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.

In fact, the most striking thing about him as a literary genius is precisely his detachment from that world. He was not a bit like Tolstoy or Turgenev, always immanent in what they wrote, self-creating, self-justifying. He was more like his own hero Pushkin, from whom he drew such inspiration, in the way he could get the most out of his subject, find the right objective scenario for the point to be made. As an artist he had negative capability. As a man he was rather ordinary: that is to say, he had a warm heart, was kind, dutiful, devoted and vulnerable, often a trifle absurd, never in the least diabolic, good rather than bad. He was emphatically not, as Tolstoy certainly was, in the ‘monster’ category. Almost unconsciously, as it seems, Frank’s detailed study begins to present that sort of picture, as do Dostoevsky’s own letters, a selection of which has been edited by David Goldstein and Frank.

The editing is superb, the notes meticulous, but it must be said that Dostoevsky does not come into the category of great letter-writers. The most interesting are not the ones written to his brother from the Peter and Paul Fortress describing his mock-execution and pardon, about which he made little at the time, or the account he later gave his brother of his time in penal servitude. These things were all to be written up later by the novelist. Unlike Lawrence, Dostoevsky is not the writer in his letters, but the businessman, brother and family man, giving news, seeking information, immersed in the world of books. The most memorable letter gives a feverish account of his early success in St Petersburg, after the publication of Poor Folk, when he announced himself the idol of Belinsky and Turgenev. Though they give little away, the letters confirm the impression unfolding in Frank’s biography of a good devoted scholarly man, an idealist and a gentleman. Well, that was one side of Dostoevsky no doubt.

The quarrel with Strakhov in Italy, which was to have such momentous consequences, began as a very minor affair. Strakhov assumed that Dostoevsky had become what he himself was, a de Maistre-like reactionary, not indeed such a reactionary as Katkov of the Russian Messenger and the extreme Slavophils, but a believer in the saving virtues of the Russian earth (Pochvennichestvo) and old Russian communal institutions (Obschina) as against Westernising utilitarian radicals like Dobrolyubov and Chernyshevsky. This in a sense was true, but Dostoevsky was very angry with Strakhov for thinking he assumed all men to be bad, needing to be propped by sturdy old institutions, incapable of future good and glory. On the contrary, ‘intelligence could only come from the heart.’

It was a very Russian quarrel. Dostoevsky detested the logical result of Strakhov’s query ‘Is man really good?’ and vowed that he would ‘hate, despise and persecute until his dying day’ this tendency in his colleague’s thought. Surprising when we consider Dostoevsky’s powers as a novelist in revealing human depravity, but the existence of wickedness also meant the possibility of good, and however much he disliked their ideas Dostoevsky always refused to condemn the radicals’ idealism, because a real desire for the good underlay it. Both by immediate instinct and in the techniques he evolved as a novelist he always avoided having to take up a fixed position, becoming boxed into his convictions, like Tolstoy. There is here something surprisingly sane and reasonable, almost Shakespearean, about the Dostoevskian genius. Indeed, the quarrel with Strakhov is an instance of it, for Strakhov seems to have had the compulsion, as Iago had with Othello, to place Dostoevsky, or rather to force him into placing himself. This the novelist declined to do, in the same way that, as an editor, he kept Vremya and Epokha both out of the reactionary camp of Katkov and the Russian Messenger and away from the radical Moscow periodical, the Contemporary, run by Chernyshevsky. This rare instinct for breadth and independence of thought – rare, that is, in the Russia of the time – was naturally not visible to the authorities, who closed Vremya down.

