Selected Letters of Fyodor Dostoyevsky
edited by Joseph Frank and David I. Goldstein
reviewed by Steven Faulkner
Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s letters are seldom works of art. Scribbled off in the heat of necessity, usually financial, these letters, full of illegible words, inkblots, and crossed out lines, introduce us to another side of the man whose novels are so carefully arranged and so finely tuned. It is rather surprising and in a way refreshing to find the diligent craftsman of Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov hasting from subject to subject, careless of style. We find him reproaching his family for not writing, justifying his own procrastination, and throwing out lavish affection to the family he misses so much—all in a single breath; he complains of illness, frayed nerves, and of his chronic shortages of money. Joseph Frank, an editor of this volume, remarks that Dostoyevsky “lived and worked under such continuous pressure that, for the greater part of his life, it was impossible for him to regard the time given to writing letters as anything but an intrusion and a waste.” (p. xii) But we are richer for his waste. For in these letters we have a more direct access to the man, his circumstances, relationships, art, and most important, his beliefs.
The editors, Frank and Goldstein, have selected one hundred and fifty-two letters from four volumes of Dostoyevsky’s letters published in Russia. The letters are presented consecutively, beginning with the expressive, romantic letters of the sixteen-year-old student in 1838 and ending on the morning of his death in 1881 with a terse description of his illness and of his last confession and communication. Frank and Goldstein have carefully annotated the letters, explaining historical circumstances, personages, and other matters necessary for the reader’s understanding. Without doubt, many of these letters will be of great interest to students of Dostoyevsky’s life and works. Three letters in particular provide us with rare insight into turning points in his life. A number of other letters are valuable for explaining his artistic methods and purposes. I found some of them especially helpful in interpreting his final great work, The Brothers Karamazov.
The first of these turning points occurred on the scaffold. Dostoyevsky along with several others had been sentenced to die for participating in a subversive organization. Seconds before their anticipated end they were told that their sentences had been commuted to hard labor in Siberia. Moments later they returned to their cells, where Dostoyevsky wrote his brother Mikhail of the joy of life regained and of his trepidation for the future. It is for young Dostoyevsky a revelatory moment: “Never before have such rich and healthy reserves of spiritual life been seething in me as now. But will my body stand the ordeal?” (p. 52, Letter 18) As Frank says, “The words he wrote on this occasion spring straight from his very soul and take us into the most secret recesses of his feeling about life—his ecstatic apprehension of its infinite worth, the sense he was never to lose thereafter of the possibility of its moral transfiguration….” (p. xiii) For the young author who had flirted with atheism, this was an important shifting of perspective.
The second of milestone letters comes four years later. Writing again to Mikhail, he describes his four-year ordeal in prison and its effects upon him. He recalls the outset of his journey to Siberia four years before. The scene is the stuff of novels. Three days after the commutation of his sentence, precisely at midnight, “that is exactly in the first minute of Christmas,” the guards clamped ten pounds of leg irons on each prisoner, put them in an open sleigh, and drove them through the snowy streets of St. Petersburg. It was a strange and bewildering ride. Homes were brightly lit for the Christmas festivities and Dostoyevsky, bound for Siberia, found himself strangely calm, taking leave of each house he passed, one by one, noting in particular his brother’s house and the house where his brother’s children even then were celebrating the birth of Christ. Surprisingly, with the freezing winds in his face and the sleigh skimming on into the countryside, Dostoyevsky felt a resurgence of life and a degree of anticipation.
In the villages they passed, Dostoyevsky began to encounter the peasants of Russia, who despite the holiday season sold the prisoners refreshments at exorbitant prices. Much of what he would learn in the next four years would come from living with such peasants.
This contact with the peasantry proved a mixed blessing. Dostoyevsky had been born into the lower nobility and was staggered by the peasants’ animosity toward his class. “They are a coarse, irritated, and embittered lot. Their hatred for the gentry passes all limits, and for this reason they displayed hostility at the sight of us, along with a malicious joy at seeing us in such a sad plight.” (p. 59, Letter 19)
Prison conditions were appalling, reminding the reader of Solzhenitsyn’s descriptions of a similar camp a hundred years later. But Dostoyevsky escaped embitterment. He read in the frightful lives of his fellow prisoners the bestiality of men and at the same time began reading in the pages of the New Testament the life of one whose ideals were more than an abstraction, whose lofty truths were embodied in daily life. Torn by doubts, Dostoyevsky began longing for belief. In a letter written at the same time, he says,
As he predicted, these doubts would accompany his faith if not through all, certainly through much of his life. Every argument of the agnostic and atheist wracked his precision mind. In his novels he would give these arguments their full weight; he refused to minimize their power. But against them, he would ever hold up the figure of Christ. As Rene Fueloep-Miller wrote, this faith in Christ would become “the principal affirmative idea of all his works.”
The modern critic Nabokov was wrong about Dostoyevsky. He belittled Dostoyevsky’s basis of belief: “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 those 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.” No mention here of Dostoyevsky’s terrible doubts, his detailed analysis of faith in conflict with a world gone made. It is true Dostoyevsky found among the prisoners certain figures of grace, but it seems incredibly patronizing to relegate the testimony of a man writing so soon after his release from these circumstances to “pathological idealization.” Dostoyevsky’s insights did not come easily. He says: “Even in penal servitude I learned, in those four years, to discern the human beings among the bandits. Believe me, there are profound, strong, beautiful natures among them, and what a pleasure it was to find gold under the rough cover.” (p. 62, Letter 19) Such a statement of course is hardly an idealization of all Russian peasants.
