My favourite Russian author is Dostoevsky, whose best books are not just profound examinations of the human soul etc, but also nasty, violent, ironic, caustic, and (at times) extremely funny. Recently I picked up Henri Troyat's Firebrand which is an old-fashioned, novelistic account of FD's life. It's a great read, so much so that I decided to ride the wave of pleasure and seize the moment to simultaneously plough through some of the heavier Dostoevsky tomes sitting on my shelves, including the selected letters and the joyless prose of Konstantin Mochulsky's critical biography. (I'm saving Joseph Frank's five-volume epic for later).
It's fascinating to observe how both the racy volume and dryly critical work were constructed from the same source materials. Meanwhile I have been reminded of Dostoevsky's dramatic life story: his father's murder; his mock execution and exile; his gambling madness; and his calamitous debut on the St Petersburg literary scene. For those who don't know the story, Dostoevsky's first novel Poor Folk was passed before publication to a legendary critic/blowhard called Vissarion Belinsky who promptly declared that Dostoevsky was the heir to Gogol. This was nonsense: Poor Folk is a mawkish tale that would have been forgotten had the same author not also written Crime and Punishment et al. Still, the 24-year-old Fedya D was suddenly feted everywhere as the new literary genius of St Petersburg. It went to his head and he soon became insufferable, alienating all his new literary "friends", who revenged themselves when he published his second novel, The Double. Not merely trashed, the book was denounced. Dostoevsky became a bad joke.
What I didn't know until now was the length of time between his moment of glory and terrible downfall. Authors then wrote much more quickly than they do today, and some of those impossibly fat 19th-century mega-books were composed in a quarter of the time it takes Milan Kundera to crank out a boring late novella. Bearing that in mind, take a guess: how long did Fedya D last as a cause celebre? A year? Nine months? Six? Three?
The correct answer is: 15 days. That's right. Poor Folk was published on 15 January 1846; The Double followed on 30 January. Cue the reputation apocalypse.
Now that has to be some kind of record. Thirteen years later he did emerge from exile to score a comeback with his novel-memoir House of the Dead, but according to Mochulsky, Dostoevsky never recovered his confidence. Even as he was writing some of the greatest books in world literature he remained consumed with anxiety that he had not yet "established his reputation".
Anyway, this led me to wonder: has anybody else ever suffered such a calamitous decline in popularity as Dostoevsky did in January 1846? (Nobody has experienced such a resurrection, that's for sure). The first author to pop into my head was Martin Amis. Critics loved his early books, but giving his recent efforts a vigorous kicking has become a national sport. But it took decades for Amis to reach that point, and he's pompous enough to believe he will be vindicated by posterity.
Plenty of authors suffer a precipitous decline after they die, of course: Somerset Maugham was once ubiquitous; now he isn't. Back in the 70s, 80s and even 90s you could rely on encountering Anthony Powell in the pages of your Sunday paper on an almost weekly basis. Since he went to meet the worms, total reputational collapse has not yet occurred but increasingly few people care about him. Were it not for the enduring cult popularity of A Clockwork Orange, much the same could be said about another once-celebrated Anthony.
Then I thought about all those winsome fauns and beardless youths, the teenage writing sensations cruelly hyped by publishers only to be dropped as soon as they emerge from the chrysalis of puberty. There have been so many of these literary zygotes I have lost count. I see them on the Waterstone's table and shed a tiny tear for the stars that burn so briefly before blinking out. Lord knows I don't remember their names. Well, Irina Denezhkina I do. Her Give Me was published by Simon & Schuster and then completely forgotten, although she still plies her trade in her native Russia. Or what about that chap wot wrote The Drowning People? He's still about, but now he's no longer 18 or 20 or whatever, media folk are far less excited.
Indeed, surveying the Somme-like charnel-fields of butchered reputations laid out before us, the closest thing I can find to Dostoevsky's experience is that of Gautam Malkani, author of Londonstani. Massive hype, a £380,000 advance – and hardly any sales. He didn't even get round to writing a second book before people started pissing on him. His website has not been updated since May 2007. Like most people I haven't read the book so I can't comment on whether Malkani's fate is fair (whose is?) but he seems like a (willing) victim of impossible expectations, and an attempt by slavishly unoriginal publishing/media tossers to create a new Brick Lane/White Teeth sensation by throwing a lot of dosh at a book about multicultural London. It's not his fault they were idiots.
Read more >>>