Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865-1871

With this fourth book in Joseph Frank’s five-volume biography of Dostoevsky, we approach the apex of Dostoevsky’s career as a writer, for in the five-year period between 1865 and 1871, he will write three masterpieces in rapid succession: Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, and Demons – all of them conceived and executed under extreme financial pressure. These are indeed “miraculous” years, and the best compliment I can pay Joseph Frank is that his efforts in this fourth volume do them justice, illuminating for us both the difficult personal circumstances under which Dostoevsky composed and the furious ideological battles that gripped the Russian intelligentsia in the closing decades of the 19th century. The censorship of the tsarist authorities – though frequently inept – nonetheless directed most political and philosophical energies into literature, and each of the above-mentioned novels constituted Dostoevsky’s salvos in a pitched ideological battle that would conclude only after his death, in the October Revolution of 1917. Frank’s contention, throughout these biographies, has been that Dostoevsky’s writings cannot fully be appreciated shorn of their context within Russian history, and in this fourth volume he makes his strongest case yet.

In 1865, Dostoevsky was, in his own words, “the unhappiest of mortals.” His brother Mikhail, his closest friend and confidant, as well as his business partner in the operation of their jointly-owned monthly magazine, Time, had passed away the previous year, as had Dostoevsky’s first wife, and out of a sense of obligation, he assumed financial responsibility for both his stepson Pasha and Mikhail’s widow and children – a decision that would condemn him to penury for the next five years. Frank does an admirable job reconstructing the anxiety and strain under which Dostoevsky laboured, forever having to borrow money to pay off debts, or the interest on his debts, and his few financial triumphs inevitably followed by the open-handed requests of Pasha and his brother’s widow, eager for their share of his success. History has not forgotten Dostoevsky’s gambling addiction – his frequent and costly visits to casinos, risking money he did not have – but Frank depicts these as desperate bids to rid himself, in a single lucky roll, of the accumulated debts burdening his existence. Consider, by way of illustrating his desperation, the composition of the novella The Gambler. Desperate for funds, Dostoevsky accepted a three-thousand ruble advance for the publishing rights to his completed works, as well as the delivery of a new work, no later than November 1st, 1866. Per the terms of the contract, a failure to deliver this new work on time would grant the unscrupulous publisher rights to all of Dostoevsky’s future fiction, royalty-free, for the next nine years. Only desperation could drive him to such a devil’s bargain, but as happened so often in his life, his greatest triumphs emerged from his moments of greatest despair: not only did he complete The Gambler on time, but the stenographer he hired to assist him, a novice 18 years his junior, would become his second wife.

Anna Grigoryevna Snitkina, just 27 years old when she first met Dosteovsky, was unusually tolerant of his eccentricities and shortcomings. After all, he was in his forties, a widower, epileptic, broke, and singularly devoted to a craft that required irregular sleep and regular isolation, and whose financial rewards were negligible even in the best of times. Here, for example, is Dostoevsky’s description of his work routine in Dresden:

I rise at one o’clock in the afternoon […] because I work at night. I work from three to four [in the afternoon]. I take a walk for a half-hour to the post office, and I return through the Royal Garden. We eat dinner. At seven, I take another walk and return always by the same route. I then have some tea, and at half-past ten I start to work until 5 o’clock in the morning. I go to bed and fall asleep as six o’clock sounds. That’s my life, complete.

Worse, still, when they are inevitably forced abroad, to escape the constant threat of creditors knocking on their door, Dostoevsky’s weakness for gambling is revealed to her, and Frank recounts the sad scene, repeated with alarming regularity, of Dostoevsky returning to her late at night, filled with tears and self-recriminations, having to confess that he has gambled away their few remaining funds – a blunder that necessitated further humiliating appeals to friends and acquaintances, and a deepening of their debts. Their self-imposed exile – first in Germany, later in Switzerland, and finally in Italy – likely added to their stresses, rather than alleviating them, for not only did Dostoevsky find separation from his native land oppressive and stifling, disconnecting him from what he regarded as the fount of his imaginative powers, but their poverty won them no friends and often forced them to downgrade their living situation to accommodate their meagre means. Given these huge strains, Dostoevsky’s prodigious output during this period seems all the more miraculous (a constant refrain, in his letters to friends, expresses how envious he is of Turgenev and Tolstoy, that they can compose while financially secure), but Frank gives us a glimpse at the source of his energies by describing the growing radicalism of the new generation of Russian writers, and Dostoevsky’s horror at their conclusions.

