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 not turn to Winter Notes for an impartial picture of nineteenth-century Europe. Dostoevsky is biased, “sour, jaundiced, cruel, intemperate and arbitrary,” as Saul Bellow, quite rightly, describes him in his Foreword. But what is important is the slant of Dostoevsky’s bias, the object of his intemperance and cruelty. With all his chauvinism—and this is one of his most unattractive characteristics—Dostoevsky is not entirely arbitrary; he has his own moral reasons for hating the West. To be sure, he sees only what he wants to see, he wears blinkers, he is narrow and intransigent, but what he hates in Europe he hates in Russia also. Mr. Bellow cannot reconcile Dostoevsky’s hatred with his Christianity. Aren’t we “commanded by Christianity to love everyone?” he asks. The answer is yes, to love everyone but not everything. And Dostoevsky hated everything pompous, hypocritical, and vicious no matter where he saw it. In his prejudiced way, of course, and as an outsider—this is always easier for outsiders—he saw all vices concentrated abroad and glaringly exhibited, sometimes in ridiculous ways, sometimes tragically.
Winter Notes is mostly about Paris, with a few pages given to London; the other cities and countries Dostoevsky visited do not appear. In Paris, he writes, “it is indispensable that everything should sparkle with virtue…. Innumerable husbands stroll arm in arm with innumerable spouses; around them frolic their darling, well-behaved little children; the little fountain gurgles, and its monotonous lapping is reminiscent of something calm, quiet, eternal, constant.” The spouses call each other affectionately bribri and ma biche, though both are perfectly aware that neither loves the other, that both carry on their separate, amorous adventures, and that their conjugal relationship is, and has always been, a financial arrangement. The French see nothing wrong in this. Money to them is more than desirable, it is sacred. To faire fortune and amass property is to “fulfill your duty to nature and mankind.” And that is why “the legal code distinguishes so clearly between theft with a base intention, e.g., for need of a crust of bread, and theft through superior virtue. The latter is highly protected, encouraged, and admirably well organized.” Nevertheless, the Frenchman loves nobility of soul, eloquence, and melodrama. In the theater, his highminded Gustave is required to be a poor artist who rejects, with lofty scorn, the million that invariably falls into his lap, until the moment he is told that Cécile who, of course, may not marry him without the million, is dying of love for him. Then Gustave accepts the million, the marriage takes place, bribri and ma biche leave the theater in tears, touched by the nobility of Gustave and melted by the vision of how, before long, he and his Cécile will also stroll arm in arm to the lapping sound of the little fountain. Proprieties are always observed. Orderliness, decorum, and complacency rule everywhere and in everything. Nor is this “so much external regulation, which is of no consequence (relatively, of course) as a colossal, internal, and spiritual regimentation, coming from the very soul.”
London, although outwardly different from Paris, is in essence the same, with “the same frantic struggle to preserve the status quo, to wring from oneself all one’s desires and hopes…to worship Baal.” In London there is the Crystal Palace, the International Exposition to which millions of people come “humbly streaming from all over the face of the earth.” The spectacle is immense, and it gives one a feeling “that something has come to an end…like a prophecy from the Apocalypse coming to pass before your eyes.” Meanwhile, in the crowded and garish Haymarket, Dostoevsky comes upon “a little girl not over six years old…filthy…covered with black and blue marks.” She walked along “as if unconscious of her surroundings…rocked her disheveled head from side to side as if discussing something, parted her little arms, gesticulating…” and her face expressed “hopeless despair.”
The little girl, the Crystal Palace, the French travesty of liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberté is possible only for the man with a million, égalité is plainly an insult, and fraternité is the kind of “brotherhood” in which every I clamors for his own rights)—all this was to recur not in Western, but Russian, settings in the great novels that were to follow, beginning with Notes from the Underground, which was published in 1864, the year after Winter Notes. The core of Dostoevsky’s strictures is an outraged sense of the discrepancy between the inner and the outer man, between motives and actions, motives and beliefs, between the heart of the matter, whatever the matter may be, and the showy outside. And this, as well as a good deal more, is what Edward Wasiolek discusses in his admirable little book.
