Sunday, October 27, 2013

These impressions will remain for my whole life - Dostoevsky the magazine writer

I found “The Crocodile” in a volume of short stories first published in 1919, the results of Constance Garnett grinding her way through Dostoevsky.  What, I thought, paging through the book, is this stuff?

“The Heavenly Christmas Tree”?  “A Novel in Nine Letters”?  An entire novella, 150 pages, titled “Uncle’s Dream”?  I’d heard of “Bobok,” and even read “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” but this other stuff.  Not that whether I have heard of something means much.  Still – what is this stuff?

I know how to find out.  I read the two shortest ones, both cheery holiday stories.  In “The Heavenly Christmas Tree,” a hungry little boy’s mother dies on page two, then he freezes to death on page five, all of this on Christmas Eve.  In between, he enjoys the dolls in a Christmas display at some kind of store.

And at first the boy thought they were alive, and when he grasped that they were dolls he laughed.  He had never seen such dolls before, and had no idea there were such dolls!  And he wanted to cry, but he felt amused, amused by the dolls.

But soon enough he is admiring Christ’s Christmas tree along with the other frozen orphans and famine victims.

Here we have another neglected side of Dostoevsky – Fyodor the sentimentalist, the tear-jerker.  The story is nothing but pathos.  I would never have guessed this was Dostoevsky.  Change a few details and I would not have guessed it was Russian.

One more thing.  The mother has dragged her son to St. Petersburg for some unknown reason, so he contrasts its lively, well-lit Christmas it with home, where “there was no one to be seen in the street after dusk, all the people shut themselves up in their houses, and there was nothing but the howling of packs of dogs, hundreds and thousands of them barking and howling all night.”

This is the one really bizarre detail in the story, those thousands of dogs.  The child’s exaggeration?  Garnett’s error?  The recollection of an actual nightmarish town where Dostoevsky spent one miserable, sleepless night?

No idea when “The Heavenly Christmas Tree” was written.  By internal evidence, “The Peasant Marey” is from 1877 or so.

“It was the second day in Easter week.”  The prisoners have been given a holiday, which they spend drinking, gambling, and beating on each other – “knives had already been drawn several times.”  Dostoevsky is describing his time in prison, explicitly remembering it:

Perhaps it will be noticed that even to this day I have scarcely spoken in print of my life in prison.  The House of the Dead I wrote fifteen years ago in the character of an imaginary person, a criminal who had killed his wife.  I may add by the way that since then, very many persons have supposed, and even now maintain, that I was sent to penal servitude for the murder of my wife.

Trying to evade the brutality of the prison, Dostoevsky for some reason comes upon a memory from when he was nine years old.  He is in the woods.

And there is nothing in the world that I loved so much as the wood with its mushrooms and wild berries, with its beetles and its birds, its hedgehogs and squirrels, with its damp smell of dead leaves which I loved so much, and even as I write I smell the fragrance of our birch wood: these impressions will remain for my whole life.  Suddenly in the midst of the profound stillness I heard a clear and distinct shout, “Wolf”!  I shrieked, beside myself with terror, calling out at the top of my voice, ran out into the clearing and straight to the peasant who was ploughing.

This is the title character, the peasant Marey.  He comforts the little boy, convincing him that he imagined the what he heard.  It is just an ordinary act of kindness, but the later Dostoevsky, the prisoner remembers it as something more – “he could not have looked at me with eyes shining with greater love.”  The prisoner finds himself forgiving and pitying his drunken fellows.  The author finds himself turning the experience into a piece for a magazine.

Now this is Dostoevsky, even if the return to childhood and the countryside is surprising.

Dostoevsky the magazine writer, that is who I have been reading the last couple of days.  I feel that I have successfully and significantly increased my ignorance of Dostoevsky.


  1. Maybe Dickens and Dostoevsky really did meet! Those quotations are just maudlin and sensational enough to be Dickens, don't you think? ;)

  2. Wonder what Christmas does to writers' minds. Dostoevsky? Dickens?

  3. Dostoevsky was an avid reader of Dickens. The other close antecedent of that Christmas story is Hans Christian Andersen's "Little Match Girl." Andersen and Dickens - they actually did meet.

    Humphry House, in his brilliant 1941 book The Dickens World, describes the ideology of Dickens as "the Religion of Christmas," cruel but accurate.

    The Dostoevksy Encyclopedia tells me the story is from 1876 and is more literally translated as "The Boy at Christ's Christmas Party."

    1. When I read boy frozen to death I immediately thought of "The Little Match Girl." What an obsession these 19th century writers had with dead kids, although I understand it of course.

    2. It is a kind of artistic achievement to write such a piece of concentrated pathos, as Andersen did. Dostoevsky's story is artistically negligible, of course. It has a dream frame around it that suggests that unlike Andersen, Dostoevsky's audience does not want their syrup to be quite so pure - add distance, make it meta, etc.

  4. My goodness, I am surprised to see such maudlin slosh from Dostoevsky. It's all HCA's fault...

  5. My guess is 20% Dickens, 80% Andersen.

    It surprised me, too.

  6. The hundreds, thousands of dogs are there in the original:

    Constance Garnett's reputation is secure!

  7. I'll bet it is drawn from life, a night, maybe on the way to Siberia, that Dostoevsky never forgot, the night they stayed in the Village of a Thousand Dogs.