by W. SOMERSET MAUGHAM
FYODOR DOSTOEVSKY was born in 1821. His father, a surgeon at the Hospital of St. Mary in Moscow, belonged to the white-collar class of poor professional men. He was a stern man. He deprived himself not only of luxury but even of comfort in order to give his children a good education and from their earliest years taught them that they must accustom themselves to hardship and misfortune to prepare themselves for the duties and obligations of life. They were never allowed to go out alone, they were given no pocket money, they had no friends.
When Dostoevsky was seventeen his mother died and his father took his two elder sons, Michael and Fyodor, to St. Petersburg to put them to school at the Military Engineering Academy. Michael, the elder, was rejected on account of his poor physique and Fyodor was thus parted from his only comrade. He was lonely and unhappy. His father either would not or could not send him money and he was unable to buy such necessities of life as books and boots or even pay the regular charges of the institution. His father, having settled his elder sons and parked three other children with an aunt in Moscow, gave up his practice and retired with his two youngest daughters to a small properly some hundred miles from Moscow. He took to drink. He had been severe with his children, he was brutal with his serfs, and one day they murdered him.
At the Academy Fyodor worked well, though without enthusiasm, and having completed his term, was appointed to the Engineering Department of the Ministry of War. What with his share of his father’s estate and his salary he had now five thousand rubles a year. He rented an apartment, conceived an expensive passion for billiards, flung money away right and left, and resigned his commission because he found service in the Engineering Department “as dull as potatoes.” Soon he was deeply in debt. He remained in debt till the last years of his life. He was an incorrigible spendthrift.
While still at the Academy Dostoevsky had begun a novel and now, having decided to earn his living as a writer, he finished it. It was called Poor Folk. He knew no one in the literary world, but an acquaintance, Grigorovich by name, knew a man, Nekrasov, who was proposing to start a review, and offered to show him the story. That day Dostoevsky came home late. He had spent the evening reading Poor Folk to a friend and discussing it with him. At four in the morning he walked home.
He felt he could not go to bed and sat at the open window, looking at the night. He was startled by a ring. “It was Grigorovich and Nekrasov! Rushing into the room in transports and almost in tears they embraced me again and again.”They had begun to read the book, taking it in turns to read aloud, and when they had finished decided, late though it was, to seek Dostoevsky out.
“Never mind if he is asleep,” they said to one another, “let us wake him. This thing transcends sleep.” Nekrasov took the manuscript next day to Belinsky, the most important critic of the time, and he was as enthusiastic as had been the other two. The novel was published and Dostoevsky found himself famous.
On the strength of his success he signed contracts to write a novel and a number of stories. With the advances he received he proceeded to lead so dissipated a life that his friends remonstrated with him. He quarreled with them, even with Belinsky, who had done so much for him, because he was not convinced of “the purity of his admiration,” for he had persuaded himself that he was a genius and the greatest of Russian writers.
His debts increased and he was obliged to work with haste. He had long suffered from an obscure nervous disorder, and now, falling ill, feared he was going mad or falling into a consumption. The stories written in these circumstances were failures and the novel proved unreadable. The people who had so extravagantly praised him now attacked him and the opinion was general that he was written out.
But his literary career was suddenly interrupted. He had joined a group of young men, imbued with the socialistic notions then current in Western Europe, who were bent upon certain measures of reform, especially with the emancipation of the serfs and the abolition of censorship; they were harmless enough and seem to have done little more than meet once a week to discuss their ideas; but the police had the group under surveillance and one day they were arrested and taken to the Fortress of Peter-Paul. They were tried and condemned to be shot. One winter morning they were taken to the place of execution, but as the soldiers prepared to carry out the sentence, a messenger arrived to say that the penalty was commuted to penal servitude in Siberia. Dostoevsky was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment at Omsk after which he was to serve as a common soldier. 2
IN PRISON Dostoevsky’s loneliness, amid hundreds of companions, drove him back on himself: “through this spiritual isolation,” he writes, “I gained an opportunity of reviewing my past life, of dissecting it down to the pettiest detail, of probing my heretofore existence, and of judging myself strictly and inexorably.” The New Testament was the only book he was allowed to possess and he read it incessantly. Its influence on him was profound. From then on he preached and (as far as his willful nature permitted) practiced humility and the necessity of suppressing the human desires of normal men. “Before all things humble yourself,” he wrote, “consider what your past life has been, consider what you may be able to effect in the future, consider how great a mass of meanness and pettiness and turpitude lies lurking at the bottom of your soul.” Prison cowed his overweening, imperious spirit. He left it a revolutionary no longer but a firm upholder of the authority of the crown and the established order. He left it also an epileptic.
When his term of imprisonment came to an end he was sent to complete his sentence as a private in a small garrison town in Siberia. It was a hard life, but he accepted its pains as part of the punishment he merited for his crime, for he had come to the conclusion that his mild activities for reform were sinful; and he wrote to his brother: “I do not complain; this is my cross and I have deserved it.” In 1856 through the intercession of an old schoolfellow, he was raised from the ranks and his life became more tolerable. He made friends and he fell in love.
The object of his affections was a certain Maria Dmitrievna Isaeva, wife of a political deportee who was dying of drink and consumption and mother of a young son; she is described as a rather pretty blonde of middle height, very thin, passionate and exaltée. Little seems to be known of her, except that she was of a nature as suspicious, as jealous, and as self-tormenting as was Dostoevsky himself. He became her lover. But after some time Isaev, her husband, was moved from the village in which Dostoevsky was stationed to another frontier post some four hundred miles away and there died. Dostoevsky wrote and proposed marriage. The widow hesitated, partly because she had fallen in love with a “high-minded and sympathetic” young teacher called Vergunov and had become his mistress.
Dostoevsky, deeply in love, was frantic with jealousy, but with his passion for lacerating himself and perhaps his novelist’s passion for seeing himself as a character of fiction, did a characteristic thing. Declaring Vergunov to be dearer to him than a brother, he besought one of his friends to send him money so as to make it possible for Maria Isaeva to marry her lover. He was able, however, to play the part of a man with a breaking heart sacrificing himself to the happiness of his well-beloved without serious consequences, for the widow had an eye to the main chance. Vergunov, though “highminded and sympathetic,” was penniless, whereas Dostoevsky was now an officer, his pardon could not be long delayed, and there was no reason why he should not again write successful books.
Dostoevsky and Maria Isaeva were married in 1857. They had no money and Dostoevsky had borrowed till he could borrow no more. He turned again to literature; but as an ex-convict he had to get permission to publish and this was not easy. Nor was married life. In fact it was very unsatisfactory, which Dostoevsky ascribed to his wife’s strangely suspicious, painfully fanciful nature. It escaped his notice that he was himself as impatient, irritable, neurotic, and unsure of himself as he had been in the first flush of success. He began various pieces of fiction, put them aside, began others and in the end produced little and that little of no importance. In 1859, as the result of his appeals and by the influence of friends, he succeeded in getting back to St. Petersburg.
He settled down in the capital with his wife and stepson and together with his brother Michael started a literary journal. It was called Time and for it he wrote The House of the Dead and The Insulted and Injured. It was a success and for the next two years his circumstances were easy. In 1862, leaving the magazine in charge of Michael, he visited Western Europe. He was not pleased with it. He found Paris “a most boring town” and its people money-grubbing and small-minded. He was shocked by the misery of the London poor and the hypocritical respectability of the well-to-do. He went to Italy, but he was interested neither in art nor in architecture and he spent a week in Florence reading the four volumes of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. He returned to Russia without seeing Rome or Venice. His wife had contracted tuberculosis and was now a chronic invalid.
SOME months before he went abroad Dostoevsky, being then forty, had made the acquaintance of a young woman who brought a short story for publication in his journal. Her name was Polina Suslova. She was twenty, a virgin and handsome, but to show that her views were advanced she bobbed her hair and wore dark glasses. After Dostoevsky s return to St. Petersburg they became lovers. Then, owing to an unfortunate article by one of his contributors, the magazine was suppressed and he decided to go abroad again. The reason he gave was to get treatment for his epilepsy, which had for some time been growing worse, but this was only an excuse; he wanted to go to Wiesbaden to gamble, for he had invented a system to break the bank, and he had made a date with Polina Suslova in Paris. He borrowed money from the Fund for Needy Authors and set out. At Wiesbaden he lost much of his money and tore himself from the tables only because his passion for Polina Suslova was stronger than his passion for gambling.
