Waiting for the next move

John Bayley

  • Dostoevsky. The Stir of Liberation: 1860-1865 by Joseph Frank
    Robson, 395 pp, £17.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 86051 242 8
  • Selected Letters of Dostoevsky edited by Joseph Frank and David Goldstein
    Rutgers, 543 pp, $29.95, May 1987, ISBN 0 8135 1185 2

Almost every Russian classic which has stood the test of time turns out to have been written in response to some wholly ephemeral fashion of thinking and feeling in the society which produced it. Pushkin’s masterpiece, The Bronze Horseman, a Mozartian vision of jubilation and despair in St Petersburg, was composed not only in response to the widespread feeling of shock that followed a particularly severe flooding of the capital, but – more significantly – as a reply to the challenge offered by another poem: Mickiewicz’s satire on the town as the evil headquarters of imperial oppression, the icy giant of the North. ‘Naturally I despise my country from head to foot,’ wrote Pushkin, ‘but I am not going to let a foreigner get away with sharing that feeling.’ Here is how a Russian writes a poem about his own tyranny, he seems to say.

‘It was the best of times; it was the worst of times’: Pushkin’s poem embodies the truth of that wonderfully terse opening to Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, a truism whose irony lies too deep for tears, and which incidentally makes its own comment on that always earnestly unreal type of state-of-the-nation novel which has been current from George Eliot to Margaret Drabble. The most effective state-of-the-nation commentary in art seems to be indirect and spontaneous, born of some local controversy, like Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, or even War and Peace, which was a kind of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in reverse, Tolstoy’s paean for the good old aristocracy and good old serfdom. No Russian writer was so sensitive to current feeling and opinion as Dostoevsky – as his first biographer Strakhov put it, ‘he felt thought with unusual liveliness’ – or more adept at creating works of art out of his response to them, and one of the best features of Joseph Frank’s five-volume study is the erudition with which the background of current affairs and polemic is filled in.

This concentration on local detail has the welcome effect of diminishing the rather melodramatic image of Dostoevsky which previous critics and biographers, both in Russian and in English, have created – the great sufferer, great sinner, great gambler, sadist, masochist, child rapist, Christian, doyen of spite and zloi chelovek. Many of the more lurid images were due to the later Russian critics like Mikhailovsky and Merezhkovsky, and, even earlier, to Strakhov himself, who had known Dostoevsky well, and been his colleague on Vremya. This was a highly successful magazine – a mixture of the old New Statesman, Encounter, Spectator, London Review of Books – with instalments of current novels thrown in, as is the case with most serious 19th-century periodicals. It acquired considerable influence and circulation before its shutdown in May 1863, as well as keeping the heads of the brothers Dostoevsky above water financially. Both brothers were heroes, in terms of the efforts they made and the volume of work they undertook, but the elder, Mikhail, was the more heroic of the two, and when he died in 1864, worn out with the problems and cares of starting their new magazine Epokha, the project virtually died with him. Feodor Dostoevsky continued to struggle manfully, but he became so deep in debt that the only solution was to flee abroad to escape his creditors. So began the creative period of the great novels, written at breakneck speed to pay off what he owed. They will no doubt be dealt with in Frank’s next instalment. The present volume, which begins with Dostoevsky’s return from Siberia, ends with the failure of Epokha (which Dostoevsky had first wanted to call Pravda) and the publication, almost unnoticed, of Notes from Underground.

Even though they were friends and colleagues and shared many of the same ideals, Strakhov was in a subtle way the psychological antithesis of Dostoevsky, and the contrast between them seems, unexpectedly, to bring out the latter’s best features. Like an upright Iago, Strakhov professed great honesty in drawing a contrast between himself and his friend, seemingly in Dostoevsky’s favour. He himself had ‘a certain coldness, the habit of strict and accurate thought, the absence of a great passion for preachment, the silence of the most living strings’. Portraying himself as a cold fish who nonetheless, and for that reason, saw what men really were, Strakhov with seeming generosity stressed his friend’s ‘ardour and passion’, his idealism of ‘live feeling and thought’, his ‘flashes of genius’. But this was simply preparing the ground. Himself a confirmed bachelor, terrified of sex and any contact with women, Strakhov went on to paint a dark picture of Dostoevsky’s unstable proclivities in this direction, his confession of nameless incidents, his subjugation by ‘infernal women’. Strakhov seems to have persuaded Tolstoy and most of the literati of these things, and started a legend which continued to grow and find acceptance. Most readers like to feel that Dostoevsky was himself in and of the world he writes about.

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