The Dostoevskys

Dostoevsky: Reminiscences

by Anna Dostoevsky, translated and edited by Beatrice Stillman, with an introduction by Helen Muchnic
Liveright, 448 pp., $12.50 (to be published November 17)

Fyodor Dostoevsky
Fyodor Dostoevsky; drawing by David Levine

The story of Dostoevsky’s extraordinary second marriage during which he wrote his greatest novels is a novel in itself. He was forty-five and a widower; his first marriage and his love affairs had been disastrous; he was bankrupt; he had assumed the heavy debts of his dead brother and responsibility for the family, also for the predatory and offensive son of his own first wife by a previous husband. Dostoevsky was ill and drowning in a sea of promissory notes, and had had to stop writing Crime and Punishment because he had been trapped by a publishing rascal into another novel. A penalty clause had been put into the contract which would bind his earnings to the man for nine years if he failed to deliver the book within four weeks. He was exhausted and ill, and he had no clear story in his head beyond his experiences as a ruined gambler tormented by a neurotic young mistress.

In his plight he was persuaded to call in a girl stenographer—a new career for women in the 1860s—and a plain, awed girl of twenty arrived. He stared at her with embarrassment and in silence for two days and then suddenly found he could dictate. The novel was The Gambler, it was finished within two days of the deadline, and, as the girl had sharply foreseen, the publisher had disappeared into the country in order to dodge delivery and close the trap. Dostoevsky was forced to go round from one police station to another in St. Petersburg before he found an officer willing to give him a receipt for the manuscript. In the meantime the novelist had fallen in love with the stenographer—to whom he had nothing but his calamities to offer—and was astounded to find she had fallen in love with him.

Such young daydreamers as this Anna seemed to be do not usually last the course, but Anna did. The fact is that her obscure family and especially her father and herself were old admirers of Dostoevsky’s work: he was a hero before she met him. She was no intellectual; her one pride was that she was the prize pupil of the stenography school. It is interesting that her mother came of stolid Swedish Lutheran stock and her father, who was a reading man, from the Ukraine: a uniting of efficiency and imagination.

Anna inherited her mother’s independence and her matter-of-fact temperament, and under the influence of the feminism of the Sixties (and in the manner of the Nihilists whom she defended, though she disapproved of their rude manners and their affectation of sloppy clothes) she believed a girl should earn her living. If she was literal-minded and frankly said she did not understand Dostoevsky’s ideas, even when he tried to put them simply to her, she revered his work and gave him total devotion and family happiness for the fourteen…

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