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The essential entries from Dostoevsky's complete Diary, called his boldest experiment in literary form, are now available in this abridged edition; it is a uniquely encyclopedic forum of fictional and nonfictional genres. A Writer's Diary began as a column in a literary journal, but by 1876 Dostoevsky was able to bring it out as a complete monthly publication with himself as an editor, publisher, and sole contributor, suspending work on The Brothers Karamazov to do so.
The Diary's radical format was matched by the extreme range of its contents. In a single frame it incorporated an astonishing variety of material: short stories; humorous sketches; reports on sensational crimes; historical predictions; portraits of famous people; autobiographical pieces; and plans for stories, some of which were never written while others appeared later in the Diary itself. A range of authorial and narrative voices and stances and an elaborate scheme of allusions and cross-references preserve and present Dostoevsky's conception of his work as a literary whole.
Selected from the two-volume set, this abridged edition of A Writer's Diary appears in a single paperback volume, along with a new condensed introduction by editor Gary Saul Morson.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810125216
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 03/17/2009
Edition description: 1, abridged edition
Pages: 648
Sales rank: 627,961
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

Few authors have been as personally familiar with desperation as Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881), and none have been so adept at describing it. His harrowing experiences in Russian prisons, combined with a profound religious philosophy, formed the basis for his greatest books: Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Possessed, and The Brothers Karamazov. When Dostoevsky died in 1881, he left a legacy of masterful novels that immortalized him as a giant of Russian literature.

Read an Excerpt

A Writer's Diary

Abridged Edition

By Fyodor Dostoevsky, Gary Saul Morson, Kenneth Lantz

Northwestern University Press

Copyright © 2009 Northwestern University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8101-2521-6


Article 1. Introduction

On the twentieth of December I learned that everything had been settled and that I was the editor of The Citizen. This extraordinary event — extraordinary for me at least (I don't wish to offend anyone) — came about in a rather simple fashion, however. On the twentieth of December I had just read in the Moscow News the account of the wedding of the Chinese emperor; it left a strong impression on me. This magnificent and, apparently, extremely complex event also came about in a remarkably simple fashion: every last detail of the affair had been provided for and decreed a thousand years ago in nearly two hundred volumes of ceremonial. Comparing the enormity of the events in China with my own appointment as editor, I felt a sudden sense of ingratitude to our Russian practices, despite the ease with which my appointment had been confirmed. And I thought that we, that is, Prince Meshchersky and I, would have found it incomparably more advantageous to publish The Citizen in China. Everything is so clear over there. ... On the appointed day we both would have presented ourselves at China's Main Administration for Press Affairs. After kowtowing and licking the floor, we would rise, raise our index fingers, and respectfully bow our heads. The Plenipotentiary-in-Chief for Press Affairs would, of course, pretend to take no more notice of us than he would of an errant fly. But the Third Assistant to the Third Secretary would rise, holding the warrant of my appointment as editor, and would pronounce in an impressive but gentle voice the admonition prescribed by the ceremonial. It would be so clear and so comprehensible that we both would be immensely pleased to hear it. Were I in China and were I stupid and honest enough, when taking on the editorship and acknowledging my own limited abilities, to experience fear and pangs of conscience, someone would at once prove to me that I was doubly stupid to entertain such feelings and that from that very moment I would have no need of intelligence at all, assuming I had had any in the first place; on the contrary, it would be far better if I had none at all. And without a doubt, this would be a most pleasant thing to hear. Concluding with the fine words: "Go thou, Editor; henceforth thou mayest eat rice and drink tea with thy conscience newly set at rest," the Third Assistant to the Third Secretary would hand me a beautiful warrant printed in gold letters on red silk. Prince Meshchersky would pass over a substantial bribe, and the two of us would go home and immediately put out such a magnificent edition of The Citizen as we could never publish here. In China we would put out an excellent publication.

I suspect, however, that in China Prince Meshchersky would certainly have tricked me by inviting me to be editor; he would have done it mainly so that I could stand in for him at the Main Administration of Press Affairs whenever he was summoned to have his heels beaten with bamboo sticks. But I would outsmart him: I would at once stop publication of Bismarck and would myself commence writing articles so excellent that I would be summoned to the bamboo sticks only after every other issue. I would learn to write, however.

I would be an excellent writer in China; here, that sort of thing is much more difficult. There, everything has been anticipated and planned for a thousand years ahead, while here everything is topsy-turvy for a thousand years. There I would have no choice but to write clearly, so that I'm not sure who would read me. Here, if you want people to read you it's better to write so that no one understands. Only in the Moscow News do they write column-and-a-half editorials and — to my astonishment — they are written clearly, even if they are the products of a well-known pen. In The Voice such editorials go on for eight, ten, twelve, and even thirteen columns. And so you see how many columns you must use up in order to win respect.

