Henri Troyat Richard Plant - Essay

Richard Plant

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Dostoevsky's life, as clearly and movingly demonstrated by M. Troyat [in "Firebrand"], was an amazing triumph of the spirit over matter and circumstances.

Through an intimate knowledge of nineteenth-century Russian places and persons and of his subject's writings in their original language … Henry Troyat is able to recreate Dostoevsky's lifelong pilgrimage through the purgatory of existence…. [One] of the main merits of Troyat's faithful account is to demonstrate the interdependence of the author's life and work. Dostoevsky put his friends into his books without bothering to disguise them greatly. Like himself, many of his heroes are forever dodging their creditors; they are irresistibly attracted by vices, such as gambling; they are subject to spasms and anxieties and are overemotional and contradictory. One way of approaching them is through M. Troyat's biography, which reveals how they were conceived and created.

His book, however, attempts much more. He spaces Dostoevsky's life story with long interpretations of his major works. Here he reveals one other aspect: no matter how closely Dostoevsky's figures resemble their models, no matter how realistically their surroundings are depicted, all of them are transmuted unmistakably into Dostoevsky characters, living in a primeval landscape of the earth and the soul, trapped in the underworld of their own psychoses. Some of Dostoevsky's grandeur, depth and pathology is captured in this book, but it seems the more M. Troyat strays away from the biographical and attempts a critical estimate, the more he loses his grip on the reader.

Henry Troyat has concentrated on his hero with the single-mindedness of the true biographer. He never even attempts to draw a picture of the nineteenth-century Russia, of its ambivalent attitude toward the West, of the literary tradition in which the young Dostoevsky was rooted. His hero therefore appears like a dazzling star moving against an almost empty sky. M. Troyat's book is never superficial or cheap. It could be called a brilliant but furiously partial biography.

Richard Plant, "Dostoevsky's 'Twilight of Torment'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1946 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 1, 1946, p. 8.