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.

*******

*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.

********

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

*******

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).

*****

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.

*****

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

Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?!

As far as we know, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky never met each other. Even though they were contemporaries and moved in the same literary circles. They are often named in the same breath, but there are probably more differences than similarities between these two giants. And that leads us to the eternal question: who is better, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?


Know-it-alls


They were both pretty full of themselves, especially Tolstoy. Tolstoy considered himself equal to Homer as a writer and better than the rest. He knew better than the tsar how to run the country and better than the church how to interpret the Bible, which didn’t lead to any exiles, he was too famous, but it did lead to excommunication; he was to first Russian to get a civil funeral. Dostoevsky too was obsessed with religion. He saw himself as a prophet and warned against an immoral future without God.


Gamblers


Both writers had to deal with lack of money due to their gambling addictions, and were forced to write to pay off their debts. Tolstoy managed to lose the house where he was born and Dostoevsky resorted to terrible contractual conditions to get money. Both were able to overcome their addiction, but Dostoevsky struggled for money most of his life. Unlike Tolstoy he was not from an aristocratic family and had no family estate that raised money.


Dostoevsky would postpone writing until the deadline of his contract was about to expire. In a state of panic he would then resort to hiring a secretary to dictate to, so that he could write faster. This contributed to his somewhat hasty style. Of course he imagined his contemporary in his study at Yasnaya Polyana, meticulously rewriting War and Peace seven times.

Light and darkness


Tolstoy was a healthy and strong figure, always working. In his works life always prevails, a continuing flow of life, a life that needs to be lived. There is a contrast between city life and the countryside. In the countryside his personages can be their true selves. Tolstoy starts his novels somewhere in medias res, and ends them similarly. This emphasises the sense of the eternal circle of life. His message is good, yes, terrible things happen, but the sun also rises again, every day.


Dostoevsky suffered from epilepsy, thought he was going to get shot in what turned out to be a mock execution and was sentenced to several years of forced labour in Siberia. In his works he explores the darkest corners of the mind and the city. His characters are tested to the maximum. Where Tolstoy leaves it at a hint of incest, Dostoevsky makes incest, abuse, murder, money, (mental) illness, prostitution and other moral decline his main subjects. The question of the existence of God is at the core of his writing.


Commercial success


If you have to share your convictions and philosophies with the world and you need money, it helps, of course, to have good commercial insight in order to reach as big an audience as possible. Both writers succeeded extremely well. Dostoevsky weaved his psychological and religious insights into dramatic, blood-curdling murder mysteries, for which he took inspiration from newspapers, the truth often being more fantastic than fiction. Tolstoy incorporated his visions into enthralling novels, life bursting from their pages.


Two very different writers. Both very, very good. The question will always remain open to discussion. I don’t believe in God, but I can imagine these two somewhere up there, looking down upon all this and smilingly stroking their long beards…


*****


© Elisabeth van der Meer


As a source of inspiration I read my father’s old copy of Steiner’s Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. The photos of Tolstoy’s study and Dostoevsky’s manuscript are from Wikipedia. The others are mine. I’m adding the link to eight other opinions on this question and to my posts about incest in War and Peace and Dostoevsky and Tolstoy for further reading. Thanks for stopping by and until next time!

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2016/01/15/is-there-really-an-incestuous-relationship-in-war-and-peace/

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2016/12/13/typically-dostoevsky/

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2016/09/15/typically-tolstoy/

Gogol’s Taras Bulba – a milestone

Gogol gave Russian literature its' own identity

Gogol's Taras Bulba (1842) is a milestone in Russian literature. If Pushkin provided a language and inspiration for future Russian writers, than Gogol gave them their own distinct identity. When you're reading Taras Bulba, you recognise so much of what has been written later.

The Romantic Era

Romanticism was the main literary movement in Russia from the end of the eighteenth century until halfway into the nineteenth century. Lermontov and Pushkin are the most famous writers of this period. The industrial revolution sparked an interest in all things pure, natural, past and authentic.

Gogol was an Ukrainian with Cossack blood running through his veins living in Saint Petersburg. When everything to do with Little Russia, as the Ukraine was called back then, became hugely popular there, he cleverly wrote Taras Bulba. The story is full of Ukrainian words, folklore and Cossack customs.

The story

It's a rather violent story. The hero of the story, Taras Bulba, is a Cossack headman, who in order to complete his sons' education, takes them to fight against the catholic Poles. The youngest walks over to the other side for the sake of a Polish girl and for that his father kills him, while the oldest gets tortured to death by the Polish in front of his father. Not for the faint-hearted.

“Oh, steppes, how beautiful you are!”

The story has often been criticised. Historically it's incorrect and the centuries are mixed up. The Cossacks are so violent that they would make the average Isis soldier look away. A Polish servant girl escapes through a secret tunnel from the city that has been besieged by the Cossacks. She wakes up the youngest son to tell him that his sweetheart is among the starving in the city. Together the go through the tunnel into the city, where indeed the people are dying in the streets. Why didn't they just all escape through that tunnel?! The love story is not at all plausible. Gogol talks about the unspoiled Steppe, 'upon which were sprinkled millions of different flowers', and 'the air was filled with the notes of a thousand different birds', and more of this.

Its' Follow-ups

Dostoevsky apparently said once that every Russian writer came from underneath Gogol's Overcoat. He was a huge fan of his work and found him very inspiring. In The Brothers Karamazov (1880) there is a rather painful scene that appears in Taras Bulba too: an emaciated woman with a infant clutched to her dried out breasts. Just like Gogol, Dostoevsky was fascinated by the excesses of human existence.

Turgenev most definitely took inspiration from Taras Bulba. Especially the striking nature scenes resound even more beautifully in Turgenev's work. His Acia (1858) contains many Romantic elements and there too the protagonist falls in love with a lively dark-eyed girl.

And in Tolstoy's Cossacks (1863) too: it starts more or less the same. The protagonist is traveling to the Caucasus and thinks about his past and future. The scene is reminiscent of Taras Bulba departing with his sons, each with their own thoughts. Tolstoy's protagonist is very much attracted by the Cossack way of life and he too falls in love with a spirited dark-eyed girl. Tolstoy's Cossacks are not as violent, though.

Hadji Murat (1904) is most similar. Both stories are named after their hero, and both heroes are exotic leaders, feared and admired by all. It breathes the same atmosphere, we encounter the same freshly plastered walls and the same girls with coins on their necklaces. Tolstoy's last fictional story would appear to be an homage to Gogol.

Conclusion

Gogol used a lot of humour in his work. Although it is not always clear if he meant something as humorous or if he was genuinely exaggerating, I'm more inclined to consider the former. If Taras Bulba slays six enemies with one sway with his sword, surely that is meant to be funny. All in all it's a pretty good story, just like Pulp Fiction is a pretty good film. Is it one of the ten best books ever written, like Hemingway once claimed? No, that really is exaggerated. But it is definitely a milestone well worth reading.



© Elisabeth van der Meer

The illustrations are from an old Russian edition of Taras Bulba

I read the Peter Constantine translation

 

Typically Dostoevsky

Russian literature from the second half of the nineteenth century aims to describe and analyse life in all its aspects. This literary movement is called Realism. Next to Tolstoy and Turgenev the third giant in this genre is Dostoevsky (1821-1881) of course.

Literary History

The start of his career as a writer is legendary: after the military academy he knew that a military career was not for him and he started writing seriously as soon as possible. He gave his first novella, Poor Folk, to his friend Grigorovich to read. Grigorovich read it together with Nekrasov, the most influential critic at the time. They finished reading it at four in the morning. Their enthusiasm was such, that they went straight to Dostoevsky and woke him up. They congratulated him Russian style on his literary talents, and the rest is history…

Influences

Dostoevsky was mostly influenced by gothic and romantic writers such as Walter Scott, Ann Radcliffe, Dickens, Schiller, Pushkin and Karamzin. He, in turn, influenced writers like Kafka, Sartre, Bulgakov, Gide and Nietzsche. To name but a few. His most famous novel, The Brothers Karamazov, was and is a favourite of Stalin, Camus, Joyce and Putin. It was lying on Tolstoy's nightstand when he died.

Before and after Siberia

Dostoevsky's work can be devided into two parts: before and after Siberia. In 1849 he was sentenced to four years of forced labour and another four years of exile in Siberia, due to his political engagements. His works from before Siberia are perhaps a bit more sentimental, more romantic. From this period we have Poor Folk, White Nights, The Double and Netochka Nezvanova. After Siberia he wrote The Player, The Idiot, The Possessed, Crime and Punishment and, of course, The Brothers Karamazov. These works are darker and more thought provoking.

Great psychological insight

Dostoevsky is well known for his psychological character studies. His characters often personify one of his ideas, like Raskolnikov (Crime and Punishment) represents his theory that a select group of people could decide what's right and wrong for the majority, even murdering a bad person to save other people. His character seems contradictory at first sight; gentle and compassionate, but at the same time calculating and cold. Naturally both sides are necessary to carry out the theory. Another major Dostoevskian idea is spiritual regeneration through suffering. Raskolnikov is torn by remorse and doubt after his horrible deed. He is sentenced to a prison camp in Siberia and finally after a few years he starts to feel regenerated.

Ordinary people, small talk and everyday situations? There's none of that with Dostoevsky. You will meet a whole lot of pawn brokers, prostitutes, failures, misfits, nihilists, religious fanatics, gamblers, murderers and hysterical women, sometimes combined into one character. Recurring themes are religion, redemption, the mighty rouble, the innocence of children, lost honour, suicide, alcoholism and epilepsy.

Punishment in Siberia

His involuntary stay in Siberia influenced him tremendously and Dostoevsky's work contains many autobiographical elements. In those days the labour camp was mixed, the political prisoners sat together with the criminals. The circumstances were almost unbearable and he learned a lot about people. He observed murderers from close by.

Style

His writing style is very enthusiastic. He talks to the reader, draws him into his exciting and scandalous story, and demands him to think about the big questions in life. He often had to finish his books before a certain deadline, to earn money to pay off his gambling debts. As a result his style is a bit hasty. He did not take the time, like Tolstoy, to endlessly revise. Most of the action takes place in the course of a few days and in a room full of people. As Nabokov has pointed out, this and the lack of background details, make his novels feel more like a play. He thinks Dostoevsky would have been better as a playwright.

In short

It's easy to recognise Dostoevsky; not a normal person in sight and everyone is in a heightened state of excitement. His novels are mostly written in the classical detective style. No detailed natural descriptions such as Turgenev wrote, only the most necessary. His characters don't go through any psychological growth, like Tolstoy's Pierre. But it's not all misery with Dostoevsky, he had a great sense of humour. He often gave his characters appropriate names; a 'raskolnik' for instance, is someone who separates himself, a nonconformist.

 

Dostoevsky is not for everyone, and not for every day either, but boring he is definitely not. Virginia Woolf described his work as follows:

 

“We open the door and find ourselves in a room full of Russian generals, their stepdaughters and cousins, and crowds of miscellaneous people who are all talking at the top of their voices about their most private affairs.”

 

Books read: Geschiedenis van de Russische Literatuur – Karel van het Reve

Lectures on Russian Literature – Vladimir Nabokov

Photos and dates from Wikipedia