- 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.
The first section of the Diary is composed of the columns that Dostoevsky wrote in 1873, and contains some of his most famous autobiographical reminiscences. Morson acutely speaks of these personal references as providing for Dostoevsky’s journalism a ‘penumbra’ that served as a sort of self-protection; one had to be very careful when arguing with a man who could adduce his own legendary exile and prison sentence for radicalism to buttress his arguments against it. Morson’s remark refers to the 1860s, but it is equally applicable to 1873. Dostoevsky had just returned to Russia after four years of Wanderjahre in Europe, where he had initially gone on vacation but then found himself unable to return for fear of being thrown into a debtor’s prison. His most recent novel, The Devils, had been based on the Nechaev affair – the murder of a refractory member of an underground revolutionary group led by Sergey Nechaev; and its blisteringly satirical image of radical skulduggery had made his name anathema to the left-wing intelligentsia. One of his aims in the Diary was to re-establish his credentials as a highly critical but not hostile or unsympathetic interlocutor of the radical youth; and he tried to do so by evoking episodes from his own revolutionary past in commenting on current affairs.
The very first entry records a conversation with Alexander Herzen, who had died three years earlier, and had been the voice of Russia’s conscience in exile during the 1850s and mid-1860s. Dostoevsky did not conceal his differences with Herzen, but he presented himself as a member of the same generation (that of the 1840s), who had gone through the same moral-cultural evolution and come out on the other side by returning to his Russian roots (actually Herzen had made much the same return theoretically). But unlike Herzen he was totally opposed to the revolutionary agitations of the intelligentsia. This simultaneous association and dissociation is continued in the next entry, which contains recollections of Belinsky, the literary critic and publicist of the 1840s, who by this time had become a revered ancestor to later generations of radicals.
Belinsky had played a major role in Dostoevsky’s life at the beginning of his literary career. He was the man who had hailed his first novel, Poor Folk, as a masterpiece, and had catapulted him into fame overnight. Belinsky had also been the animator of a group of young writers known as the Natural School, out of which came the classic Russian 19th-century novel; and his pléiade, as it was also called, was the vibrant centre of everything that was then progressive. Dostoevsky had written some scurrilous words about Belinsky in private letters only a year or so before, but he now evokes him much more equably, although in a context that again reveals his opposition to the doctrines that Belinsky had helped to foster. At the time of which Dostoevsky was writing, Belinsky had just been converted to atheism under the influence of Feuerbach, and Dostoevsky recounts a discussion between the two of them about Christ. Belinsky had maintained that, if ‘born in our time’, Jesus would have been ‘the most undistinguished and ordinary of men’, who would probably ‘join the Socialists and follow them’.
Interwoven with these remarks are others about moral responsibility for crime, with Belinsky arguing that all talk of ‘sin’ and ‘turning the other cheek’ was now meaningless. For it has come to be understood that ‘economic factors alone lead him [a malefactor] to do wrong, and it is absurd and cruel to demand from a man something which the very laws of nature make it impossible for him to carry out.’ Dostoevsky is depicting not only Belinsky here but also, indirectly, himself (since Belinsky refers to the tearful expression on Dostoevsky’s face when Christ was being denigrated).
It is never Dostoevsky’s custom, in either his novels or his articles, to clash head-on with a position he opposes; either he allows it to refute itself, by depicting the terrible human consequences it may entail, or he poses an alternative image exemplifying another moral attitude (just as he counterposes Ivan Karamazov’s Legend of the Grand Inquisitor to the account of Father Zosima’s life). In the Diary he closes with an image of himself as a convict, someone ‘who had accepted all of his [Belinsky’s] teachings’ (in fact, not strictly true; but true enough), arriving at a temporary halt on the way to prison camp. There he was met by the wives of the exiled Decembrists, who had voluntarily followed their husbands to Siberia and sacrificed their comfortable lives ‘for the supreme moral duty, the freest that can ever exist’. They blessed Dostoevsky with the sign of the cross, and gave him a copy of the New Testament, a book which ‘lay under my pillow for the four years of my penal servitude’. Moral responsibility did exist, and the ethic from which it sprang was enshrined in the book under his head.
Another prominent feature of the Diary is the interweaving of themes, the carrying over of the same idea into another context and another literary register: an initiating fact leads to an imaginary extrapolation which leads in turn to artistic creation. Such a shift occurs in the very next article, as Dostoevsky moves from Belinsky to a discussion of the new Russian courts, which had recently brought in trial by jury. The question of moral responsibility raised by Belinsky is linked to notorious examples of the leniency of Russian juries, and Dostoevsky raises his voice in protest against some of their verdicts (in other articles he will object to convictions he considers unjust). Did such leniency mean that the Russian people, like Belinsky, intuitively agreed with him that there was no such thing as moral responsibility? One might think so from the well-known fact that the Russian people – i.e. the peasantry – had the unique habit of calling convicts ‘unfortunates’; and this might seem to exonerate malefactors from blame for their wrong-doing. But Dostoevsky objects that the term ‘unfortunate’ derives from a Christian sense of co-responsibility for sin and hence crime; the people felt themselves to be sharing the moral burden of the crime, and for this reason looked on the criminal with compassion. It is, however, very easy to confuse the two notions, and Dostoevsky feels that this might have occurred as a result of the ideas being propagated by the progeny of Belinsky.
The crime in this instance was one of wife-beating, towards which peasant jurors were notoriously lenient; but the wife had finally killed herself out of despair. The case had been reported in the newspapers, ‘but for a long time thereafter I fancied I could see all the circumstances of the case; I see them even now.’ And Dostoevsky goes on to paint an imaginary portrait of both the peasant and his wife: to describe, with an almost unbearable exactitude of detail, the limitless cruelty of the husband. It was this sort of meticulousness in the depiction of sadism, both physical and spiritual, that led the populist critic N.K. Mikhailovsky to call Dostoevsky ‘a cruel talent’, and Mario Praz to include him among those writers who created ‘in the shadow of the divine Marquis’. But in the midst of the horror as Dostoevsky lingers over the husband’s first blows, delivered ‘methodically, indifferently, even sleepily’, he suddenly interjects: ‘Do you know, gentlemen, people are born in various circumstances: can you not conceive that this woman in other circumstances might have been some Juliet or Beatrice or Gretchen from Faust? ... And so this same Beatrice or Gretchen is beaten and whipped like a dog!’ One can see here in embryo the process of Dostoevsky’s creative imagination, out of which came some of his greatest characters. Beginning with a sordid journalistic fact, he fills it out fictively but believably from his knowledge of (peasant) life, and then suddenly raises the pitiable victim to the same plane as some of the most radiant female characters in European literature.
Another aspect of Dostoevsky’s creative personality is excellently illustrated in the same article. Just as he had countered Belinsky’s words by setting them against his meeting with the Decembrist wives, so he develops his observations about juries in the midst of a clashing interplay of competing voices. There is the voice of the defence lawyer stressing his client’s backwardness as a mitigating factor; a ‘sarcastic’ voice objecting to Dostoevsky’s suggestion that the peasants on the jury could possibly have been influenced by ‘advanced’ ideas; and ‘a partly Slavophile’ voice, who thinks that the soft-heartedness of Russian juries, taken all in all, is rather a good thing. Bakhtin has made us all aware to what extent Dostoevsky’s works are a conflicting ‘polyphony’ of such voices; and even those like myself, who do not accept Bakhtin’s attempt to make this ‘polyphony’ the sole basis of Dostoevsky’s poetics, nonetheless consider his emphasis to be a valuable insight. It certainly helps us to understand the animation and vivacity of Dostoevsky’s journalistic persona, where, as Bakhtin has written, his ‘manner of exposing an idea is the same everywhere: he develops it dialogically, not in a dry or logical dialogue, but in the confrontation of global and profoundly individualistic voices’.
The Diary for 1873 contains other personal details similar to the one used in the Belinsky piece – most notably, Dostoevsky’s account of how he listened to the sentence of death being pronounced on himself and other members of the Petrashevsky circle (not the actual sentence, but a fake one used to terrify them beforehand). He and the others, he recalls, regarded ‘these [revolutionary] ideas and those notions which possessed our spirits ... as not only requiring no repentance, but even somehow as purifying us in a martyrdom for which we would be forgiven much!’ Dostoevsky is here challenging an attack made on a later generation of radicals – those portrayed in his own novel, The Devils – who had been called ignorant ‘fanatics and idiots’. On the contrary, his fellow-Petrashevtsi had all been well-educated; it was too easy and consoling to believe that the radicals were just a benighted rabble. For ‘the possibility of considering oneself – and sometimes even being, in fact – an honorable person while committing obvious and undeniable villainy – that is our whole affliction today!’ It is an affliction that Dostoevsky immortalised in Crime and Punishment; and he understood Raskolnikov so well because, as he wrote, ‘perhaps I could have become’ a Nechaevist ‘in the days of my youth’. This is much more of a confession than Dostoevsky’s readers could possibly have been aware. He had indeed been a ‘Nechaevist’, that is, involved in a genuine underground conspiracy that could have led to bloodshed, although this fact, kept secret throughout his life, only became known in 1922.
