A Writer’s Diary – 1876-1877

For Christmas, Brooke got me a record player.  Since then I’ve probably bought 20-25 records at Reckless Records in Chicago, almost all classical.  You can buy just about anything you want there for between $1 and $4.  It’s really fun to listen to all that music on record, for reasons that are obviously as nostalgic as anything else.  The other day, I was listening to a recording of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (the piano original, not the orchestral arrangement that proves to be much more popular).  It was performed by Sviatoslav Richter, recorded in Sophia, Bulgaria in 1958.  It’s a famous recording, and since the record cost $1.00, and also had an orchestral version the back, I bought it.  It also had been recommended by my piano teacher years ago, as being the definitive recording of this piece.

You might think I’m about to launch into an elaborate intellectual-historical comparison between the Dostoevsky oeuvre and Mussorgsky’s nationalist suite.  They were written around the same time, after all, and seem to share some ideological sympathies.  But that’s not really why I bring up the record.  I wanted instead to talk about the experience of listening to it.  Even though I had wanted to hear this recording for years, since my piano teacher made it sound like it was just so so good, when I listened to it, it was something of a let-down.  I had imagined a performance in a huge concert hall with thousands of oppressed-by-communism Bulgarians yearning for freedom, or something.  What I heard sounded much smaller, like it was being performed in a small room with 15-20 earnest on-lookers.  And the section I had been listening for – the second refrain of the softer counter-melody in “The Great Gate of Kiev” – the final movement – which my piano teacher had told me was played differently than how others performed it – that didn’t work out either.  He told me that Richter followed the original dynamic direction, and played this section as softly as its first iteration, whereas others played it louder.  He was almost ideological about this – when I was playing, I should play that second softly too, since Richter did.  It turns out my piano teacher remembered wrong – he played it louder, just like all the other recordings he had criticized for doing that.  So that was a disappointment as well.

Three things I did hear though, that made it all worth it: (1) the people sitting in the audience, coughing between movements, (2) the scratches and pops on the record itself as it played in my living room, and (3) the uproarious applause at the end – just a few seconds were recorded at the end of the record.  Really, those things made Pictures at an Exhibition so much better to listen to than, say, the Vladimir Ashkenazy recording on CD that I’ve listened to dozens and dozens of times on my stereo in college or now on my iPhone in the car.

So, not to belabor the comparison, but something similar happened with my reading of A Writer’s Diary for the years of 1876 and 1877.  Substantively, much of this massive work (it was published every month for two years, with each monthly installment running about 45 pages) was underwhelming.  Over the more than 1000 pages (translated diligently by Kenneth Lantz, and spread out over two thick, doorstop-ish volumes) there were long tirades about current events I was just not in a position to appreciate.  I don’t think it was only because of the lack of background knowledge, however.  Dostoevsky was accused early on in his career of, at times, being unduly prolix, and there are some great examples here.  He does say early on that he is committed to filling a certain number of pages each month, largely I think because people were paying for subscriptions, and he thought they ought to get their money’s worth.  There are times where it simply goes on and on and on without any apparent need.  This is especially true in the sections on “the Eastern question” (of which more below), and also D’s fairly arbitrary and unsubstantiated predictions about the future of Europe.  Sometimes it was downright boring, and I would begin skimming.  Well, not really skimming, but reading where you don’t really pay attention to what you’re reading.  So despite the fact that D can write passages of such intensity that even across the translation from Russian nothing seems to be lost (i.e., the first 100 pages of Crime and Punishment), I did not have that experience while reading most of A Writer’s Diary.

But I did hear the audience coughing, and the scratches, and the applause at the end.  It may seem strange, but some of the details I most enjoyed in reading this were the most mundane.  When D explains his project at the start of 1876 (and I should say – this wasn’t “the start” – in 1873 he published something similar, but it was more erratic, and I don’t think it was published in the same, regular format – and I wrote about that last summer) he takes the trouble to explain things like: where you should direct your payments, how you can subscribe if you’d like it mailed to your house vs. if you’d like it delivered to your local book store, how long each volume will be, where to direct correspondence to the author, etc. etc.  There are also periodic apologies for extremely small mishaps (like the issue being a few days late to the printers, or two summer issues being conjoined, though still equal in length to two independent issues).  Once there is a note to the readership, asking for address information from an anonymous correspondent who had sent D a letter, so that D might write him/her back.  There are occasional apologies for the content having been affected by D’s health.  I could go on, but somehow those all felt relevant, in the same way, I guess, that the scene from Volkonsky’s confrontation with the narrator in The Insulted and the Humiliated captured me not from its content but from the few passing details about the scene (which amount to – basically – it’s dark and in a bar).