It seems likely that Dostoevsky thought no more of the quarrel with Strakhov, with whom as a colleague he remained on excellent terms, and had no idea of the spite that was being stored up against his future reputation. Generosity was, or could be, another unexpected Dostoevsky trait, as was shown by his sympathy for Chernyshevsky, whose ideas he detested, when the latter was arrested and exiled. Even as a gambler Dostoevsky does not make much of a showing in Frank’s account; Pushkin, Nekrasov and Tolstoy were all far more spectacular and obsessive frequenters of the casino. Dostoevsky’s simple wish seems to have been to make a little money, which he fatally did at his first attempt. His most unfortunate spree on the tables at Baden seems to have been prompted by reluctance to go on to meet his lady friend in Paris. This was Apollinaria Suslova, usually cast by biographers as the Dostoevskian ‘infernal woman’ premier grade, model for his diabolical heroines and source of many of his woes. In Frank’s presentation she becomes a rather ordinary woman, conceited certainly, but otherwise just ‘uncertain, coy, and hard to please’, on the standard Victorian pattern. Dostoevsky’s genius could work her up into one of his tempestuous females, just as he produced The Gambler out of his own comparatively mild experiences at the gaming tables.

Apollinaria Suslova was a ‘new woman’, a phenomenon in the Russia of the Sixties, anxious to earn her own living by writing. Some of her stories appeared in Vremya; she met Dostoevsky, who encouraged her, and almost inevitably they began an affair. His first wife, Marya Dimitrievna, whom he had met in Siberia, was a tetchy and tubercular invalid. Like any good bourgeois, Dostoevsky concealed the new connection as carefully as he could; only his brother knew of it. This irked the independent-minded Apollinaria, as did the unspiritual way in which her lover made it clear that he visited her only for occasional ‘relief’. Presently she took off for Paris, and he yearned to follow her, when he could find the money, to establish a proper romantic liaison. Before he could get there, however, after the gambling episode at Baden, Apollinaria had fallen into the arms of a handsome young Spanish medical student called Salvador. Here, she felt, was the true and nobly spiritual encounter, but unfortunately Salvador had other ideas. After servicing her a few times he made his excuses, and avoided her determined attempts to cling on to him. When Dostoevsky came, she had to confess to him both that she had a lover and that he had proved faithless. Naturally upset, Dostoevsky proposed that they should visit Italy together, travelling as brother and sister. The trip consisted of furtive attempts on his part to exceed this specification, and a firm but provocative defence from the young woman. The details were all coyly confided to her diary, of which Frank has made good use. Nothing could be less ‘Dostoevskian’ than this rather touchingly commonplace little scenario: it is more like something out of Hardy, or even Maugham.

As the quarrel with Strakhov indicates, Dostoevsky’s deepest instinct as a writer and polemicist was to avoid committing himself ideologically and to fall back upon the ‘reasons of the heart’. Though he distrusted their gentry manners – a distrust they more than reciprocated – he was much closer to the civilised liberalism of Herzen and Turgenev than to the fanatic self-righteousness of Dobrolyubov and Chemyshevsky, whom Turgenev had christened ‘the Snake and the Rattlesnake’. Herzen and Turgenev made Dostoevsky feel uneasy, and he was later to caricature the latter venomously in The Devils, but he saw that Fathers and Sons was a real work of art, which was one of the reasons the radicals hated and despised it. Appearing in Vremya, his own House of the Dead had made a stir among perceptive people because of the way it was done. It was neither a crude personal assertion – ‘I am the man who went through all this’ – nor was it a caring and compassionate diatribe against the regime. Rather it was a revelation of how people behave in terrible circumstances, what they think about, what they hope for, which carried the germ of Dostoevsky’s later insistence on the individual’s wish for and assertion of his own kind of freedom, however irrational and perverse, as opposed to a submission to the dictates of a community, however Utopian. He would have known all about the feelings of Solzhenitsyn’s Ivan Denisovich, the zeks’ pleasure in brick-laying for its own sake, their utter contempt for the Hall of Socialist Advancement for which they are laying the bricks. Probably to avoid trouble with the censorship, Dostoevsky also uses a ‘distancing’ device in The House of the Dead of a Pushkinian kind, one he would perfect later. Goryanichikov, the ‘I’ and narrator, is already dead when the book begins; he died after his release from some personal sorrow. The voice we hear is thus disembodied, as if it came from under the floorboards of the huts, where the reader too feels himself to be. Unlike any other gulag book, and there have since been so many, The House of the Dead does not take us on a conducted tour, but seems to set up its horrors inside ourselves, to start and to finish there.

