How was Dostoevsky seen in his own time?

Two hundred years after he was born Dostoevsky (1821-1881) is considered to be one of the greatest writers of all time. But how was he seen in his own time?

Well, Turgenev and Nekrasov once called Dostoevsky a pimple on the face of Russian literature! 

It all started with Poor Folk

Dostoevsky became famous overnight with his debut novella Poor Folk (1846), a title that would prove to be prophetic for his own life.

The secret of this success lied in Dostoevsky’s ability to sense that a new literary and social era was beginning, and he cleverly played into that. As any Russian writer does, he took a few bits from his predecessors: the title he borrowed from Karamzin’s Poor Liza, he applied Pushkin’s compassion for his characters to his and he used similar protagonists as Gogol did in his Petersburg stories. And so Dostoevsky wrote the first Russian novel in the sentimental naturalistic genre.

The novel was praised by everyone, including Nekrasov and Turgenev, and Dostoevsky was hailed as Russia’s next big writer. Understandably the sudden success went to his head a bit, he was still quite young after all. Dostoevsky had a strong need for love and acceptance, combined with a tendency to think highly of himself. When he met a pretty admirer at a fancy ball in 1846, Dostoevsky apparently couldn’t handle his emotions and fainted, which caused Nekrasov and Turgenev to make fun of him. 

Even so, this pimple was destined to become the face of Russian Literature.

Siberia and literary comeback

In spite of this flying start Dostoevsky struggled for some years after the publication of Poor Folk to find his place in the phenomenal world of Russian literature. His second novella The Double was criticised for being too ‘Gogolian’. In 1849 his literary career was ruthlessly interrupted when he got arrested for ‘conspiring against the regime’ and was sentenced to four grim years of forced labour in Siberia.

After this ordeal he picked up his writing career in 1859 with two comedies: Uncle’s Dream and The Village of Stepanchikovo. Neither were very successful. His real comeback came in 1862 with The House of the Dead, a semi autobiographical novel about the prison life in Siberia.

Crime and Punishment

In 1866 Russia was in the grip of Crime and Punishment, published in instalments in the literary magazine The Russian Messenger, in which at the same time Tolstoy’s War and Peace* was published. Now Dostoevsky had finally reached the literary top, although he had to share it with Tolstoy and Turgenev. 

He was so much in debt most of the time that he had to write to make money. To make matters worse, he would ask for advances for future work from his publishers and was faced with impossible deadlines in return. He was envious of his competitors, and imagined them living a life of luxury and only writing when they felt like it. His work did not exactly suffer from it though, and he wrote masterpiece after masterpiece: The Idiot, Demons, The Brothers Karamazov.

A Writer’s Diary

Between 1873 and 1881 Dostoevsky wrote more personal essays for his A Writer’s Diary, which was published in various magazines. Through the Diary, which was very popular, the public got to know the person Dostoevsky better and it gained him a new following, especially among young people. He wrote about articles that he had read in the newspapers, the political situation, religion, literature and his personal life. It was a prelude to The Brothers Karamazov, in which all his ideas and views on religion and politics came together.

The Pushkin Speech

By the time Dostoevsky finished writing The Brothers Karamazov, he had reached a prophetic status in Russia. In his famous Pushkin speech in 1881 (a time when the country was struggling with terrorist attacks) Dostoevsky provided the answers that the people wanted to hear: the Russian people themselves held the key, and it was to be the Russian people who would lead Europe into the light, and not the other way around. It was a roaring success, and the success lit up the final months of his life.

Outsider

Dostoevsky always remained a bit of an outsider, and he never really fitted in the literary circles of his time. Because of his sensitive nature he was easily offended, although he regularly offended others himself. But it was precisely his own psychological struggles and hypersensitivity that gave him the ability to depict the inner turmoil of his characters so brilliantly.

With Turgenev and Tolstoy 

Dostoevsky admired Turgenev’s writing style and a lot of his work, but accused him of being too Western. He was also unable to forget the pimple incident, and he once had to ask Turgenev for a loan* after he had lost all his money at the roulette table. In Demons he took revenge on Turgenev and parodied him mercilessly. He did, however, pay Turgenev a compliment in his Pushkin speech, praising Turgenev’s protagonist Liza from Home of the Gentry.

He never met Tolstoy (1828-1910) in person, and although Tolstoy was more a Slavophile like Dostoevsky, he mostly disagreed with his views. In his Writer’s Diary he once wrote a whole rant about how stupid Tolstoy’s Levin from Anna Karenina was, because he disagreed with the political views that Tolstoy had given Levin. Tolstoy never openly responded, but did express genuine sorrow when he learned of Dostoevsky’s death.

The role of the writer in 19th century Russia cannot be underestimated. The three giants influenced the public opinion each in their own way; it was even expected of them. Dostoevsky gave the Russian people a sense of pride and hope for the future.

