Dotoevsky in 90 Minutesby Paul Strathern
Building on his enormously successful series of Philosophers in 90 Minutes, Paul Strathern now applies his witty and incisive prose to brief biographical studies of the world's great writers. He brings their lives and ideas to life in entertaining and accessible fashion. Far from being a novelty, each book is a highly refined appraisal of the writer and his work,… See more details below
Building on his enormously successful series of Philosophers in 90 Minutes, Paul Strathern now applies his witty and incisive prose to brief biographical studies of the world's great writers. He brings their lives and ideas to life in entertaining and accessible fashion. Far from being a novelty, each book is a highly refined appraisal of the writer and his work, authoritative and clearly presented.
Brian J. Buchanan
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Dostoevsky IN 90 MINUTES
By Paul Strathern IVAN R. DEE
Copyright © 2004
All right reserved.
Chapter One Dostoevsky's Life and Works
Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky was born in Moscow in 1821 on Sunday, October 30-or November 11 according to the modern calendar. Indicatively, Russia was at the time twelve days behind Western Europe. In many other aspects, such as peasant life in the rural areas, Russia was centuries behind much of Western Europe. Life in the two main cities-St. Petersburg, the "European" capital, and Moscow, the city of "Holy Russia"-was also unsynchronized with that of Western Europe and the Atlantic seaboard of North America. Russia was still ruled by an autocratic tsar (like the German kaiser, this derives from the Latin caesar). He ruled by a divine right supported by the Orthodox church, which was directly descended from the eastern church of Constantinople, not Rome, and unlike Western Christendom had seen no Reformation. Likewise, Russian civilization had undergone no Renaissance. Only in the previous century had the Russian people begun to absorb certain modern European ways, largely forced on them by Peter the Great. Imported mathematicians and scientists had soon begun to thrive at court; yet the people resisted the introduction of the potato.
For all this, Russia was one of the largest and most powerful empires in the world-quite the match of the contemporary French and British empires as well as its neighbors, theAustro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. Russian society had a heavy military emphasis-even civil servants wore uniforms denoting rank. But most of all, Russia had people and territory. The far-flung population ran into tens of millions: its exact figure was a state secret, but in a typically Russian anomaly no one really knew what it was because there was no reliable comprehensive census, only systematic guesswork. Meanwhile its territory, which occupied Finland, Poland, and the Baltic states to the west, was spreading east of the Caspian Sea into Kazakhstan toward Persia and India, and had already stretched across the Bering Straits into America, where it occupied the whole of Alaska. From east to west, the Russian Empire stretched halfway round the globe.
Dostoevsky's father Mikhail (from whom Fyodor inherited his middle name, Mikhailovich: "son of Mikhail," in the Russian tradition) was descended from a family of lapsed nobility which could trace its origins back several centuries. Mikhail Andreevich Dostoevsky had been a military surgeon but had recently retired from the army and become a doctor at the Mariinski Hospital for the Poor in Moscow. He was a man given to violent rages and deep introspective depressions. Dostoevsky's mother Maria Nechaeva was the daughter of a rich merchant who had come down in the world somewhat. According to one of Maria's many whimsical tales, her father had lost most of his fortune when he had fled Moscow before the advancing French army of Napoleon. While crossing a frozen river in his carriage, the ice had broken and his belongings had been plunged into the water, with the result that all his wads of banknotes had become so wet that they could not be separated. Maria was a cultured, gentle woman of weak health, who was both religious and extremely superstitious. These contrasting qualities of Dostoevsky's mother and father would fuse in his character to make a highly unpredictable, compulsive personality, given equally to self-destructive and confessional urges.
Young Fyodor grew up with his older brother and younger sisters within the grounds of the Mariinski Hospital, in an annex to the main building. The hospital had originally been built as the grandiose residence of a successful Italian architect, who had incorporated such features as a pediment with Doric columns. By contrast, the surrounding district was known as "The Poorhouse": one of the worst slums in Moscow, a haunt of criminals and impoverished workers, notorious for its alcoholism, murders, and disease. The inhabitants of its narrow lanes and ramshackle dwellings provided the patients for the hospital.
Dostoevsky's father discouraged visitors to their residence, and his children grew up in isolation, educated at home-tyrannized by their increasingly alcoholic father and vainly protected by their ineffectual mother, with whom young Fyodor would form a strong bond. Fyodor and his brother occasionally ventured into the hospital grounds where the wan and shaking patients wandered in their hospital gowns made of shapeless grey cloth. Around this time Fyodor caught an illness during which he lost his voice; when his voice returned it was described as having a peculiar low "artificial" tone, causing those who listened to him to feel strangely uncomfortable-a socially upsetting trait that he would retain throughout his life. There was little refreshing normality in the Dostoevsky household, and as one of Fyodor's later characters would exclaim: "We are all unaccustomed to life."
In 1827 Dostoevsky's father was promoted to a civil service rank that entitled him to the privileges of the gentry. As a result, four years later he was able to buy an estate at Darovoe, deep in the countryside of the Tula region, 150 versts (100 miles) south of Moscow. The grounds of the estate were roughly eight miles long by three miles wide, and contained two villages comprising "one hundred souls." These were the serfs, who were literally owned by the estate. (Britain would abolish slavery two years later; Russia would not abolish its serfdom until 1861-four years before the United States passed the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery after the Civil War). The Darovoe estate was badly run-down. It had no rivers or woods and consisted largely of scrubland and poor soil, riven by the occasional gulley. The serfs were ground down by poverty and lived in huts with thatched roofs (which in lean years were pulled off to feed the livestock.) The main residence was simply a mud-brick manor house with a thatched roof. Even during the long summer holidays that the Dostoevskys spent here, family life was as gloomy and isolated as ever.
At the age of thirteen Fyodor joined his older brother at a private school in Moscow, and at sixteen he was sent to the Academy of Military Engineering in St. Petersburg. By now his mother had become so weak and ill that she was confined to bed in a darkened room, where she died in 1837.
Fyodor's mother had always encouraged him to read, and now he lost himself in books, even beginning a novel of his own set in Vienna. By this time his father had retired from the Mariinski Hospital and lived permanently on the estate at Darovoe. Here he sank into alcoholism and degeneracy. During his fits of rage he would flog the serfs mercilessly, and took to debauching their young daughters. The serfs were eventually driven beyond endurance. One summer morning when he set out from Darovoe in his carriage, a group of serfs waylaid him on a deserted country track, crushed his testicles with their bare hands, and forced his vodka down his throat until he choked to death. When news of this reached Fyodor in St. Petersburg, he suffered such an overload of contradictory feelings that he fell to the floor in convulsions, and then fainted. This is generally accepted as the first manifestation of the epilepsy that would plague Dostoevsky throughout the rest of his life.
During his last years at the military academy, Dostoevsky continued to read avidly, devouring the great European classics such as Homer, Shakespeare, and Schiller. He also developed a taste for gothic horror stories, and this interest in sensational material would have a formative effect. But most of all he was spellbound by the contemporary Russian writer Gogol, who had only recently sprung to fame with his tragicomic stories. These were among the first realistic depictions of Russian life, holding up a mirror to the society of the time. Their mixture of realism and satire sprang from a romantic temperament driven to distraction by the crassness and evil of the corrupt world in which he found himself. Dostoevsky deeply empathized with this writer who could neither accept the world nor successfully isolate himself from its pains. 1842 saw the publication of Gogol's masterpiece Dead Souls, which faithfully depicts the serfdom and bureaucratic corruption of a land, large regions of which remained feudal. Readers soon appreciated the true picture that lay behind the satire; Dostoevsky took the book to heart.
In 1843 Dostoevsky graduated from the military academy, and after completing his compulsory year of military service he resigned his commission to become a writer. This was a brave decision, renouncing financial security for the vagaries of bohemian life in St. Petersburg, where during a cold winter penniless intellectuals were liable to freeze to death in their attic rooms. But Dostoevsky's period of obscurity did not last long. In 1846 he published his first novel, Poor Folk, which was quickly recognized by the critics and became something of an overnight success.
Poor Folk is a curious work, with many anomalies. For a start, it takes the form of an exchange of letters, an early novelistic form which had long gone out of fashion. Likewise, its central theme was hardly original. A poor but worthy forty-seven-year-old copying clerk, Makar Devushkin, whose home is the dirty corner of a kitchen, exchanges letters with the seventeen-year-old Varvara Dobroselova, who in many ways is more worldly-wise. Much of this novel clearly resembles Gogol's story "The Overcoat," which is also about a copying clerk. But Dostoevsky's work is shot through with an entirely original psychological understanding. Unlike Gogol's comic hero, Devushkin is deeply self-aware and experiences painful humiliations. Beset by poverty, Varvara is procured for an unfeeling rich man. Later she resists his further advances until eventually he proposes to her. She accepts, and Devushkin is crushed. Apart from the many insights of character that Dostoevsky manages to imply through the epistolary form, the novel also contains an atmospheric evocation of St. Petersburg, much of which was then less than fifty years old.