Dostoevsky seems to have intuited that the sensational story, or roman feuilleton, was well adapted to the point of view he wanted to put over. He revered Notre Dame de Paris, convinced that Victor Hugo had succeeded in embodying in the figure of Quasimodo the downtrodden French peasant’s awakening thirst for justice, truth and progress. In one of his Vremya articles he extravagantly praised Pushkin’s fragment in poetry and prose, ‘Egyptian Nights’, which tells the story, indirectly and in serio-comic vein, of Cleopatra’s offer of a night of love to any of her entourage who, in return for it, are prepared to be executed in the morning. This is indeed a splendid tour de force, which depends, like many of Pushkin’s more melodramatic pieces, on breaking off at the psychological moment, leaving the reader to finish or continue under the inspiration of the idea. Dostoevsky certainly does that, maintaining that the poem is a frightening vision of ancient satiety, in which ‘the future offers nothing, everything must come from the present, life must be nourished only by what exists’.

The special interest of this is the way it reveals Dostoevsky’s own method and the inner drives which produced it. In his fiction, as in the flow of his ideas, everything must be provisional and continuable: the idea of a perpetual present, as expressed in the boredom and suicide of a Svidrigailov, with his vision of life as the corner of a Russian bath-house full of spiders, is the ultimate horror. Very Victorian in a sense, Dostoevsky’s imagination is not only ‘polyphonic’, as his deepest critic Bakhtin called it, but anticipatively unending, never resolving an idea, looking always for what is to come. A Hegelian who abhorred synthesis, a prophet who feared and despised Utopia, Dostoevsky is fully human in his own passionately idiosyncratic version of the old cliché ‘tomorrow is another day’.

Not only do Svidrigailov and Prince Valkovsky of The Insulted and Injured (Dostoevsky’s most obvious adaptation of the Victor Hugo ‘raise up the lowly’ theme) show the effects of their creator’s reading of ‘Egyptian Nights’, but even old father Karamazov has his Cleopatra aspect – ‘I’ve got the face of an old Roman patrician of the decadent period,’ he remarks at one point – and personifies Dostoevsky’s horror of the static world without spiritual expectation or Christian hope. And of course he borrowed the theme at first hand as well as from literature. However commonplace her tiresomeness might be, Polina Suslova had impressed him during their ‘brother and sisterly’ talks in Italy by her desire not just to kill her faithless lover Salvador but ‘to torture him for quite a long time’. She was giving vent to a silly girl’s momentary spite, but such sentiments in the mouths of his characters acquire apocalyptic resonance – Cleopatra is mentioned as sticking gold pins into her slave girls’ breasts – and Dostoevsky undoubtedly connected cruelty with the dreadful permanence of an egocentric consciousness without a future. Only ‘a violent sensation’ can relive Cleopatra’s tedium, and ‘the Marquis de Sade would only be a child’ compared to what she might do in that tedium.

Dostoevsky’s most controversial work of polemic during this period was Notes from Underground, written during the troubles and anxieties which attended the demise of Epokha; he always wrote his best under the most trying circumstances. In this splendid book, egoism without a future is treated both as epic and as melodrama. It was inspired by one of the most absurd novels ever to make friends and influence people on a gigantic scale: Chernyshevsky’s What is to be done? – a fatuously utilitarian parable, heavily influenced in its turn by the two writers Chernyshevsky most admired, Godwin and Harriet Beecher Stowe. But Caleb Williams and Uncle Tom’s Cabin are like Macbeth and Lear in comparison with What is to be done? In the radical climate of the time it had immense success, nonetheless; and Lenin himself, sixty years later, used to flush with anger at any suggestion that it was not a work of infinite profundity, wisdom and compassion.

