Nabokov on Dostoevsky

Vladimir Nabokov, who died in 1977, left a mass of notes he had used for his lectures on literature at Wellesley and Cornell. This treasure trove of the novelist's often unconventional ideas has been the object of an editing project undertaken by the eminent textual scholar Fredson Bowers. The project produced, first, a collection of Nabokov's lectures on English, French and German writers, published last year, and, now, a companion volume on Russian writers, to come out in the fall.
Perhaps the most surprising essay in the new volume - at least for readers who know Nabokov as the master stylist but not as the iconoclastic lecturer - is composed of his classroom lectures on Fyodor Dostoyevsky, part of which is reprinted here. In these lectures, the Russian-American modernist looks at the 19th-century Russian giant and finds him to have feet of clay. This article is excerpted from ''Lectures on Russian Literature,'' by Vladimir Nabokov, to be published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc./Bruccoli Clark. By Vladimir Nabokov My position in regard to Dostoyevsky is a curious and difficult one. In all my courses I approach literature from the only point of view that literature interests me - namely the point of view of enduring art and individual genius. From this point of view Dostoyevsky is not a great writer, but a rather mediocre one - with flashes of excellent humor, but, alas, with wastelands of literary platitudes in between. In ''Crime and Punishment'' Raskolnikov for some reason or other kills an old female pawnbroker and her sister. Justice in the shape of an inexorable police officer closes slowly in on him until in the end he is driven to a public confession, and through the love of a noble prostitute he is brought to a spiritual regeneration that did not seem as incredibly banal in 1866 when the book was written as it does now when noble prostitutes are apt to be received a little cynically by experienced readers. My difficulty, however, is that not all the readers to whom I talk in this or other classes are experienced. A good third, I should say, do not know the difference between real literature and pseudoliterature, and to such readers Dostoyevsky may seem more important and more artistic than such trash as our American historical novels or things called ''From Here to Eternity'' and suchlike balderdash.
However, I shall speak at length about a number of really great artists - and it is on this high level that Dostoyevsky is to be criticized.
Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky was born in 1821 in the family of a rather poor man. His father was a doctor in one of the public hospitals in Moscow, but the position of a doctor of a public hospital in contemporaneous Russia was a modest one and the Dostoyevsky family lived in cramped quarters and in conditions anything but luxurious.
His father was a petty tyrant who was murdered under obscure circumstances. Freudian-minded explorers of Dostoyevsky's literary work are inclined to see an autobiographic feature in the attitude of Ivan Karamazov toward the murder of his father: Though Ivan was not the actual murderer, yet through his lax attitude, and through his not having prevented a murder he could have prevented, he was in a way guilty of patricide. It seems, according to those critics, that Dostoyevsky all his life labored under a similar consciousness of indirect guilt after his own father had been assassinated by his coachman. Dostoyevsky received his education first at a boarding school in Moscow, then at the Military Engineers' School in Petersburg. He was not particularly interested in military engineering, but his father had desired him to enter that school. Even there he devoted most of his time to the study of literature. After graduation he served at the engineering department just as long as was obligatory in return for the education he had received. In 1844 he resigned his commission and entered upon his literary career. His first book, ''Poor Folk'' (1846), was a hit both with the literary critics and the reading public.
His early inclinations were to the side of the radicals; he leaned more or less toward the Westernizers. He also consorted with a secret society (though apparently did not actually become its member) of young men who had adopted the socialistic theories of Saint-Simon and Fourier. These young men gathered at the house of an official of the State Department, Mikhail Petrashevsky, and read aloud and discussed the books of Fourier, talked socialism, and criticized the Government. After the upheavals of 1848 in several European countries, there was a wave of reaction in Russia; the Government was alarmed and cracked down upon all dissenters. The Petrashevskians were arrested, among them Dostoyevsky. He was found guilty of ''having taken part in criminal plans, having circulated the letter of Belinsky* full of insolent expressions against the Orthodox Church and the Supreme Power, and of having attempted, together with others, to circulate anti-Government writings with the aid of a private printing press.'' He awaited his trial in the Fortress of SS. Peter and Paul, of which the commander was a General Nabokov, an ancestor of mine. The sentence was severe -eight years of hard labor in Siberia (this was later commuted to four by the Czar) -but a monstrously cruel procedure was followed before the actual sentence was read to the condemned men: They were told they were to be shot; they were taken to the place *A letter written to the writer Nikolai Gogol in 1847 by the Russian literary critic Vissarion Belinsky. [ TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE ] assigned for the execution, stripped to their shirts, and the first batch of prisoners were tied to the posts. Only then the actual sentence was read to them. One of the men went mad. A deep scar was left in Dostoyevsky's soul by the experience of that day. He never quite got over it.
These four years of penal servitude Dostoyevsky spent in Siberia in the company of murderers and thieves, no segregation having been yet introduced between ordinary and political criminals. He described them in his ''Memoirs from the House of Death'' (1862). They do not make a pleasant reading. All the humiliations and hardships he endured are described in detail, as also the criminals among whom he lived. Not to go completely mad in those surroundings, Dostoyevsky had to find some sort of escape. This he found in a neurotic Christianism which he developed during these years. It is only natural that some of the convicts among whom he lived showed, besides dreadful bestiality, an occasional human trait. Dostoyevsky gathered these manifestations and built upon them a kind of very artificial and completely pathological idealization of the simple Russian folk. This was the initial step on his consecutive spiritual road. In 1854, when Dostoyevsky finished his term, he was made a soldier in a battalion garrisoned in a Siberian town. In 1855, Nicholas I died and his son Alexander became Emperor under the name of Alexander II. He was by far the best of the 19th-century Russian rulers. (Ironically, he was the one to die at the hands of the revolutionaries, torn literally in two by a bomb thrown at his feet.) The beginning of his reign brought a pardon to many prisoners. Dostoyevsky was given back his officer's commission. Four years later, he was allowed to return to Petersburg.
