A little biography of Dostoevsky

29 August 2012 § Leave a comment

I thought my book probably needed a brief chronology of Dostoevsky’s life, and I was going to do a straightforward timeline, but all modern editions of the novels have those anyway, so I thought it would be more fun to write a short biography which, I hope, introduces all the events that I mention in the book. 

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky was born in Moscow, on 30 October 1821[1], the second son of a military doctor. His father was strict, but loving, and Dostoevsky spent an uneventful childhood in Moscow, and at the family’s small country estate at Darovoe in Tula Province. At his father’s wishes, Dostoevsky studied at The Academy of Military Engineers in St Petersburg, but by the time he graduated, his father had died and he left the army in 1844 to pursue his literary interests.

The 1840s were years of potentially exciting political developments, in Russia and Europe, characterised by the growth of liberal ideas, and early socialism. In this climate, Dostoevsky’s debut novel, Poor People (1846) was ecstatically received but his more experimental follow-ups were less successful, and largely forgotten, with the exception of The Double (1846)– a fascinating psychological study that is perhaps more comprehensible to later readers than it was in the 1840s.

The failed European revolutions of 1848 terrified the Russian authorities, and the political atmosphere became increasingly repressive. Dostoevsky had become a member of a clandestine political group, and although their activities were mostly confined to discussion only, they were all arrested in 1849. After several months imprisoned in the Peter Paul Fortress in St Petersburg , he and his companions were led out onto Semenovsky Square, whereupon the death sentence was pronounced, and the accused were prepared for the firing squad. This was, however, a sadistic joke on the part of the authorities, for a pardon was immediately announced, and the men were sentenced to hard labour in Siberia instead.

Dostoevsky spent four years in prison, in Omsk, an experience he later fictionalised in Notes from the House of the Dead (published 1861). He was released from prison in 1854, but had to remain in exile in Siberia for another five years, until, in 1859 he was finally granted permission to return to European Russia. Dostoevsky had written several novellas and articles during his exile, including The Village of Stepanchikovo, and on returning to St Petersburg, he plunged himself back into literary activity and political debate, and made his first visits to Europe. He and his older brother, Mikhail, published two journals, first Time and then Epoch, and his first major novels were serialised in these journals: Humiliated and Insulted (1861) and Notes from Underground(1864) prepared the way and then, in 1866, came Crime and Punishment, the first of his four great novels.

Whilst exiled in Siberia, Dostoevsky fell in love with Maria Isaeva, the wife of a poor schoolmaster, and they married shortly after her husband’s death. The marriage did not get off to a good start when Dostoevsky suffered the horrors of his first major epileptic fit on their wedding night – he had already had a few minor attacks, but this fateful night confirmed Dostoevsky’s suspicion about his condition. The marriage was not particularly happy and Maria died in 1864. A few years later, Dostoevsky married his second wife, Anna Snitkina who had been employed as his stenographer.

His second honeymoon was, in some ways, as unlucky as his first, but his new wife was made of much tougher material than Maria and the marriage was long and happy. The newly-weds intended to travel to Europe for a few months, but Dostoevsky had accrued such terrible debts in Russia that they had to remain abroad so that he could avoid debtors’ prison. The couple lived an itinerant life, Dostoevsky was possessed by a gambling addiction that continued to destroy their fragile finances, and their adored first child died at the age of just three months, but somehow he managed to write his second masterpiece, The Idiot(1868)which, unsurprisingly, is one of his darkest works.

By 1871, the Dostoevskys’ financial position had stabilised enough that they were able to return to St Petersburg, and in 1872 Dostoevsky completed his political novel The Devils, the first part of which had been published while he was still abroad. Anna took a firm hand on the family finances, managing negotiations with creditors and publishers, and eventually running the business of publishing Dostoevsky’s books herself. In the 1870s, Dostoevsky was at last able to enjoy a comfortable family life, dividing his time between literary life in St Petersburg and a summer cottage in the small town of Staraya Russa, and taking great delight in bringing up his two children, Lyubov and Fyodor (although a second son, Alexey, tragically died of epilepsy, in 1878, aged just three). His wildly popular one-man journal, Diary of a Writer, which was published by the Dostoevskys in 1876-77 established his reputation as one of the country’s foremost writers and commentators, but he had to stop publication so that he could concentrate on his last, and greatest novel, The Karamazov Brothers.

