 1845. All of his dreams born of selfpride, all of his hopes were now bound up with this work. He saw in it, as it were, the last and final bold gamble in his struggle with poverty and social affront. Were it to succeed,
“my literary future, my life, everything, would be secured. If I can’t place my novel with any publisher, who knows, I might throw myself into the Neva River.”
Everyone knows what a furor this novel caused and with what ardent enthusiasm it was received by Belinsky, the critical genius of the age.
Overnight, Dostoevsky found himself riding on the crest of fame. Intoxicated with his success and accepted into the highest circles of literature and society, he believed that his past was now forever behind him, that the stigma of social disparagement and material want had once and for all been removed:
“Well, brother,” he writes in 1845, ” I don’t think my fame will ever again attain the pinnacle it has today. Everywhere I meet with incredible respect, and there is no end to people’s curiosity about me. I have come to know a multitude of people of the most respectable sort. Prince Odoevsky has asked me to honor him with the pleasure of my company, while Count Sollogub is pulling his hair out in despair. Panaev had declared to him that there is a gifted writer in their midst who will trample them all in the mud. Sollogub then made the rounds to all present and, coming to Krayevsky, suddenly asked him: ‘Who is this Dostoevsky? Where can I find this Dostoevsky?’ Krayevsky, who dismisses everyone with the same cool disdain, answers him that ‘Dostoevsky does not wish to honor you with the pleasure of his company.’ Everyone accepts me as if I were one of Nature’s wonders. I cannot even open my mouth without hearing, like an echo, from every corner: ‘Dostoevsky has said such and such’ or ‘Dostoevsky wants to do such and such.’ Belinsky loves me as much as any mortal can. Turgenev, too, is enamored of me.”
Nevertheless, Dostoevsky was not fated to live in this hysterical rapture for long. Experience soon showed him that his social position had, in essence, changed very little as a result of the success of POOR FOLK, that he had rushed in vain to join in backslapping camaraderie with Prince Odoevsky, Count Sollogub and even Turgenev. The petty bourgeois, strutting like a proud rooster from his first great triumph, was swiftly pulled down from his lofty perch and called to order. As it turned out, it had never even occurred to Sollogub to pull his hair out from envy, while Turgenev was anything but enamored with Dostoevsky. Not one of these aristocratic gentlemen considered his meeting with Dostoevsky a case of good fortune. On the contrary, they hastened to honor the gifted bourgeois with the pleasure of their company, so to speak, in order to encourage his talent and favor him with their attention.
When, however, the Sollogubs and Turgenevs noticed that Dostovesky imagined himself capable of honoring them with the pleasure of his company, they burst out laughing. They proceeded to mock him and with humiliating worldly scorn they laughed away his pretensions. Especially expert and adroit at this campaign of ridicule was Turgenev, writing parodies and satires and relating funny anecdotes patently aimed at the literary upstart. Dostoevsky, in turn, boiled over with a hatred now tinged with class overtones: the hatred of the commoner for his lord flared out in him, reaching especial intensity when Dostoevsky began to realize that his literary fame was fast diminishing. Even now, he mused, at the height of his fame, in spite of his talent, he could not match his aristocratic rivals provided for comfortably by their patrimony. Herzen, Turgenev, Goncharov may write at their leisure, while he himself degenerated by the day into a literary hack, forced to turn out his wares hastily and at haphazard for a paltry kopeck. His tales “The Double,” “Prokharchin,” and “The Hostess” all fell through, one after the other, and soon it was rumored that Dostoevsky had written himself out.
As is evident from the letters to his brother, Dostoevsky understood that the causes for all this failure lay not in an absence of talent, but in his social position as a literary proletariat:
“I wonder when I’ll get out from under my debts. It is a calamity to work as a hack. You’ll ruin everything in the process talent, youth and hope. Work becomes loathsome and you end up as a mere dauber instead of a writer.”
Following so soon upon his giddy success and selfadmiration, these failures and jeers wounded Dostoevsky’s selfpride with especial poignancy. Exasperated and embittered, he severed all of his relationships with “people of the most respectable sort,” harboring a fierce class hatred for them the rest of his life. He gave vent to this hatred later in his caricatures of Granovsky, Herzen and Turgenev and in his spiteful appraisals of the liberalism and humanism of the gentry.
In connection with the growth of his class consciousness there developed in Dostoevsky an intense interest in the social problem of poverty and wealth. The critique of social inequality by Fourier and by the Utopian socialists in general fitted his mood like a glove. From the literary salons of the liberalminded gentry, he was drawn to the democraticproletarian intelligencia of the Russian socialists of the 1840′s. He drew nearer to the Russian Fourierists, to the Petrashevsky circle, to the most extreme and revolutionarilyminded socialists of the decade, i.e. to Speshnev and Filippov, who dreamt of revolutionary action. Together with these revolutionaries and unbeknownst to the other members of the Petrashevsky circle, Dostoevsky attempted to build a clandestine printingpress for the propagation of socialist ideas. Yet, before this underground work could be brought to completion, all of the members of the Petrashevsky circle were arrested. Speshnev’s and Dostoevsky’s undertaking was known to no one, not even to the Tsar’s investigators. Strictly speaking, the police court had no evidence whatsoever in their possession on which to base an indictment against him. Yet this did not prevent Nicolai I’s henchmen from bringing an inconceivably harsh and merciless sentence: death by firingsquad.
At Nicolai I’s command, the rituals attendant upon an execution were performed in their entirety upon the condemned. Only at the last moment, when the breechlocks were already clicking, did the authorities declare to him that he had been pardoned by the Tsar and that his death sentence had been commuted to four years of hard labor. At the end of 1849, Dostoevsky was sent to the convict prison in Omsk, Siberia. Three years earlier, upon the publication of his POOR FOLK, he choked with pride. Now he choked upon the dregs of humiliation. The contrast between his social degradation and his personal dignity, his “lofty, refined spirituality” reached its apogee. Dostoevsky came to know the contradiction between individual pride and social abasement to its very depths and reflected it in the themes and figures of his works. The agonizing contradiction between intellectual gifts and the abasement brought on by poverty became even more pronounced in the case of a genius bound in chains.
On March 2, 1854, having served out his four years at hard labor, Dostoevsky enlisted as a private in the Siberian Combat Battalion No. 7, being promoted to the rank of ensign with the same unit six months later. This army drudgery dragged on for the deportee for five whole years. Throughout this period, Dostoevsky was completely engrossed in efforts aimed at winning the authorities’ permission to return to European Russia, but this was slow to come. A life of anxiety and toil descended again upon Dostoevsky and, with it, wounded selfesteem, privations and affront. Again poverty. Again debts. And in the midst of this a hysterical, tormenting love affair and marriage with a sickly and, apparently, unbalanced woman by the name of M. D. Isaeva. It was at this time, too, that Dostoevsky’s nervous disorder, after years of penal servitude, became more acute, accompanied as it was by the first agonizing fits of epilepsy.
In the winter of 1859, thanks to the petitions and efforts exerted on his behalf by friends, Dostoevsky received, at long last, permission to return to St. Petersburg. The passage across Siberia and the expenses of settling down in a new place with his bride and stepson demanded money, and Dostoevsky again found himself up to his ears in debts. Again the threat of destitution and humiliation hung over him. Again he agonized over the fact that literary hack work would prevent him from developing his artistic gifts.
He worked indefatigably deep into the night and, as in his youth, success began to smile upon him once more. In 1859, he published two tales: “An Uncle’s Dream” in The Russian Word and “Stepanchikov Village” in Notes of the Fatherland. At this time, Dostoevsky and his brother were petitioning the government for permission to publish a journal. At the end of 1860, this permission was granted and the first issue of The Times (Vremya) saw the light of day on January 1, 1861. The journal enjoyed success. The belleslettres section of the journal published the novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky. The first of these, THE INSULTED AND THE INJURED, appeared in 1861 and met with very sympathetic reviews. In 1862, the journal published NOTES FROM THE HOUSE OF THE DEAD, which again placed Dostoevsky in the front rank of Russia’s greatest living writers. People were again talking about Dostoevsky, and fame again smiled upon him. Prospects for financial independence and comparative security loomed on the horizon.
