We now have the third volume of Joseph Frank’s exhaustive and responsive examination of Dostoevsky and his works. We see Dostoevsky returning to St. Petersburg after his infamous imprisonment with common criminals in Siberia, which had been prolonged by enforced military service there, and lasted a total of ten years. He arrives with a crowd of released political prisoners who have been freed by the reforms of Alexander II at the end of 1859. In 1861 the curse of serfdom will be done with. Dostoevsky brings with him the wife he has married in Siberia, a widow, and her son by her previous husband, and they are met by Fyodor’s brother Mikhail who sees at once that Dostoevsky is not a broken man. He looks strong and self-confident; he is no longer the timid nervous figure who was so mocked in the malicious literary society of the capital. Military service has improved his physical health and his commission has given him confidence. The haunting weakness is his inescapable epilepsy. The fits—it is now agreed—started in prison, after the notorious and sadistic mock execution after his trial. (In the earlier volume we remember Dr. Frank’s account of the euphoria or “aura” which precedes the onset of attacks.) Dostoevsky’s wife is the victim of advancing tuberculosis. The private omens clearly threaten a marriage that has all the marks of an attempt by both parties to live with the ineluctable.
In the foreground is the novelist’s eagerness to get back to literature, and to earn his living. He has outgrown the short period of fame of Poor Folk which was praised by the great radical critic Vissarion Belinsky. On the face of it the prospects are good. Serfdom is about to go and censorship is to some extent relaxed. Mikhail Dostoevsky (who had made a little money out of a cigarette factory) had started a serious literary and political journal called Vremya (“Time”) and Fyodor now became editor. His talents as a writer of feuilleton and for controversy made him a spirited journalist, and here was the opportunity for Dostoevsky to fulfill the demand which all Russian imaginative writers had to make clear: they had to make plain where they stood ideologically on the state of Russia, and to which camp of controversy they belonged—in short their political “convictions.”
As Dr. Frank says, the five-year period of Dostoevsky’s active journalism has been skimped by later critics because they were eager to get to the great novels. Dr. Frank himself was eager too; but, as he says, new material is available and there are certain important misunderstandings to correct. It is true that after his experience in Siberia Dostoevsky rejected the ideals of early nineteenth-century socialism and what he called its utilitarian and revolutionary ideas in which he had once believed, but Dr. Frank thinks it is necessary to correct the widespread notion that he emerged from prison camp “blindly prepared to support a tyrannical regime of the most vilely revolutionary stripe” and was guilty of betrayal.
The matter is complex. The immediate effect of the liberation of the serfs was suspicion among the serfs themselves: they saw it as a trick of the landowners. Freedom had caused unrest. In the towns, traditionally built of wood, there was a plague of fires. There were student riots among the radicals. Among intellectuals, the split intensified between the Westerners with their love-hate of Western civilization and the Slavophiles who clung to the traditions of the peasants and their orthodox religion. In these polemics one must not forget that Dostoevsky himself was a highly suspicious man, a distinctly theatrical artist, and not likely to conform. His quarrel with Chernyshevsky, the revolutionary, and the brilliant young Dobrolyubov is best seen in the novelist’s satirical fantasy Notes from Underground, written in this journalistic period. What he suspected was the utilitarian ideal of socialism.
We come closer to him in Dr. Frank’s account of his wide reading. Like all Russian intellectuals he had been impressed by Turgenev’s famous essay on Hamlet and Don Quixote, who were taken to be the two poles of the Russian nature. Hamlet, for the older generation, had been the self-destructive, the “superfluous man” of the Forties. For Dostoevsky, Don Quixote was almost Christlike. The odd thing is that Dostoevsky (theatrical and comic writer though he could be) objected that Cervantes had made Don Quixote a figure of comedy in his “madness.” It is amusing (if we read Dostoevsky’s notebooks) to see that he passingly thought of Mr. Pickwick as being a model for Prince Myshkin in The Idiot, before he moved on to Don Quixote.
Dostoevsky’s reading of English, French, and German literature was wide and pillaging. Like all Russian intellectuals he had read Shakespeare, of course, and Byron, and Dickens, but it astonishes us that he had also read Mrs. Gaskell’s Mary Barton for its firsthand picture of the wretched workers in Manchester, “the wickedest city of the world,” at that time; and he was particularly struck by her Unitarian faith and the plea for compassion—surely the emotion he most deeply felt. He had admired Baudelaire’s translation of Poe; but in his romantic youth he preferred E.T.A. Hoffmann for his Romantic aspiration “to the ideal in man.” He was to be bowled over in 1862 by Hugo’s Les Misérables which he bought as it came out when he was in Paris. It fed his own lifelong concern for “the insulted and injured.”
We see how such reading would be nourishing for the novelist in his Romantic period, but during his five-year period of journalism on Vremya and its successor Epoch, the artist has to be plain and direct. There are no foreign models except when he writes Notes from Underground. In The House of the Dead the manner is simple. It was inspired, as Dr. Frank points out, by Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches, Tolstoy’s Sevastopol stories, and Herzen’s My Past and Thoughts. These vivid accounts of personal experience were open and plotless, and have struck the foreign reader since as an original and Russian genre.
We come now to Dostoevsky’s first eager journey to Europe. His reactions were far from those of Turgenev, who regarded Europe as Civilization itself, to be spelled out syllable by syllable. Dostoevsky went to Europe as the editor of Vremya to write his impressions. He had no interest in museums, galleries, or splendid architecture (except for the cathedral at Cologne). He was a novelist interested only in the sight of the crowd and especially of the sight of the lowly crowd in a rich society. On his first visit, when he went alone, his xenophobia is comical. In Berlin the faces are too German. In Paris the French are locked in their love of rhetoric—especially in the Chambre des Députés—and they are horribly concerned with money. In London there is nothing but noise, pollution, the night-and-day pursuit of manufacturing wealth and luxury, where the rich and the middling guzzle and drink in luxurious cafés and the wretched swarms of poor are starving, and in Whitechapel are half-naked. He went, as all tourists did, to the Haymarket to see the swarms of prostitutes and the ardent pious ladies in strange hats trying to rescue them. The strange thing is that in this coarse society women have an “ideal beauty.”
The journey has one ominous episode. On the way from Berlin to Paris he stops at Wiesbaden. He gambles, wins 15,000 rubles, sends money back to his wife, then, of course, loses his winnings and has to write to his brother for help. This is the first news, Dr. Frank says, of the Dostoevsky fever for the tables. On subsequent journeys to Europe, as we know, Dostoevsky always gambled ruinously, repented extravagantly, and gambled again. Dr. Frank goes into the Freudian and many other theories about the cause of this destructive passion. His conclusion is that Dostoevsky was testing his overriding conviction of the power of the irrational in human existence; he was not only seeking to relieve his deep guilt feelings but also at the same time was “engaged in deciding whether his deepest feelings were justified.” Dr. Frank goes on to argue that Dostoevsky was learning the same lesson as the “underground man” and all his negative heroes beginning with Raskolnikov, who detachedly believe they can master and suppress the irrational promptings of Christian conscience. And he notes:
After each episode he always returned to his writing desk with renewed vigour and a sense of deliverance.
One must add that Dostoevsky was appallingly overworked and ill paid, a chronic borrower, plagued by debts all his life and deeply, even comically, superstitious, as most serious gamblers are, and we must not forget the intensely theatrical aspect of the obsession.
We go on to his disastrous passion for Apollinaria Suslova—the faithless “evil” woman—on his second visit to Paris. (Frank thinks this was the most important love affair of his life.) We come to the repression of Vremya as political reaction set in. The brothers were allowed to revive the journal under another name—Epoch. They slaved for it as they now continued their war with the powerful revolutionary left. Private catastrophe broke the journal. Fyodor’s tubercular wife dies and his remorse is terrible. Of his wife he says, “she loved me immeasurably, and I also loved her the same way, but we were not happy together.” Epoch collapses and the beloved brother dies, and Dostoevsky is left responsible for his brother’s family, with bankruptcy debts and the threat of imprisonment:
And thus I suddenly find myself alone and simply terrified. My entire life at one stroke broke into two. In one half, which I had lived through, was everything I had lived for: and in the other, still unknown half everything was strange and new, and there was not a single heart that could replace those two.
Again he says,
What remains from all the reserve of strength and energy in my soul is something troubled and disturbed, something close to despair. Worry, bitterness, a completely cold industriousness, the most abnormal state for me to be in, and in addition loneliness.
And then he adds strange words:
And yet it still seems to me that I am just now preparing to live. Funny, isn’t it? The vitality of a cat.
As Dr. Frank remarks, “Dostoevsky, after all, believed in the freedom of the will…this conviction sprang from the deepest resources of his personality.”
We turn for relief to those famous passages from The House of the Dead, which had appeared in Vremya—the “Dantesque” bathhouse scene in prison so admired by Turgenev and Tolstoy, in which the laughing convicts thrash themselves with birches rising and falling rhythmically on their steaming backs and then douche themselves with cold water.
As a rule the steaming backs of the convicts show distinctly the scars of the blows or lashes they have received in the past, so that all those backs looked now as though freshly wounded….
They were all laughing and shouting. Hell, he said, would be very much like this place.
Or we turn to the exquisite scene in which the convicts feed and tame the eagle that has dropped into the prison yard with a broken wing. After weeks the eagle manages to fly away. And we hear the dire childlike shouts of the convicts as they watch it go—“He doesn’t look back,” they say.
This volume ends with an elaborate examination of the puzzle of the Notes from Underground. The “underground man” is certainly a modern myth “which has become part of the vocabulary” as Hamlet, Don Quixote, Faust, and Don Juan have been in their time. We shall understand it, Dr. Frank says, when we think of the dire irony of the dissenting Defoe’s manner in The Shortest Way with Dissenters; or if we turn to Candide and, of course, Swift. We are at the point when total disaster releases Dostoevsky. He has cleared the ground and is ready for his first great novel. He will escape to Europe from his creditors and to write Crime and Punishment.
September 25, 1986