The first installation of The Karamazov Brothers appeared in February 1879, and held Russia transfixed until its completion in November 1880, just a couple of months before Dostoevsky’s death. In 1880 Dostoevsky was invited to give a speech during the festivities marking the unveiling of a statue to Russia’s greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin, and if there was any doubt about the esteem in which he was held, it was confirmed by the rapturous reception his speech received. When he died of emphysema in January 1881, the crowds of mourners at his funeral stretched back for almost a mile behind his coffin, bringing St Petersburg to a halt, and for a brief moment, the growing political turmoil in Russia came to a standstill, as the country united in grief at the loss of one their greatest writers.

Is Dostoevsky depressing?

16 November 2011 § Leave a comment

A while ago, a friend of mine made a comment about Dostoevsky being depressing. It wasn’t really the time to launch into a full-blown defence, and I got no further than a feeble “no he isn’t”, but  I kept thinking afterwards about what I should have said, as one always does. I remembered it again last night; I’d had a bad day, and had a headache, but forced myself to sit down at the computer and get some work done on the book. An hour or so later, I was feeling much better: on this occasion it was probably just the absorption in work that had cheered me up, rather than Dostoevsky himself, but it got me thinking again about exactly why it is that his novels are not in the least bit depressing, and often quite the opposite.

The delight of reading any book comes from the ability of an author to absorb the reader completely, to take them to a different place, and even if that place is less comfortable than the sofa and glass of wine that’s left behind, there’s still pleasure in the sense of escape from daily life. Dostoevsky has this ability in bucketloads; his plots gallop along, full of unexpected twists and tantalisingly half-answered questions and you have to keep reading and reading out of a desperate desire to know what’s going to happen next. Will Raskolnikov get caught, or will he crack and confess? Who really murdered old Fydor Karamazov? Will Dmitry get a fair trial? Which man will Nastasya Filippovna finally choose? And so on. The novels are packed with action and drama, full of larger-than-life characters who sparkle off the page: when I’m delving into one of the novels looking for a reference, I have to be on my guard not to get sucked back into the story, otherwise I’d never get anything written.

There’s also a fair amount of humour (I even spotted a book in the library entirely devoted to the subject of humour in Dostoevsky, although its contents seemed disappointingly dry), from the straightforward buffoonery of Rogozhin’s entourage, to the sharp digs aimed at the odious and stupid Luzhin (the conversation between Luzhin and Lebezyatnikov when they attempt to discuss the “woman question” is hilarious). One of my favourite scenes is when Raskolnikov teases Razumikhin about his obvious desire for Dunya and the two of them become helpless with laughter (yes, Raskolnikov laughs!), and even the utterly terrifying portrayal of madness that is the Devil’s visit to Ivan is full of humour.

What really nails it, however, is the irrepressible love of life that pervades everything that Dostoevsky writes. Even in the midst of madness and violence, there seems to be a desperate struggle to keep going, to find some way onwards: there is no defeatism in Dostoevsky’s novels. Ivan faces his great crisis of faithbecause he loves life and humanity so much, and the reason that we retain a shred of sympathy for Stavrogin, is because he tries so hard to find and hold onto something good, even though it eventually slips from his grasp. It’s why Dostoevsky won’t let Ippolit succeed in his suicide attempt, and why Kirillov does not, in the end, willingly shoot himself. Dostoevsky sees the miracle of human life as something huge and wonderful, and it is this sense of wonder that gives him the power to magnify the excitement of life, with all its messiness and complications, to the dimensions that it reaches in his novels. Reading Dostoevsky is exhilarating, and at times exhausting. He makes big demands of his readers, but pays them back for the effort. He’s scary, exciting and sometimes a lot of fun.  And never, ever depressing.

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