Suddenly, everything again fell to pieces when the journal was banned in May of 1863. The enterprise, which was set up with such devotion and hard work, collapsed irretrievably, and an avalanche of misfortunes fell upon the longsuffering head of Dostoevsky. But let Dostoevsky himself tell us of this latest phase in Fate’s campaign of insults and taunts:
“I collaborated with my brother on The Times. Everything went along splendidly. My HOUSE OF THE DEAD caused a veritable sensation, and, thanks to it, my literary reputation was restored. At first, my brother was saddled with enormous debts, but we were beginning to pay them off when, suddenly, in May of 1863, the journal was banned on account of a certain fervent, patriotic article, which the authorities mistook for an extremely seditious one. They soon came to understand the situation as it really was, but the journal had already been banned. With much trouble, my brother obtained permission to continue publication of the journal under the name The Epoch. This permission was granted only at the end of February, 1864. The first issue could not appear before March 20. We had no new subscribers, so we had to send The Epoch to our former subscribers as a supplement to The Times for 6 rubles per annum. My brother had no choice but to contract debts. Meanwhile, his health began to falter. I could not be by his bedside, since I was in Moscow attending my dying wife. Her grave was still fresh when I rushed to St. Petersburg to be at my brother’s side. He was the only one of my family left me in the world. Three months later, he too was dead, having fallen ill one month before. No more than 300 rubles remained to his family after his death, and with this money we paid for his funeral. In addition, we were saddled with debts up to 25,000 rubles. His family was left, literally, without a penny to its name. I remained their one and only hope, and all of them widow and children huddled around me, expecting miracles. Could I abandon them, I who had loved my brother with all my soul? I made up my mind. Rushing to Moscow, I asked for and got 10,000 rubles from my rich old aunt and, returning to St. Petersburg, began publishing the journal. Our business venture, however, was already in a state of disrepair. We needed the permission of the Censorship Bureau to publish the journal. The matter dragged on for so long that the June issue made its appearance only at the end of August. The subscribers, being indifferent to our woes, became indignant, while the censors would not permit me to affix my name to the journal either as editor or as publisher. Forceful measures were called for. I started using three printing presses simultaneously, sparing neither money, health nor physical exertion. I served as the one and only editor, read the proofs, busied myself with the writers, fussed with the censors, edited the articles, picked up the money and sat up till 6:00 every morning, with no more than 5 hours of sleep a day. I managed to bring order to the journal, but it was already too late. For the coming year 1865 we are left with only 1,300 subscribers. Now, for want of funds, we cannot publish the journal and we must temporarily declare bankruptcy. In addition, I am burdened with a debt of 16,000 rubles by promissory note and 5,000 borrowed on my good name… Oh, my friend. I would gladly accept a sentence of hard labor as I had before in order to pay off my debts and feel myself a free man again. Now again I will begin writing a novel at gun point, i.e. from necessity, in haste. It will cause a splash. But I could do without this kind of a splash. Working under duress for money, has crushed and consumed me. Still, just for starters, I’ll need at this juncture 3,000 rubles. I am pounding on every door. Otherwise, I’m done for. I have a feeling that only chance can save me, while all that’s left of my strength and energy is something vague and disturbing, something closer to despair. Anxiety, bitterness, a meaningless bustling about, a state of mind very much abnormal for me, and, on top it all, I am all alone in the world. And yet, I can’t help but feel that I am just now about to embark upon my life. It’s funny, isn’t it? The tenacity of a cat!”
The sight of a proletarian writer writing in agony, weighed down by a myriad of indignities on every side, inspires in us not humor but horror. When fame came to the great writer, it did so hand in hand with the humiliating prospect of being thrown into debtor’s prison. To avert this, Dostoevsky fled abroad in 1865. Once there, by some powerful impulse of genius that cast off the yoke that pressed upon his soul, he wrote his finest novel, CRIME AND PUNISHMENT. This novel put him in the center of public attention. Yet, in spite of his fame and literary success, poverty continued to oppress Dostoevsky. Remiss in paying off old debts, he contracted new ones, placing himself in bondage to the publishers and sinking under the millstone of literary hackwork.
Urgent work lay before him. Under obligation in 1866 to deliver THE GAMBLER, on which he was then working on time to the publisher, Dostoevsky realized that he would never meet his deadline. Calling in a stenographer, he not so much wrote as dictated the novel. This circumstance had two results: The novel was finished on time and the stenographer, A. G. Snitkina, became Dostoevsky’s wife on February 15, 1867. Two months after the wedding, the Dostoevskys went abroad. Life there was very harsh for them. Dostoevsky’s letters from abroad are filled with constant complaints about his poverty and with hysterical solicitations for loans and advances. His impecunious state reached such a point that it was necessary for him to pawn both his and his wife’s last suit of clothes. The following is an except from a letter of that time which amply characterizes their situation. The matter at issue is the 75 rubles that the editor of Dawn failed to deliver to Dostoevsky on time:
“Does he really think that I wrote to him of my desperate need in order to polish up my style. How can I write when I am hungry, when, in order to get two talers for a telegram, I have to pawn my pants. Well, to hell with me and my hunger! But, look here, my wife is trying to feed the baby. So what, if in order to do so, she is about to go pawn her last woolen skirt. Why, snow is falling here for the second day, and she could easily catch a cold. Is he really incapable of understanding that I am ashamed to have to explain all of this to him. Is it really impossible for him to grasp that he has not only offended me but also my wife?!”
Yet, strangely enough, he managed to write a great deal, bringing out a big novel each year. THE IDIOT in 1868, THE ETERNAL HUSBAND in 1869 and THE POSSESSED (also known as THE DEVILS) in 1870, were all published by The Russian Herald. His heart was filled with rancor and indignation when comparing his situation with that of such writers as Turgenev and Leo Tolstoy, who did not know what it meant to write under the pressure of abject poverty. He dreamt of writing at least one novel under the kind of conditions “available to Turgenev.” The life of gypsies abroad, financial disarray that was becoming more complicated by the day and isolation from their native soil and air had a deleterious effect on the mood of Dostoevsky and his wife. It became increasingly clear to them that they had to return to Russia both for the sake of their peace of mind and in order to straighten out their financial affairs, which by now had become a complete mess and could be but poorly dealt with from far abroad.
On July 8, 1871, after a 4-year sojourn abroad, our wanderers left for St. Petersburg. On the day of their arrival, Dostoevsky was troubled and apprehensive. “Life in St. Petersburg will give us something,” Dostoevsky told his wife as the train rolled into the capital, “everything before us is in a fog. I see a lot of hardships ahead of us, many hurdles and much anxiety before getting on our feet. My only hope is to turn to God for help!” This anxiety is fully understandable:
“You see,” wrote Dostoevsky’s wife later, reminiscing about this period of his life, “our debts at that time amounted to 25,000 rubles and all our worldly goods upon arrival consisted of nothing more than 60 rubles cash and two suitcases brought in from abroad. One contained the wardrobe of Fyodor Dostoevsky, his manu- scripts and notebooks. The other contained my things and the baby’s.”
As early as September of that year, the agony of humiliation born of want started all over again for the writer who was by now recognized for his greatness. Dostoevsky’s wife relates in her memoirs what humiliating negotiations her husband was compelled to carry on with a usurer by the name of Hinterlach, who demanded immediate settlement of an outstanding debt. Dostoevsky twice went to see the creditor in order to ask for an extension, but Hinterlach obstinately refused and, with an air of affectation, openly mocked him:
“You may indeed be a talented writer, but I nonetheless wish to demonstrate that a petty German merchant like myself can throw the celebrated Russian writer into debtor’s prison, and, rest assured, I shall do so.”
These Hinterlachs surrounded Dostoevsky on all sides. A tough battle with the creditors began, and the painstaking work of disentangling the financial noose commenced.
This time, Dostoevsky had by his side a reliable and loyal colleague in the person of his second wife, Anna Grigoryevna. She took upon herself the responsibility for all financial matters, saving her husband from the endless round of irritating and humiliating petty clashes that he was daily exposed to. With a firm, capable hand and with great practical aptitude, she set out to unravel the net that had ensnared them both. Besides, Dostoevsky’s firmly established fame as a writer secured him now ever greater earnings. In 1873, Meshchersky offered him the position of editor of The Citizen with a monthly salary of 200 rubles and payment for articles by the line. In 1874, the Notes of the Fatherland acquired from him the novel THE ADOLESCENT offering twice as large a sum as that paid him earlier. In 1876, THE DIARY OF A WRITER, a periodical long contemplated by Dostoevsky, appeared in print for the first time. Attaining wide circulation, it returned large proceeds to its investors.