During the last years of exile, he had resumed literary work with ''The Manor of Stepanchikovo'' (1859), and the ''Memoirs from the House of Death.'' After his return to Petersburg, he plunged into literary activity. He began at once publishing, together with his brother Mikhail, a literary magazine, Vremya (Time). His ''Memoirs from the House of Death'' and yet another work, a novel, ''The Humiliated and the Insulted'' (1861), appeared in this magazine. His attitude toward the Government had completely changed since the days of his youthful radicalism. ''Greek-Catholic church, absolute monarchy, and the cult of Russian nationalism,'' these three props on which stood the reactionary political Slavophilism were his political faith. The theories of socialism and Western liberalism became for him the embodiments of Western contamination and of satanic sin bent upon the destruction of a Slavic and Greek-Catholic world. It is the same attitude that one sees in Fascism or in Communism -universal salvation.
His emotional life up to that time had been unhappy. In Siberia he had married, but this first marriage proved unsatisfactory. In 1862-63 he had an affair with a woman writer and in her company visited England, France and Germany. This woman, whom he later characterized as ''infernal,'' seems to have been an evil character. Later she married Rozanov, an extraordinary writer combining moments of exceptional genius with manifestations of astounding naivete. (I knew Rozanov, but he had married another woman by that time.) This woman seems to have had a rather unfortunate influence on Dostoyevsky, further upsetting his unstable spirit. It was during this first trip abroad to Germany that the first manifestation of his passion for gambling appeared which during the rest of his life was the plague of his family and an insurmountable obstacle to any kind of material ease or peace to himself.
After his brother's death, the closing of the review which he had been editing left Dostoyevsky a bankrupt, and burdened by the care of his brother's family, a duty which he immediately and voluntarily assumed. To cope with these overwhelming burdens Dostoyevsky applied himself feverishly to work. All his most celebrated writings, ''Crime and Punishment'' (1866), ''The Gambler'' (1867), ''The Idiot'' (1868), ''The Possessed'' (1872), ''The Brothers Karamazov'' (1880), etc., were written under constant stress: He had to work in a hurry, to meet deadlines with hardly any time left to reread what he had written, or rather what he had dictated to a stenographer he had been obliged to hire. In his stenographer he at last found a woman full of devotion and with such practical sense that by her help he met his deadlines and gradually began to extricate himself from his financial mess. In 1867 he married her. This marriage was on the whole a happy one. For four years, from 1867 to 1871, page 60 they had achieved some financial security and were able to return to Russia. From then on to the end of his days Dostoyevsky enjoyed comparative peace. ''The Possessed'' was a great success. Soon after its publication, he was offered the editorship of Prince Meshchersky's very reactionary weekly, The Citizen. His last work, ''The Brothers Karamazov,'' of which he wrote only the first volume and was working on the second when he died, brought him the greatest fame of all his novels.
But even more publicity fell to the lot of his address at the unveiling of the Pushkin memorial in Moscow in 1880. It was a very great event, the manifestation of the passionate love Russia bore Pushkin. The foremost writers of the time took part in it. But of all the speeches the most popular success fell to Dostoyevsky. The gist of his speech was Pushkin as the embodiment of the national spirit of Russia, which subtly understands the ideals of other nations but assimilates and digests them in accordance with its own spiritual setup. In this capacity Dostoyevsky saw the proof of the allembracing mission of the Russian people, etc. When read, this speech does not explain the great success it enjoyed. But if we consider the fact that it was a time when all Europe was allying itself against Russia's rise in power and influence, we can better understand the enthusiasm Dostoyevsky's speech provoked in his patriotic listeners.
A year later, in 1881, and but a short time before the assassination of Alexander II, Dostoyevsky died, enjoying general recognition and esteem. Through French and Russian translations, Western influence, sentimental and Gothic - Samuel Richardson (1689-1761), Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823), Dickens (1812-70), Rousseau (1712-78), Eugene Sue (1804-57) - combines in Dostoyevsky's works with a religion of compassion merging on melodramatic sentimentality.
We must distinguish between ''sentimental'' and ''sensitive.'' A sentimentalist may be a perfect brute in his free time. A sensitive person is never a cruel person. Sentimental Rousseau, who could weep over a progressive idea, distributed his many natural children through various poorhouses and workhouses and never gave a hoot for them. A sentimental old maid may pamper her parrot and poison her niece. The sentimental politician may remember Mother's Day and ruthlessly destroy a rival. Stalin loved babies. Lenin sobbed at the opera, especially at a performance of ''Traviata.'' A whole century of authors praised the simple life of the poor, and so on. Remember that when we speak of sentimentalists, among them Richardson, Rousseau, Dostoyevsky, we mean the nonartistic exaggeration of familiar emotions meant to provoke automatically traditional compassion in the reader.
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