After 701 years from Dante’s death, 2022 gives us another very significant literary “plus one” anniversary: the 201th anniversary of the birth of Fedor Dostoevskij, which is celebrated on 11 November.
A difficult childhood for Fëdor Dostoevskij
Russian writer Fedor Mikhailovich Dostoevskij was born on November 11, 1821. The circumstances of his birth are, in themselves, a symbol. He was born in Moscow, in a small apartment in the Marie hospital, where his father worked as a doctor. From the very first steps of the child, destiny assigns him, in this way, a place of choice among the poor and the crippled. A world without joy opens up before him, smelling of medicine and misery.
His mother is a sad and worried person, tormented by omens. His father, a gruff, miserly and brutal despot, who imposes his authority on the house by distributing insults and slaps. It is under his supervision that little Fedor must undertake his studies. He secretly hates and pities this man whose bursts of voice chase him into his dreams. He unconsciously wishes the tyrant’s death.
But God didn’t listen to him. So it is his mother, so kind, who dies first, exhausted from an incurable disease. Struck by desperation, the widower sinks into drunkenness, takes his job with disgust and decides to place his son at the St. Petersburg School of Engineers so that he no longer has to worry about him. In this severe establishment, dedicated to the cult of the exact sciences and military discipline in the Prussian fashion, the boy nevertheless found a way to cultivate a passion for literature, to devour Russian and French books in secret and to try his hand at … even in profession of writer.
Fedor Dostoevskij at twenty is poor, alone, shy. He had just finished his studies, lived in a modest apartment in St. Petersburg and worked, for a living, on the translations of Eugénie Grandet and Don Carlos. But these secondary tasks did not prevent him from writing an epistolary novel as well.
Fame and luck await him in the near future. The publication of the book, in fact, arouses the enthusiasm of a large number of readers. Inebriated by the compliments, Dostoevsky wanted to take advantage of his opportunity and told, one after the other, several stories that he liked very much, but which disappointed those around him.
Critics, who previously praised him, now accuse him of imitating Gogol. The public no longer follows him. In literary salons one jokes about his ugliness and his awkwardness. This unanimous disaffection, after a warm welcome, cast doubt on Dostoevsky. He no longer dares to show himself to his colleagues. In this he reminds a little of Gould and Swift, of whom we told you a few weeks ago.
The anxieties assail him at nightfall. To escape his loneliness, he goes with a group of comrades with liberal ideas.
Arrest and faith
On April 22, 1849, at four in the morning, Dostoevskij returned from Petrashevskij’s house and went to bed, tired for a long chat. A ring of the doorbell pulls him up onto the bed. He is arrested for participating in a secret society with subversive purposes and imprisoned in the Peter and Paul fortress.
In reality, Dostoevskij did participate in such meetings, but as an intrigued listener, not as an activist. Nonetheless, he is sentenced to death by firing squad. Incredibly, Tsar Nicholas I commutes the death sentence into forced labor with no release date. Although the lifting of the death penalty has been decided for days, it is communicated to Dostoevskij only when he is already on the gallows along with all the members of Petrashevskij’s “conspiracy”. It was December 22, 1849.
On December 24, Christmas Eve, five-pound irons were fastened to Dostoevskij’s ankles and a sleigh took him to the Siberian penal colony. For four years, fifteen hundred oak poles will limit its horizon. There he will live, among murderers, thieves and beasts of all kinds. He will suffer from seizures, which will stun him for several days.
However, a tenacious faith prevents him from succumbing to despair and disease. The experience of the penal colony seems to him even rich in teachings. A double revelation is reserved for him in this hell. The revelation of the Russian people, which he learns about by associating with the reprobate, and the revelation of God, since the Gospel is the only book he is allowed to read.
Fëdor Dostoevskij out of prison
When he comes out of prison, without protection, without friends, without home, he was first, according to the imperial ruling, incorporated as a soldier of the line in a regiment. There he discovers this prodigy: real houses, free men, women … he has such a need to surrender completely to a being that he falls in love with a strange creature, Marie Dmitrievna Isayev. Maria had a son from a first marriage and is destitute.
To save her from her poverty, he marries her. But the emotion that the sacrifice gives him is too strong: the wedding night ends in an epileptic attack. He rolls on the floor, drooling, eyes mad, in front of the terrified young woman. Dostoevskij then recovers. He will make money. Together they will go to live in the capital. Nicholas I, who sent him to prison, is dead. His successor, Alexander II, is considered an enlightened and sensitive man. He will not refuse to sympathize with Dostoevskij’s request for pardon for some time.
Months add up to years. It was not until November 25, 1859 that Dostoevskij, first transferred to Tver, received permission to return to St. Petersburg with his wife. Ten years have passed since the day he left this city in chains. During his exile, his friends dispersed, his name fell into oblivion. He courageously resumes the struggle and publishes various works, where his experience as a prisoner is described with ferocious realism. This cry of anguish disturbed the apathy of the masses, moved the tsar himself and earned its author a renewed notoriety.