I should say something of the substance too, given that this was more than 1000 pages.  Here’s a few paragraphs about broad themes or issues that are repeatedly dwelt upon.

The Eastern Question – Around this time some sort of conflict was taking place between the Turkish empire and the various Balkan states/cities.  I’m not really sure about the details; I imagine if I had taken the time to read Wikipedia for a bit it would have helped.  As it was, there was D over and over polemicizing against the Turks, the pacifists in Russia who didn’t want to join the fight against the Turks, the English, the French, the Germans, anyone who had failed to grasp the enormity of the world-historical significance of this conflict the way D apparently had.  He even devotes some pages to criticizing the views of Levin, Tolstoy’s liberal-ish landowner from Anna Karenina.  What’s surprising to read from almost 150 years later is D’s obvious almost complete lack of objectivity here.  He again and again latches onto anecdotal reports of Turkish abuses or of Russian/other-Slavic heroism, and uses these as final proof of on whose side God’s sympathies lie.  Sometimes this was more interesting to read – when he stepped back from the specifics of the conflict and used it as an example to illustrate the materialism of European culture, the godless nature of the politics, and so on, but mostly, this just felt like jingoism pure and simple.

The Jewish Question – Largely the same story here.  Again and again through these pages, D scorns what he calls “Yiddism,” or, often, the “Yids” themselves.  For reasons that are totally beyond me, he seems not to be able to recognize the simple racism implied in universal declarations about the greedy, materialistic nature of all the Jews in Russia, their supposed total refusal to integrate into Russian society, their endless desire to take advantage of poor Russians, and so on.  Frank says that in private correspondence, D even arguably expresses some sympathy for the “blood libel,” i.e., the myth that Jews east Christian children and use their blood for religious purposes.  Now at times it does seem as though “Yiddism” is just serving as a metaphor for D’s critique of the emergent utilitarian capitalism more generally (Marx does something similar, I think I remember, in his own “On the Jewish Question”).  But by and large, D’s writings about Jews displayed an almost totally inexplicable moral blind spot with no particular lesson to be drawn from it other than that someone can be great at one thing (writing fiction) and bad at another (tolerating members of minority groups).

Three Great Ideas – At one point, D spends about 2-3 pages delineating what he sees as the primary differences between Catholicism (France being its modern exemplar), Protestantism (Germany) and Orthodoxy (Russia).  There’s a neat trick of dialectical sequencing that stuck with me here, and it turned up again and again through the months.  Catholicism as a form of “physician-socialism”, that believes that if everything is simply laid out according to rational, well-organized and authoritarian principles, we will all be equal; Protestantism as an unsustainable form of belief whose primary purpose is simply to criticize Catholicism, and then finally, eastern Orthodoxy, finding in the spirit of the Russian (and Slavic) people the true key to human equality and the true transformation of world history.

Stories and Sketches – Some of the best parts of A Writer’s Diary, perhaps not surprisingly, are fictional.  In “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man”, a man who is almost driven to suicide dreams he is transported to another world, one without sin, sensuality or selfishness.  He ends up corrupting that world, trying to redeem them of their corruption and then is killed at which point he wakes up.  That makes it sound cheap and allegorical – it read as far more disturbing than that.  “Christ’s Christmas Party” is another bit of surreal allegory, where a dying homeless boy the narrator encounters on the streets of St Petersburg is brought to a party of all the suffering, poor children who have recently died.  “A Gentle Creature” is a strange tale of a pawnbroker who falls in love with a much younger woman whom he employs and then catches in some acts of near-unfaithfulness.  “The Peasant Marey” is a reminiscence D recalls from his childhood of a peasant (Marey) who comforted him after he was walking in the woods and thought he heard a wolf.  There are probably more, but I always looked forward to those, as there, we have D doing what he does best.

It’s strange that that summarizes my experiences of more than 1000 pages of reading.  There was a lot more, probably, but I’ve already forgotten it I think.  It may be because I read this spread out over so long.  Still, the experience of reading was a good one.

I should say something about Frank’s readings.  He devotes 4 chapters in volume 5 of his biography to this period of A Writer’s Diary.  A lot of it was helpful in confirming my judgments, especially as concerns the anti-Semitism and the other xenophobia.  It was almost refreshing to read Frank’s prose, which at times lulls one to sleep, because as compared with some sections of the Diary, it was remarkably coherent.

There is another later Diary of a Writer year – 1880 – which I will write about as soon as I get to it.  After that, all that remains is The Brothers Karamazov.  So I should be done some time next year 🙂

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