Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 18501859
The second volume of Joseph Frank’s very searching biography of Dostoevsky has now appeared. Two more will follow. Its overwhelming merit is that it does not stop at the personal life and character of an extraordinary man but concentrates on the novelist reacting to the literary and the fluctuating influences of Russian political and social history in his time. For all the Russian novelists of the nineteenth century Russia itself was a haunting figure in the novelists’ imbroglio. Russia melts into the man and we can partly separate them, yet much cannot be separated.
Professor Frank is scholarly in his inquiry: he is clear, persuasive, and free of academic jargon. Dostoevsky has so often seemed an unreliable and mystifying projector of versions of his life and his beliefs that he can easily strike us as incoherent. Frank’s is a patient and ever-curious and sympathetic investigation of a man and a writer who was very much a “double,” who can easily confuse us with his poses, his powers of self-dramatization, and his contradictions.
In the first volume Professor Frank corrected the surmise that Dostoevsky’s father—who was murdered by his peasants—was close to the brutal old Karamazov. He was not. He was the hard-working puritanical doctor, ambitious for his children’s education, especially the literary aspect of it, anxious that they should rise in the world. He was a religious man with a peculiar sectarian inheritance, and proud, as a doctor, to be entitled to call himself a noble, albeit of the lowest civil grade in the Russian system introduced by Peter the Great. (Privately the doctor held himself to be descended from the old traditional Lithuanian aristocracy.) Poor as he was he did rise to become a small landowner with a few serfs. The son learned the family legend only too well, and the initial source of the guilt he felt about his father arose from his continual begging for money so that he could cut a figure in Petersburg as a nobleman. The guilt was not, as Freud argued, Oedipal. It is very strange that the Dostoevsky family was silent about the murder of the father by his serfs. Such murders were common, but were felt to be a “shame.”
In the first volume Frank went into Dostoevsky’s involvement with the radical idealists who met at the house of Mikhail Petrashevsky. There were extremists in the group, notably a rich and elegant aristocrat, Speshnev, who, for a time, swayed the young novelist who vacillated to the point of breakdown. He told his doctor—or so it was said—“I have taken money from Speshnev…and now I am with him and his. I’ll never be able to pay back such a sum, yes, and he wouldn’t take the money back…. From now on I have a Mephistopheles of my own.”
In the second volume Professor Frank goes at length into the arrest and trial of the group and analyzes Dostoevsky’s sometimes “diplomatic” replies to his police interrogators. The revolution of 1848 in Europe had frightened the authorities and Nicholas I himself. Patiently Professor Frank goes through Dostoevsky’s statements about matters like the utopian socialism of Fourier, which he thought was “childish.” But at this time the novelist, who had been made briefly famous by the radical Belinsky’s praise of his novel Poor Folk, was very much a radical Westerner. (He adored Turgenev as the perfect aristocrat and Westerner. Years later he detested him and mocked him and was also jealous of his fortune.) In the interrogation Dostoevsky was sometimes evasive, but he spoke out eloquently against the absurdities of censorship and especially for the freeing of the serfs. These opinions were quite enough to condemn him, especially in the eyes of the military.
Frank moves on to the sentencing of the group, the awful mock execution, when they were “reprieved” at the last minute, the terrible journey to Siberia, the four years of shackles and hard labor, the period of forced military service, eight years in all, and the most absorbing and the decisive subject of the book: Dostoevsky’s renunciation of Western ideas and his religious conversion.
Professor Frank’s narrative is plain but graphic. He is especially moving in his sketches of the wives (most of them aristocrats) of the Decembrists, the earlier generation of dissidents. The women came out to meet and help the prisoners on the way to the Siberian hell. Their humanity was a misleading introduction to the attitudes of the criminal population of the prison, who were mostly peasants, brigands, thieves, and murderers. Dostoevsky, a gentleman and political, had expected at least respect; the criminals jeered and were contemptuous of his rank. Incompetent in hard labor, he was pushed aside, isolated, mocked, and humiliated. He had the first of his lifelong epileptic attacks:
The impact of such experiences on Dostoevsky can only be appreciated if we recall the image of his character as we know it from the pre-Siberian period of his life. For he had been notorious in Petersburg literary circles as a person of extreme nervous susceptibility and pathological sensitivity, quite unable to control himself in face of the slightest suggestion of opposition or hostility. His relations with the other young writers of the Belinsky pléiade, at first friendly and even cordial, were quickly poisoned by his unhappy proclivity to take offense at every passing remark; and by the end of the 1840s he had acquired an unenviable reputation as being socially intolerable and morbidly suspicious.