They had arranged to go to Rome together, but while waiting for him the emancipated young lady had had a short affair with a Spanish medical student; she was upset when he walked out on her, a proceeding women are not apt to accept with equanimity, and refused to resume her relations with Dostoevsky. He accepted the situation and proposed that they should go to Italy “as brother and sister,” and to this, being presumably at a loose end, she consented. The arrangement, complicated by the fact that they were so short of money they had on occasion to pawn their bits and pieces, was not a success and after some weeks of “lacerations” they parted. Dostoevsky went back to Russia. He found his wife dying. Six months later she died. He wrote as follows to a friend: —
“My wife, the being who adored me, and whom I loved beyond measure, expired at Moscow, whither she had removed a year before her death of consumption. I followed her thither and never once throughout that winter left her bedside. . . .”
Dostoevsky somewhat exaggerated his devotion, for during that winter he went twice to St. Petersburg in connection with a new magazine he had started with his brother. It was no longer liberal in tendency, as Time had been, and it failed. Michael died after a short illness, leaving twenty-five thousand rubles of debts, and Dostoevsky found himself obliged to support his widow and children, his mistress and her child. He borrowed ten thousand rubles from a rich aunt, but by 1865 had to declare himself bankrupt. He owed sixteen thousand rubles on note of hand and five thousand on the security of his word alone. His creditors were troublesome and to escape from them he again borrowed money from the Fund for Needy Authors and got an advance on a novel which he contracted to deliver by a certain date.
Thus provided he went to Wiesbaden to try his luck once more at the tables and to meet Polina Suslova. He offered her marriage, but such love as she had had for him was now turned to dislike. One may surmise that she had become his mistress because he was a well-known author and as the editor of a magazine might be of use to her. But the magazine was dead. His appearance had always been insignificant and now he was forty-five, bald, and epileptic. It is understandable that his sexual pretensions exasperated her beyond endurance; for nothing makes a woman more cruel than the desire of a man to whom she is not physically attracted; and she left him to go back to Paris. He lost all his money at the tables and was obliged to pawn his watch. He had to sit quietly in his room in order not to get up an appetite which he had not the means to satisfy. He began another book, under the lash, he says, of necessity and against time. He was penniless, ill and wretched. The book he was writing under these conditions was Crime and Punishment. Desperately in need of cash he applied to everyone he knew, even to Turgenev, with whom he had quarreled and whom he both hated and despised; but he took Turgenev’s money and with it returned to Russia.
But while still at work on Crime and Punishment he remembered that he had contracted to deliver a book by a certain date. By the iniquitous agreement he had signed, if he did not do so the publisher had the right to issue everything he wrote for the following nine years without paying him a penny. Some bright person suggested that he should employ a stenographer; this he did and in twenty-six days finished a novel called The Gambler. The stenographer was twenty, but homely. She was efficient, practical, patient, devoted, and admiring; and early in the year 1867 he married her. His relations, fearing that he would not thenceforward help them as much as before, were displeased and treated his young wife so badly that she persuaded him to leave Russia once more. He was again heavily in debt.
This time he stayed away four years. At first Anna Grigorievna Snitkina, for such was his wife’s name, found life difficult with the celebrated author. His epilepsy grew worse. He was irritable, thoughtless, and vain. He renewed his correspondence with Polina Suslova which did not conduce to poor Anna’s peace of mind, but being a young woman of uncommon good sense she kept her exasperation to herself. They went to Baden-Baden and there he again began to gamble. He lost all he had and as usual wrote to everyone likely to help for money and more money, and whenever it arrived slunk off to the tables to lose it. They pawned whatever they had of value, they moved into cheaper and cheaper lodgings, and sometimes had hardly enough to eat. Anna Grigorievna was pregnant.
His first child was born at Geneva and Dostoevsky was enchanted. But he continued to gamble. He was bitterly repentant because his weakness lost the money which would have provided his wife and child with the necessities they so badly needed. After three months the child died, and he was prostrated with grief. Anna Grigorievna was again pregnant, but he felt he could never love another child as passionately as the little girl he had lost.
