(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Had it not been for the remarkable author of these memoirs, it is possible—no, very probable—that the world would never have seen some or all of the masterworks of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “heroic” period—Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Possessed, A Raw Youth, The Brothers Karamazov—not to mention such lesser marvels as The Eternal Husband, The Diary of a Writer, and the short novel that “brought them together,” The Gambler.

If the romance between Dostoevsky and his second wife, Anna Grigoryevna Snitkina, were offered as fiction, it would be rejected as overly contrived and melodramatic: only life can take such improbably artistic liberties. October, 1866, found Dostoevsky in a financial and artistic tangle that was extreme and grotesque even by the standards of his extraordinarily disorganized life. Harassed by a small army of creditors, Dostoevsky borrowed 3,000 roubles from F. T. Stellovsky, a publisher with a well-earned reputation as an unscrupulous victimizer of writers and artists. The contract stipulated that if Dostoevsky did not present the publisher with a finished full-length novel by November 1, the harried author would forfeit all royalties for nine years to Stellovsky for all works past, present, and future. Preoccupied with serializing the partially written Crime and Punishment and still beleagured by creditors, grasping relatives, and precarious health, Dostoevsky had, as of October 1, only a vague idea for the new book. In a near panic he accepted a suggestion made by his friend, A.P. Milyukov, to hire a stenographer and dictate the novel in order to beat the deadline. The stenographer was, of course, Anna Snitkina. The book was finished with a few days to spare; Anna’s cleverness in suggesting they register the manuscript at a Police Station foiled Stellovsky’s final ploy (he skipped out of town immediately prior to the deadline); their relationship flourished, and on February 15, 1867, a little over four months from their first meeting, the erratic forty-five-year-old writer and the worldly twenty-year-old stenographer were married.

This story, which has been recounted many times, gets its definitive treatment in these Reminiscences, and it sets the mood, tone, and attitudes that characterize this remarkable document. The high point of the story is the charmingly described proposal scene. Enamoured of his stenographer and determined to marry, but afraid of rejection, Dostoevsky made his appeal indirectly by recounting the plot of a “new novel” he was contemplating. The story is, of course, about a middle-aged artist’s infatuation with a beautiful, energetic young girl:“What could this elderly, sick, debt-ridden man give a young, alive, exuberant girl? . . . Would it be possible for a young girl so different in age and personality to fall in love with my artist? Wouldn’t that be psychologically false? That is what I wanted to ask your opinion about. Anna Grigoryevna?“But why would it be impossible? For if, as you say, your Anya isn’t merely an empty flirt and has a kind, responsive heart, why couldn’t she fall in love with your artist? What if he is poor and sick? Where’s the sacrifice on her part, anyway? If she really loves him, she’ll be happy, too, and she’ll never have to regret anything!”

Dostoevsky’s “artist” sums up the case against the marriage pretty well, although he might have added general neuroticism, sexual maladjustment, and compulsive gambling to the list. Anna’s answer smacks of sentimental romanticism and hero worship. Prospects for success in such a match would seem very slight. And yet the marriage was a good and, even allowing for some romantic exuberance, a very happy one. What brought them together and, more importantly, what kept them together?

The initial attraction between the two is actually not very difficult to understand. Although nearing his artistic peak, Dostoevsky was a tired and frustrated man. His economic situation, as previously noted, was in a shambles and getting worse. His personal life was chaotic and emotionally debilitating. His always intense but erratic sex life had been severely upset by a disastrous first marriage and, subsequently, by a long, torturous affair with the provocative, volatile Apollinaria Suslova, a woman who acerbated all of his weaknesses. Shortly before his first meeting with Anna, his marriage proposal to Anna Korvin-Krukovskaya was rejected for reasons of “intellectual incompatibility.” Moreover, despite all of his erratic and extreme behavior, Dostoevsky had, at the center of his being, a fierce desire for domestic felicity. When, during one of their early sessions, Anna chided him for telling her only about “unhappy times,” he replied:“Happy? But I haven’t had any happiness yet. At least, not the kind of happiness I always dreamed of. I am still waiting for it. A few days ago I wrote my friend. Baron Wangel, that in spite of all the grief that has come to me I still go on dreaming that I will begin a new, happy life.”

Thus, at the time of their first meeting, Dostoevsky was primed for matrimony, and the prospect of an attractive, intelligent, young, and kind female proved irresistible:. . . Knowing of many happy families among my acquaintances and friends, I advised him to marry again and find happiness in his family. “So you think I can marry again?” he asked. “That someone might consent to become my wife? What kind of a wife shall I choose then—an intelligent one or a kind one?” “An intelligent one, of course.” “Well, no . . . if I have the choice, I’ll pick a kind one, so that she’ll take pity on me and love me.”

The reasons for Anna’s immediate acceptance of his proposal are, perhaps, less obvious. She had been reared in a literate middle-class household and was very close to her father, a civil servant, who had been an avid reader of Dostoevsky. Her admiration for the famous writer’s works, coupled with an identification of the author with her beloved and recently deceased father, plus a generally romantic view of the creative artist, all helped to prepare her for her fortuitous encounter with the great man. At the same time, she fancied herself an independent “woman of the...

(The entire section is 2566 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Atlantic. CCXXVI, December, 1975, p. 118.

Books and Booksmen. XXI, August, 1976, p. 31.

Newsweek. LXXXVI, November 24, 1975, p. 125.

Sewanee Review. LXXXIV, April, 1976, p. 314.

Spectator. CCXXXV, January 24, 1976, p. 21.

Times Literary Supplement. January 23, 1976, p. 78.