Nevertheless, creditors and debts continued to mount, haunting the Dostoevsky family for another full decade. Dostoevsky’s debts were paid off only a year before his death. At long last, the specter of debtors’ prison ceased to trouble his soul. Towards the end of the 1870′s, Dostoevsky’s financial situation became satisfactory, while as a writer he was at the zenith of his fame. Yet the indignation born of affront hardly subsided in the soul of this commoner endowed with genius. To the very end of his life, he could not help but feel the humiliating inequality between himself, a proletarian writer, as he characterized himself in a letter to Strakhov, and the gentry writers, who were, as he himself expressed it, the founders of a “landowners’ literature.”
If in 1856 he could write in indignation to his brother: “Why on earth is it that I who have such needs receive only 100 rubles per quire of sheets, while Turgenev who owns 2,000 serfs receives 400 rubles”; if in 1874 he harped on the same theme: “Yesterday I read in The Citizen that L. Tolstoy sold his novel to the Russian Herald for 500 rubles per quire. They couldn’t bring themselves immediately to give me 250 rubles, but they were willing to pay Tolstoy 500 rubles. Yes, they value me far too cheaply because I live off my work”; why, then, even by 1880 the grounds for such indignation had not disappeared. For his last supreme creation, the novel THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, he was far from matching Turgenev in fees paid, earning only 300 rubles per quire. Exhausted by life, suffering from a nervous disorder and eternally plagued with physical ailments, Dostoevsky died prematurely at the age of 59 on January 28, 1881, leaving behind him an enormous spiritual legacy, a gallery of artistic creations of world significance.
A world of events, of personal confrontations, whose meaning you cannot as yet fathom, opens up before you. Yet, you feel quite clearly that they do have a meaning. You burn with a curiosity, an impatience to get to the bottom of these events as soon as possible. A certain mysterious, subterranean activity is happening before your eyes. Something is brewing, something is approaching… but precisely what?
You will never experience such an interrogatory mood, such a sense of expectancy, in reading Pushkin or Tolstoy. Such an impression appears all the more strange in that the content of Dostoevsky’s works consists not of a world of daydreams and fantasies but of reality, indeed, of a reality that is utterly mundane and banal. When an artist has to do with supernatural beings, summoned to life by his creative fantasy, the impression of a mystery cannot possibly appear strange. Such a mystery is so natural that it ceases to appear mysterious. This sounds like a paradox, but it remains true. In a supernatural world, if such a world exists at all, everything is possible, and where everything is possible, nothing appears mysterious. The sense of the mysterious is enfeebled by the fact that you expect it.
It’s another matter with Dostoevsky. In his works, the most realistic of realities acquires a fantastical coloristic palette, and the impression of mystery sweeps over you when you least expect it. In order to understand the source of this impression, it is necessary to turn our attention to Dostoevsky’s way of constructing his work. It is necessary to look at the composition of his novels.
Already in one of his youthful works, Dostoevsky himself characterized his method of developing his theme.
“It would seem necessary ” he says in the beginning of his tale A WEAK HEART, “to first explain and describe the title, rank and position of the dramatis personae and only then to proceed to their characterization. Since there is no dearth of writers who begin their stories precisely in this manner, the author of this present tale has therefore resolved, if only to be different, to begin directly with the action.”
And, indeed, this manner of beginning directly with the action is a technique unique to him. It is in this artistic technique that we find an explanation for that sense of the fantastic about which I have just spoken. When a writer develops his theme in such a way that the events unfold before him in a chronological and logical sequence, when you follow in the writer’s footsteps as he moves from the opening of the plot to the denouement, the sense of the mysterious, of the fantastic cannot occur. In such a development of the theme, everything is clear to you, everything is understood, every effect is related to its cause. This intelligibility went so far as to make possible the anticipation, the guessing beforehand of what would occur now, at this given moment, under given circumstances presented by the author. A character takes shape before our eyes in a sequential manner, motivated intentions arise, followed by actions issuing from them. On the basis of these actions relationships with others are formed, whose characterizations are also known, whose actions are also motivated.
Take, for instance, Pushkin’s EVGENY ONEGIN. Before you unfolds his gradual development, commencing with his childhood. You know how he had arrived at his state of melancholy. You understand clearly why he is going to the country, how his relationships first with Lensky and then with the Larins come to be. The author acquaints you with the characters of the Larin sisters and shows you step by step the evolution of Tatyana’s love. Not only is Tatyana’s letter not unexpected, but in fact you somehow could not imagine that it could have happened otherwise. The duel with Lensky, Onegin’s departure from the countryside, his encounter with Tatyana at a ball in Moscow, etc. and so on to the end of the novel all takes place within an intelligible sequential order. Such a way of constructing the literary work, i.e. by unfolding a logical chain of events, is the method adopted by a majority of writers.
But not by Dostoevsky! If it had ever entered his head to write EVGENY ONEGIN, he would have begun directly with the action, and the composition of the novel would have been entirely different.
Suppose he had begun with Tatyana’s sadness, the causes of which would have been as unfathomable to you as to those around her. What follows, that is, the anxiety of the elder Larins, the trip to Moscow, Tatyana’s wedding, her successes in society all of this would have unfolded before you without revealing Tatyana’s soul, and she would have remained an enigma, with the stamp of a certain secret on her brow. Somewhere to the side, with vague allusions to a certain connection with Tatyana’s fate, unfolds another life, that of Onegin, who is wrestling with his melancholy. In this scenario, it would only be in the concluding scene, that of the meeting of these two lives, that you would have learned , in a moment of confession, about Tatyana’s letter, about Onegin’s reply, about everything that had taken place in the countryside. Within the framework of such a composition, would you not have ended up in an atmosphere shrouded in the fantastical? The fantastic and the mysterious in Dostoevsky is precisely dependent on just such a technique of thematic development.
In contrast to the majority of writers, he does not present the events in question in a chronological and logical order. Instead, keeping the reader in the dark concerning their interconnections, he immediately plunges the reader in the hurlyburly of these events. He does not develop the life of his novel moment by moment, from the opening of the plot to its denouement. Rather, he plucks out events from the middle and moves on to the conclusion, all the while lifting the curtain a little on the past, and only at the denouement does he reveal the beginning.
“I have no idea why I began my story from the middle,” writes Dostoevsky in THE INSULTED AND THE INJURED. Whatever his reason for beginning from the middle, it is important for us only to note that he loved to begin his story precisely in this way, that this constitutes his unique method of artistic creation. Thanks to this technique of his, actions and events depicted by him bear the stamp of fortuitousness, of unexpectancy, of a certain kaleidoscopic fantasticality right up to the conclusion when, at long last, all the riddles are explained and that which appeared fantastic and fortuitous becomes mundane and necessary.
Take, for instance, his tale THE ETERNAL HUSBAND, and you’ll easily be able to follow yourself this peculiarity of his composition. The tale begins with the description of a certain Vel’chaninov, who is extremely troubled and in the throes of deep anxiety. But what kind of anxiety is this? Where does it come from? Who knows! Then a certain gentleman with a crepe on his hat makes his appearance. For some reason or other he spins around Vel’chaninov, and the latter begins to feel that here indeed lies the reason for his foul mood. The “man with the crepe hat” then performs a certain number of incomprehensible actions: At night he peeps through the windows of Vel’chaninov’s apartment and even attempts to open the door. What does all that mean? It remains an enigma. Vel’chaninov seizes him by the door, drags him into his apartment, finds out his surname, recalls knowing him. But the latter talks in allusions and behaves enigmatically as before, and it is only after a whole series of riddles and mysteries of every kind that you find out that this “gentleman with the crepe hat” is a cuckold and Vel’chaninov is the man who made him a cuckold, i.e. you reach the beginning, the opening of the plot. Only now does everything become intelligible, and the sense of the fantastic vanishes. At the moment of artistic creation, Dostoevsky resembles a man who has landed by chance in a society unfamiliar to him, and for whom the interrelationships obtaining among the members of this society, their characters and, consequently, their words and actions are an enigma, a man who, rushing here and there, has only presentiments but no understanding of what is happening. He is taken aback by unexpected events of all sorts before their meaning is revealed to him.
A writer like Pushkin or Tolstoy reveals a corner of life from the moment of its appearance, knowing clearly all the mainsprings setting in motion this life, without losing his way, without landing in perplexity. He is like a historian who, having made sense of events, presents them not in that fortuitous sequence in which they appeared to him but in their natural succession and necessary connection. Dostoevsky, on the contrary, recounts his events precisely in that fortuitous order in which they first passed before him, reenacting thereby for us that whole process by which he came to understand them and forcing us thereby to repeat this process ourselves.