Crime and Punishment had been a great success and he was already at work on another book. It was called The Idiot. His publisher sent him one hundred rubles a month, but this did not prevent him from being in continual straits and he was continually asking for further advances. The Idiot failed to please and he started on yet another short novel. The Eternal Husband, and then on a long one called in English The Possessed. Meanwhile Anna was pining to go home. But they had no money and Dostoevsky’s publisher had already advanced more than the book could be expected to earn. In desperation Dostoevsky appealed to him again. The first two numbers had already appeared in a magazine and faced with the fear of getting no further installments he sent money for the fares. The Dostoevskys returned to St. Petersburg.
This was in 1871; Dostoevsky was fifty and had ten more years to live.
He was become a passionate Slavophile and looked to Russia to save the world. The Possessed was received with favor and its attack on the young radicals of the day brought its author friends in reactionary circles. They thought he could be made use of in the government’s struggle against reform and offered him the well-paid editorship of a paper called The Citizen which was officially supported. He held it for a year and then resigned owing to a disagreement with his employer over a proposal which, reactionary though he now too was, proved more than he could swallow. But by this time the good and practical Anna had started a publishing business of her own and brought out editions of her husband’s works so profitably that for the rest of his life he was released from want.
His remaining years can be passed over very briefly. Under the title of The Journal of an Author he wrote a number of occasional essays. They were immensely successful and he came to look upon himself as a teacher and a prophet. This is a role which few writers have been disinclined to play. He wrote a novel called A Raw Youth and finally The Brothers Karamazov. His fame had increased and when he died, rather suddenly, in 1881, he was esteemed by many the greatest writer of his time. His funeral is said to have been the occasion for “one of the most remarkable demonstrations of public feeling ever witnessed in the Russian capital.”
I HAVE tried to relate the main facts of Dostoevsky’s life without comment. The impression one receives is of a singularly unamiable character. Vanity is an occupational disease of artists, whether writers, painters, musicians, or actors, but Dostoevsky’s was outrageous. It seems never to have occurred to him that anyone could have enough of hearing him talk about himself and his works. He was utterly lacking in self-control, but it may be that this should be ascribed to the epilepsy from which he so severely suffered, in which case he cannot be held responsible for it. Neither prudence nor common decency served to restrain him when he was in the grip of passion. But his weakness is nowhere more manifest than in his mania for gambling. It reduced him time after time to destitution.
The reader will remember that to fulfill a contract he wrote a short novel called The Gambler. It is not a good one, but it is interesting in that the heroine, Polina Alexandrovna, was apparently suggested by Polina Suslova, and offers an early sketch of a type, the woman whose love is commingled with hatred, which he drew with greater elaboration in later books. It has the added interest that in it Dostoevsky very acutely describes the feelings he knew so well which seize the unfortunate victim of the gambler’s passion; and after you have read it you understand how it came about that notwithstanding the humiliations it caused him, the misery to him and those he loved, the dishonorable proceedings it occasioned, the constant need to apply to friends, already wearied of providing him with money — notwithstanding everything he could not resist the temptation. He was an exhibitionist, as to a greater or a less extent are all those who, whatever art they practice, have the creative instinct.
His sentimentality was mawkish and his humanitarianism bootless. He had small acquaintance with the “people” to whom, as opposed to the intelligentsia, he looked for the regeneration of Russia and he had little sympathy with their hard and bitter lot. He violently attacked the radicals who sought to alleviate it. Ernest Simmons in his book on Dostoevsky remarks that the remedy he offered to the frightful misery of the poor “was to idealize their sufferings and make out of it a way of life. Instead of practical reforms, he offered them religious and mystical consolation.”
Dostoevsky was vain, suspicious, quarrelsome, cringing, selfish, boastful, lacking in self-control, inconsiderate, narrow, and intolerant. But that is not the whole story. While in prison he had learned that men may commit crimes of murder, lust, or theft, and yet have qualities of courage, generosity, and of loving-kindness towards their fellows. He had learned that no man is all of a piece, but a hotchpotch of nobility and baseness, of vice and virtue. Dostoevsky was the least censorious of men. He was charitable and his charity was practical. He never refused money to a beggar or a friend. When himself destitute he managed to scrape up something to send to his sister-in-law, his brother’s mistress, his worthless stepson, and the drunken good-for-nothing, his younger brother Andrew. They sponged on him as he sponged on others, and far from resenting it he seems only to have been sorry that he could not do more for them than he did.
