Fyodor Dostoyevsky, 1863
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The bibliography of Fyodor Dostoyevsky comprises novels, novellas, short stories, essays and other literary works. Raised by a literate family, Dostoyevsky discovered literature at an early age, beginning when his mother introduced the Bible to him. Nannies near the hospitals—in the grounds of which he was raised—introduced Dostoyevsky to fairy tales, legends and sagas. His mother's subscription to the Library of Reading gave him access to the leading contemporary Russian and non-Russian literature. After his mother's death, Dostoyevsky moved from a boarding school to a military academy and despite the resulting lack of money, he was captivated by literature until his death.
Dostoyevsky started his writing career after finishing university. He started translating literature from French—which he learnt at the boarding school—into Russian, and then wrote short stories. With the success of his first novel, Poor Folk, he became known throughout Saint Petersburg and Russia. Vissarion Belinsky, Alexander Herzen and others praised Poor Folk's depiction of poverty, and Belinsky called it Russia's "first social novel". This success did not continue with his second novel, The Double, and other short stories published mainly in left-wing magazines. These magazines included Notes of the Fatherland and The Contemporary.
Dostoyevsky's renewed financial troubles led him to join several political circles. Because of his participation in the Petrashevsky Circle, in which he distributed and read several Belinsky articles deemed as anti-religious and anti-government, he and other members were sentenced to capital punishment. He was pardoned at the last minute, but they were imprisoned in Siberia—Dostoyevsky for four years. During his detention he wrote several works, including the autobiographical The House of the Dead. A New Testament booklet, which had been given shortly before his imprisonment, and other literature obtained outside of the barracks, were the only books he read at that time.
Following his release, Dostoyevsky read a myriad of literature and gradually became interested in nationalistic and conservative philosophies and increasingly sceptical towards contemporary movements—especially the Nihilists. Dostoyevsky wrote his most important works after his time in Siberia, including Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Gambler and The Brothers Karamazov. With the help of his brother Mikhail, Dostoyevsky opened two magazines—Vremya and Epoch—in which some of his stories appeared. Following their closures, most of his works were issued in the conservative The Russian Messenger until the introduction of A Writer's Diary, which comprised most of his works—including essays and articles. Several drafts and plans, especially those begun during his honeymoon, remain unfinished.
Novels and novellas
Articles and essays
Main article: A Writer's Diary
Dostoyevsky wrote 221 Diary articles (excluding short stories listed in the respective section above) within two periods. The initial 1873 works were published in The Citizen, the editor of which was Dostoyevsky, and from 1876 – 1877 the Diary was self-published. The English titles of the following list of works are extracted from Kenneth Lantz's two-volume translations.
A Writer's Diary is a collection mainly of essays and articles, which also include, for example, answers to readers, introductions, etc., making the Diaries a journal-like book written and mostly edited by Dostoyevsky.
List of initial Diary articles, issued in 1873:
- "Old People"
- "Something Personal"
- "A Troubled Countenance"
- "A Half-Letter From 'A Certain Person'"
- "Apropos of the Exhibition"
- "An Impersonator"
- "Dreams and Musings"
- "Apropos of a New Play"
- "Little Picture"
- "To a Teacher"
- "Something about Lying"
- "One of Today's Falsehoods"
Other articles and essays
Dostoyevsky wrote articles and essays outside the Diaries collection. These include the 1863 travelogue Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, in which he satirised and criticised European life. Other articles were written in response or as a criticism to a literary work, a person's view, requests to the military during the imprisonment period, announcements, notes and explanations. Some of them were written for different journals or almanacs.
Main article: List of letters from Fyodor Dostoyevsky
My favourite Russian author is Dostoevsky, whose best books are not just profound examinations of the human soul etc, but also nasty, violent, ironic, caustic, and (at times) extremely funny. Recently I picked up Henri Troyat's Firebrand which is an old-fashioned, novelistic account of FD's life. It's a great read, so much so that I decided to ride the wave of pleasure and seize the moment to simultaneously plough through some of the heavier Dostoevsky tomes sitting on my shelves, including the selected letters and the joyless prose of Konstantin Mochulsky's critical biography. (I'm saving Joseph Frank's five-volume epic for later).
