Selected Letters of Fyodor Dostoyevsky

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

One of the creators of modern literature, Fyodor Dostoyevsky probed the psychology of his tormented protagonists with an insight sharpened by his own harrowing experiences and precarious health. His letters disclose not only his psychological acuteness but also his fervent patriotism, his religiosity, his devotion to his family, and his capacity for sympathetic attention to strangers who wrote responding to his work or seeking advice about their own. This selection of 156 letters, begun by David I. Goldstein and completed by Joseph Frank, a distinguished biographer of Dostoyevsky, is based chiefly on a four-volume Soviet edition which appeared between 1928 and 1959 and ranges over forty-two years of the novelist’s life, from his days at a military engineering school until his death in January of 1881. Dostoyevsky’s letters are fairly long, averaging more than three pages, and the editors chose to print in their entirety somewhat fewer than one-sixth of those in the Russian edition along with four others more recently discovered. Parts of some letters are obscured by family or official censorship.

Dostoyevsky frequently complained that he detested writing letters—even that he could not express his ideas adequately therein. Presumably, a Dostoyevsky of the present day would telephone or visit his friends whenever possible. He was a man who needed responses, who confessed himself to be mystified by his correspondents’ reactions to previous letters and unable to account for their attitudes. He was an impulsive and undiplomatic man, and had his correspondents been with him, even electronically, sparks would have flown.

His impetuosity, candor, and habit of hasty composition put his less attractive traits on display. He shows himself vain, self-centered, extravagant, manipulative. For most of his life he could not live within his means, and on occasion he gambled away his family’s sustenance. Like many compulsive gamblers, he convinced himself that he could not lose if he stuck to his “system"—but of course his emotions always undermined his system sooner or later. Again and again in these letters he begs loans from friends and advances from publishers, promising repayment or manuscript copy by deadlines he often proves unable to meet. He bitterly denounces the stinginess of publishers and unreasonableness of creditors. Perhaps most unpleasant of all is a letter announcing his intention to sue when, for a change, the shoe was on the other foot.

On the other hand, his complaints signify the frustrations of an honorable man in trying circumstances. From 1849 to 1871, he lived a life as difficult as any major writer has had to face. In 1849, the promising young novelist, along with others of the so-called Petrashevsky Circle, was arrested for political subversion, made to face a firing squad in what turned out to be a mock execution, imprisoned in Siberia, and finally forced into only slightly less irksome military service. He was subject to fits of epilepsy, the severity of which increased during his exile. When finally discharged in 1859, he struggled through several years as an editor whose name—because of his felony—could not appear on the masthead of his magazines. Within two months in 1864 his valetudinarian first wife and his beloved brother Mikhail died. Able to earn his living only by writing for and editing periodicals, he assumed responsibility for the support of his brother’s family and for his stepson Pasha. The heavy hand of state censorship plagued his publications, and though he published such now-revered works as Zapiski iz podpolya (1864; Notes from the Underground, 1918) and Prestupleniye i nakazaniye (1866; Crime and Punishment), he found no relief from his and his late brother’s creditors.

Striving to meet deadlines for the latter novel and another called Igrok (1867; The Gambler, 1949), he employed a young stenographer, Anna Grigorevna Snitkina. Four months later they were married. Anna remained the great passion of Dostoyevsky’s life, and she lifted some of her husband’s burdens, including negotiations with publishers. Although prison life had yielded him subjects and themes, he knew that he would not be able to work in debtors’ prison, and since he could hope to repay his obligations only by writing, he and his young bride led a nomadic existence in Western Europe from 1867 to 1871, where their first two children were born and where Fyodor wrote Idiot (1868; The Idiot, 1887) and Besy (1871-1872; The Possessed, 1913). Playing one publisher off against another, the Dostoyevsky family eked out a living, often imperiled by his gambling addiction, which found opportunities at the gaming tables of Hamburg and Wiesbaden. Unable to stand continued absence from his homeland, Dostoyevsky finally brought his family home, still insolvent but able to make satisfactory arrangements with his remaining creditors.

Eighteen letters to Anna testify amply to his undiminished ardor for his helpmate. Most of these were written in the final decade of his life, often when on trips to Ems, a German health resort. His separation from her for several weeks at a time while he faithfully drank and bathed in the mineral waters so beloved of the medical profession in the late nineteenth century occasioned fervent utterances of his devotion to her and to his young children, although Anna’s or another hand discreetly obliterated what were obviously his most passionate lines. At this stage of his life he suffered less from epilepsy, more from emphysema, more yet from homesickness. Whenever away from the Fatherland, as so many...

(The entire section is 2322 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Choice. XXV, October, 1987, p. 319.

Kirkus Reviews. LX, April 15, 1987, p. 630.

Library Journal. CXII, April 1, 1987, p. 148.

London Review of Books. IX, July 23, 1987, p. 8.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 31, 1987, p. 1.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXI, April 3, 1987, p. 61.