He loved, admired, and respected his wife Anna; he looked upon her as in every way superior to himself, and it is touching to learn that during the four years of his absence abroad he was tormented by the fear that, alone with him, she would grow bored. He had a loving heart and he craved to be loved. He could hardly bring himself to believe that he had at last found someone who, notwithstanding his defects, of which he was only too conscious, loved him devotedly. Anna gave him the happiest years of his life.
Such was the man. But that was only the man. There is a dichotomy between the man and the writer and I can think of no one in which it has been greater than it was in Dostoevsky. This dichotomy probably exists in all creative artists, but it is more conspicuous in authors than in others because their medium is words and the contradiction between their behavior and their communication is more shocking.
There was in Dostoevsky more than the vain, irritable, weak egotist his biographers depict. There was the man who could create Alyosha, perhaps the most charming, sweet, gentle creature in all fiction. There was the man who could create the saintlike Father Zossima. Alyosha was designed to be the central figure of The Brothers Karamazov as is plainly enough shown by the first sentence of the book: “Alexey [Alyosha] Fyodorovitch Karamazov was the third son of Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov, a landowner well known in the district in his own day, and still remembered among us owing to his gloomy and tragic death, which happened thirteen years ago, and which I shall describe in its proper place.” Dostoevsky was too practiced a novelist without intention to have begun his book with a definite statement that marks Alyosha out.
But in the book as we have it Alyosha plays a subordinate role compared with that of his brothers Dmitri and Ivan. He passes in and out of the story and seems to have little influence on the persons who play their part in it. His own activity is concerned with a group of schoolboys whose doings, beyond showing Alyosha’s charm and loving-kindness, have nothing to do with the development of the theme. The explanation is that The Brothers Karamazov, which runs in Mrs. Garnett’s translation to 838 pages, is but a fragment of the novel Dostoevsky proposed to write. He intended in further volumes to continue the development of Alyosha, taking him through a number of vicissitudes, in which it is supposed he was to undergo the great experience of sin and finally through suffering achieve salvation.
But death prevented Dostoevsky from carrying out his intention and The Brothers Karamazov remains a fragment. It is, notwithstanding, one of the greatest novels ever written. It is a very rich book. Dostoevsky had been pondering over it a long time and he took more pains over it than his financial difficulties had allowed him to take on any novel since his first; he put into it all his agonizing doubts, his eagerness to believe what his reason rejected and his anxious quest for the meaning of life.
I can only tell the reader what not to expect, for he has no right to demand of an author what he has either not the power nor the intention to give him. This is not a realistic book. Dostoevsky’s power of observation was small and he did not seek verisimilitude. The behavior of the characters is not to be judged by the ordinary standards of common life. Their actions are wildly improbable and the motives of them madly inconsequential. They are not persons you recognize as you recognize the creatures of Jane Austen’s or Flaubert’s invention; they are personifications of passions, pride, lust, sensuality, hate. They are not copied from life and elaborated by the author’s skill into persons more significant than life presents; but emanations of the author’s tortured, warped, morbid sensibility. But though not lifelike, they palpitate with life.
The Brothers Karamazov suffers from the prolixity which Dostoevsky knew was a fault in many of his other books, but of which he could not cure himself. Even in a translation one can hardly fail to be conscious of the sloppiness of the writing. Dostoevsky was a great novelist, but a poor artist. His sense of humor was elementary and Madame Hohlakov, who provides the comic relief, is merely tiresome. The three younger women Lise, Katerina Ivanovna, and Grushenka are poorly individualized; all three are hysterical, spiteful, and malevolent. They want to dominate and torture the man they love and at the same time to submit themselves to him and suffer at his hands. Their conduct is unaccountable.
For all his sensuality there is no evidence that Dostoevsky knew much about women; he seems to have divided them summarily into two classes: the meek self-sacrificing woman who is browbeaten, illtreated, and imposed upon; and the proud, domineering woman who is passionate, cruel, and vindictive. It is likely that here he had in mind Polina Suslova whom he loved because the suffering she caused him, the indignities she heaped upon him, were the fillip he needed to satisfy his masochism.
The men are drawn with a firmer hand. Old Karamazov, the besotted buffoon, is beautifully presented; his bastard son, Smerdyakov, is a masterpiece of the sinister; of Alyosha I have already briefly spoken. The old ruffian had two other sons. Dmitri is the sort of man whom the tolerant are apt to describe as his own worst enemy; he is a vulgar, drunken, boastful bully, recklessly extravagant and in no way particular how he gets the money to spend so foolishly; his idea of debauchery is pathetically schoolboyish and the description of the binge he goes on with Grushenka is naïve to the point of absurdity. His prattle about his honor is merely disgusting. He is in a way the central character of the book and that to my mind is a defect, for he is so worthless a creature that you do not care what becomes of him. He is supposed to be attractive to women, as such men often are, but Dostoevsky has not shown what his attractiveness consists of.
There is one point in Dmitri’s behavior that is curious. He takes money, money that he has stolen, to give to Grushenka so that she may marry the man who first seduced her. It recalls the episode when Dostoevsky tried to borrow money so that Maria Isaeva could marry the “high-minded and sympathetic” teacher who was her lover. He gave Dmitri, notwithstanding his ruthless egotism, the masochistic trait he found in himself.
So far I have carped and the reader may well ask why, if I make these objections, I claim that it is one of the world’s greatest novels. Well, in the first place it is of absorbing interest. Dostoevsky was a very good novelist and he had a great gift for dramatizing a situation. It may be worth while to point out a method he was fond of in order to achieve the effect he wanted and rivet the reader’s attention. He will bring the chief persons in his story together to discuss some action so outrageous that it is incomprehensible, and then will lead you to an understanding of it with all the skill of Gaboriau unraveling a mystery of crime.
These long conversations have a thrilling interest and he heightens the thrill by an ingenious device; his characters are agitated quite out of proportion to the words they utter; he describes them as trembling with excitement, green in the face or fearfully pallid, so that a significance the reader cannot account for is given to the most ordinary remarks; and presently he is so wrought up by these extravagant gestures that his own nerves are set on edge and he is prepared to receive a real shock when something happens which otherwise would have left him unmoved.
But this is merely a matter of technique; the greatness of The Brothers Karamazov depends on the greatness of its theme. Many critics have said this was the quest of God; I for my part would have said it was the problem of evil. And this brings me to Ivan, old Karamazov’s second son, who is the most interesting, though perhaps the least sympathetic, character in the book. It may be, as has been suggested, that he is the mouthpiece of Dostoevsky’s fundamental convictions.
It is in the sections called “Pro and Contra” and “The Russian Monk,” which Dostoevsky considered the culminating points of his novel, that its theme is discussed. Of the two sections “Pro and Contra” is the more powerful. In it Ivan takes up the problem of evil which to the human intelligence seems incompatible with the existence of a God who is all-powerful and all-good. As an example he gives the unmerited suffering of little children. That men should suffer for their sins seems reasonable enough, but that innocent children should suffer revolts the heart as well as the head.
Ivan is not interested in whether God created man or man God; he is willing to believe that God exists, but he cannot accept the cruelty of the world He created. Ivan insists that there is no reason for the innocent to suffer for the sins of the guilty; and if they do, and they do, God is evil or does not exist.
I will say no more: “Pro and Contra” is there for the reader to read. Dostoevsky never wrote with greater power. But when he had written it he was frightened of what he had done. The argument was cogent, but the conclusion repugnant to his own belief that the world for all its evil and suffering is beautiful because it is the creation of God. “If one loves all living things in the world, this love will justify suffering and all will share each other’s guilt. Suffering for the sin of others will then become the moral duty of every true Christian.” That is what Dostoevsky wanted to believe. And having written “Pro and Contra” he hastened to write a refutation. No one was better aware than he that he had not succeeded. The section is tedious and the refutation unconvincing.
Phe problem of evil still awaits solution and Ivan Karamazov’s indictment has not yet been answered.
(The next novel to be discussed by Mr. Maugham will be Stendhal’s The Red and the Black.)