The merit of Poor Folk was recognized by the leading literary critic Vissarion Belinsky. He welcomed Dostoevsky into his circle, which included such glittering literary figures as Nekrasov and Turgenev. But Dostoevsky found himself ill at ease among such luminaries. He was both touchy and shy: his voice and manner made those who met him ill at ease, and it was evident to many that he despised them. Belinsky had seen in Poor Folk a deep concern for the plight of the poor, which was in accord with his own reformist views. Yet while Dostoevsky certainly sympathized with the poor, his deeper concern was with the spiritual and psychological aspects of his characters. This became evident in his next important work, a novella called The Double. Here we enter into the nightmare world of a middle-ranking civil servant called Golyadkin, whose mind appears to be disintegrating. During the course of the novella he encounters his "double," who appears at one stage to be no more than his reflection in a glass, at another to be a distinct human being who shares his name and appearance, at other moments a "split" aspect of Golyadkin's character who berates him for his morbid sensitivity. Here we experience many of the classic signs of schizophrenia, though at the time such pathological symptoms were neither recognized nor understood. As such, this is a pioneer work. We accompany Golyadkin on his way as he upsets, and is upset by, the various people he encounters, including his disconcerted doctor, the guests at an excruciating dinner party, and his disapproving servant Petrushka ("Respectable people don't have doubles").
Dostoevsky considered The Double to be "ten times superior" to Poor Folk, and he was deeply upset when it was rejected by the critics. In fact this was not surprising. The Double is an awkward work, in many ways as tiresome as its "hero," who ends up being led away to the insane asylum. "Our hero shrieked and clutched at his head. Alas! This was what he had known for a long time would happen!" It is difficult to retain sympathy for the often bewildering and pretentious Golyadkin. Only the deep psychological insight into mental disturbance shown by the author is exceptional, indicative of his great works to come. Dostoevsky was feeling his way blindly toward what he wanted to say, but he did not yet fully know what he wanted to describe or how to describe it. He was merely trying to follow his own instincts-an ambitious attempt which in this case resulted in failure, shot through with elements of clumsy brilliance and originality. No one had ever described a mind like this before.
Belinsky was disappointed, and already Turgenev had collaborated in a poem which satirized Dostoevsky as "The Knight of the Doleful Countenance"-a reference to his appearance as well as his resemblance to a ludicrous Quixote figure. (Dostoevsky never forgave or forgot this, and twenty-five years later he would include a coruscating caricature of Turgenev in his novel The Possessed.) Dostoevsky took his company elsewhere and began frequenting the more radical Petrashevsky Circle, a group of intellectuals who were attracted to the idea of a socialist utopia. They believed that only with the establishment of such a society could the full potential of human nature be realized. The activities of the group consisted largely of discussions, and their aims were political, though once again Dostoevsky's participation in the group was misunderstood. His interests lay more in the potentialities of the human spirit than in the society where this might be achieved. Despite this, Dostoevsky became involved in a more revolutionary faction within the group. This had its own printing press and believed in circulating propaganda leaflets.
For almost a quarter-century Russia had been languishing under the rule of the tyrannical Tsar Nicholas I, who would countenance no change whatsoever throughout the land. In pursuance of this policy, his secret political police were ordered to bring in "reports about all occurrences without exception." The Petrashevsky Circle was penetrated by a police informer who reported on their activities. His report on Dostoevsky described him as "giving the impression of being a real conspirator: he was taciturn, liked to talk confidentially to people, he was secretive rather than outspoken."
At 4 a.m. on April 29, 1849, the police raided Dostoevsky's rented apartment and arrested him. Other members of the Petrashevsky Circle were also rounded up. They were all confined in the forbidding Peter and Paul Fortress, overlooking the River Neva in the center of the city. Symbolically, this had been the first major building erected in St. Petersburg, and the laying of its foundation stone by Peter the Great in 1703 is taken as the founding date of the city. Many leading figures in Russian history would be imprisoned here-from the Decembrists (the military officers who had rebelled en masse in 1825), to the anarchist Bakunin, through to Lenin himself (after whom the city would later be named for more than seventy years). Dostoevsky was held in a solitary cell, emerging only for interrogation. This was conducted by a military tribunal headed by the fortress's aged governor, General Nabokov, who had fought Napoleon at the Battle of Borodino. His great-grandnephew, who would become a writer in the following century, would claim that when the general learned that Dostoevsky was a writer, he loaned him books from his private collection to read in his cell. This fond fantasy is not borne out by the transcript of Dostoevsky's interrogation:
Dostoevsky: I am not guilty. Nabokov: You are caught out by your own lies.... Read this. [He hands Dostoevsky a note circulated amongst the Petrashevsky Circle, which states: "The time has come for insurrection ... having armed myself, I undertake to participate fully."] Dostoevsky: I never signed this. Nabokov: You must tell this secret tribunal every single thing you know.... If you lie or are obstinate, do you know what will happen? Dostoevsky: No, I do not. Nabokov: ... the penalty for conspiracy against the government is shameful death by hanging, or being quartered [body hacked into four pieces, or pulled apart by four horses].
<%TOC%> Contents Introduction....................7
Excerpted from Dostoevsky IN 90 MINUTES by Paul Strathern Copyright © 2004 by Paul Strathern. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Dostoevsky's Life and Works....................11
From Dostoevsky's Writings....................103
Dostoevsky's Chief Works in English Translation....................114
Chronology of Dostoevsky's Life and Times....................116
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