“Now, when I am writing my chronicle, we already know what the matter is all about, but at the time we as yet knew nothing and, naturally, all sorts of things appeared to us strange,” writes Dostoevsky in THE POSSESSED.
And he relates his chronicle not as a person who already knows what is going on, but, on the contrary, as a man tangled up in all sorts of strange incidents, whose meaning he is only just now beginning to fathom, whose meaning also remains a mystery to you.
“This Sunday,” Dostoevsky relates in THE POSSESSED, ” was one of the most remarkable days in my chronicle. It was a day of surprises, a day when past things came to a head, while new complications came into being, a day of keen explanations and even greater confusion. In the morning, as is well known to the reader, I was supposed to accompany my friend to Varvara Petrvona’s at the latter’s own instructions, and at three in the afternoon I was supposed to be at Lizaveta Nikolaevna’s in order to tell her I myself don’t know what and to assist her God knows in what. And yet everything turned out in a way that no one could have contemplated.”
The impression of mysteriousness, of fantasticality, elicited in us by the works of Dostoevsky, comes about from the fact that he depicts the events before the causes that laid the groundwork for them, in that he depicts the relationships that bind people before he depicts the people themselves, the actions of the protagonists before their characterizations. That is why the actions appear fantastical, the relationships confused, the events fortuitous. As a matter of fact, there is in them neither confusion nor fortuitousness nor a sense of the fantastic. Such an appearance is given them only by the author’s technique of telling his story.
In order to show still more clearly the essence of such a creative technique, I will once more make use of examples. Speaking of the composition of THE ETERNAL HUSBAND, I showed how the author begins the tale from the middle, how he relates the incidents before relating the circumstances that have laid the groundwork for them. I will now show that even in the development of the characterization, Dostoevsky follows the same method.
Let us take, for instance, Tolstoy’s RESSURECTION and Dostoevsky’s CRIME AND PUNISHMENT and see how Tolstoy creates the characterization of Nekhlyudov and Dostoevky the characterization of Raskolnikov. Never mind that these characters are profoundly dissimilar since we shall compare not the characters themselves but the method in accordance with which they were created by their authors.
In the case of Tolstoy, you learn first all about Nekhlyudov’s mundane, everyday life: how he sleeps, how he gets up, how he passes his day. You come to know his thoughts, his most intimate plans and intentions. The notorious Maslova case reminds Nekhlyudov of an incident from the past, and the author proceeds to recount in detail Nekhlyudov’s youth, the good feelings that stirred in him then along with the vile ways of a spoiled and depraved landowner and how he had seduced Katyusha. Later you find out that Katyusha and Maslova are one and the same person, you find out the impression made on Nekhlyudov by the fact that the young woman seduced by him is now in prison and that she is threatened with forced labor, and how good instincts buried deep within are awoken in his soul. Only then does the drama begin. Only then does Nekhlyudov become a player in the drama.
In Dostoevsky, on the other hand, the characterization of Raskolnikov begins directly with the drama. From the very first page you learn that Raskolnikov has planned something, and yet it is difficult for you to form any notion of the nature of this plan not to mention of its motivation from the fragmentary thoughts that run through his mind. Then it becomes clear to you that he is preparing to murder the old womanusurer. What follows is the implementation of this plan, then an inner struggle, the essence of which is hard to grasp because the motives for the crime, all of the steps that form the psychological process preceding it are unknown to you. Finally, the author discloses, little by little, how Raskolnikov arrived at his present situation.
In depicting Nekhlyudov, Tolstoy begins by describing the development of his protagonist’s character and then moves on to his drama. Dostoevsky, on the other hand, begins with the drama and then shifts to the development of the characterization serving as its groundwork. And so the technique of beginning with the action, or, as Dostoevsky says elsewhere, from the middle, is perceived not only in the composition of the literary work but also in the composition of the individual characterizations.
In precisely the same way, the depiction of relationships among people in Dostoevsky’s works precedes their characterization, i.e. here too he is fond of beginning directly with the action. Let us again make use of a comparison.
With its large cast of characters and complex relationships, Tolstoy’s WAR AND PEACE is hardly inferior to Dostoevsky’s POSSESSED. But in Tolstoy, notwithstanding their complexity, the relationships are clear and welldefined because the author acquaints you with the hero’s physiognomy before placing him within a definite relationship. Bolkonsky’s meeting with his father, his meeting with Natasha Rostov, his relationship with the elder Rostovs, Princess Bolkonsky’s relationship with Rostov all these are relationships that do not give rise to any questions or perplexity because the characterizations of these protagonists are already known to you. In Dostoevsky, on the contrary, the physiognomy of Stavrogin remains unknown to you, while certain relationships, completely incomprehensible to you, connect him to Shatov, to Lebyadkin and to Pyotr Verkhovensky. Upon first meeting Nicolai, Captain Lebyadkin cowers before him, but you are totally at a loss as to why. At his first meeting with Nicolai, Shatov strikes him with his fist, and the latter responds with neither word nor action, and again you are left with the riddle why is this so? Here too we see an example of Dostoevsky’s technique of beginning with the action.
However, commencing with the action or what amounts to the same thing from the middle, how does Dostoevsky acquaint us with that which has preceded the action, that is, with the beginning? With the aid of what device does he depict the characters and interrelationships of the protagonists from which the action issued? It would have been possible, of course, to interrupt the story, begun from the middle, and to return to the beginning, to interrupt the development of the action and take up the characterization in order to later return to the further development of the action. But that would amount to beginning with health and ending with death, beginning with a new device and immediately renouncing it and taking up the old one.
The peculiarity of Dostoevsky’s technique lies in this that the story begun from the middle moves uninterruptedly to the denouement itself so that you are not fully aware of the points of departure prior to the conclusion of the work. And so Dostoevsky was faced with the following task: how to show the reader the elements and conditions out of which the action has developed without interrupting the development of the action. And he solves this problem with the aid of a device that also constitutes one of the characteristic peculiarities of his oeuvre. In Dostoevsky, the protagonists not only act but at certain moments of the action they talk about the past, giving form to their characterizations in long confessions such as those of the hero of WHITE NIGHTS, of Ippolit in THE IDIOT and of Versilov in THE ADOLESCENT. These confessions save the author from the necessity of interrupting the development of the action with digressive descriptions and characterizations. Dostoevsky takes it upon himself to develop the action and leaves it to his protagonists to show the conditions which had prepared the ground for them. That is why these confessions play such a prominent role in almost all of his works. In fact, his very first novel, POOR FOLK, constitutes in essence a confession of two people. Without the confession of Volkonsky and Nelli, the drama of THE INSULTED AND THE INJURED would have remained unintelligible. The drama of THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV is illuminated by a whole series of such confessions. Dostoevsky does not like to launch upon descriptions and characterizations. He develops the action by putting into the mouths of his protagonists as he proceeds the necessary descriptions and characterizations.
Even when he wants to express some personal, cherished thought of his own, he does not do so in the form of a reflection, as is characteristic of other writers. Rather, he unfailingly puts it in the mouth of a certain protagonist, at times without considering whether it is in keeping with his or her character. That is why you find in his works children who often utter profound sayings of the sort that could never accord with the mind of a child, no matter how intelligent we conceive such a mind to be. That is why protagonists of dissimilar characters, indeed, often possessing antithetical characters, express themselves in nearly identical utterances. It was precisely this circumstance that led Dobrolyubov to consider the monotonous utterances of Dostoevsky’s protagonists as a defect in his art: “The dramatis personae speak like the author, using his favorite words. Their phraseology is similar.” Dobrolyubov didn’t notice that Dostoevsky’s protagonists speak in this manner only when Dostoevsky speaks as a polemical journalist. On the whole, though, each of his protagonists possesses his or her own individual voice.
While Dobrolyubov did not in fact know the great works of Dostoevsky’s last period, his verdict was mistaken even when applied to those works of the writer that were known in his time.
Let us take as an example “Stepanchikov Village and Its Inhabitants.” Opiskin, Rostanev, Yezhevikin, even numerous secondary characters such as Vakcheev or the servants Grigorii and Vidoplyasov, each possess his own particular, individual voice. There are moments when Dostoevsky’s heroes lose their individual turn of phrase, but these are only moments here and there and not the rule. Merezhkovsky is right when he asserts that “in Dostoevsky you know who is speaking from the character’s opening words.” The speaking style of the protagonists is individual to such a degree that you know from the character’s opening words whether it is the protagonist who is speaking or Dostoevsky speaking through him. At any rate, there is no doubt that sometimes Dostoevsky’s heroes cease to speak in their own voice. This is the direct consequence of the fact that Dostoevsky does not engage in digressions as other writers do, even when he wishes to express his own views. When Pushkin wants to express an idea of his own, he interrupts the narrative and devotes several stanzas to the development of this idea. His EVGENY ONEGIN overflows with such interruptions, such digressions. You’ll encounter the same in Gogol’s DEAD SOULS and in Tolstoy’s WAR AND PEACE.