In Russia, talking to other people is a science; at first glance, at least, it seems just the same as in China. Here, as there, there are a few very simplified and purely scientific techniques. Formerly, for instance, the words "I don't understand a thing" meant only that the person who uttered them was ignorant; now they bring great honor. One need only say, proudly and with a frank air, "I don't understand religion; I don't understand anything about Russia; I don't understand anything about art," and immediately you place yourself above the crowd. And it's especially good if you really don't understand anything.

But this simplified technique proves nothing. In essence, each one of us in Russia, without thinking much about it, suspects that everyone else is ignorant and never asks, conversely, "What if I'm the one who's ignorant, in fact?" It's a situation that ought to please us all, and yet no one is pleased and everyone gets angry. Indeed, sober thought in our time is all but impossible: it costs too much. It is true that people buy ready-made ideas. They are sold everywhere, and even given away; but the ones that come free of charge prove to be even more expensive, and people are already beginning to realize that. The result is benefit to none and the same old disorder.

We are, if you like, the same as China, but without her sense of order. We are barely beginning the process that is already coming to an end in China. No doubt we will reach that same end, but when? In order to get a thousand volumes of ceremonial so as at last to win the right not to think deeply about anything, we must experience at least another thousand years of sober thought. And there you have it — no one wants to hasten this term because no one wants to think.

Something else that is true: if no one wants to think, then, it would seem, so much the easier for the Russian writer. Indeed, it really is easier; and woe to the writer and publisher who in our time begins to think soberly. It's even worse for one who decides to study and to understand things on his own, and still worse for one who makes a sincere declaration of his intention. And if he declares that he has already managed to understand a tiny smidgen and wants to express his ideas, then everyone quickly drops him. The only thing he can do is to seek out some suitable individual, or even hire one, and simply talk to him and to him alone. Perhaps he could publish a magazine for that one individual. It's a loathsome situation, because it amounts to talking to yourself and publishing a magazine only for your own amusement. I strongly suspect that for a long time yet The Citizen will have to talk to itself and appear only for its own amusement. Remember that medical science considers talking to oneself a sign of predisposition to insanity. The Citizen certainly must speak to citizens, and that is precisely its whole dilemma!

And so this is the sort of publication with which I have become involved. My situation is as uncertain as it can be. But I shall talk to myself and for my own amusement, in the form of this diary, whatever may come of it. What shall I talk about? About everything that strikes me and sets me to thinking. If I should find a reader and, God forbid, an opponent, I realize that one must be able to carry on a conversation and know whom to address and how to address him. I shall try to master this skill because among us, that is to say, in literature, it is the most difficult one of all. Besides, there are different kinds of opponents: one cannot strike up a conversation with every one. I'll tell you a story I heard the other day. They say it is an ancient fable, perhaps even of Indian origin, and that's a very comforting thought.

Once upon a time the pig got into a quarrel with the lion and challenged him to a duel. When the pig came home he thought the matter over and lost his nerve. The whole herd assembled to consider the matter and announced their decision as follows: "Now then, brother pig, there is a wallow not far from here; go and have a good roll in it and then proceed to the duel. You'll see what happens."

The pig did just that. The lion arrived, took a sniff, wrinkled up his nose, and walked away. And for a long time thereafter the pig boasted that the lion had turned tail and fled the field of battle.

That's the fable. Of course we don't have any lions here — we don't have the climate for them and they're too grand a thing for us in any case. But in place of the lion put an honest person, such as each of us is obliged to be, and the moral comes out the same.

Apropos of that, I'll tell you another little story.

Once when speaking with the late Herzen I paid him many compliments on his book From the Other Shore. To my great pleasure, Mikhail Petrovich Pogodin heaped praise on this same book in his excellent and most curious article about his meeting abroad with Herzen. The book is written in the form of a dialogue between Herzen and his opponent.

"What I especially like," I remarked in passing, "is that your opponent is also very clever. You must agree that in many instances he backs you right to the wall."

"Why that's the essence of the whole piece," laughed Herzen. "I'll tell you a story. Once when I was in St. Petersburg, Belinsky dragged me off to his place and sat me down to listen to him read an article, 'A Conversation Between Mr. A and Mr. B,' that he had written in some heat. (You can find it in his Collected Works.) In this article, Mr. A., who is Belinsky himself, of course, is made out to be very clever, while his opponent, Mr. B., is rather shallow. When Belinsky had finished reading, he asked me with feverish anticipation:

"'Well, what do you think?'

"'Oh, it's fine, very fine, and it's obvious that you are very clever. But whatever made you waste your time talking to a fool like that?'

"Belinsky threw himself on the sofa, buried his face in a pillow, and shouted, laughing for all he was worth:

"'Oh, you've got me there, you really have!'"


Article 3. Environment

I think that all jurors the whole world over, and our jurors in particular, must share a feeling of power (they have other feelings as well, of course); more precisely, they have a feeling of autocratic power. This can be an ugly feeling, at least when it dominates their other feelings. Even though it may not be obvious, even though it may be suppressed by a mass of other, nobler emotions, this sense of autocratic power must be a strong presence in the heart of every juror, even when he is most acutely aware of his civic duty. I suppose that this is somehow a product of the laws of nature themselves. And so, I recall how terribly curious I was, in one respect at least, when our new (just) courts were instituted. In my flights of fancy I saw trials where almost all the jurors might be peasants who only yesterday were serfs. The prosecutor and the defense lawyers would address them, trying to curry favor and divine their mood, while our good peasants would sit and keep their mouths shut: "So that's how things are these days. If I feel like lettin' the fella off, I'll do it; and if not, it's Siberia for him."

And yet the surprising thing now is that they do not convict the accused but acquit them consistently. Of course, this is also an exercise, almost even an abuse of power, but in one direction, toward an extreme, a sentimental one, perhaps — one can't tell. But it is a general, almost preconceived tendency, just as if everyone had conspired. There can be no doubt how widespread this "tendency" is. And the problem is that the mania for acquittal regardless of the circumstances has developed not only among peasants, yesterday's insulted and humiliated, but has seized all Russian jurors, even those from the uppermost classes such as noblemen and university professors. The universality of this tendency in itself presents a most curious topic for reflection and leads one to diverse and sometimes even strange surmises.

Not long ago one of our most influential newspapers briefly set forth, in a very modest and well-intentioned little article, the following hypothesis: perhaps our jurors, as people who suddenly, without rhyme or reason, sense the magnitude of the power that has been conferred upon them (simply out of the blue, as it were), and who for centuries have been oppressed and downtrodden — perhaps they are inclined to take any opportunity to spite authorities such as the prosecutor, just for the fun of it or, so to say, for the sake of contrast with the past. Not a bad hypothesis and also not without a certain playful spirit of its own; but, of course, it can't explain everything.

"We just feel sorry to wreck the life of another person; after all, he's a human being too. Russians are compassionate people" — such is the conclusion reached by others, as I've sometimes heard it expressed.

However, I have always thought that in England, for instance, the people are also compassionate; and even if they do not have the same softheartedness as we Russians, then at least they have a sense of humanity; they have an awareness and a keen sense of Christian duty to their neighbor, a sense which, perhaps, taken to a high degree, to a firm and independent conviction, may be even stronger than ours, when you take into account the level of education over there and their long tradition of independent thought. Over there, such power didn't just tumble down on them out of the blue, after all. Indeed, they themselves invented the very system of trial by jury; they borrowed it from no one, but affirmed it through centuries; they took it from life and didn't merely receive it as a gift.

Yet over there the juror understands from the very moment he takes his place in the courtroom that he is not only a sensitive individual with a tender heart but is first of all a citizen. He even thinks (correctly or not) that fulfilling his civic duty stands even higher than any private victory of the heart. Not very long ago there was a clamor throughout the kingdom when a jury acquitted one notorious thief. The hubbub all over the country proved that if sentences just like ours are possible over there, then all the same they happen rarely, as exceptions, and they quickly rouse public indignation. An English juror understands above all that in his hands rests the banner of all England; that he has already ceased to be a private individual and is obliged to represent the opinion of his country. The capacity to be a citizen is just that capacity to elevate oneself to the level of the opinion of the entire country. Oh, yes, there are "compassionate" verdicts there, and the influence of the "corrupting environment" (our favorite doctrine now, it seems) is taken into consideration. But this is done only up to a certain limit, as far as is tolerated by the common sense of the country and the level of its informed and Christian morality (and that level, it seems, is quite high). Nonetheless, very often the English juror grudgingly pronounces the guilty verdict, understanding first of all that his duty consists primarily in using that verdict to bear witness to all his fellow citizens that in old England (for which any one of them is prepared to shed his blood) vice is still called vice and villainy is still called villainy, and that the moral foundations of the country endure — firm, unchanged, standing as they stood before.

"Suppose we do assume," I hear a voice saying, "that your firm foundations (Christian ones, that is) endure and that in truth one must be a citizen above all, must hold up the banner, etc., etc., as you said. I won't challenge that for the time being. But where do you think we'll find such a citizen in Russia? Just consider our situation only a few years ago! Civic rights (and what rights!) have tumbled down on our citizen as if from a mountain. They've crushed him, and they're still only a burden to him, a real burden!"

"Of course, there's truth in what you say," I answer the voice, a bit despondent, "but still, the Russian People. ..."


Excerpted from A Writer's Diary by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Gary Saul Morson, Kenneth Lantz. Copyright © 2009 Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Translator's Preface by Kenneth Lantz,
Editor's Introduction: The Process and Composition of A Writer's Diary by Gary Saul Morson,
A Note on the Abridged Text,
JANUARY [complete issue],
NOVEMBER [complete issue],

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