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The Artist at High Tide

Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865–1871

by Joseph Frank
Princeton University Press, 523 pp., $35.00

Since the 1950s Joseph Frank has been laboring steadily at one of the great biographical projects of our times, a five-volume life of Fyodor Dostoevsky. The volumes can be read independently; each makes absorbing reading. The fourth, which has now appeared, is of particular interest, since it covers the period between 1865 and 1871, the years of Dostoevsky’s greatest sustained achievement, when he wrote Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1868), and The Devils (1871–1874).

In 1864 both Dostoevsky’s first wife and his beloved elder brother Mikhail died. Dostoevsky was a dutiful family man. Without hesitation (but also without guessing what he was letting himself in for) he assumed responsibility for Mikhail’s wife and children and for the huge debts Mikhail had left behind, as well as for his dead wife’s son. These dependents exploited his dutifulness without mercy: the next seven years of his life would be dominated by efforts to earn by his pen enough to maintain them in the comfort to which they were accustomed.

Dostoevsky always wrote under pressure of deadlines. One such deadline led to his second marriage. Contracted to produce a complete novel at short notice, he hired a stenographer, a young woman named Anna Grigoryevna Snitkina. He gave her a dictation test, then offered her a cigarette. She declined, thus unwittingly passing a second test: she had proved she was not a liberated woman and thus probably not a Nihilist. Within a month, with her stenographic help, Dostoevsky had dictated and revised The Gambler, and could return to the project he had interrupted, Crime and Punishment. Three months later they were married. He was forty-five, she was twenty-one.

Dostoevsky disliked living alone. Though Anna was not to know it, he had recently, in quest of the companionship and domesticity he longed for, paid court to several young women, without success. Nor was he cured of his infatuation with Apollinaria Suslova, the young radical intellectual with whom he had had a stormy affair in 1863.

He was not, in truth, an attractive proposition: a widower with few social graces and a string of hungry relatives in tow, a convicted subversive with a ten-year spell in Siberia behind him, a writer who, in the popular eye, had never really lived up to the promise of his first novel, Poor Folk, published over twenty years ago.

Anna, however, accepted his offer and proved herself an excellent helpmate, standing by him through ill health and poverty, and after his death guarding his memory jealously. The marriage does not seem to have been a passionate one, at least in the beginning. For one thing, Dostoevsky had a daily routine that ran entirely athwart that of a young wife and mother: he sat at his desk from 10 PM to 6 AM, slept all morning, and took a stroll in the afternoon, dropping by a coffee shop to read the newspapers. When literary friends came visiting, he would closet himself with them, leaving Anna to bear the burden of his family, who for their part resented her as an interloper.

Since Mikhail’s creditors were becoming more pressing, Dostoevsky proposed to Anna that they quit St. Petersburg and live abroad. She agreed, if only to get away from his family. For four years (1867–1871) the Dostoevskys lived in Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and then Germany again, in hotels or rented apartments. It was a period of unrelieved gloom. They lived from hand to mouth, depending on advances from Dostoevsky’s ever-tolerant publisher, M.N. Katkov. Time and again Anna had to pawn her clothes and jewelry to pay their bills.

Living abroad only confirmed a strain of what Frank, in an unusually judgmental moment, calls Dostoevsky’s “rabid xenophobia.” Dostoevsky had a particular prejudice against Germans: “There is no limit at all to how much I hate them!” He objected to Florence because the Florentines sang in the streets when he wanted to sleep; in Geneva he grumbled because Swiss houses did not have windows with double glazing. Even Russian émigré society gave him no pleasure. He had nothing in common with reactionary aristocrats who had left Russia in disgust after the abolition of serfdom; toward the most famous of literary émigrés, Ivan Turgenev, he developed an undying grudge because Turgenev told him that, having settled in Germany, he “considered [himself] a German, not a Russian.”

At risk of exaggeration, Frank calls Dostoevsky “a literary proletarian forced to write for wages.” About the circumstances that kept him on the literary treadmill Dostoevsky felt considerable bitterness. Even with Crime and Punishment—an enormous popular success—and The Idiot behind him, he felt a painful sense of inferiority to Turgenev and Tolstoy, both held in higher critical esteem (and paid more per page) than himself. He envied these rivals their time and leisure and inherited fortunes, and looked forward to the day when he would be able to tackle a truly major theme and prove himself their equal. He sketched in considerable detail an ambitious work, called first Atheism, then The Life of a Great Sinner, intended to bring him recognition as a “serious” writer. But these sketches had to be cannibalized for The Devils, and the major book was again postponed.

Dostoevsky recognized the pivotal importance of Turgenev’s Fathers and Children when it appeared in 1861, but his judgments on Turgenev’s later writings were colored by personal and political antagonism (Turgenev is satirized in The Devils as the vain and affected littérateur Karmazinov). As for Tolstoy, he and Dostoevsky kept a respectful distance from each other all their lives, never meeting. Privately, Dostoevsky lumped Tolstoy’s writings with Turgenev’s as “gentry-landowner literature” belonging to an era now past.

Anna bore two children during the Dostoevsky’s years abroad. The first died at three months. The parents were shattered; out of their shared grief came greater closeness. Anna’s unflinching support also began to make an impression on Dostoevsky. His first wife had reacted to his epilepsy with shock and dismay; Anna, despite her youth, nursed him through his attacks and bore their aftermath—days of irritability and quarrelsomeness—with good cheer. Gradually he developed respect for her judgment and began to take her into his confidence about his writing.

The heaviest burden she had to bear was not his epilepsy, however, but his gambling. Dostoevsky was an obsessive gambler. His gambling brought down on Anna not only poverty but varieties of moral degradation: having to mistrust someone she loved, being lied to and deceived, and then having to listen afterward to remorseful breast-beating and self-recriminations that were, in an ultimate sense, not sincerely meant, or not sincerely enough.

Anna used to set aside a proportion of her housekeeping money for her husband’s gambling. When he had lost that, he would come back saying (she records in her diary) that “he was not worthy of me, he was a swine and I an angel,” but that he must have more. Usually she would give in, fearing that if she objected he would get excited and fall into one of his fits. Her mildness got her nowhere, Dostoevsky complaining that he would be better off with a scold for a wife: “It was positively painful to him the way I was so sweet.” (Frank notes that the inhuman sweetness of Prince Myshkin in The Idiot, which Dostoevsky was writing at this time, produces the same exasperating effect on the people around him.)

Dostoevsky did not hesitate to condemn his gambling, but only on his own terms: as a manifestation of his tendency to go “everywhere and in everything…to the last limit.” In the man who had already created the drunkard Marmeladov in Crime and Punishment and would shortly create Stavrogin, one need barely point out that this is as much boasting as it is self-castigation.

Anna, however, refused to judge her husband. Just as she preferred to read his mistreatment of her as the voice of epilepsy speaking through him (“When he screams at me it is from illness, not from bad temper”), she seems to have succeeded—like Dostoevsky himself, as Frank observes—“in divorcing his gambling mania from his moral personality, and in regarding it as something extraneous to his true character.” Frank refrains from asking the properly Dostoevskian question: If the devil in Dostoevsky was not his own, if he was not responsible for it, then who was?

In his youth Dostoevsky had been attracted to utopian socialism of the Fourierist variety. But four years in a prison camp in siberia shook his faith in socialism. There is no reason to doubt the account of his change of mind that he himself gave: removed from the hothouse of the dissident urban intelligentsia and forced to live at close quarters with ordinary Russians, most of them peasants, he began to see that ideas imported from Europe simply did not apply to them. The people for whose sake he and his co-conspirators had striven regarded them with suspicion and even hostility: they would forever be “gentry,” and between gentry and peasantry there was a great gulf fixed. On the other hand, no matter how appalling the crimes might be that they had committed, these peasants were not doubters, rebels, nihilists: they might be sinners, but they were believing, “God-bearing” sinners. Thus Dostoevsky arrived, in Frank’s words, at “insight into the deeply rooted moral world of the peasantry, who lived inside their native Christianity as they did in their skins.” This insight made atheistic social creeds imported from the West seem irrelevant.

Hence Dostoevsky’s enthusiasm, when he returned from Siberia, for the doctrine of pochvennichestvo, return to the soil, to native roots. To this doctrine he added, during the late 1860s, a coloring of Russian messianism: “The Russian mission…consists in the revelation to the world of the Russian Christ.” Under the sway of a false gospel, the gospel of Rome, the West was falling into decay; the time was approaching for Russia to offer the world “a new message.” “Russian thought is preparing a grandiose renovation for the entire world…and this will occur in about a century—that’s my passionate belief.”

When to belief in a special world-historical destiny for Russia are added calls for Russian hegemony to be extended over other Slavic nationalities, commitment to Great-Russian imperialism, and even justification of war as a purifying fire, we have a picture of an extremist of the right—a picture of Dostoevsky to be confirmed in the widely read column “A Writer’s Diary,” which he contributed to the newspaper The Citizen in 1873 and 1874 and later continued independently. In this column (as Frank says in a preview of the next volume of his biography) Dostoevsky would emerge as “the most important public voice in his country, whose every word was eagerly anticipated, commented on, and argued about.”

But to picture Dostoevsky as a rabid extremist is less than fair. His chauvinism stopped short of glorification of Russia’s past, while on social issues, Frank argues, he emerges as “somewhere in the middle,” a supporter of the liberal reforms with which Alexander II initiated his reign, including—crucially—the abolition of serfdom. Dostoevsky’s letters voice dismay at the reversal of these policies, which followed the attempt on Alexander’s life in 1866. Though he had no doubt that the doctrines of the radical intelligentsia spelled disaster for Russia, he accepted that they were animated by genuine “enthusiasm for the good…and purity of heart.” Even the shrill xenophobia of his years abroad belongs more to his letters than to his novels. The Idiot, the major novel of the late 1860s, is concerned to portray a man acting in imitation of Christ—a specifically Russian vision of Christ—not to assert the superiority of Eastern over Western theology. Frank untangles with particular lucidity the political from the religious and moral strains in Dostoevsky’s fiction. In Frank’s terms, Dostoevsky’s novels advance the “ethical-universalistic” side of his messianism, but not to a notable extent its “egoistic-imperialistic” side.

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