Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Notes from a Dead House by Fyodor Dostoevsky

In fear I raise my head and look around at my sleeping comrades by the dim, flickering light of a two-penny prison candle. I look at their pale faces, their poor beds, at all their rank poverty and destitution--look at it intently--and it's as if I want to make sure that all this is not the continuation of an ugly dream, but the real truth. But this is the truth: I now hear someone moan; someone moves his arm clumsily and his chains clank. Another shudders in his sleep and starts to talk, while grandpa on the stove is praying for all "Orthodox Christians," and I can hear his measured, quiet, drawn-out "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us! . . . 

"I'm not here forever, but only for a few years!" I think and lower my head to the pillow again.

Notes from a Dead House is the loosely fictionalized account of Dostoevsky from his time in a prison work camp, after he was caught being part of a political intellectual circle. I've always been a fan of Dostoevsky and this book came to my attention because of a Paris Review interview discussing this new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Without realizing it at the time that I read them, I was a huge fan of their translations of The Brothers Karamazov and Demons.

Given the subject matter's connection to my work, my pre-existing fondness for Dostoevsky, and the really powerful Paris Review interview, I thought this would be a great book to read. I was mostly right.

Dostoevsky's writing is quite powerful and moving at times. The book, written under the auspices of a fictional version of Dostoevsky, Alexander Petrovich Goryanchikov, follows Petrovich as he navigates prison life. Rather than being a straight narrative, however, the book is more like a loose collection of Petrovich's thoughts, reflections, and anecdotes of his time in prison. He explains the drudgery of work, the relationships between guards and inmates, the relationships between aristocratic inmates v. peasant inmates, and various interruptions to the regular routine of prison life, like a Christmas pageant that some of the inmates put together.

Dostoevsky's writing is most powerful when he discusses various revelations he has about inmate life. For example, after the non-aristocrat inmates organize a food strike to protest the low quality of the food (alas, some things never change), Petrovich notices that none of the aristocrat-inmates join the protest. He attempts to apologize for the lack of solidarity:

"Ah, my God! But some of yours eat their own food, and they still came out. We should have, too . . . out of comradeship?" 
"But . . . but what kind of comrade are you for us?" he asked in perplexity. I glanced at him quickly: he decidedly did not understand me, did not understand what I was getting at. But I understood him perfectly at that moment. For the first time now, a certain thought that had long been vaguely stirring in me and pursuing me finally became clear, and I suddenly understood something that I had realized only poorly till now. I understood that I would never be accepted as a comrade, even if I was a prisoner a thousand times over, even unto the ages of ages, even in the special section. It was Petrov's look at that moment that especially remained in my memory. In his question, "What kind of comrade are you for us?" such unfeigned naivete, such simple-hearted perplexity could be heard. I thought: isn't there some sort of irony, malice, mockery in these words? Nothing of the sort: you're simply not a comrade, that's all. You go your way, and we go ours; you have your business, and we have ours.
For Petrovich, prison is the first place he spends much time, face to face, with peasants. Many of the anecdotes revolve around him trying to resolve the tensions caused by him being both an aristocrat (and thus, in a sense, "higher" than his other inmates) and being an inmate like everyone else (being "equal" to the other inmates). In another passage that struck me, Dostoevsky writes about how prisoners expect to be treated:
Some think, for instance, that if the prisoners are well fed, well kept, treated according to the law, the matter ends there. That is also a mistake. Every man, whoever he may be and however humiliated, still requires, even if instinctively, even if unconsciously, respect for his human dignity. The prisoner himself knows that he is a prisoner, an outcast and he knows his place before his superior; but no brands, no fetters will make him forget that he is a human being. And since he is in fact a human being, it follows that he must be treated like a human being.
The book works best when it is presenting these thoughts and reflections, of which there are plenty. As I read, many times, I had to stop to think about some extraordinarily beautiful way that Dostoevsky explained one of his thoughts.

Dude knew how to sport a beard.
However, because it abandons any narrative plot or direction, at times the pace lags. Without narrative to keep the reader interested, it could be difficult to care about Dostoevsky's elaborate descriptions of prison life. And, because there was no plot, sometimes whole pages would go by that would feel both uninteresting and irrelevant.  I only mention this criticism because, from my perspective, there are too many better Dostoevsky novels out there to settle for this one. It's a book reading if you've already finished (and enjoyed) other Dostoevsky novels, or if you have a particular interested in 19th century prison life. It should not, however, be the one Dostoevsky novel you read. (I'd politely point you to The Brothers Karamazov).

One last note: if you're considering picking up a Dostoevsky novel, I think it's worth spending the extra money for a translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. They do a good job of capturing the beauty of Dostoevsky's writing...where others don't. To this day, I wonder if the reason Crime and Punishment is not my favorite Dostoevsky novel is because I read the wrong translation. Save yourself this grief.

1 comment:

Chloe Pinkerton said...

I felt similarly when I read this in college and don't think it's worth a re-read, BUT if your a Pevear and Volokhonsky fan, you should check this out: