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 of Mr. Magarshack’s “method” we may take his continual imputation that Dostoevsky was a sadist. What is the evidence he offers for this charge?
First he cites a passage from Dostoevsky’s A Writer’s Diary in which the latter, quite late in life, recalls having known the son of one of the serfs on his father’s estate who was fond of tearing off the heads of birds. Dostoevsky merely notes the fact, but Mr. Magarshack speculates that this is the occasion when “he perhaps for the first time experienced the keen delight that is hidden in torture and cruelty.” Then he goes on to speak of Dostoevsky’s criticism of an article of Turgenev’s. In this article, supposedly describing a public execution, Turgenev concentrates on the feelings of discomfort that caused him to turn away at the last moment. Dostoevsky, who had himself stood before a firing-squad, was outraged, for perfectly understandable reasons, at Turgenev’s preoccupation with his own sensations at such a moment rather than with the tragedy he was witnessing. “No man,” he wrote in a letter, with reference to this article, “has a right to turn away and ignore what is taking place on earth.” After quoting this passage, Mr. Magarshack again intervenes: “And, indeed, he would have watched, open-eyed and pale-faced, the chopping-off of a criminal’s head as he did the tearing off of heads of sparrows as a boy.” Then Mr. Magarshack regales us with snippets of sentences from Dostoevsky’s works, taken entirely out of context, describing characters who experience pleasure through inflicting pain.
All this is woven together in one insidious paragraph as if it proved that Dostoevsky really enjoyed suffering, though there is not a shred of real evidence to this effect in the whole mishmash of gratuitous speculation and irrelevant quotation. The passage from A Writer’s Diary is entirely non-committal in tone; the criticism of Turgenev is based on Dostoevsky’s anguished empathy with the condemned man; the phrases from his works prove no more than similar quotations could prove equally well about Sophocles, Shakespeare or Racine. Dostoevsky may well have been a sadist for all one knows, but this kind of underhanded distortion of texts will certainly not convince anybody able to exercise independent judgment.
To be sure, there is the notorious fact, which Mr. Magarshack does not fail to mention, that Dostoevsky glorified “suffering” in an extremely suspicious manner. Is this not prima facie evidence of sadism? But Mr. Magarshack also commendably reveals the less notorious fact that Dostoevsky wrote some of the most powerful pages ever penned against corporal punishment precisely because it turns men into sadists. “He who has once experienced this power,” he says in The House of the Dead, “this immense power over the body and soul of a fellow-man like himself…involuntarily becomes completely incapable of controlling his own sensations …. I am firmly of the opinion that the best man in the world can grow coarse and insensitive from habit to a point where he becomes indistinguishable from a wild beast.” A passage like this, however, does not for one moment throw Mr. Magarshack off his stride. “Such a view of the mental and physical effects of corporal punishment,” he writes majestically, “is certainly incompatible with the idea of suffering as a general panacea for the regeneration of man.” Poor Dostoevsky, who never learned to think straight!
It never occurs to the logical Mr. Magarshack that flogging is one thing, and that the kind of “suffering” Dostoevsky talks about is quite another. Dostoevsky’s “suffering” is an inner emotion caused by recognition of one’s failure to fulfill the precepts of Christian morality; it is the suffering inevitably involved in all feelings of repentance or expiation. To equate this suffering with the beatings and floggings against which Dostoevsky protested so vehemently reveals an almost unbelievable obtuseness. Whatever one may think about the Christian ideal, it had nothing to do, for Dostoevsky, either with inflicting or enduring corporal punishment. Anyone who thinks it has is simply lacking in moral discernment; and such a person should not write either about Dostoevsky or his works.
The opinions offered elsewhere in Mr. Magarshack’s book on other facets of Dostoevsky’s life are, as might be expected, on the same level of breathtaking incomprehension. As another instance, we may take the phenomenon that Dostoevsky called “mystic terror.” This certainly played a great part in his opposition to rationalism, and his feeling for the irrational roots of religious faith. It seems to have been particularly acute during the forties, exactly when he was arguing about atheism with Belinsky; and he describes it in a well-known autobiographical passage in The Insulted and the Injured. This feeling, he says, gave him
the most excruciating painful fear of something impossible to define, something incomprehensible and non-existent in the natural order of things that will most assuredly come to pass, perhaps this very minute, as though against all the rational arguments to the contrary, and confront me as an irrefutable fact—horrible, hideous and implacable.
What does Mr. Magarshack make of all this? Well, he attributes it to the decline in Dostoevsky’s literary reputation at this period.
What must have precipitated his nervous complaint was the constant waiting for something to happen that would restore his reputation. It is this waiting, coupled with the fear of another failure, that, twenty years later, he described…as “mystic terror.”
So much for that!
This reduction to banality is accompanied in Mr. Magarshack’s treatment by what can only be called a reduction to sordidness Modern biography has won for itself the right to reveal all the facts of a subject’s private life no matter how unsavory, and one can certainly have no quarrel with this freedom in the interests of truth. But there is still a difference between such a search for truth of fact and wholly unsubstantiated speculation apparently motivated solely by a desire to debase and defame. Such a desire seems to lurk in the background of Mr. Magarshack’s determined refusal to admit that Dostoevsky ever acted except out of dishonorable and self-seeking motives.
If he tried to find a better job for his first wife’s discarded lover, it must be because he wished to buy him off. If he pays court to the beautiful, young and intelligent Anna Krukovskaya, it must be solely because his magazine is in debt and he wishes to marry a fortune. If he tries to get funds from a rich and pious old relation to carry on his magazine (hardly a disreputable enterprise), and tells his brother Mikhail how to go about prying funds from the recalcitrant donor, Mr. Magarshack hastens to label this “blackmail.” He simply omits the sentimental interlude of Dostoevsky with the shopworn Martha Brown who wrote him such grateful and touching letters—probably because even his ingenuity could find no way to work this episode round to Dostoevsky’s discredit. None of Dostoevsky’s other biographers, no matter how hostile, has ever depicted him in any manner remotely similar to this one, which goes against everything we know of his character. He was difficult, impetuous, impractical, irascible, quarrelsome, and capable of malice and flashes of hatred; but he was never coldly calculating and schemingly unscrupulous. As episode after episode unrolls in this fashion, unsupported by any sources, one begins to wonder about Mr. Magarshack rather than about Dostoevsky.
In all fairness, however, we should give Mr. Magarshack credit for rejecting the most slanderous accusation made against Dostoevsky’s personal character. This accusation was levelled by his first biographer and supposed friend, the excellent philosophical essayist and critic Nikolai Strakhov. In a letter to Tolstoy, and on the basis only of a word-of-mouth rumor, Strakhov asserted that Dostoevsky had once boasted of having violated a little girl. Mr Magarshack appears to like Strakhov even less, if possible, than he does Dostoevsky, and he rightly rejects this slander as totally unreliable. “What makes Strakhov’s story completely incredible,” he writes, referring to Dostoevsky’s use of this theme in his works, “is the fact that the one thing Dostoevsky was consistent about all through his life was his condemnation of cruelty to children.” This is perfectly true, but Mr. Magarshack does not realize that the same argument knocks the props out from under all his own inferences and hypotheses. No character who behaves in the manner he continually attributes to Dostoevsky is ever depicted in his work as anything but warped, deformed and morally unsound.
Mr. Magarshack’s interpretation of Dostoevsky’s life is bad enough, but at least he manages to get most of the facts right in his account. The moment he touches on Dostoevsky’s works or ideas, though, he loses his footing entirely. Despite his earlier books on Chekhov, Turgenev and Gogol, Mr. Magarshack turns out to have only the vaguest notions of Russian cultural history in the 19th century. It is entirely justifiable to indict Dostoevsky’s Messianic nationalism and deification of the Russian peasant; but it is inexcusable not to be aware that he shared these views with the vast majority of his radical opponents. “The Slavophils, too, were all for reviving the ancient Russian peasant ‘commune’,” Mr. Magarshack comments, “but they never went so far as to claim it as the only way of bringing about the universal brotherhood of man. No wonder Herzen thought Dostoevsky naive.”
It would be amusing to see Mr. Magarshack playing off Dostoevsky against Alexander Herzen in this way if one could prevent the innocent reader from taking this misinformation as gospel truth. Herzen probably thought Dostoevsky was naive because of his faith in the liberal intentions of the Tsar; but whatever the reason, it could certainly not have been because of his extravagant opinions about the commune. It was Herzen himself who propagated the idea that Russia would “save” Europe by making the transition to socialism through the commune, and thus inaugurate the next and higher phase of human history. Most of Dostoevsky’s ideas about the commune, indeed, were taken directly from Herzen’s writings, which he never ceased to admire and to read, despite his differences with their author over religion and practical politics.
So far as Dostoevsky’s novels are concerned, Mr. Magarshack blithely identifies people Dostoevsky knew with characters in his books on the basis of the most astonishingly far-fetched resemblances (his second wife Anna was naively religious and believed in clairvoyance, and therefore sat for the portrait of the crippled Marya Lebyatkina in The Devils). In one place, carried away by the excitement of the chase, Mr. Magarshack decides that Aglaya in The Idiot married a French revolutionary because her supposed original became the wife of one of the leaders of the Paris Commune. Alas! if Mr. Magarshack will consult his own translation of The Idiot, he will see that Aglaya marries a Polish emigre pseudo-count. Mr. Magarshack also tells us that a reading of Balzac reinforced Dostoevsky’s belief in “original sin” exactly at the moment when he was at the height of his radical phase in the forties. And we learn in a footnote that Notes from Underground, which was written in answer to the revolutionary utopia of Chernyshevsky, should really be called Notes from A Dark Cellar because the work has nothing to do with politics (?). But why go on?
A reader who has some acquaint, ance with Dostoevsky can only ask one question after painfully plowing through Mr. Magarshack’s opus. Why? Why should time, paper and money in both England and the United States be expended on such worthless hackwork, which, to make matters worse, will no doubt now be read everywhere as the very latest word on the subject. We have no translation in English of Dostoevsky’s letters, nor even a decently up-to-date selection from them. We lack translations of all the extant notebooks of his major novels, which are now appended to the French translations in the Pléiade edition; and the one or two notebooks that were translated thirty years ago have long since been out of print. There are indispensable studies by Russian critics which could and should be translated, for example, the book of the late emigre critic Konstantin Mochulsky, which is recognized everywhere in the West as the best recent (1947) attempt at a synthesis. Why do we get Magarshack instead of what an English reader needs for any adequate comprehension of Dostoevsky? And why is it likely that we shall continue to get Magarshack?
June 1, 1963