Life is a swing
He thinks he has won a game in his life, but bad luck is persistent. Suddenly he lost his wife and his brother Michel, whom he loved dearly. The debts of the two families weigh on his shoulders. He defends himself from creditors, borrows on the right to pay back on the left. However, deep in his disorder, he continued to admire the need for the misfortunes that overwhelmed him.
At forty-six he marries a young woman of twenty-one, wise, obtuse and docile, Anna Grigorievna, his stenographer. In the meantime he has also published Crime and Punishment and The Gambler. The sale of his books is good, but not enough to free him from his commitments. Soon, faced with the need of creditors, the young couple is forced to flee Russia.
They wander from city to city: Dresden, Hamburg, Baden-Baden, Geneva, Vevey, Florence. They stay in attics, eat poorly, sign bills, deposit their worthless jewels on the pawnshop and even their clothes. A baby girl is born. Dostoevskij, once again, has no right to common happiness: the child dies after a few days. The writer’s desperation is close to madness.
But abroad nobody cares about him, nobody likes him. He is alone, lost, without money. He writes shameful letters to beg his friends, his publishers, to send him some subsidies. As soon as he receives a check, he regains the zest for life. He begs his wife to let him try his luck in a gambling house and she accepts. When he has lost everything, he returns to the marital home and begs for forgiveness on his knees. His seizures come back. He keeps an accurate account of these dazzling jolts.
Fëdor Dostoevskij writes his masterpieces
It is in the evening, however, by candlelight, that he works. He blackens the pages like a maniac, to pay the midwife, the doctor, the baker, the butcher, the master. Anna Grigorievna gives birth to a second child, a girl. Expenses increase. Dostoevskij tries to momentarily forget his worries so as not to fail in the new task he has undertaken.
“The first part seems a bit weak to me, he writes, but nothing is lost yet … The novel is called The Idiot.”
Unfortunately, The Idiot is badly received by the Russian press.
“My self-esteem is at stake, says Dostoevskij. I want to draw the public’s attention back to me.”
And, without stopping, he throws himself into another story, in the midst of other characters.
The money arrives and Dostoevskij immediately turns to a new novel project.
In the end, the novel is finished, the publisher sends the thousand rubles requested and Anna Grigorievna prepares her bags. At the age of fifty, aged due to illness, work and deprivation, Dostoevskij returned to St. Petersburg with his wife. His books, written far from his homeland, earned him the first place among Russian novelists.
For the public he has become a spiritual guide, which his past sufferings authorize to speak on behalf of the whole country. Assured of unanimous sympathy, he wrote and published his Diary of a Writer, in which he took the position of a nationalist and Orthodox Christian in the face of the most serious problems of the time. This gigantic work did not stop him from publishing two more novels: The Teenager and The Karamazov Brothers, which he considered his masterpiece.
We are all a bit crazy
Russian critics of the time called Dostoevskij a “cruel talent”. Doctor Tchij, a great specialist on Dostoevskij, estimated that at least a quarter of Dostoevskij’s characters were neuropathic.
Indeed, at first glance, it does not seem that we have anything in common with these vagabonds, these anarchists, these half-saints, these parricides, these drunkards, these epileptics and these hysterics. We have never met them. Our usual behavior is totally different from theirs. Yet they are mysteriously familiar to us. We understand them. We love them. Finally, we recognize ourselves in them. How to explain the sympathy we feel for them, since they are pathological cases and we are, in principle, normal individuals? The truth is that Dostoevskij’s madmen are not as mad as they seem. They are just what we don’t dare to be. Bringing to light what we bury in the darkness of unconsciousness. They are ourselves, observed from within.
However, if Dostoevskij’s characters are not exactly unbalanced, it is precisely because he himself was so unbalanced that he was able to conceive and animate them with such precision. His epileptic fits threw him, by his own admission, into terrible joy.
The success of The Karamazov brothers brings Dostoevskij’s glory to its peak. He is admired as much as Turgenev and Tolstoj.
The last years and death of Fëdor Dostoevskij
On June 8, 1880, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Pushkin’s birth, he was invited to speak at the Moscow noble circle. From the top of the podium, in a hoarse, tense voice, he delivered a speech that aroused clamors of enthusiasm. The girls cover him with flowers and kiss his hands. A student passes out at his feet. Fedor Dostoevskij thinks he is dreaming. He paid his dues. He lives happily, in a comfortable home, next to a woman he loves. Thousands of strangers read him and understand him. He has defeated fate only with his patience. “Let me not say hello to you, he wrote to a friend. You know very well that I intend to live and write for another twenty years.” A few months later, on January 28, 1881, he succumbed to a hemorrhage in St. Petersburg.
The whole of Russia is in mourning for this long misunderstood man. His coffin heads to the grave beneath a forest of banners. Princes, priests, workers, officers, beggars, give him a solemn escort for the city. After their departure, the snow-covered cemetery returns to silence and Fedor Mikhailovich Dostoevskij’s real life begins, out of time, out of space, in the hearts of those who loved him.