The Rustling of Cockroaches

Gary Saul Morson

  • Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865-1871 by Joseph Frank
    Robson, 512 pp, £27.95, March 1995, ISBN 0 86051 953 8

Between 1865 and 1871 Dostoevsky wrote three of the world’s greatest novels, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot and The Possessed – and two remarkable novellas, The Gambler and The Eternal Husband. He also conceived two other major works he never managed to write, and maintained a furious correspondence containing some of his most profound statements on art, society, religion and the creative process. Joseph Frank’s biography calls these years ‘miraculous’ yet the conditions under which Dostoevsky was working were anything but splendid.

In the novels, thrilling conversations about ultimate questions typically take place in the most sordid settings, as when Ivan Karamazov has to talk more loudly with Smerdyakov because in the corner ‘cockroaches were swarming in such amazing numbers that there was a continual rustling from them.’ Similarly, Dostoevsky composed his major novels while suffering from a legion of moral, physical and Financial ills, enduring slights, raging against his enemies. And between epileptic fits, which incapacitated him for days, he tried to meet impossible deadlines for his serialised fiction.

The earlier instalments of Frank’s biography of Dostoevsky have won all the honours, but the present volume, the fourth of a projected five, surpasses them. This is surprising because, generally speaking, accounts of writers’ lives seem to become less satisfactory as they approach the greatest works. The gap between the everyday events that might be part of anyone’s life and the creations on which the writer’s reputation rests comes to seem too large, and no mere narrative of meetings, loves, deaths and squabbles can bridge it. Biographies of writers too often give us prototypes, decodings in terms of psychic complexes, or readings that make a great novel little more than one of many journalistic statements in an ongoing quarrel. We tolerate this because we don’t expect biographies to be great works of criticism. It is precisely this shortcoming that Frank corrects.

In his first volume, Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849 (1976), Frank showed how the narrative of a writer’s life can enrich our understanding of the work without trivialising it. His interest in biography, he warned, is not biographical: ‘I deal at length only with those aspects of Dostoevsky’s quotidian experience which seem to me to have some critical relevance – only with those that help to cast some light on his books. My work is thus not a biography, or if so, only in a special sense – for I do not go from the life to the work, but rather the other way round.’ Most literary biographies make the creative work an adjunct to personal anecdotes or social history: Frank has adopted ‘the opposite procedure of making Dostoevsky the man adjunct to his artistic concerns and their products’. At the same time, no other study of Dostoevsky in any language is so rich in personal anecdote and social history; and Volumes III and IV could be read simply as a (superb) introduction to Russian intellectual history of the 1860s. Frank has it both ways, and for a very interesting reason: Dostoevsky not only wrote but also lived ideologically, discerning in the most mundane events problems of Universal importance. If one leaves out whatever is of no significance for his ideological novels, one has not left out very much. Frank’s Dostoevsky stands as the supreme master of the topical transformed into the timeless. For that matter, Dostoevsky’s characters possess a similar talent, as when Ivan Karamazov collects stories of child abuse from the press and turns them into a metaphysical assault on God, religion and all creation.

In his Preface Frank describes the present volume as the real proof of his method. After reading Volume III, Irving Howe told him that the next volume, precisely because it would treat three of the four great novels, would ‘be the acid test of my belief that new and valuable light could be shed on them by an intensive study of their social-cultural genesis’. Dostoevsky’s novels above all test ideas by showing what they entail when they are lived, and Frank’s fourth volume tests his own unfashionable idea that our understanding of a work can be significantly enhanced by a knowledge of ‘external’ events. He wants to prove that knowing what Dostoevsky had in mind makes his work even more profound.

In restoring what original readers took for granted, Frank can provide not just ‘background’ in the usual sense but what Bakhtin called the ‘dialogising background’, the tacit text. This isn’t the kind of information that can be ruled out of court as ‘external’. Frank provides countless instances where such Information really helps. Take ‘schism among the nihilists’, as Dostoevsky once called the conflict between the Utopian socialists, led by the materialist critics Chernyshevsky and Dobroliubov, on the one hand, and the Nietzschean radicals Pisarev and Zaitsev, on the other. Notes from Underground represented his probing of the first group’s ideas, while Crime and Punishment took on those of the second – knowing this clarifies the vexed problem of Raskolnikov’s motives. Frank helps us catch allusions that were once visible and are now obscure, and to see Dostoevsky’s preoccupations in their genealogical depth.

Consider that special class of facts about Dostoevsky’s own life that were well-known to his readers and constantly reappear in thinly disguised form in the fiction. Dostoevsky had been a revolutionary, had faced a mock-execution, was imprisoned in Siberia, and suffered from epilepsy. When his contemporaries read Prince Myshkin’s descriptions of the epileptic aura, in which the sufferer experiences an ecstasy for which ‘one would give one’s whole life’, they knew that this was not made up. Dostoevsky assumed the stance of someone who had repeatedly lived beyond normal experience and had come back to tell mythic truths. Myshkin imagines what, in his last seconds, goes through the mind of a man condemned to death; he pauses to muse that perhaps there exists somewhere a person who, having lived through such an experience and then been pardoned at the last minute, could tell us what it was like. Every contemporary reader of The Idiot knew that there was such a person and that he was telling them.