In fact, it is just this ability to see a shining truth amidst the chaos and to give it an enduring expression that marks the great novelist from the mediocre. For Dostoyevsky, as with Solzhenitsyn after him, the great truths are within the soul. The eminent Russian scholar Leonard Schapiro wrote: “Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn are concerned with unfashionable matters so embarrassing to modern men, like sin and repentance. They see problems in terms of what goes on inside men, not in the environment outside them.” That Dostoyevsky found a little gold in that rough country of the soul must in no way be allowed to detract from the difficulty of his search. His journey was anything but a facile or artificial escapism. If anything, his life might have been easier had he not had to confront a faith that censured him for his own sins and weaknesses.
In the letter marking the third turning point (pp.353-56, Letter 88), written years later, we find Dostoyevsky battling these sins. After his release from prison and the forced military service that followed, he returned to St. Petersburg where he began again to write. His health was often precarious, his nerves tightly wound, his family life in disarray. Under constant financial pressure from his own and his brother’s debts, he had fled to Europe. But he disliked Europe; he longed for Russia. And it was the vain hope of gambling his way to solvency and thence, back to Russia, that drove him all the deeper into debt and melancholy. This, perhaps, is the Dostoyevsky we might have anticipated from his novels: a man straining under an obsession, wild with guilt and remorse. When he writes this letter, he had squandered his long-suffering wife’s money once again in a gambling spree. He describes his mad rush through darkened, unfamiliar streets in search of a Russian church, his accidental entrance into a Jewish synagogue, and his cathartic resolve to free himself once and for all from this gambling addiction. Amazingly it worked. Dostoyevsky never gambled again.
It was a third point of turning. His reprieve on the scaffold and his subsequent imprisonment had turned him round toward the Christ of Orthodox Russia. But debts and an addiction to gambling had twisted him into a nervous obsessive contradiction of his faith. In this letter, we see him pulling free at last and turning once again toward wife and home and faith.
In the first two instances he had faced death and imprisonment with remarkable courage. These were battles with an exterior foe. In this last instance he faced a desperate struggle against the imprisonment and death of his own soul. As with all men, this was his most difficult struggle—to fight against the interior passions which bind a person to delusions. By freeing himself from those fierce delusions, he freed himself to write his greatest work, The Brothers Karamazov.
What of Dostoyevsky’s art and purpose? William Gerhadie, a once popular novelist in his own right, wrote about a historical meeting between Tolstoy and Chekhov in which these two great Russian writers spoke of their respective approaches to their art. It was a conversation which provokes comparison. Tolstoy was very self-conscious about his art, trying to produce an artistic work while trying to understand the nature of art itself. Chekhov’s art was altogether different. He simply captured life as he saw it: “the uncommented presentation of the actual, the strange, the ‘realistic,’ the inconclusive half, throwing into relief the absent ideal.” So, where between these two poles would we put this third Russian, Dostoyevsky? In his letters we see the very conscious effort of a conscientious artist. He was intensely concerned with the details of his work. He implored his editor not to drop a single word of his latest proofs. He anticipated criticism and justified one word over another: “stink” over “smell” or “shrieking of the cherubim” over “singing.” He was a man meticulously sensitive with his art, and it was art with a purpose. Like Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky had a vision, an ideal he longed to express, but it was not an ideal divorced from reality. He insisted that he was both limiting reality while illuminating the ideal: “I am convinced that I have not sinned against reality: I have done justice not only to an ideal but also to reality.” His was not Chekhov’s “uncommented” realism. Dostoyevsky himself called his realism a “tragico-fantastic” realism. As George Steiner put it, “It sought to give a total and true picture by concentrating the nascent elements of the Russian crisis into moments of drama and extreme revelation.” It was not enough to detail the facts; one must find the truth beneath the rough surface.
From these letters we see how clearly he cast himself in the role of truth-bearer: a witness, a martyrion in the fullest sense of that early Christian word. For he seems driven to engage all of his powers to serve such a great and compelling spiritual truth, a truth deeply impressed on his own soul. Am I overstating the case? Here are Dostoyevsky’s own words concerning the writing of The Brothers Karamazov:
These convictions spurred his creative talents. These were the central convictions of a man of conviction. In these truths, he saw Russia’s salvation: “our whole national identity is based on Christianity. The words ‘peasant,’ ‘Christian Orthodox Russia’—these are our primary foundations.” (p. 514, Letter 155) He was a driven man, artist, gambler, patriot, and most profoundly, Christian. But it is his Christianity which is the one element that rises above even his patriotism and his Slavophilism. It is precisely here that the great Russian souls through history have shown themselves to be wonderfully Russian, when they rise to the universal. And this Dostoyevsky, the literary artist of Orthodox faith, does most certainly.
In Dostoyevsky’s correspondence, we are privileged to see the man face-on: wrestling with his conscience, begging for money, sometimes petty, sometimes vain, sometimes remarkably courageous; but most importantly we see the man fashioning his art to a purpose, the struggle of a man of genius to confront his beloved land with the reality of Christ and thereby enriching us all. In these letters we see more than the writings of an ordinary man, as a recent review in the Chicago Tribune would have it. Rather, we see the synthesis of witness and sufferer which seems so typical of certain Russian writers. It is a welcome antidote to the “easy-believism” of the West, the packaged panaceas of televangelism.
Steven Faulkner is Rector of Holy Trinity Congregation in Topeka, Kansas.
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“Selected Letters of Fyodor Dostoyevsky” first appeared in the Spring 1988 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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