Dostoevsky’s Occasional Writings
selected, translated, and introduced by David Magarshack
Random House, 334 pp., $6.95
This volume is a representative selection of Dostoevsky’s journalistic work and of the letters of his last years. The book draws on three stages of his life: the early period, before his exile to Siberia, when in 1847, poor and neglected after an initial success, he wrote four essays for Petersburg News; the middle years, 1860 to 1865, when returning from imprisonment he plunged into journalism, first publishing his magazine Time, which was suppressed after three years, then Epoch, which failed; and the final years, 1873 to 1880, when after the novels that made him famous, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Possessed, he was at work on The Brothers Karamazov, which he knew would be his last. Most of these selections have not been hitherto translated and are not always easy to come by even in the original. Mr. Magarshack has rendered them in a way that gives an excellent idea of the colloquial, hard-hitting style of Dostoevsky the publicist; and he has explained in a brief introduction the circumstances under which each of the entries was composed.
The interest of this collection is of a different order from that of Dostoevsky’s novels, Dostoevsky the publicist has nothing of the greatness of Dostoevsky, the creative artist. His journalistic pieces are shallow and discursive by comparison with his novels: they are emphatic rather than eloquent, strident rather than passionate. Yet they are concerned with the same questions that occupy him in his fiction. And it is this that lends them their special fascination. Why is it, they make the reader wonder, that the problems which attain such imaginative heights in the minds of Dostoevsky’s characters, of Ivan Karamazov. Raskolnikov, Myshkin, lose their intensity when they are argued by himself in the pages of his magazines? It has been said that Dostoevsky “experienced ideas” as ordinary mortals experience sensations. Could it be that this is not so? Or is it just that the sheet necessity of having to turn out copy explains the difference? Whatever the answer, a comparison of the two Dostoevskys, the journalist and the novelist, opens up fascinating possibilities to anyone interested in the nature of artistic creation, while to the general reader it offers the excitement of coming upon the first hints of ideas that blossom later into the magnificent arguments of the Myshkins, the Raskolnikovs, and the Karamazovs.
In the essays written in 1847, the reader is immersed in that atmosphere of a sordid and malevolent Petersburg into which he had been thrust already in Dostoevsky’s first stories, Poor Folk and The Double, and which was presently to envelop him again in Crime and Punishment and The Idiot. It is an atmosphere familiar also to Gogol, to whom Dostoevsky was deeply indebted. Nowhere is this indebtedness clearer than here: Gogel’s name occurs on every other page, the humor is Gogol’s humor and it is directed against the same failings which Gogol satirized: pretense, callousness, pettiness, artificiality, meanmindedness. But the young …