Russia's exiled xenophobe

Dostoevsky and Britain - Dostoevsky
April 12, 1996

Fyodor Dostoevsky was a writer who created a gallery of mainly neurotic types, who developed an almost pathological idealisation of the simple Russian folk and who opposed everything western. What is his appeal to the modern western reader? What links Dostoevsky with Britain?

He visited Britain only once, in the summer of 1862, and only for eight days, which he spent in London. He described the experience in one chapter of Winter Notes on Summer Impressions which he titled "Baal", after the Phoenician god who demanded human sacrifice. Human individuality, morals, spirituality - all, according to Dostoevsky, were swallowed by industrial capitalism.

But though there is no evidence of Dostoevsky having any real personal acquaintance with British people, as the editor W. V. Leatherbarrow mentions in his penetrating introduction to Dostoevsky and Britain, he did retain a respect for the English, which is especially apparent when compared with his xenophobic depiction of other foreigners.

This collection of articles is mainly aimed at establishing literary links: the influence of English writers such as Shakespeare, Dickens, Charlotte Bront and Elizabeth Gaskell upon Dostoevsky, as well as Dostoevsky's influence on Joseph Conrad, D. H. Lawrence and modern writers such as Iris Murdoch. The contributors include many well-known scholars, among them a giant of Russian literary criticism, Leonid Grossman, whose article, "Dostoevsky and the Chartist novel", originally published in 1959, appears here in Leatherbarrow's translation.

Some articles will be of greater interest to the literary specialist, others will appeal more to a historian or sociologist. Overall the book, though overpriced, provides a vivid portrait of Dostoevsky, not only as an attentive reader of Shakespeare and Dickens but as a person possessing a good knowledge of British history and current affairs.

While Dostoevsky and Britain is meant mainly for specialists, the fourth volume of Joseph Frank's biography of Dostoevsky will be attractive to anyone fond of literary biographies, as well as being a precious asset for scholars of Dostoevsky. The book is an almost day-to-day account of Dostoevsky's life and also a vivid description of social, economic and political developments in Russia and Europe.

What makes the fourth volume special is the fact that during the period covered by it, 1865-71, Dostoevsky wrote such novels as Crime and Punishment and The Possessed, as well as the outstanding novellas, The Gambler and The Eternal Husband. During these years, Dostoevsky's reputation became firmly established. His continual wanderings in Europe with his bride, his literary work as the only source of his income, a passion for gambling and the impossibility of returning to Russia because he would have been thrown into debtor's prison, paradoxically led to the creation of works which soon became the pride of Russian literature.

This period also prepared the ground for the subsequent transformation of Dostoevsky into a public figure, even a prophet, venerated by some socioliterary groups in Russia and hated by others. During the last nine years of his life, to be covered in Frank's fifth and final volume, Dostoevsky was one of the most important public voices in Russia, whose every word was eagerly anticipated, commented upon and argued over.

Many of his opinions, proclaimed from the pages of Grazhdanin (Citizen), the journal of which he became editor in 1872, were formed during his years of European "exile". For instance, his abhorrence of Russian Nihilism was completely alien to the Russian character, as was the sharp satire of The Possessed which spoiled his relations with the radical intelligentsia: these were the result of his acquaintance with European sociopolitical and revolutionary theories of the day, enhanced perhaps by homesickness.

Probably more than any other literature, Russian literature has always been influenced by sociopolitical thought. Russian (or Soviet) authors have always had two main critics - the government and the liberal public - and their main task has been to find a proper balance between the two. Under Stalin, failure to do so could cost authors their lives or, on the other hand, could make them silently despised by the public. In Dostoevsky's case, public opinion was more stinging, because it could be expressed openly.

Frank combines biographical, literary and sociopolitical approaches to Dostoevsky. He mentions that the biographical (including psychological and psychoanalytical) approach has been a feature of western criticism, whereas Russian critics have paid more attention to the sociopolitical aspects. There has also been the approach of the Symbolists and Formalists who have treated Dostoevsky's writings purely as works of art, depriving them of any sociopolitical context.

What tremendous labour Frank has undertaken to combine all these approaches, in order to reward us with a book, all 26 chapters of which keep one absorbed! His literary analysis is scholarly in the best sense of the word; the author does not display his erudition and wisdom, but it is quite evident. Lovers of Russian literature will await the last volume with anxious good wishes.

Dmitri Antonov is at the Centre for International Education, Moscow State University, and is currently teaching in London.

Dostoevsky and Britain

Editor - W. J. Leatherbarrow
ISBN - 0 85496 7842
Publisher - Berg
Price - £44.95
Pages - 310

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