Inflamed

Joseph Frank

  • A Writer’s Diary. Vol. I: 1873-1876 by Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated and annotated by Kenneth Lantz
    Northwestern, 805 pp, $49.95, July 1993, ISBN 0 8101 1094 6

Dostoevsky’s A Writer’s Diary is a huge grab-bag of a book, probably the least known of all his important works outside Russia – though in this regard his marvellous, semi-autobiographical prison-camp memoir, House of the Dead, runs it a close second. Read in the West only by professional Slavists and students of Dostoevsky, A Writer’s Diary allows us to see him at both his best and his worst. It contains some of his most moving autobiographical pages, and records his contacts with, and reactions to, other Russian writers such as Nekrasov, Leskov, Belinsky and Tolstoy (not to mention a grateful obituary of George Sand, whose novels infiltrated subversive Utopian Socialist ideas into Russian culture during Dostoevsky’s youth and exercised an enormous influence). Dostoevsky’s Diary thus illuminates an entire stretch of Russian cultural history, and is indispensable on this score alone. Its pages include in addition some of his shorter literary masterpieces such as ‘A Gentle Creature’ (‘Krotkaya’) and the ‘Dream of a Ridiculous Man’ (‘Son Smeshnogo Cheloveka’), which have often been reprinted independently.

To the consternation of many of his admirers, however, A Writer’s Diary also contains some of Dostoevsky’s most blatantly chauvinistic and anti-Semitic lucubrations, in which he gives free rein to his political passions and obsessions, for which reason it was not generally available in the ex-Soviet Union from the time of the Bolshevik Revolution until fairly recently. First translated as a whole in 1949 (by Boris Brasol), into an acceptable but somewhat stilted English, it has long been out of print. (If this Boris Brasol is the same as the one mentioned in Norman Cohn’s Warrant for Genocide, then he was a very sinister figure, implicated in the dissemination of anti-Semitic propaganda in the United States.) The present volume, the first of two, is a more crisply up-to-date version, with a greatly expanded scholarly apparatus and a brilliant introduction (almost a small book) by Gary Saul Morson, who in 1981 published a remarkable study of the Diary, called The Boundaries of Genre.

How, in the first place, did a book such as the Diary come to be written by a novelist like Dostoevsky? We do not ordinarily think of him as a journalist, but quite the contrary, as someone perhaps unhealthily preoccupied with the workings of his own psyche. But this notion, greatly abetted by the attention first paid to Dostoevsky by Freud, who was then followed by a whole army of other psychoanalysts (professional and amateur), is very far from corresponding to the truth. Dostoevsky believed that it was impossible to separate the inner and the outer, the private and the public, and he became the greatest of all modern ideological novelists precisely because he focused on this interaction, and on the manner in which ideas that were ‘in the air’ (as he said about those Raskolnikov put into practice in Crime and Punishment) affected the psyches of those who took them as guides to conduct. Dostoevsky was thus always intensely interested in such ideas and their effects not only on individuals, but through individuals on society as a whole and on the reigning moral and social climate. A Writer’s Diary was his way of examining and exploring these effects in a more directly discursive manner than was possible in his novels.

The Diary began as a column that Dostoevsky published at irregular intervals in the weekly magazine The Citizen, whose editorship he took over in 1873. But he had long thought of such a publication in various forms – references to it can be found in a notebook entry as far back as 1864-5. There are several mentions of it in letters after this date, and he even works it into the text of The Devils, where the ill-fated Liza Drozhdov, infatuated with Stavrogin, still wishes to do something ‘useful’ with her life, and attempts to recruit Shatov to help her to publish a sort of annual containing a selection of the most important ‘facts’ of each passing year. These ‘facts’ would be chosen ‘to express a certain point of view, a certain well-defined intention, an idea that would throw light on the whole mass of events. It would give, as it were, a picture of the spiritual, moral and inner life of Russia for a whole year.’ Dostoevsky believed that ideas underlay the chaos of events, directing them and endowing them with meaning. A Writer’s Diary, which he undertook as a separate monthly publication in 1876 – a publication written entirely by himself, much like Addison’s Spectator or Johnson’s Rambler, of which several Russian imitations had existed – was designed to examine the passing scene in this way and to bring out its deeper meanings, as Dostoevsky saw them.

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