When A Writer’s Diary began to appear as a monthly in 1876, it very quickly became one of the most influential journals of its time and placed Dostoevsky in the forefront of public opinion. One well-qualified witness, Elena A. Stakenschneider, whose own Diary is a valuable source for Russian mid-19th-century culture, remarks that Dostoevsky’s enormous fame in his last years ‘was not caused by his prison sentence, not by House of the Dead, not even by his novels – at least not primarily – but by A Writer’s Diary’. Each month Dostoevsky regaled his readers with articles, interspersed with stories, reacting to one or another question agitating literate Russians, and addressed such issues in the intensely personal, buttonholing, ‘dialogic’ manner, almost that of a private conversation, that he manipulated to perfection. In this sense the term ‘diary’ is not a misnomer, though each issue is very carefully composed; but his pages always give the impression that we are being admitted into his confidence – an impression helped of course by his constant recourse to autobiography – and create a unique sense of rapport with his readers.
A Writer’s Diary is the longest of all Dostoevsky’s works, almost the size of Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov combined, and it is filled with such a variety of works and styles that Morson is accurate in calling it ‘an encyclopedia of genres’. Its richness, however, contains much that is distasteful and even repellent. Early issues deal mostly with internal Russian concerns, which Dostoevsky handles with tact, insight, and the aim of combatting simple and univocal answers to complex moral and social-cultural dilemmas. But in June 1876, inflamed by the Eastern Question (the revolt of the Balkan Serbs against Turkish rule), the probing, questioning, tentative, open-ended tone of the Diary suddenly changes into a prophetic one, and Dostoevsky launches into inflammatory tirades that can rightly be condemned as ‘jingoistic propaganda’. Even worse, he reaches what Morson calls his ‘moral nadir’ when he views European opposition to Russian foreign policy in terms both of ‘a universal Catholic conspiracy’ and a Jewish one as well (Disraeli was then the British Prime Minister), which ‘leads to anti-Semitic articles that were, even by Russian standards of the day, particularly poisonous’.
Morson finds Dostoevsky’s donning of the visionary mantle – his confident assumption that he could unravel the inner workings of historical destiny – to be in flat contradiction to the underlying assumptions of the earlier issues. There he had set out to subvert the revolutionary fantasies of the radical intelligentsia, and had placed against them the simple, everyday, Christian virtues of the Russian people; now he was indulging in such Utopian, Messianic predictions himself. In Boundaries of Genre, Morson ingeniously interpreted this discrepancy Sas, in effect, the creation of a rare if not unprecedented literary form, a meta-utopia, in which a Utopian vision was constantly being played off against, and undermined by, a sceptical questioning of its beguiling previsions. But now he has rallied to the view of the excellent British Slavist, Aileen Kelly, who regards the Diary as ‘riven by inconsistencies’ between the incompatible demands of ‘irony’ and ‘utopia’.
This problem goes right to the heart of Dostoevsky’s world-view, but the inconsistency was much less of a problem for him than it has been for later interpreters. For the Russian people whose prosaic, quotidian virtues would undo all the agitations of the radical intelligentsia were the very same people predestined, as the carriers of the virtues rooted in their inherited Christianity, to fulfil the Messianic task of bringing to the world a reign of justice and love guided by the image of a purified Christ (though Dostoevsky’s theology was hardly that of the Russian Orthodox hierarchy). In any event, this exalted conception of the Russian people served as a bridge between the antithetical extremes of the Diary; and while they are certainly irreconcilable to our contemporary minds, which much prefer the anti-Utopian to the prophet speaking with a tongue of flame, Dostoevsky himself felt no insurmountable rift between them.