David Magarshack’s book is the latest attempt to write a full-scale biography of Dostoevsky in English, and it is far and away the inferior of two earlier rivals in the field by E. H. Carr and Avrahm Yarmolinsky. Mr. Magarshack’s fat volume has one merit and one only—it includes a good deal of factual information in translation. Otherwise, it is a disastrous performance in every respect.
E. H. Carr’s book, which appeared in 1931 and has recently been reprinted in England, is written from a supercilious, English-upper-class stance that regards all Russians as quite mad to begin with. But this attitude at least allows Mr. Carr to approach his material with a certain amount of amused sympathy; and his book has the further merit of making a serious effort to cope with Dostoevsky’s art. Mr. Yarmolinsky’s book, which appeared in 1934 and was revised in 1960, gave us Dostoevsky with a heavy dose of Freud; but this again enables him to treat his subject with tolerance and equanimity. Both writers make no attempt to conceal their disagreements with Dostoevsky, but both remember that, after all, they are dealing with a man of genius. If by some chance, however, the name of the subject of Mr. Magarshack’s book were changed or omitted, not even the wildest imagination could guess that this sniveling, grasping, sadistic, cowardly and malevolent little nonentity was the author of some of the greatest novels in modern literature.
It is difficult to give any connected account of Mr. Magarshack’s interpretation of Dostoevsky because, to tell the truth, no such interpretation exists. Mr. Magarshack simply jogs along chronologically, taking his material as it comes; and while he begins by announcing that Dostoevsky was an enigmatic figure who suffered from “irreconcilable inner conflicts,” one will look in vain for any attempt to analyze or explore these conflicts in terms of Dostoevsky’s developing experiences. No doubt this lack of any pattern of interpretation explains the curious imbalance in the amount of space allotted to various periods of Dostoevsky’s life. The last ten years, which saw him at the height of his glory and maturity, and which culminated in The Brothers Karamazov and the apotheosis of the Pushkin speech, receive only 74 pages in a 500-page book. One could well have been spared the unenlightening details of Dostoevsky’s early family life, which, as Mr. Magarshack admits, tell us nothing about Dostoevsky himself, for a fuller treatment of these significant later years. But Mr. Magarshack either had to make a deadline, or, alternatively, he was so sick of his subject by this time that he simply wanted to finish off his distasteful job as rapidly as possible.
From his very first pages, Mr. Magarshack’s intense antipathy to Dostoevsky is clearly evident—an antipathy to which he is perfectly entitled, but which does not justify the writing of an indictment for the prosecution under the guise of a biography. As an example …