1 May 2012 § Leave a comment
I’ve been inspired to make more effort to write on here by none other than Dostoevsky himself. In a letter to Vladimir Solovyov in January 1876, he describes his innovative publishing venture Diary of a Writer:
I’ll write about things I’ve heard and read – everything or anything that has struck my imagination during the preceding month…. Its account of an event will not be as a news item so much as an effort to show what more enduring effect the event will leave behind it, more related it a general trend. Finally, I have no intention whatsoever of confining myself to simple reportage. I am not a chronicler. What I have in mind is a diary in the full sense of that word, i.e., an account of what has caught my personal interest, even if it is just a whim.
I’ve seen other people describing Diary of a Writer as being like a blog, and browsing through it again last week, it struck me how absolutely spot-on that description is. Published monthly, (or thereabouts) from 1876-77, it’s a chaotic mixture of journalism, polemic, memoir, short stories and reviews and it was incredibly popular. To take a random example, the issue for March 1876 covers a debate about idealism versus reality, a short story about an old woman, musings on European government, Don Carlos, spiritism, and the youth of Russia.
And like today’s bloggers, Dostoevsky became actively engaged with his readership: his open and candid style spurred many ordinary Russians to write to him with their own thoughts and often their own problems, and this grumpy old man did his best to respond to them all individually. When work on The Brothers Karamazov forced him to cease publication of the Diary, he had 7,000 subscribers, and received hundreds of letters from his readers begging him to continue. He did manage to start it up again 1880-81 but only managed a couple of issues before he died.
The Diary served for Dostoevsky as a laboratory where he carried out his preparatory work for The Brothers Karamazov, so there’s a lot on court cases, suicide and horrible cases of child neglect (all the examples in Ivan Karamazov’s great raging against God are to be found there in the Diary). It’s also really useful for getting behind the scenes and seeing a bit of Dostoevsky the person – apart from odd passages in the novels, this is as close as we get to any sort of autobiography.
There’s an awful lot of it though, and quite large chunks of it show an uncomfortably unattractive side to Dostoevsky, particularly when he goes off on long xenophobic rants: Russia was busy helping to liberate the Southern Slav nations from the Ottoman Empire at the time, and Dostoevsky saw the war as the first sign that Russia was fulfilling her destiny to bring salvation and brotherhood to the world – it all gets a bit much. The Diary is a marvellous idea in theory, and there are some rather good little stories and other gems lurking in its pages, but the truth is that Dostoevsky’s strengths lie in his fiction, not his journalism.