Dostoevsky does not engage in such digressions, putting his thought instead into the mouth of one of his characters. Without undertaking an evaluation of this device from the aesthetic point of view, I consider it nonetheless necessary to note that if this device does in fact hurt the author’s characterization of his protagonists, it, on the other hand, contributes to the uninterrupted flow and vividness of the action. Finally, and this is the main thing, this device, as I’ve said above, is in accord with the general compositional character of Dostoevsky’s works: In the foreground you’ll always find action.
In similar accord with the creative devices above stands Dostoevsky’s propensity to cast his works in the form of a “memoir” or “correspondence.” Many of his stories carry the subtitle: “From the Notes of a Stranger.” His greatest novels THE INSULTED AND THE INJURED,” THE POSSESSED, THE ADOLESCENT are written in the form of a memoir. One of his works bears the title of NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND, another the title of NOTES FROM THE HOUSE OF THE DEAD. There is nothing easier than placing a memoirist in a situation which would make him into an eyewitness of facts unintelligible to him right up until the denouement. Only then, detecting their connection a fragment at a time, would he fathom their meaning amidst the developing action and the hurlyburly of events.
Such precisely is the role played by the memoirist in Dostoevsky. He is always enveloped by secrets and mysteries. “I saw clearly that there was a certain mystery in him…The secrets accumulated with each step, with each hour,” reports the memoirist recording the history of THE ADOLESCENT concerning his own situation. The memoir is an exceedingly convenient form for the novelist who begins his story directly with the action.
The same may be said also of the device of a correspondence. In a correspondence, the action takes center stage. It is already an action: it reveals to us relationships immediately without saying a word about the strands of which they are composed. Meanwhile, the relationships unfold, as the letters allude now to this, now to that corner of the past. We remain in the world of intimations and riddles to the very end. In essence, we have here a natural combination of a developing action with a confession revealing the past and delineating characters. It may be that Dostoevsky’s first work was written in this form because beginning a story with the action, that is, from the middle, lends itself so extraordinarily easily to the form of a correspondence: a correspondence constitutes already in and of itself a beginning with the action, from the middle, preceded by a certain “x.”
You will see just how easy it is to develop the actions and relationships of the protagonists before the circumstances and characterizations that brought them into being and thereby giving the unfolding picture the air of a mystery if you take a look, for instance, at Dostoevsky’s joke entitled A NOVEL IN NINE LETTERS.
Its content is as simple as can be: Ivan Petrovich brings into Pyotr Ivanovich’s house a certain young man by the name of B with the aim of swindling him at cards. The undertaking is going well, but the money meanwhile remains in the pocket of Pyotr Ivanovich, who promises to share it with his coconspirator. Meanwhile, B, who is losing at cards, is successfully wooing the spouses of both his card partners. In order to thoroughly dupe both women, B sends off letters to the rival of each, and she in turn shows them to her husband. Thus, Ivan Petrovich is convinced that B has made a cuckold of Pyotr Ivanovich, while the latter is convinced that it was Ivan Petrovich who has been made cuckold. Irritated at the fact that Pyotr Ivanovich has obviously decided not to share the game earnings, Ivan Petrovich sends him in revenge his [i.e. Pyotr Ivanovich's] wife’s letter to B, to which he has attached a malicious note. Not to be outdone, Pyotr Ivanovich sends the former his [i.e. Ivan Petrovich's] wife’s letter to B along with a note no less malicious.
That is the skeletal structure of this noveljoke. As usual, this novel begins with the action. Ivan Petrovich is pursuing Pyotr Ivanovich “on the most urgent business.” At first, the tone of the letters is quite peaceful, but soon it rises to a high pitch. From the clues, you piece together, little by little, the meaning of their mutual relationships. But only at the denouement do all the roles become intelligible to you. The form of a correspondence makes thematic development from the middle an extremely easy matter. The correspondence itself marks not the beginning but the very climax, the middle, of the action. In the course of the correspondence, the action develops uninterruptedly till it reaches the catastrophe, and here incidentally the preceding moments are easily revealed.
In connection with the above compositional peculiarities, we ought also to point out one other peculiarity directly resulting from the above: the extraordinary swiftness of the action, the exceptionally swift development of the plot. In Dostoevsky, the facts follow each other with dizzying speed. Nothing here retards the action. That is because the entire preliminary process laying the ground for the drama is not depicted by the author before the drama. Rather, it is sketched out incidentally during the course of the action.
In such writers as Pushkin, Turgenev and Tolstoy, a particular moment is depicted as a link in a process, and therefore the action extends over a long interval of time. In Dostoevsky, however, the moment is depicted first as something in and of itself, while the process of gestation is revealed only incidentally. When the entire process unfolds before you, by means of which a certain cluster of events forming in their totality the denouement, the central point of the entire story, is timed to coincide with a certain moment in time, such a cluster of events cannot appear as an accumulation of fortuitous events swiftly succeeding each other. You will not thereby experience an impression of an unusual intensity and headlong rush of the action. You have seen the gradual , slow gestation of the denouement from the details of everyday life.
In contrast to Tolstoy, for example, where you see the slow movement of everyday facts, as they intersect, finally, at one point, in Dostoevsky you are witness to a swift crossing of events, while the process of gestation remains in the background. Consider how smoothly, how slowly, how majestically life flows in WAR AND PEACE, and how feverishly and swiftly life seethes in Dostoevsky’s THE POSSESSED or in THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV. In Tolstoy, the action evolves over a period of many years. In Dostoevsky, the action unfolds over a period of a few days. This is because Tolstoy acts in his art like a historian seeking to show you how a certain moment has come to be in the course of many years, while Dostoevsky acts like a memoirist who is little concerned with history and who is completely absorbed in the events of the moment.
After all that has been said above, it would be hardly necessary to mention that descriptions, portraits, pictures as such are rarely encountered in Dostoevsky. He is, for the most part, an artist of movement, and not an artist of form. Why, Mikhailovsky has already observed that there are almost no landscapes in Dostoevsky. Read through all of Dostoevsky’s works, and you won’t find more than four or five fragments that are in any way reminiscent of a nature painting. In these rare appeals to nature we find features sharply distinguishing Dostoevsky from other writers, features showing that he captured nature only in passing, in between, never concerning himself with it in and of itself.
In painting his landscapes, he never utilizes the full gamut of sensations which this landscape was capable of inspiring in him. In Tolstoy and Turgenev, a landscape is a wellproportioned harmony of colors, light, shadows, sounds, aromas, even inchoate sensations, including tactile sensations in their most subtle gradations. In Dostoevsky, there are no such pictures. He even goes so far as to ironically mock such artists and their landscapes. “There is in the sky,” he writes of them, ” that certain violet tint, which, of course, no mortal has ever perceived, that is, everyone has seen it but was incapable of noticing it, and here I, yes, I, looked at it and described it to you fools as the most ordinary of things.”
Dostoevsky did not like peeping at “violet tints,” and such tints are in fact absent from his landscapes. In this he is unlike even Gogol, who rhapsodized over nature in his wondrous hymns, in his exclamations, hyberboles and in his rich comparisons and luxuriant epithets. He does not paint his landscapes like Korolenko, whose nature is filled with consciousness and feeling, who feels that “all of nature, right down to the last blade of grass, pulsates with one mysterious life: you can hear someone breathing in the caressing blowing of the wind, you can hear someone’s voice resounding with its wonderful harmony, you can feel someone’s unfamiliar steps in the mysterious procession of the radiant day.”