Dostoevsky, now in his 40s, belonged to an older generation, the generation who came of age during the turbulent period of the 1840s, but this younger generation, coming of age in the 1860s, regarded their elders with disdain. Impatient at the progress that had been made, they turned to more radical objectives, and more radical means for achieving them, and the literary journals of the 1860s are filled with denunciations of former liberal heroes like Alexander Herzen and Ivan Turgenev, now recast as milquetoast moralizers, too friendly with the status quo to be relied upon to force the necessary changes upon Russian society. The literary critic Nikolay Chernyshevsky, whose novel What Is to Be Done? was a thinly-veiled call for revolution written while Chernyshevsky was already in prison, provides a perfect example of the radical youth. In his novel, he describes the ideal revolutionary as an ascetic, single-mindedly devoted to the cause of revolution, and that idea was incarnated in the person of Sergey Nechayev, author of the Catechism of a Revolutionary (still widely read today, in revolutionary circles), in which he echoed and amplified Chernyshevsky’s definition of the ideal radical:

The revolutionary is a doomed man. He has no private interests, no affairs, no sentiments, ties, property nor even a name of his own. His entire being is devoured by one purpose, one thought, one passion – the revolution. Heart and soul, not merely by word but by deed, he has severed every link with the social order and with the entire civilized world; with the laws, good manners, conventions, and morality of that world. He is its merciless enemy and continues to inhabit it with only one purpose – to destroy it.

Nechayev united thought with action in 1869, when he and his revolutionary comrades murdered one of their own, for the crime of dissenting, and attempted to hide his body under the frozen waters of a lake. The discovery of the body and uncovering of the murder became an international scandal, and shocked all of Russia, and Dostoevsky’s response was to immortalize Nechayev in the fictional figure of Pyotr Verkhovensky, the nihilistic conspirator whose machinations drive the plot of Demons.

As has been his custom thus far, Frank devotes large sections of his biography to close readings of Dostoevsky’s fiction, and the three novels covered here add significantly to the bulk of this book, but these sections are particularly valuable, for Frank is a careful and clever reader, and he uncovers connections between even the most mundane of passages and Dostoevsky’s larger themes. When he arrives at Demons, he adopts the format of a trial, analyzing the book to answer a charge levelled at Dostoevsky in his own lifetime, whether or not he had fairly represented the radicals and their aims. This section, in particular, demonstrates how thoroughly familiar Frank was with 19th century Russian history, and how astutely he has managed to understand Dostoevsky’s work. Having presented his case, arguing that indeed Dostoevsky understood the radical ideology, and even better than most of its proponents, he offers us a final tribute to Dostoevsky’s genius, in the form of a conversation recorded more than a half-century after his death, after the infamous Twentieth Party Congress of the Soviet Union, in which the crimes of Stalin were first officially discussed. Here are the memories of Yury Karyakin, a literary critic and cultural historian, in the wake of these momentous revelations:

For me, and most of my friends, this was a veritable earthquake. But someone close to me (now dead), a classic Russian intelligent, a typical Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky, with a doctorate in chemistry, a professor, seeking relief from personal and political troubles in Dostoevsky, Leskov, and Chekhov, or departing every Thursday to the House of Teachers […] – said to me with a sorrowful smile: “But you know, all this is in The Devils. I was almost arrested in ’36 because I read that novel. Someone denounced me.”

These were frightening and enlightening nights: we read The Devils and the notebooks for the novel (we managed to get them) … We read, and did not believe our eyes: all this we knew, had believed it all, all this we recalled only too well. We read and interrupted each other almost on every page: “It can’t be. How could he have known all this?

I cannot read the above passage without my skin crawling, for the same shock of recognition hit me upon my first reading of Demons, even though my experience of the Soviet Union is purely historical. Dostoevsky understood the ideology so thoroughly that he could see, with perfect clarity, where it would take Russia were it ever to be implemented, and Demons is therefore the work of a Russian Cassandra, a prophetic warning destined to be ignored.

Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years ends with Dostoevsky’s return to his native soil, having become both a husband and a father, and though his financial difficulties are no less great upon his return, his literary reputation has been hugely improved, first by the undeniable triumph of Crime And Punishment, and later by the furious reaction provoked by Demons. His artistic and philosophical development has reached new heights, and even were his life to conclude prematurely, at this exact point, his case for literary immortality would be undeniable. And yet there is more still to come; his mission is not yet complete.