Robert Bird: A diligent and enthusiastic biographer
Fyodor Dostoevsky was an enigmatic man. Sigmund Freud, for example, writes Robert Bird in his book on the famous Russian discovered “four distinct faces for Dostoevsky, the creative artist, the neurotic, the moralist and the sinner”. All of these are carefully examined in Bird’s critical study, which suggests that Dostoevsky’s multi-layered image presented the writer himself with certain “mysteries”. As his fame grew Dostoevsky would frequently decline to pose for photographs deeming it an infringement upon one’s person, believing that the physiological was inseparable from the spiritual self. In his case, however, there was a great dichotomy between the two. Bird quotes a number of descriptions of the writer to illustrate the ostensible discord between his physical appearance and his personality, his “intellectual authority” and his “unappealing exterior”. “A little man, skinny, grey fair hair, the colour of his face and of everything was grey,” wrote one observer in 1880, “he read and everyone listened, holding their breath. He began quietly and ended as a prophet.” Another account of Dostoevsky is provided by Varvara Timofeeva, an editor with whom he worked on the Writer’s Diary. His “was not a kind or evil face,” she wrote in 1873, “it somehow simultaneously attracted and repelled, frightened and captivated”. Bird suggests it is for this reason, among others, this puzzling duality of the corporeal and the spiritual, which also came to define Dostoevsky’s works, that our interest in him has never dwindled and is showing no sign of doing so.
Dostoevsky rose from humble beginnings, although occasionally he liked to suggests otherwise. His father worked in a hospital for the poor and money was always a source of worry, even later on in Dostoevsky’s life when he had achieved considerable success. “From early on,” explains Bird, “ Dostoevsky’s financial problems were exacerbated by this wholehearted immersion in the imaginary realms opened up by poetry, drama and fiction.” Experiences of monetary hardships infiltrated his fiction from as early as Poor Folk, The Double and White Nights all of which lament, as Bird points out, “the disfigurement of society and the individual psyche under the pressures of modern life,” defined by “forces that constrain human freedom, both exterior forces such as money and power and interior ones like illness and sexual desire”. Bird unveils Dostoevsky as a formidable social commentator, whose works were infused with popular philosophical and ideological ideas akin to those of Karl Marx. “As different as their analyses and solutions were,” writes Bird, “both Dostoevsky and Marx sought to identify the iron fences of necessity in order to establish the conditions of new freedom.” In his own way Dostoevsky sought to form these conditions with every single one of his books, two journals, Vremya and Epokha, and continuous calls for artistic liberty, which saw him arrested for sedition and sent to the Semipalatinsk labour camp. Dostoevsky later described those four years in Siberia as deadening as being “buried alive and enclosed in a coffin”. But Bird notes that surviving documents paint a picture of Dostoevsky as a brave and courageous “man trying to stay true to his artistic vocation in the face of crushing physical and psychological blows”.
Bird is very diligent in chronicling how each period of Dostoevsky’s life shaped his fiction. After leaving the camp, for example, Dostoevsky began “remaking himself as a writer” and resolved to set up house and raise a family. In 1857, he met and married a widow by the name of Maria Dmitrievna Isayeva. “Family, patriotism, religion,” writes Bird about this time in Dostoevsky’s life, “all three elements of this essentially conservative mind-set issue directly from the artist’s attempt to compose a new image for a new time.” To keep this momentum going Dostoevsky launched the first of his two literary journals, Vremya, with his brother Mikhail, which showcased a “nascent ideology for national unity”. And for a while the future of literature and society seemed to rest with “his talented, socially committed pen,” which deemed it imperative for Russia to find its own place in the world, away from the Western Tradition. “Our task is to create for ourselves a new form, our own, native to us,” Dostoevsky wrote at the time, “taken from our own soil, taken from the national spirit and from national principles.” This notion would also apply to the writer himself, who in 1861 resumed writing Dead House, a fictionalised account of prison life in a form of “notes” consisting of disconnected and fitful narratives, rich in dominant ideological standpoints. In order to proceed with Dead House, Dostoevsky had to invent a new literary form because his vision, Bird explains, “refused to submit to conventional means of literary representation”. Dead House was an artistic turning point for the writer just as Crime and Punishment would later elevate his “name to a wholly new status”. But this was also a troubled time for Dostoevsky, who found himself in a dire emotional and financial position following his wife’s death and the folding of both his literary journals. It prompted Dostoevsky to refer to himself as “a literary proletariat,” perpetually toiling away with little to show for it.
Dostoevsky’s lack of control over his gambling and his estate haunted him until the end. It was in part due to his impractical nature and his inability to abnegate the vices of the flesh despite his Christianity, which was a dominating element in his personal and professional life. While travelling around Europe, for example, Dostoevsky became fascinated with religious art, deeming the famous Sistine Madonna “the greatest revelation of the human spirit”. The painting was later obsessively mentioned in all of Dostoevsky’s mature novels, except one (The Brothers Karamazov). But even in his early works of the 1860s, the religious element was at the forefront of the writer’s mind as he set out to “create a Christian literature” in his own unique way. “Christianity infuses his work as a gesture,” Bird explains, “changing the quality of his images by setting them against an infinite horizon. The crucial decision was to stop projecting ideas onto fictional forms and to allow both form and idea to emerge viscerally from his raw experience”. Bird illustrates this point throughout the book with learned enthusiasm, occasionally too academic and scholastic in tone. But this is no surprise as Bird’s main area of interest is the aesthetic practice and theory of Russian modernism, whose spectres loom over the otherwise very well balanced book, which conscientiously appraises all of Dostoevsky’s faces.
“The Idiot,” Bird writes mid way through the book, “is a novel that reveals most about Dostoevsky’s inner life, his experience as an epileptic and his dreams of (and for) the world.” One can clearly see elements of Myshkin in Dostoevsky, who fought a lifelong battle between flesh and spirit, between intellect and labour. The book was written abroad, with Dostoevsky pinning for Russia, gambling himself into destitution and feeling increasingly ill due to his epilepsy. He was by that point married to his second wife, Anna Grigoryevna, with whom he had a daughter that died before Dostoevsky finished the book. This state of mind inevitably shaped the tortured and on occasion torturous work. In the book, explains Bird, Dostoevsky hoped to portray a “positively beautiful individual,” resembling the spirit of the Sistine Madonna, a man endowed with all the qualities that Dostoevsky considered godly: love, humanity, faith. All the qualities he wished in himself, but felt he struggled to find. “You think I’m one of those people who save hearts, resolve souls and dispel grief?” Dostoevsky asked in reply to a fan’s letter, “Many write such things to me but I know for sure that I am more capable of inciting disappointment and disgust.” It would be easy to assume that this earnestness was part of some perverse affectation, but it is more likely that Dostoevsky genuinely believed himself more capable of the latter than the former. “Even in his final repose,” Bird says, “Dostoevsky was unable to maintain the solemn dignity he so craved.” His funeral was a large scale public spectacle, almost farcical in scope and grandeur. “A student records,” Bird cites, “that one passer-by asked who was being buried with such pomp: he was given the puzzling answer: A convict.” A sinner. A neurotic. A moralist. But a creative artist, above all.
Publisher: Reaktion Books
Publication Date: March 2012
Paperback: 240 pages