Winter Notes on Summer Impressions
Dostoevsky: The Major Fiction
In the summer of 1862 Dostoevsky went abroad for two-and-a-half months, visiting Germany, France, England, Switzerland, and Italy. His impressions of the journey came out the following February and March in the magazine which, since his release from Siberia, he had been publishing with his brother Michael. The present translation of Winter Notes was first done in 1955 and has been out of print for some time. It is good to have it available again, for this is an entertaining little work, and although a minor one, important as an early statement of some of Dostoevsky’s favorite concepts, and interesting as an excellent sample of his acid, journalistic style.
Dostoevsky set out, so he tells us, full of great expectations. He had dreamt of Europe since childhood, and this was his first trip. From almost the first word, however, we sense ironic bitterness: “Is there anything original I can say, anything that is still unknown or that hasn’t been said? Does there exist a Russian (that is, a Russian who reads the journals, if nothing else) who does not know Europe twice as well as Russia? I put ‘twice’ out of courtesy; ‘ten times’ would be more accurate.” The great expectations, it is obvious, were tinged with malice; and this malice was based on a resentment of Russia’s adulation of the West. In the past, Russians were simply absurd: “We donned silk stockings and wigs and hung little swords on ourselves, and lo and behold, we were Europeans,” but now “times have changed…. Now we have matured; we are completely Europeans.” And in a longish chapter, “Chapter III. Which Is Completely Superfluous,” Dostoevsky excoriates his countrymen no less mercilessly than he does the French and English in the rest of his Notes. Russians are complacent, ignorant, trivial, indifferent to the achievements of their own artists; and they are snobs: “Now we despise the people and our national essence so deeply that we treat them with a new, unprecedented squeamishness…. This is progress.” Dostoevsky is, of course, addressing “the Russian who reads journals, if nothing else.” (In this connection, our translator has missed something of Dostoevsky’s intentional crudity. In ridicaling Russian tourists, Dostoevsky pictures them gaping at Rubens’s fleshy nudes: “They stare at Rubens’s beef, and believe that those are the Three Graces, because the guidebook so orders them to believe.” The translator has it: “They admire a side of beef painted by Rubens,” and appends a footnote: “Dostoevsky appears to have confused Rembrandt and Rubens. The former painted the famous ‘Side of Beef’ in the Louvre.”) When Dostoevsky condemns Russians for aping the West, he is saying—and this is one of his major assumptions—that pretense and artificiality are spiritually disastrous, that nations cannot, any more than individuals, survive on borrowed thoughts and habits. The West he condemns for corrupt practices, the Russians for adopting these, as well as for being sedulous apes.
Fairness is not a quality of satire, and one does …
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