One may say in general that nature in and of itself, nature, existing in its own right, nature, possessing its own visage and soul, is not to be found in the works of Dostoevsky. Behind nature he sees man. Nature for him is “among other things,” nature is a frame through which peeps out a human face. In painting a picture of nature designed to conjure up an atmosphere, Dostoevsky does not resort to her colors or sounds or to her movements. Instead, in depicting her, he makes use of the exclamations, gestures and expressions of the human face:
“There is something inexplicably moving in our Peterburgian nature, when she, with the approach of spring, suddenly expresses her prowess, when she manifests all of the powers granted her by heaven, when she is covered with hoarfrost, when she dresses herself up in her motley flowers. She then involuntarily reminds me of a young woman, ill and suffering from consumption, whom you gaze on now with pity, now with a certain compassionate love, else you would simply not notice her at all but who suddenly, in one instant, somehow and unexpectedly becomes ineffably and miraculously beautiful, while, dumbstruck, enraptured, you can’t help asking yourself: What power has forced these sad, pensive eyes to shine with fiery brilliance? What has summoned up blood to these pale, gaunt cheeks? What has flooded these tender lineaments of the face with passion? Why do her breasts heave so? What has suddenly called for such force, such life and beauty in the face of this poor young woman? What has forced this face to shine with such a smile, to come to life with such a glowing, sparkling laughter? You look around, as if looking for someone. You try to figure out the answer… But the instant passes, and perhaps on the morrow you will meet with that same pensive, absentminded look as before, with that same pale face, that same submissiveness and timidity in her movements and even with an air of repentance, with traces of a certain numbing anguish and regret for her momentary elan… And it grieves you to see this beauty of a moment fade away so quickly, so irretrievably, to see her shining so deceptively and vainly before you, it grieves you that you didn’t even have enough time to love her. “
Nature has come alive for an instant only to sink utterly in the image of “the ill and consumptive young woman.”
Here is another example in which the mood is created entirely by the motions of a human being:
“The vault of the sky, filled with silent, radiant stars, toppled over him with all its vast and immeasurable spaces. From the zenith to the horizon the misty Milky Way is split in two. The earth is shrouded in the immobility of the young and silent night. The white towers and golden cupolas of the cathedral gleam in the sky blue as sapphire. The luxuriant flowers of autumn are asleep till morning in the flowergardens surrounding the house. The earthly silence seems to have merged with the silence of the sky, an otherworldly mystery has come into contact with the mystery of the stars. Alyosha stands beholding all this and, as if crushed by it all, suddenly falls to the ground.”
If you discard this act of falling on one’s knees, you will find that this little picture will hardly leave any impression whatsoever in you: It will fail to convey an impression of the majesty and mystery of the night.
In Tolstoy we hear because we see, in Dostoevsky, on the contrary, we see because we hear, so observes Merezhkovsky. This is a very true and extraordinarily apt statement. Here we may note yet another peculiarity of Dostoevsky, namely, the absence in him of that which other writers of the Pushkin school so abounded in, that is, the absence of portraits. “It is extremely difficult for me to describe the human face. I completely lack the ability to do so,” he admits in THE ADOLESCENT. I shall take for my example Gogol, the writer who most closely resembles Dostoevsky, in order to bring out Dostoevsky’s originality as clearly as possible even in this matter.
In Dostoevsky, as in Gogol, we find elements of comedy. But in this area of comedy common to both, there is such a difference between them that it makes them far more dissimilar than one would otherwise be led to expect. This difference consists in the fact that Gogol has the habit of creating comic portraits, while Dostoevsky does not. On the other hand, Dostoevsky creates comic moments. In other words, the first gives us comic forms, the second comic movements. Ivan Ivanovich Pererepenko and Ivan Nikiforovich Dovgochkhun, Sobakevich, Nozdrev, Petukh these protagonists of Gogol are all comic figures, portraits. Ivan Nikiforovich is unthinkable without his immense trousers, Nosdrev without his disheveled hair and plucked sideburns, Sobakevich without his huge stature and “slanted look,”
There are many comic scenes, comic moments in Dostoevsky, but comic portraits you will not find. Read “The Vulgar Joke,” “A Husband and Another Man’s Wife Under the Bed,” A NOVEL IN NINE SCENES; Recall the comic passages in THE ETERNAL HUSBAND or in THE ADOLESCENT; Run through all of the comic passages of his works, you will find everywhere the peculiar fact that before you appear no comic protagonists, no comic portraits. There are only comic scenes, comic movements. That which I illustrated with one particular example of the comic holds true for Dostoevsky in general. Dostoevsky does not concentrate on portraiture. Rather, he strives to convey movement and the psychological content that manifests itself in this movement.
The predominance of movement is felt even in the flow of speech, in the phraseology and in the combination of words. It is as if Dostoevsky’s speech rushed along breathlessly. Words now pile up in a disorderly heap, as if a thought rushed on ahead seeking expression without quite getting a handle on it, now stop suddenly, sharply, falling in jerky phrases, sometimes in the form of one word only where grammatically a whole sentence would be called for. His language resembles a free bird whose wings have been clipped: now it waves them forcefully, hurriedly, now it flaps them with tired, rare, convulsive strokes. This is especially noticeable in the language of his main protagonists. The choking speech of Dolgoruky in THE ADOLESCENT and the awkward, jerky speech of Kirillov in THE POSSESSED may serve as the best illustration of this peculiar trait. We sense in this language a morbid irritability.
Such a morbid irritability, such a shortage of temper is also felt in the poetic tropes. His similes and metaphors evoke sullenness: ” The wind spinned out its melancholy song like an importunate beggar pleading for a copper penny from passersby.” Or: “A sullen thought was born in my brain and passed through my entire body like a vulgar sensation, as if you had entered a damp and moldy cellar.” Of this linguistic peculiarity Dobrolyubov said: “The very tone of each story morose, dejected, morbid provokes in the reader an irritable question, a certain nervous pain.” Dostoevsky’s style is poor in colors, depressing, deprived of proportion and of elegance and smoothness. On the other hand, it has nervous momentum.
Dostoevsky’s architectural plan, so strikingly original, deviates from the style elaborated by the writers of the Pushkin school. This originality of form testifies in and of itself to Dostoevsky’s originality of content. New forms demand new content, as new content calls for new forms. After all, you don’t pour new wine into old bottles.
The world of the landowning estates served as the content for the writers of the Pushkin school, and the style, worked out by this school, accords strictly with this content. What chiefly characterizes life on the landed estates of the “nest of the gentry” is the constancy, in both time and space, of those ties which bind man to man and man to Nature. The ancestral home, in which dozens of generations have lived out their lives in succession, remains standing unchanged, preserving traces of the past, while linking it with the present. The selfsame linden trees that decades earlier shaded grandfathers and greatgrandfathers now whisper to a new generation of days gone by. In the rustle of the linden trees, you hear the murmuring voices of old men, and as their figures flit before our eyes, the life that was dead is resurrected out of the dim past. For decades and centuries, the village huddled around the ancestral home, with the fields and forests looming green and blue in the distance. And all of this lives on for future generations as it once lived for their forebears. A bond that is neither accidental nor transient links man here to his locale, while ties that transcend the fortuitous and transitory no less bind people here to each other. They are bound to each other by stable and enduring ties. This house, this village, these linden trees, these fields, this forest witnessed the growth and formation of each new generation, and each new generation, from the moment of its appearance upon the earth breathed in the atmosphere of this house, surrounded by village, fields and forest. Here tradition holds full and unlimited sway. Here life unfolds its book page by page, and these pages speak in the leisurely, unperturbed and orderly language of the epic of the unhurried, hereditary life on the manorhouse. Here we have to do with bonds that are immemorial and constant, and, for that reason, simple, clear and easily understood. There is little real movement in this world. Life is firm and steady, having been cast in sharply delineated molds. That is why we meet, in the style of writers depicting this way of life, with a rigorous order of exposition, a smoothly flowing narrative technique, and a talent for drawing portraits and landscapes of a very high caliber.
This writer of the gentry observes not the swiftly moving panorama that shifts at the whim of fortune, but rather the firm and unyielding features of his way of life. He keeps his eyes fixed on stationary forms, jots down all appropriate details, all nuances. From these he creates figures so perfectly formed as if shaped by a chisel. If the simplicity and clarity of composition, the precision and sharpness, even plasticity of the figures are grounded in the stability of human relationships that bind men in the “nests of the gentry,” then the picturesque and coloristic style has for its basis an intimate relationship with Nature. Nature does not merely appear in her own person, so to speak, as an object of artistic inspiration, as the heroine in whose honor the artist never tires composing hymns, and whose beauty he never tires of depicting.
In the works of the gentry writers Nature becomes, in addition, an inexhaustible source for fresh and rich colors, for endless modulations of shade and light, for melodious sounds and poetic images. Nature imparts to the language of these aristocrats, nurtured in her bosom, qualities of a painterly and musical kind. The constancy of human relationships fosters an expository style that moves with the orderly, unperturbed pace of the epic, while the stability of forms and wealth of colors transform the writer into a painter and sculptor who shapes his pictorial universe not with a brush or a chisel but with words alone.