Its prodigious success, one now fancies, might well have been due to two factors only marginally connected with its inspirative message. On the one hand, it is a passionate defence of ‘young people’, whom Turgenev was said to have slandered in the figure of young Bazarov in Fathers and Sons. Chernyshevsky’s puppets representing youth are knights in shining armour, and in a revolutionary atmosphere the young are always admired. A more subtle factor was the author’s insistence that egoism was the cure for all social ills. This discovery, though scarcely new, was presented by Chernyshevsky with such conviction that it must have created widespread satisfaction, in the passionate and the faint-hearted alike. It was the radical chic of its time. What could be more reassuring than to be told, apparently, that if you just carry on as you are everything is bound to come right? Of course, for Chernyshevsky, as a good utilitarian, rational egoism could only mean devoting yourself to the greatest good of the greatest number, but it seems possible that many readers may have inadvertently received a more comforting, even complacent message. To be one of the ‘new people’ (Dobrolyubov had christened the young radicals ‘new people’ and Chernyshevsky used the phrase in his subtitle – ‘Tales of New People’) one had only to continue in one’s old habits.

It is at this point that Dostoevsky inserts his own counter-message. He portrays his Underground Man as a genuine egoist, a man whose consciousness is entirely devoted to thinking up ways of getting back at people, himself included (for self-analysis and self-laceration are among the prime delights of the true egoist), and for whom the world may drown in blood as long as he gets his regular cup of tea. This appalling continuum of vain and vanity-generating habit, says Dostoevsky, is what human egoism is really all about, and not that wonderful progress towards a ‘Crystal Palace’ Utopia which rational egoism decrees. The Underground Man cannot escape from himself, which for Dostoevsky, as for the Christian believer, is the worst of all fates.

The Underground Man would be a crude counter-polemic if that was all there was to him. What makes him so glorious is the humour of art and the art of humour, of which his perverse freedom is an essential part. More than anything else, Dostoevsky loathed the high-minded determinism that went with the radical utilitarian creed. The Underground Man is a hero of free egoism, as Goncharov’s Oblomov became – contrary to his creator’s wishes – a hero of sloth. But Dostoevsky is far more in control of his hero, and Notes from Underground is a far more complex and multifold work of art. Not only is the freedom of the individual asserted by the Underground Man’s deplorably perverse demonstration of it, but by asserting his freedom in this way Dostoevsky’s hero proclaims on every page his passionate desire for something better, for some higher and finer consciousness. He longs to escape, to join, so to speak, in his creator’s vision and method, by which men and things constantly aspire to be different, to be made new. The big irony – and Dostoevsky was probably well aware of it – is that he and Chernyshevsky had the same ‘heart’, were morally and spiritually on the same side. But they were very different as artists.

The plot of Notes from Underground is not a continuum, even though it ends with the ‘editor’s’ comment that there is more, much more, of the kind this comes from. As with Quasimodo, or at least Dostoevsky’s version of Hugo’s hero, it reaches to higher things by means of melodrama and literary denouement (art’s instincts here being the same as those of the spiritual life). The Underground Man sets out to torment the prostitute Liza, on the face of it one of those lowly and virtuous ones sentimentalised in Karamzin’s Poor Liza, long since parodied by Pushkin. But things are not what they seem, changing with more than Dostoevskyan speed: no wonder the few readers of the book, having already lapped up Chernychevsky’s simple message, were totally bewildered. Not only does the Underground Man’s ploy against Liza misfire, leaving him in a passion of humiliating tears and with a yet more desperate need to break out of himself into love, but Liza herself turns out not to be that conventional sentimentalised character object, to be manipulated by her creator as by the Underground Man, but a girl with a past, a will, and a darkness of her own, something connected with a lustful father in distant Riga. All is in abeyance and waiting, as usual with Dostoevsky, for the next move. Pushkin, who had performed much the same parody trick in one of his Tales of Belkin, might well have smiled; and it is possible to see here the same Pushkin smile transforming Dostoevsky’s own worn and distracted features.