We may now wonder whether or not Dostoevsky’s mania for gambling, his constant in debtedness, his quarrels with Turgenev and his humiliating need to beg for money were common knowledge: whether, that is, the biographical aura is as intrinsic a part of The Gambler as it is of The Idiot or The House of the Dead. When are we gratuitously reading the life into the work, and when simply seeing what Dostoevsky expected his readers to see? In each case, Frank provides the information we need in order to decide.

In effect, each of Dostoevsky’s novels, and much of his journalism, teaches us how to ‘read’ ephemera, how to discover the tragic in the topical. But if we don’t know what the ephemera are, and can’t recognise what Dostoevsky saw in them, we shall fail to understand his interpretation of the social world. An unexpected result of Frank’s method is that his non-literary life becomes much more interesting once day-to-day events acquire ideological and literary significance. Consider the story of how Dostoevsky met his second wife. In July 1865, in exchange for a much-needed advance, he contracted with the unscrupulous publisher Stellovsky to provide a novel by November 1866. Stellovsky was counting on the forfeit provisions, which would have allowed him nine years in which he would publish all Dostoevsky’s works for free. One month before the deadline, Dostoevsky, who had been working on another novel, had not yet written a line. In desperation, he accepted someone’s suggestion that he take advantage of the new science of stenography. Fresh from stenography school, Anna Grigorievna Snitkina took his dictation for a month, transcribed her notes at night and helped Dostoevsky to deliver the novel to Stellovsky (who tried to make himself unavailable) two hours before the deadline. Shortly afterwards, Dostoevsky proposed to Anna Grigorievna and was accepted.

The most telling moment occurred when Dostoevsky began to smoke in front of his new employee and offered her a cigarette. Only an eye as sharp as Frank’s would see what was so significant in this incident. Dostoevsky had been trying to remarry for some time, but kept falling in love with unsuitable women, who often had nihilist or atheist sympathies totally at odds with his own. Understandably enough, they refused to marry the indebted, older, not very attractive, epileptic with religious sympathies. The fact that Anna Grigorievna worked as a stenographer indicated that she was a strong and independent woman, the type Dostoevsky liked and needed. Was she also a nihilist? Given the conventions and symbolism of the time, if she had been, she would have smoked. Her refusal indicated that he had at last found a woman with the right qualities. Frank’s book is filled with wonderful moments like these.

After their marriage, the Dostoevskys went abroad. They intended to travel for three months but did not return for four years, and most of Frank’s volume is concerned with this period. They desperately wanted to come home, but couldn’t risk Dostoevsky’s probable arrest for unpaid debts once he was subject again to Russian law. So they moved from place to foreign place, wrote begging letters for loans and advances, and several times had to pawn their wedding rings, their coats, their linen. Nevertheless, Dostoevsky kept supporting his stepson, who would not support himself, and his brother’s widow, who was able to buy new clothes while Anna Grigorievna was pawning hers. Dostoevsky and his wife referred to them selves as Mr and Mrs Micawber. Time and again he gambled, in the hope of a sudden change of fortune, but invariably lost, implored his wife’s forgiveness, and then returned to writing a novel in between debilitating epileptic fits. He wrote The Eternal Husband for money when he really wanted to work on something more ambitious, and then, after finishing it, did not have the money to post it.

At one point Dostoevsky wrote to his publisher Kashpirev pleading for more money and begging for an immediate reply – ‘the time and the rapidity of the aid is almost more important than the money itself’; any delay would mean ‘I would be forced on the spot to sell my remaining and most necessary things, and for things worth one hundred thalers would receive twenty ... in order to save the lives of three beings’ (the Dostoevskys had an infant daughter). At the same time he wrote a letter to his friend Apollon Maikov, in which he confessed that his letter to Kashpirev was untrue – not, as one first thinks he must mean, because he had exaggerated, but, quite the opposite, because everything worth a hundred thalers had already been pawned.

In such conditions he wrote The Idiot. When he was working on the second and third parts, he had no idea where this frenetic novel was going. His letters repeatedly mention how he must write to meet a deadline or starve, while his critics demand of him the polish of a Turgenev or a Goncharov: ‘I am convinced that not a single one of our writers, whether past or present, ever wrote under the conditions in which I am continuously forced to write. Turgenev would die at the very thought.’ As a result, his novels. The Idiot especially, have many obvious flaws, as Frank acknowledges Yet, as Frank also remarks, it ‘triumphs effortlessly over all the Inconsistencies and awkwardnesses of its structure and motivation’.

Wondering how Dostoevsky triumphs over flaws that would have been fatal to other writers contributes to the thrill of reading him. I would say that he managed to shape a distinctive poetics that exploited what was bound to happen if he wrote with only the vaguest of plans in mind: a poetics (or prosaics) of open time, which, as it turned out, was the perfect form for his sense of radical human freedom. Frank suggests other persuasive reasons: The Idiot is Dostoevsky’s ‘most courageous creation’ because in it he subjected his own ideal of Christian love to the test of realistically rendered experience to which he had earlier subjected the ideas of his ideological opponents, so that ‘readers sense they come very close in its pages to touching the quick of his own values.’