Essays on Russian Novelists: Dostoevsky

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The life of Dostoevski contrasts harshly with the luxurious ease and steady level seen in the outward existence of his two great contemporaries, Turgenev and Tolstoi. From beginning to end he lived in the very heart of storms, in the midst of mortal coil. He was often as poor as a rat; he suffered from a horrible disease; he was sick and in prison, and no one visited him; he knew the bitterness of death. Such a man's testimony as to the value of life is worth attention; he was a faithful witness, and we know that his testimony is true.

Fedor Mikhailovich Dostoevski was born on the 30 October 1821, at Moscow. His father was a poor surgeon, and his mother the daughter of a mercantile man. He was acquainted with grief from the start, being born in a hospital. There were five children, and they very soon discovered the exact meaning of such words as hunger and cold. Poverty in early years sometimes makes men rather close and miserly in middle age, as it certainly did in the case of Ibsen, who seemed to think that charity began and ended at home. Not so Dostoevski: he was often victimised, he gave freely and impulsively, and was chronically in debt. He had about as much business instinct as a prize-fighter or an opera singer. As Merezhkovski puts it: "This victim of poverty dealt with money as if he held it not an evil, but utter rubbish. Dostoevski thinks he loves money, but money flees him. Tolstoi thinks he hates money, but money loves him, and accumulates about him. The one, dreaming all his life of wealth, lived, and but for his wife's business qualities would have died, a beggar. The other, all his life dreaming and preaching of poverty, not only has not given away, but has greatly multiplied his very substantial possessions." In order to make an impressive contrast, the Russian critic is here unfair to Tolstoi, but there is perhaps some truth in the Tolstoi paradox. No wonder Dostoevski loved children, for he was himself a great child.

He was brought up on the Bible and the Christian religion. The teachings of the New Testament were with him almost innate ideas. Thus, although his parents could not give him wealth, or ease, or comfort, or health, they gave him something better than all four put together.

When he was twenty-seven years old, having impulsively expressed revolutionary opinions at a Radical Club to which he belonged, he was arrested with a number of his mates, and after an imprisonment of some months, he was led out on the 22 December 1849, with twenty-one companions, to the scaffold. He passed through all the horror of dying, for visible preparations had been made for the execution, and he was certain that in a moment he would cease to live. Then came the news that the Tsar had commuted the sentence to hard labour; this saved their lives, but one of the sufferers had become insane.

Then came four years in the Siberian prison, followed by a few years of enforced military service. His health actually grew better under the cruel regime of the prison, which is not difficult to understand, for even a cruel regime is better than none at all, and Dostoevski never had the slightest notion of how to take care of himself. At what time his epilepsy began is obscure, but this dreadful disease faithfully and frequently visited him during his whole adult life. From a curious hint that he once let fall, reenforced by the manner in which the poor epileptic in "The Karamazov Brothers" acquired the falling sickness, we cannot help thinking that its origin came from a blow given in anger by his father.

Dostoevski was enormously interested in his disease, studied its symptoms carefully, one might say eagerly, and gave to his friends minute accounts of exactly how he felt before and after the convulsions, which tally precisely with the vivid descriptions written out in his novels. This illness coloured his whole life, profoundly affected his character, and gave a feverish and hysterical tone to his books. ...

William Lyon Phelps

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