Doestoevsky: The Major Fiction looks like a handbook. Its nine brief chapters, following the order of chronology, are divided into subdivisions, each concerned with an important character or theme in the novels: “Crime and Freedom,” “Ippolyt,” “Stavrogin,” “Smerdyakov,” and so on; there are “Notes on the Writing and Publishing of the Main Works Discussed;” there is a section devoted to “Biographical Data,” there is a Selected Bibliography. And indeed, it is a handbook, but a very superior one a handbook that is also a work of criticism, tersely, vigorously written, always to the point. Mr. Wasiolek, who is Professor of Russian and Comparative Literature at the University of Chicago, is more interested in his subject than in himself, a rare quality among Dostoevsky critics, who have a way of using Dostoevsky as an excuse for propounding their own philosophies or displaying their astuteness. Nor has he been felled by the Symbolist virus which has, of late, attacked crities in epidemic proportions, forcing them to see every work of art, regardless of the artist’s temper and intention, as a complicated and more or less mechanical riddle, to be solved by means of ingenious detective work with the aim of unearthing deeply concealed patterns of words, colors, incidents, or sounds that are bound to be there. Mr. Wasiolek proceeds in a more straightforward way. He wants to assist readers in understanding the curious behavior of Dostoevsky’s “paradoxical heroes,” to explain, for example, why the Underground Man dreams of “virtue and love when he is sunk in the most vicious vice,” why Raskolnikov, in Crime and Punishment, murders for money and then throws the money away, why Nastasya Fillipovna, in The Idiot, behaves deliberately in such a way as to confirm the slanderous rumors about her. To answer such questions as these is to understand Dostoevsky, for as Mr. Wasiolek demonstrates, Dostoevsky’s ideas are always shown in relation to individuals: there is “no reason, only reasoners” in Dostoevsky’s world; “no idea, no vision, no convention” in this world “can be abstracted.”
And so Mr. Wasiolek illuminates Dostoevsky’s creatures in a series of analyses, which are always lucid and often brilliant. One need not always agree with him. I, for one, would interpret Raskolnikov, Stavrogin in The Possessed, and Katerina Ivanovna in The Brothers Karamazov, somewhat differently; that does not matter. About such intricate characters as these, there are bound to be various opinions. What does matter is that through Mr. Wasiolek’s interpretations, one traces the progress of Dostoevsky’s intuitions and beliefs, and appreciates once again the variety and subtlety with which he dramatizes “the dark forces of the will that underlies our moral judgments,” the tragically self-defeating attempts to assert absolute freedom, the devious ways in which “highest goods can be corrupted to the deepest evils.” Very forcefully Mr. Wasiolek corrects certain popular over-simplifications and misconceptions of Dostoevsky, such as “the religion of suffering” which is usually imputed to him, or the idea of “the double” that is central in his work. Suffering is not an end of Dostoevsky’s religious ideal, although it is a key to it; and “the double is not simply a split between the “good and bad side” of a man, nor a conflict between “reason” and “feeling”; it is the more complex duality of what men “think they are and what they really are.”
This distinction is indeed the crux both of Dostoevsky’s psychology and his morality; what a man is and what he thinks he is, what he rejects and what he chooses. “Man in Dostoevsky’s world does not choose what is already determined, but determines what he chooses,” and in this dialectic “good may be chosen to be evil and evil to be good.” Man’s basic choice is “the value of his act…for self or for God,” but ” ‘believing in God’ in Dostoevsky’s world can mean different things,” just as similar preoccupations can have different motives and similar gestures different meanings. “Ivan [Karamazov] uses the sufferings of children as a premise of revolt, Dmitry as a recognition of his responsibility.” And when the Elder Zossima bows down to Dmitry Karamazov, his bow has a very different significance and effect from Dmitry’s bow to Katerina Ivanovna, and neither of these is like Raskolnikov’s bow to Sonia.
Mr. Wasiolek’s study, the most sensible on the subject to have come out in many a year, shows very clearly why it is that this Russian novelist, who lived a hundred years ago, seems to be our own contemporary, why he is endlessly fascinating in this scientific twentieth century, in which, with all its sophistication, the human being remains a puzzle, and the question of man’s responsibility for his own and his world’s crimes obtrudes itself more acutely than ever and is farther than ever from being solved, except in such solutions as a great artist’s vision can providentially supply.