Dostoevsky’s oeuvre, on the other hand, is nurtured by the life of the city. These works draw their content “from beneath the heavy Petersburgian sky, in the dark, secret back streets of the enormous city, amidst the turbulent deranged life, the obtuse egoism of clashing interest, amidst all this hell of a meaningless, abnormal existence.” Dostoevsky is the poet of the city, and not of the city in general, but of its nooks and crannies, of those alleys where the impoverished members of the petty bourgeoisie huddle helplessly, struggling with impending destitution. They feel the ground fast slipping away, while the urban pit, out of which there is no escape, yawns wide beneath. One step alone separates them from this pit, which lies almost in their midst, and whose voice and very breathing can be heard. Multitudes of petty clerks, of flunkies and losers of every sort, who, one foot already in that pit, are clutching in desperation at anything by which to pull themselves out of it, this is Dostoevsky’s world.
In contrast to the “nests of the gentry,” urban life seethes and roars in a perpetual state of motion. The “turbulent deranged life” alluded to above by Dostoevsky is one of the most common and characteristic features of the City. Here, where everything is in a constant state of flux, all contacts and relationships are precarious and fortuitous. On the estates of the gentry whole generations merged, as it were, with one locale, while in the city it is a rare soul indeed that clings to one and same corner throughout his entire life. “Where, oh, where are those linden trees under whose shade I was born?” asks Molotov in Pomyalovsky’s novel A BOURGEOIS HAPPINESS. “No such linden trees have ever existed and never will.” There is not a towndweller to whom one may not apply these words. There are, in fact, no linden trees in his world with which the life of successive generations may coalesce and to which an individual may attach himself by a long chain of memories and a firm economic bond. Wheresoever Fate casts such characters as Grinyov, Lavretsky, Nekhlyudov or Levin, they invariably and inescapably continue to feel that bond. The ancestral estate served as the center around which their life revolved: Here it had its beginning, here is the source of its present existence, here is the place of its recreation and tranquillity.
Where, on the other hand, is that center whose gravitational force draws a Raskolnikov, Karamazov or Devushkin? For them, there is no such center, and indeed there never was. Each new displacement cuts them off forever from those scenes which had earlier served as their home. Upon reaching adolescence, they abandon the haunts of their childhood, while in maturity the places of their youth lose the aura of their kinship. Here today, gone tomorrow. They embrace each new place with ardor, committing themselves to it both materially and spiritually, only to bid farewell to it, as they had done so often in the past, in favor of a new bond no less intimate and yet no less impermanent. Homeless wanderers, they are at once strangers and natives everywhere. Looking round about his estate, the landed aristocrat calls it “home,” while everything beyond its boundaries is clearly someone else’s, i.e. someone else’s “home.” “This is my home” and “that is someone else’s home” these are for him antitheses. For the townsman, however, that which until just yesterday served as someone else’s home now serves as his, and it no doubt will serve yet another as a home on the morrow. There is no one place to which he willingly commits his entire life. Instead, bound by innumerable strands to places far and near, he might recall the words of Master Heinrich in THE SUNKEN BELL. Looking back upon the long road traveled, he utters: “:A stranger and a native here, a stranger and a native there!”
Where the ties that bind an individual to a place are fortuitous and impermanent, the ties that bind people to each other are similarly unstable. On the estate of the gentry, your eye may encompass the world lying before it in one glance, whether in parts or as an integral Whole. Here each man knows his neighbor, be it from the testimony of others, from tradition or from firsthand experience. Here one’s circle of acquaintances reaches backwards to the immemorial legacy of the past. Amidst the din and uproar of urban life, an individual is completely at a loss. Stirring and seething with ferment, the Whole that we fondly call the City moves onward, heedless of the solitary individual, about whom it knows and cares not at all. Meanwhile, the individual makes his way amongst the teeming crowd with hardly so much as a fleeting glimpse of the Whole that has, as it were, swept him off his feet. A mystery and an unknown to the Whole, the solitary individual is equally a mystery to the other individuals that collectively make up this Whole. Along the noisy, bustling city street, a multitude of passersby scurry along like a perpetual torrent. What do the individuals comprising this multitude know about each other? Each one has come here impelled by his own private concerns. Each is preoccupied with matters that are his and his alone. What is it that has brought them all together to this same place? Where is each of them rushing to? What has each of them left behind? What awaits him at the other end, at his destination? Unanswerable questions for here all are alien and estranged from each other. “Each face is lined with its own grim preoccupations,” reflects “the adolescent,” speaking of the urban crowd. Or: “Perhaps there isn’t so much as a single unifying idea that welds this surging multitude. Kraft is right: ‘Everyone here goes his own way.’”
Coming together in this stormily advancing torrent, these solitary individuals strike up friendships for a more or less prolonged period of time until that very torrent which had brought them together drives them forever apart. They knew nothing about each other’s life prior to this encounter, and they will know little of the future that awaits them when the precipitous currents have loosened and snapped their fragile bond. Before us, for example, we have two lives: that of Devushkin and that of Dobroselova: They meet for a moment and they part. Just as they were strangers to each other in the past, so will they become strangers to each other again shortly. The moment blinked and the moment vanished. Two lives met for three “white nights” and then parted company forever. The moment blinked and the moment vanished. Here movement is king. Here moments and fortuitous events reign supreme. Casual encounters, faces flitting by, transient relationships this maelstrom in motion, in which nothing assumes a firmly defined shape, constitutes the most fundamental feature of urban life.
The life of the City evolves a long way from Nature. Her beauties, her brilliant colors, the murmur and uproar of her voices, the harmony of her smells, her wide open spaces, her beauty in moments of anger and in moments of caressing tenderness, when she pours out like a sea of light and warmth — all this the City only dimly knows. Nothing of Nature reaches it but the faint reflection of her smile or of her sullenness. The city air is positively ruinous to Nature, and if, nevertheless, she manages to edge her way into its streets and alleys, she invariably droops and withers away, disfigured and shorn of her beauty and strength. Like an evil sorcereress, the city transforms Nature by a mere flick of the wand from a ravishing princess into a wretched, deformed hag. The centuries’ old linden tree walkways of the ancient gardens of the aristocracy turn here into pitiful caricatures. Recall, if you will, the Ikhmenevs’ garden in THE INSULTED AND THE INJURED: “This little garden is attached to the house. It is about 25 paces in length and about the same in width, and it is all overgrown with greenery. In the garden you’ll find three tall, aged trees with sprawling foliage, several young birches, a few lilac and honeysuckle bushes, a little corner occupied by raspberry bushes, two rows of strawberries and two narrow paths crisscrossing the garden.” Now, really, is this anything other than a parody of the country garden?
And the occasional downpour brings in its wake neither resplendent greenery nor revivified flowers nor the intoxicating smells of the bird cherry. A handful of sand whipped up here, a little freshening of the air there, and no more:
“The middle of June, a hot and stifling day. Remaining in the city is positively out of the question: dust, lime, construction crews everywhere, redhot stones, the air poisoned with fumes… Oh, look! There in the distance oh, what joy! The roar of the thunder. Little by little, the sky turned cloudy, the wind rose scattering before it clouds of dust. A few large drops fell with a thud upon the ground, and, suddenly, the heavens burst open and a veritable deluge fell upon the city. When, a halfhour later, the sun peeped out again, I opened the window of my room and greedily, with all the strength of my wornout lungs, I breathed in the fresh air.”
Here you’ll find none of the fresh and luxuriant colors with which Nature so generously adorns the “nests of the gentry.” Let us remember, in this connection, that Dostoevsky’s characters inhabit the dark alleys and kennels of the City. Even more striking is the fact that the world which forms the content of his works is extraordinarily poor in colors. Somber, gray, muddygreen colors predominate everywhere.
Attic and cellar, mudcovered, dilapidated walls, oilcloth thrown over furniture from which protrude wisps of bast, dust, humidity, a depressing, gray light, this serves as the usual background in Dostoevsky’s works. “The air is muggy, the smell nauseating. The siskins are dying all around us,” Devushkin complains as he describes his kennel. “We lived right under the roof of a sixstory house,” relates Netochka Nezvanova. ” Our entire furniture,” she continues, “consisted of a sort of leftover oilcloth divan, all covered with dust and wisps of bast, a simple white table, two chairs, Mama’s bed, a cupboard standing in the corner with something in it, a chest of drawers which always seemed to be tottering on its side, and, finally, tattered paper screens.” Dostoevsky describes Raskolnikov’s apartment as follows:
“It was a tiny little cell, about six paces in length. It gave a most pitiful appearance with its yellow, dusty wallpaper, which was everywhere peeling from its walls. It was so low that a tall man would no doubt have found it insufferable almost as soon as he made his way through the door. Any minute now, or so it seemed, you were about to knock your head against the ceiling. The furniture matched the apartment perfectly: three old chairs, still somewhat in a state of disrepair and a large, cumbersome sofa.”
