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…

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