After you decapitate someone, might their severed head continue thinking? Prince Myshkin holds his audience spellbound with this macabre inquiry in The Idiot, a great novel whose author, Fyodor Dostoevsky, was once called the Shakespeare of the lunatic asylum. Each of his great novels concerns a murder (one a parricide); most also touch upon the sickening theme of the rape of a child. The writer Lafcadio Hearn warned that reading him might actually drive you mad: it can certainly invoke pity and terror, embarrassment and laughter.
Dostoevsky’s life was even weirder than his fiction. He was born in 1821, the son of a surgeon whom he believed to have been killed by his own serfs. He was often poor, and so he is the only great Russian writer of his generation whose first language was Russian rather than French: there was no money for the requisite governess. After writing the sentimental Poor Folk (1845), he joined the socialist Petrashevsky’s circle, was arrested and spent six months in solitary. On 22 December 1849 he and others were given long peasant blouses as shrouds and condemned to death by firing squad.
They were tied to stakes, summoned to repentance by a priest, and blind-folded. Tsar Nicholas I loved to be seen as all-powerful, and personally supervised the sacking of all schoolmasters whose pupils slouched in class. That day he choreographed a mock-execution with an aide-de-camp galloping onto the scene to reveal the true sentences: hard labour in Siberia. Dostoevsky, heavily shackled, took into his eight years of exile The Pickwick Papers, David Copperfield and a Decembrist Bible. Of all writers he best loved Dickens, whose novels calmed him down and cheered him up. Like Dickens, Dostoevsky was a great reader and performer of his own work.
The novels he wrote on his return from exile, after a change of political heart, rank in any league table among the greatest. Dostoevsky was now a monarchist and the arch-enemy of radicals. The title of The Devils (1871)— aka The Possessed — refers to socialists crazed by spite and envy. It is a novel that with hindsight seems to prophesy the age of Stalin, under whose rule — although Poor Folk stayed in the syllabus — Dostoevsky’s later work went out of favour and out of print.
When, in 1971, the Soviet Academy opened a subscription list for the first new edition of his work for half a century, crowds of Russians queued patiently through the night to enter their names. But even then, two decades after Stalin’s death, much about Dostoevsky was still censored. It was, for example, too embarrassing to be mentioned by Soviet biographers that Dostoevsky visited Petersburg’s Winter Palace and developed a close relationship with the Royal Family. Rather oddly, this book’s eccentric index gives the enticing entry ‘tutoring Tsar’s children’ with no following page reference. We are, however, told that he was once seen hanging on to one of the Tsarina Maria Fyodorovna’s buttons while she tried unsuccessfully to retire and that she cried. His habit of buttonholing you was quite literal.
That is not a bad analogy for the experience of reading his novels. It recalls being addressed by a complete stranger with unnerving and soul-piercing intimacy. And it may be why the composer Tchaikovsky — who wept when he read The Brothers Karamazov as he had never wept at any other book — nonetheless recorded: ‘Author of genius. But the more I read, the more he weighs me down.’ Tchaikovsky attended Dostoevsky’s rapturously applauded Pushkin Speech with its mystical summons to love of the Russian people.
Many such small, beguiling anecdotes are to be found in Peter Sekirin’s Dostoevsky Archive, whose subtitle ‘Firsthand Accounts of the Novelist from Contemporaries and Rare Periodicals‘ is exact. Sekirin recently made available to English-speaking readers a quarry of original Russian material on Chekhov; he has now performed the same service for serious scholars of Dostoevsky.
The book is — inevitably — a mixed bag, stuffed with information of varying interest to the non-specialist. It is cheering to discover that Dostoevsky could not stand Wagner. He preferred the music of Mendelsohn, Mozart, Beethoven and Rossini.
Tolstoy so admired Dostoevsky’s The House of the Dead that he wrote ‘I don’t know a better book in all literature’ and asked a mutual friend to ‘please tell him that I love him’. It was to Tolstoy that the writer Strakhov, who worked with Dostoevsky on literary journals during the 1860s and 1870s, spread the wicked rumour that Dostoevsky had sexually assaulted a nine-year-old girl in a public bathhouse. It is good to find that Sekirin gives this tale no credence.
Dostoevsky in his turn expressed great admiration for Anna Karenina, in his own widely read and influential Writer’s Diary. Both passionate — and heterodox — Christians, the two giants were very aware of each other but never met. Dostoevsky acknowledged that he was jealous of his rival’s wealth and equally of his success, and once referred rudely to ‘landlord literature’ with its patrician and pastoral calm. One month before he died in January 1881 Dostoevsky again showed himself ambivalent when announcing that ‘Tolstoy is powerful. He is a great talent. He did not say all he could.’