A similarly depressing, colorless and monotonous appearance reigns beyond the walls of these cells, where clumsy “main houses” and filthy taverns line the street. Along this street, to the accompaniment of the organgrinder’s shrill blare dash ragged passersby. The plaintive whistling of the wind gives voice here not to the howl of a beast, nor to the melancholy strains of the distant forest. It reminds us rather of the nasal twang of the beggar pleading for alms: “The wind spinned out its melancholy song like an importunate beggar pleading for a copper penny from passersby.”
A very special way of life unfolds in those corners of the city where, in Dostoevksy’s words, “no one ever laughs, no one ever rejoices.” Life here bears not the faintest resemblance to the rich and teeming life you meet elsewhere in the city: “The sun that shines for everyone else hardly deigns to look in on them. Rather, something else, new and as if expressly ordered for these alleys peeps in and shines upon all with a singular and peculiar light.” The heavy, colorless and depressing environment of the city’s alleys weighs like lead upon the soul. Dostoevsky calls this “a cold, gloomy, and, as it were, antagonistic life.” Yet this life is not only gloomy and inhospitable it also overflows with the fantastic, the unfathomable and the strange. Cast into a dark corner of the huge City seething with life, lonely, swept along by the irresistible momentum of this enormous thing, the Whole, battered by surprises, by unexpected and fortuitous events concealed within the womb of the Whole, man feels himself impotent and incapable of putting order in his life of his own free will. Look how lonely, helpless and bewildered Devushkin feels before the maelstrom of urban life:
“It often chances that, hurrying to work early in the morning, I find myself staring in admiration at the City as it rouses itself from its sleep, steams over with fumes, seethes and roars. Before such a spectacle, you feel at times so diminished, as if someone had thrust his indexfinger against your inquisitive nose, and then it’s all you can do to drag yourself along in meek silence to your destination.”
It is beyond his strength to understand, indeed, quite literally, to grasp this thing called life. The mainsprings setting it in motion and the direction in which it moves remain forever outside his field of vision. Mysterious forces seem to him concealed behind the furious hurlyburly of events. Though impenetrable to his understanding, these fortuitous events are nonetheless capable of striking him with unexpected and often fatal consequences. The mind, startled and terrified, creates a fantastical world of forces and powers that govern man’s fate. Finding the real world too burdensome and unfathomable, man flees from it to a realm of fantasy and dreams. There he not only lights upon an explanation for the real world which he left behind; in addition, he finds rest from the harshness and estrangement of this world. A morbidly deranged mind sweeps man away to a world of “castles in the air,” fantastical roses and myrtles. Total impotence in the real world yields here to infinite power and arbitrary rule: In this imaginary world, “man becomes, like an artist, the architect of his own life, creating it anew, as he pleases, by the hour.”
The more he buries himself in a world of dreams, the more his native sense for that which is real diminishes, and, therefore, the more fantastical does the real world appear to him. In addition, fantasy occupies an ever more important place in his life, as the world of the imagination begins to assume an almost real appearance in his eyes. “And, well, how easily, how naturally is this fairytale world created. As if all of this were not in fact a mere apparition,” exclaims the protagonist of WHITE NIGHTS. The boundaryline separating the real and the fantastical is effaced: The world of alleys and back streets depicted by Dostoevsky becomes a whimsical interweaving of the fantastical and the real, as the real takes on, to a certain extent, the fairytale hues of the fantastical:
“The life that beats here is not at all like the life that you’ll find in the city at large. Our life is a mixture of, on the one hand, something purely fantastic and intensely ideal and, on the other hand, of something prosaically lackluster and ordinary, not to mention incredibly vulgar.”
Thus does Dostoevsky characterize the life of the city’s back streets.
Loneliness is the usual companion of the dreamer. Engrossed in the contemplation of his own reveries, man soon forgets his surrounding world, sees and hears nothing except his fantastical forms, and, if reality, as it must on occasion, breaks through the walls of his retreat, he turns away from it in anger and displeasure. Recall, if you please, how the hero of WHITE NIGHTS felt when one of his colleagues peeped into his tiny room: he turned his frightened and bewildered gaze upon the uninvited guest, who, by his very arrival, had scattered a host of radiant visions. And this irritability continued so long as the visitor remained at his flat. The flight from reality manifests itself not only in an inner dream state, cultivated to a pathological degree, but also externally in, what may be called, solitary selfconfinement, i.e. in a withdrawal from others and from the external world. Dreaming means burying yourself in a corner, hiding from everything and everyone, living with your daydreams alone for company. This is precisely the way people live in the he back alleys of Dostoevsky: those who call these alleys home seize every free moment to find refuge in a corner and dream awhile. Rare contact with his fellow man, coupled with physical confinement and solitude doom man here to silence. Seldom if ever called upon to make use of his speech organs, man quite simply forgets how to speak. Expressing one’s thoughts has become an ordeal for him: “I despise the very act of speech,” declares Kirillov in THE POSSESSED in a clumsy and faltering way that still testifies to the four years he had spent alone, with only his dreams for company.
The swift movement, the absence of stable forms that stand firmly before one’s eyes and do not merely flit past them, the apparent fortuitousness and fantasticality of events, the poverty of Nature and of colors, the predominance of monotonous and somber images, a silence turned in upon itself and only rarely having recourse to speech, and then with little skill, these are the distinguishing features of the life that unfolds before us in Dostoevsky’s novels.
It is not hard to see that the form, architecture and style of his novel is fully consistent with its content. Rarely will you find descriptions of Nature in Dostoevsky, and those that we meet with are devoid of colors, brilliance or force. And, indeed, it could not be otherwise, for Dostoevsky’s hero, the City, is as far removed from Nature as the “nests of the gentry” are close to it. There are no portraits or descriptions in Dostoevsky, who is little concerned with stationary forms. This, of course, is understandable. Amidst an endless procession of characters and places, swept along by a whirlwind of activity, Dostoevsky finds little time for anything more than minimal characterization and description. Dostoevsky at once plunges us into the hurlyburly of events. Quickly developing the action, the author manipulates the plot in such a way that the events appear enigmatic and fantastical. Thus, by the very architecture of his creations, he compels us to feel the peculiarity of that world, of that corner of life which he wishes to expose to view.
In Dostoevsky’s epithets and similes, you feel the sullenness endemic to the desolate back streets of the City, the dampness and semidarkness of its cellars. His protagonists speak unevenly, awkwardly, now excessively verbose, as if they were vainly seeking a muchneeded word or locution, and now jerky, abrupt and brief. In fact, they are brief to such an extent that the thought that is to be expressed cannot find room in which to breathe. Something always seems to be left unsaid. This again is perfectly understandable: Where there is no intercourse with other men, where people shut themselves up in a corner, there no free and fluent speech is possible. Language is the creation of society.
Dostoevsky has been reproached by some for the unpolished roughness and unevenness of his style, while Pushkin, Turgenev and Tolstoy have been held up as models of perfection and refinement. Dostoevsky himself, acknowledging this sin, tried to explain it away by saying that he wrote in haste, that for him literary work was a means of earning his daily bread, while Pushkin et al., who indulged in it as an avocation, had no real need for their own earnings. To judge of the perfection of Dostoevsky’s style by basing oneself on the standards of Pushkin or Tolstoy is very much like comparing apples and oranges. One may speak of the relative merits of two specimens of the same species, but it would be strange indeed to apply this standard to two specimens of different species. It is impossible to measure the beauty of a lily by the beauty of a rose. Each is beautiful in its own way. Dostoevsky’s style is a completely new species of style, which, in turn, corresponds to a new kind of content. His merits and shortcomings cannot be described by comparing them with the style of the Pushkin school if only for the reason that the latter style is thoroughly incongruous with the world which Dostoevsky reveals to us in his works. The Pushkin style is too epic, too imperturbable, too painterly and sculptural to be capable of conveying the agitated, swiftly flowing life of the City. Dostoevsky might have conceivably created a more perfect style, had he not been so much at the mercy of unfavorable work conditions, but such perfection would have in no way brought him closer to the Pushkin school. His style corresponds to his content. You don’t pour new wine into old bottles.