The House of the Dead

My thoughts about D’s prison/exile memoir, The House of the Dead, are somewhat vague and disjointed.  This is mostly because while I’m working I just never seem to get around to reading anything.  I started this book more than a month ago, and whenever things are spread over that wide a timeframe, I just lose focus.  Still, I thought I’d try my best.

D published The House of the Dead in 1861, but it describes events that took place between 1849-1854 for the most part.  And it describes them from a strangely contrived perspective, not unlike that adopted by Kierkegaard in Fear and Trembling.  In that work, as I remember it anyway, the journal of Johannes Di Silentio is discovered inside of a  dresser that the “frame narrator” had purchased second-hand.  That might be another Kierkegaard book – I don’t remember.  At any rate D uses the same stratagem.

An unnamed “frame narrator,” a resident of an obscure Siberian village, introduces the book, claiming to have known one “Alexandr Petrovich Goryanchikov,” a former prisoner in a nearby prison camp.  They got to know each other, but the old man soon dies, and the narrator comes upon a manuscript written by the old man, one he had written in the pages of composition books that his landlady was about to throw out.  The narrator has organized them and transcribed them, and is now sharing them with the public.

It’s strange D should have done this – it would have been obvious to everyone reading that these were D’s prison experiences.  He changes or abbreviates his characters’ names, perhaps to protect their identities, but the idea that he would have concealed his identity by changing or obscuring his own character seems unlikely.  Upon reflection though, I think what I concluded was that the assumption of an artificial identity, however transparent, does give the reader a different perspective on the events narrated therein.  The author can be freer with facts and anecdotes, after all, if they’re not bound by their actual history.  They can amalgamate things, simplify them, rearrange time sequences, and all that sort of stuff, without being accused of dishonesty.  It’s sort of the opposite of the effect the Coen brothers achieved by indicating, near the start of Fargo, that the events depicted are based on a true story (they’re not).  That produces a sense of realism that a movie that did not claim to be such a depiction could not claim.

The book itself is unique in the D oeuvre, in that it’s very matter-of-fact.  It’s the most sustained memoir he ever published, and despite the above, the sense that you’re reading directly about real experiences comes through.  This is drastically different than the stylized mania of so many of his later works.  There are no lengthy monologues or dialogues; there is actual descriptive narration – something that’s almost entirely absent from so many of the novels.  Characters’ mental states are described or hypothesized about, and the ordinary devices of 19th century realism are on display.

As to the stories themselves – they are at times harrowing.  D’s description of the bathhouse to which a huge group of convicts were occasionally brought for washing is rightly called “Dantesque” by several critics.  His repeated struggle for respect and recognition from lower-class criminals is interesting and insightful.  But the stories themselves don’t point any particular moral, as much as they convey a sense of time spent and wasted.

One of the most interesting aspects of reading The House of the Dead, for me, was so that I could speculate about how D’s prison time impacted his later writings.  To cite just one example, in the chapter about “The First Month,” D writes the following:

The prison authorities are sometimes surprised that after leading a quiet, exemplary life for some years, and even being made a foreman for his model behavior, a convict with no apparent reason suddenly breaks out, as though he were possessed by a devil, plays pranks, drinks, makes an uproar and sometimes positively ventures on serious crimes-such as open disrespect to a superior officer, or even commits murder or rape.  They look at him and marvel.  And all the while possibly the cause of this sudden outbreak, in the man from whom one would least have expected it, is simply the poignant hysterical craving for self-expression, the unconscious yearning for himself, the desire to assert himself, to assert his crushed personality, a desire which suddenly takes possession of him and reaches the pitch of fury, of spite, of mental aberration, of fits and nervous convulsions.  So perhaps a man buried alive and awakening in his coffin might beat upon its lid and struggle to fling it off, though of course reason might convince him that all his efforts would be useless; but the trouble is that it is not a question of reason, it is a question of nerves (“The House of the Dead,” trans. Constance Garnett, Barnes and Noble Press, 83-84, emphasis added).

It’s hard to imagine a more succinct description of the main action of Crime and Punishment or The Brothers Karamazov – to me, this passage sounds like the paradigm movement of existentialist fiction, from Kierkegaard to Kafka, Sartre and Camus.   Here, D sees it in prison – the authors just mentioned find it in Paris, in Algeria, in Genesis, or wherever.

Here’s another:

It was strange to see how some of them would work unceasingly, sometimes for several months, simply to spend all their earnings in one day, leaving nothing, and then to drudge away for months again, till the next outbreak (43).

The motif of the unhinged man on a  “spree”  (spending, sexual, violent or otherwise) manifests itself in nearly every D novel… and here he finds it in prison.

There are many examples I could cite of such observations made by D in The House of the Dead.  In a way, the cast of characters here is, more or less, the cast of characters for the rest of D’s fiction.  And that makes for a strange inversion.  You might expect to read a prison memoir and discover that prison warps human nature and attempts to destroy the human spirit.  And there are plenty of anecdotes here about the soul-crushing conditions of the work camp.  But overall, the portrait of human nature that emerges from D’s account of prison life is strikingly similar to that which emerges from his fiction before or after.  He discovers that in prison, people act like people out of prison, mutatis mutandis.  But there’s not that much that’s mutandis.

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  1. Pingback: The Dostoevsky Project Wrap-Up #1: Everything I Wrote – Original Positions

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