It's fascinating to observe how both the racy volume and dryly critical work were constructed from the same source materials. Meanwhile I have been reminded of Dostoevsky's dramatic life story: his father's murder; his mock execution and exile; his gambling madness; and his calamitous debut on the St Petersburg literary scene. For those who don't know the story, Dostoevsky's first novel Poor Folk was passed before publication to a legendary critic/blowhard called Vissarion Belinsky who promptly declared that Dostoevsky was the heir to Gogol. This was nonsense: Poor Folk is a mawkish tale that would have been forgotten had the same author not also written Crime and Punishment et al. Still, the 24-year-old Fedya D was suddenly feted everywhere as the new literary genius of St Petersburg. It went to his head and he soon became insufferable, alienating all his new literary "friends", who revenged themselves when he published his second novel, The Double. Not merely trashed, the book was denounced. Dostoevsky became a bad joke.
What I didn't know until now was the length of time between his moment of glory and terrible downfall. Authors then wrote much more quickly than they do today, and some of those impossibly fat 19th-century mega-books were composed in a quarter of the time it takes Milan Kundera to crank out a boring late novella. Bearing that in mind, take a guess: how long did Fedya D last as a cause celebre? A year? Nine months? Six? Three?
The correct answer is: 15 days. That's right. Poor Folk was published on 15 January 1846; The Double followed on 30 January. Cue the reputation apocalypse.
Now that has to be some kind of record. Thirteen years later he did emerge from exile to score a comeback with his novel-memoir House of the Dead, but according to Mochulsky, Dostoevsky never recovered his confidence. Even as he was writing some of the greatest books in world literature he remained consumed with anxiety that he had not yet "established his reputation".
Anyway, this led me to wonder: has anybody else ever suffered such a calamitous decline in popularity as Dostoevsky did in January 1846? (Nobody has experienced such a resurrection, that's for sure). The first author to pop into my head was Martin Amis. Critics loved his early books, but giving his recent efforts a vigorous kicking has become a national sport. But it took decades for Amis to reach that point, and he's pompous enough to believe he will be vindicated by posterity.
Plenty of authors suffer a precipitous decline after they die, of course: Somerset Maugham was once ubiquitous; now he isn't. Back in the 70s, 80s and even 90s you could rely on encountering Anthony Powell in the pages of your Sunday paper on an almost weekly basis. Since he went to meet the worms, total reputational collapse has not yet occurred but increasingly few people care about him. Were it not for the enduring cult popularity of A Clockwork Orange, much the same could be said about another once-celebrated Anthony.
Then I thought about all those winsome fauns and beardless youths, the teenage writing sensations cruelly hyped by publishers only to be dropped as soon as they emerge from the chrysalis of puberty. There have been so many of these literary zygotes I have lost count. I see them on the Waterstone's table and shed a tiny tear for the stars that burn so briefly before blinking out. Lord knows I don't remember their names. Well, Irina Denezhkina I do. Her Give Me was published by Simon & Schuster and then completely forgotten, although she still plies her trade in her native Russia. Or what about that chap wot wrote The Drowning People? He's still about, but now he's no longer 18 or 20 or whatever, media folk are far less excited.
Indeed, surveying the Somme-like charnel-fields of butchered reputations laid out before us, the closest thing I can find to Dostoevsky's experience is that of Gautam Malkani, author of Londonstani. Massive hype, a £380,000 advance – and hardly any sales. He didn't even get round to writing a second book before people started pissing on him. His website has not been updated since May 2007. Like most people I haven't read the book so I can't comment on whether Malkani's fate is fair (whose is?) but he seems like a (willing) victim of impossible expectations, and an attempt by slavishly unoriginal publishing/media tossers to create a new Brick Lane/White Teeth sensation by throwing a lot of dosh at a book about multicultural London. It's not his fault they were idiots.
But is that a decline in reputation, or simply the sound of a bubble popping? Was there any reputation to begin with? For Dostoevsky there was: even before Poor Folk was published the most famous critic of his age had declared him a genius. Still, at least Malkani can take comfort in the fact that his massive advance cannot be clawed back from him, and that nobody is going to threaten to shoot him before shipping him off to hard labour – although it was that very experience which rescued Dostoevsky's reputation in the long run, of course.