In prison he was facing class hatred. An ordinary peasant convict, he noticed in shocked wonder, was “at home” there. The novelist was to describe it all in The House of the Dead—and in a flat documentary style, uncommon in his novels.
An outside observer said Dostoevsky looked like “a wolf in a trap.” Even when the convicts made a mass protest against the awful food, they refused to let “the gentleman” join the protest:
Never again would Dostoevsky believe that the efforts of the radical intelligentsia could have the slightest effect in stirring the broad masses of the Russian people, and history was to prove him right during his lifetime—if not, to be sure, half a century after his death.
As time went on he was to discover that the peasants did not wish class differences to be changed. They did not like him to behave “democratically”: he ought to have stuck to his class superiority. They would have abused him for it, he wrote, “yet they would have privately respected me for it.” Such an attitude has often been observed, even today, in countries where class conflicts arise. A man should not pretend to be other than he is.
We are at the beginning of a long, deeply interesting psychological examination, first of the nature of sudden religious conversion and then of the specific conditions of Dostoevsky’s own. In prison he had fallen back on silence, then into a listless state in which free association brought random incidents of his life back to unthinking memory. Very early on in his prison life epileptic attacks recurred once a month and were announced by the classical “aura” or euphoric hallucination. Here it is interesting to look forward to Professor Frank’s careful and intelligent pages on the possible mystical nature of Dostoevsky’s experience. But on a connection between the “aura” sensations and mysticism Professor Frank is very cautious. If there was ecstasy it left the novelist skeptical. The rapture was followed by the fear of a plunge into mental degeneracy or of death itself. The attacks were, basically, tragic and agonizing.
[He] never allowed…these flashes of revelation, as other mystics have done, to resolve his religious questionings and achieve some sort of inner peace. But neither could he accept a world in which the reality of these gleams of the absolute, no matter how treacherous and dangerous, was simply negated or denied.
What—it occurs to us—saved him here was that he was an artist: that he was by nature self-dramatizing. One such drama occurred on an Easter Day, celebrating the resurrection of Christ, a day of traditional emotional, even chauvinistic, exaltation for Russians. Just before this, the convicts had brutally beaten up one of their number: a Polish prisoner had shouted that once more the Russians had shown themselves to be incurable savages. Dostoevsky left the scene in horror; it was a particular affront that a Pole should have used these words! A forgotten memory came to him: one of his father’s serfs had calmed his fears when he was a child when he thought a wolf was after him in the woods. Now he suddenly saw the serf, he wrote, as a human being in the image of Christ. Suddenly the peasant prisoners were idealized. Later, in “Notes from the House of the Dead,” he wrote of the prisoners, many of whom had committed at least two murders:
These criminals are the most gifted, the strongest of our entire nation…. Altogether no time has been lost to me if I have come to now not only Russia but the Russian people.
In short he had taken (Frank writes) what can only be called a “leap of faith” into a belief in the moral beauty of the Russian peasantry. He had, by volte-face, become a Slavophile.
Frank entirely rejects Freud’s wellknown diagnosis: “His arrest, the mock execution, and then his imprisonment triggered a masochistic need to submit to the punishment of the Tsar-Father as a means of relieving the unconscious guilt caused by Dostoevsky’s repressed Oedipal desire to commit parricide.” Now, Frank points out, it was from the people the novelist sought absolution. In what we now regard as a chronic pre-disposition, Dostoevsky saw his ideological past as an error: he had been “wrong” and “deserving of punishment” for his early belief in the superiority of the Russian Westerner or indeed in the moral superiority of the socialist ideas of Western Europeans. After the failure of the revolutions of 1848 the great Herzen and many erst-while Westerners of his generation were also disillusioned. (There was only one “revolution” that had meaning for Dostoevsky—as it did for the lifelong Westerner Turgenev—the freeing of the serfs. Once Nicholas II became emperor, that became certain.)
We also see how “the rediscovery of the Russian Christ” naturally led to another “leap,” Dostoevsky’s lasting chauvinism. This was oddly influenced by a poem of Maikov’s: Russia’s historic mission was to put an end to the Muslim domination over the Orthodox Slavs of Eastern Europe. Russian Christianity, Dostoevsky was to suggest in one of the wildest and most threatening moments of his later prophetic journalism, would also liberate the world from corrupt freethinking Europe, which had already prepared its own downfall. The Crimean War had promised much for Russian nationalism; the defeat was to expose the incompetence of the military caste, and was a gift not only to the Slavophiles but to the new radicals of the intelligentsia, with whom both Dostoevsky and Turgenev would have to contend.
Dostoevsky’s personal salvation as a prisoner, after his transfer to the army, began with his friendship with the influential young official Baron Wrangel, who had admired Dostoevsky’s novel Poor Folk and who, by chance, had been present at the “mock execution.” The baron understood the pathetic situation of the man who had genius in him. He understood Dostoevsky’s agony in being entirely cut off from the literary world. He was longing to write. Dostoevsky’s mind was stocked not with ideas so much as with the lives of extraordinary people. Desperately he had become passionately involved in a pitiable liaison with a tubercular and unstable married woman whom he blindly married when her alcoholic husband died. The marriage seems to have been not so much a search for happiness as a quest for pity, suffering, and jealousy. (She already had a young lover who seemed a better prospect than the ex-convict.)
His letters to his devoted brother are urgent for literary news; he writes of the books he says he is planning. They are started then dropped or moved into stories. He thinks of nothing, at this point, but popular success and money. Was he trying to cover up a betrayal of his old ideals, Frank asks, when he wrote at last two comedies, Uncle’s Dream and The Village of Stepanchikovo, done in the tradition of Russian vaudeville? Is he speaking the truth when he speaks of French influence as superficial? Wasn’t Dostoevsky, above all, soaked in Victor Hugo and Balzac—even in Paul de Kock? Dostoevsky was always able to think of two contradictory ideas at once, and Professor Frank is right, I think, to take Dostoevsky at his compulsive-impulsive word.
In the second story the character of Foma, the hypocrite, may have been taken from Molière, but he is genuine Dostoevsky, a study of the “weak,” oppressed man who becomes the hypocritical tyrant, another variant of the “double.” Already we see the novelist of multiple voices, all talking at once, throwing out their histories, their “convictions,” and their sense of their fates as they shout into one another’s faces, often to the point of farce—while the ironical author seriously joins the pathos and confusion. Changes of mind, plot, and character continually bedeviled the future Dostoevsky before he could settle on the course of a story or novel—changes he naively recorded in his notebooks. The sheer garrulity of the novelist as he fails to come to conclusions will make him the novelist of spiritual conspiracy. The man of faith is in perpetual quarrel with doubt; he may even strike us as devious or shady.
The final chapters of the two novellas Uncle’s Dream and The Village of Stepanchikovo did not please the critics, who found the stories “out of date”—eight years of exile had done this to him—although in time the character of Foma was to become a Russian byword for “the hypocrite.” Professor Frank goes into great detail in analyzing these stories and says that if there is indeed a difference between “the upper and lower stories of art” they announce Dostoevsky’s concept of a story as “a critique of ideology and the conflict between ‘idea’ and ‘the heart.”’
The volume ends with Dostoevsky and his unhappy wife returning to Petersburg. He was sure he would regain the eminence he had lost. He was certain that “his unique experience had given him invaluable insights into the soul of Russia that—only he could communicate.” His two stories had failed. He would have to catch up; but times had changed. Above all he was free to work, and grandiose dreams were boiling in his heart. He was haunted by the idea of the “great sinner.” In a letter, he wrote of a book to be called “Atheism”—adding with his now-chronic and even comic self-mistrust and mistrust of others, “for God’s sake, between ourselves.”