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*Dostoevsky and his second wife Anna devoured War and Peace, but Dostoevsky hid the part in which Lise dies in childbirth, because Anna was pregnant at that time. She was quite upset with her husband for losing it! I wonder how he explained her sudden absence and Andrey being suddenly a marriage prospect for Natasha;-)

** He had asked Turgenev for 100 thalers, and Turgenev sent him 50. By the time Dostoevsky paid Turgenev back the value of the thaler had dropped so much that it was practically worth nothing.

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Russian Literature timeline:

1792 Poor Liza, Karamzin

1830 The Belkin Stories, Pushkin

1832 Eugene Onegin, Pushkin

1842 Dead Souls, Gogol

1842 Petersburg Stories, Gogol

1852 Childhood, Tolstoy

1846-1852 A Sportsman’s Sketches, Turgenev

1859 Oblomov, Goncharov

1862 Fathers and Sons, Turgenev

1866 Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky

1867 The Gambler, Dostoevsky

1869 The Idiot, Dostoevsky

1865-1869 War and Peace, Tolstoy  

1872 Demons, Dostoevsky

1877 Anna Karenina, Tolstoy  

1879-1880 The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky

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Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 2021

Books read: Dostoevsky in Love by Alex Christofi and Joseph Frank’s biography of Dostoevsky.

The Karamazov Readalong

As you may have seen already, my friend Liz Humphreys from the blog Leaping Life is going to host a The Brothers Karamazov readalong. Her timing is no coincidence, as 2021 marks the bicentenary of Dostoevsky’s birth. It’s the perfect opportunity for those of you who have been meaning to read Dostoevsky’s epic novel The Brothers Karamazov. She has invited me and our mutual friend Rebecca Bud to make some contributions to the readalong, which obviously we were more than happy to do!

Intimidating

The Brothers Karamazov is definitely one of those intimidating novels that are huge in every way. It tackles some of the biggest questions in life, such as the conflict between reason and faith. Of all the great Russian writers of the 19th century it was after all Dostoevsky who made us think and reflect the most. He didn’t shy away from subjects such as poverty and prostitution and has a habit of leading you into the darkest corners of the human mind.

A very short biography

Dostoevsky was born in Moscow in 1821, where his father was a doctor at a hospital for the poor. Perhaps it was there that his lifelong fascination with less fortunate people began. By the time Dostoevsky was 18 years old, both his parents had died. He and his brother moved to St Petersburg, a city that would become very important for his work and life. His first literary succes was a short novel called Poor Folk (1846), and it made him famous overnight. In 1849 Dostoevsky was arrested for treason and sentenced to death. He was already taken to the place of execution, when the tsar at the very last moment pardoned him and his fellow prisoners. He was sent to Siberia instead, and spent four years doing forced labour in chains. He wrote all his major novels (Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Devils and The Brothers Karamazov) after Siberia. He married twice (the second time happily), had 4 children (of which 2 died), and had to overcome a severe gambling addiction. As if all that was not enough he was always ill: he suffered from epilepsy, haemorrhoids and emphysema. The emphysema caused his death in 1881.

Politics

The Brothers Karamazov was written in the last two years of his life, and as such it should be seen as his life’s work. This was a time of great political turmoil in Russia. After the abolition of serfdom Russia had come to a crossroads and the country was divided. Dostoevsky was a convinced Slavophile, believing that Russia should stay true to itself in order to move forward. One of Dostoevsky’s motivations to write The Brothers Karamazov was to have an opportunity to explain his moral and political views. 

Death of his son Alyosha

The basic idea for the novel, which he had in his head for several years before he started writing, changed after the death of his 3 year old son Alyosha. Little Alyosha died from an epilepsy fit. Besides being struck with grief, Dostoevsky also felt immensely guilty, as clearly Alyosha had inherited the disease that killed him from his father. Dostoevsky went to the famous Optina Pustyn monastery, and there he talked to the equally famous Father Ambrose about the death of little Alyosha. He named on of the brothers in The Brothers Karamazov ‘Alyosha’ and gave Father Ambrose a part as Father Zosima. 

The quintessential novel

“Everything would be put in with an idea that would illuminate the whole.The very selection of facts will suggest how they are to be understood. And it ought to be interesting even for light reading, apart from its value as a work of reference. It would be, so to say, a presentation of the spiritual, moral, inner life of Russia. I want everyone to buy it, I want it to be a book that will be found on every table. It’s an immense undertaking” (from Demons, as quoted by Christofi, page 176 Dostoevsky in Love).

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I can highly recommend the biography Dostoevsky in Love by Alex Christofi as an introduction to Dostoevsky and his work. Christofi takes you through Dostoevsky’s life with quotes from letters, excerpts of his novels and notes from his diaries. It’s as if we can hear Dostoevsky himself reminiscing about his life.

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As an introduction to the readalong the three of us have recorded a podcast, in which Liz explains all about the readalong. If you wish to take part, you can find more information on Liz’s blog. The readalong starts on the 27th of July.

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 2021