The Russian Soul: Selections from A Writer’s Diary by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Introduced by Rosamund Bartlett

Translated by Kenneth Lantz / Olga Shartse

Reviewed by Karen Langley

Notting Hill Editions will probably need no introduction to readers of Shiny New Books. The publisher specialises in producing beautiful little cloth covered volumes of essays, with hardback covers, thick quality paper and bookmarks – and the contents are always rather wonderful too. I covered their Oscar Wilde volume, Beautiful and Impossible Things, for Shiny issue 7, and was mightily impressed by the book. So I was delighted to be able to review a new addition to their Classic Collection, The Russian Soul by Fyodor Dostoevsky, which contains selections from Dostoevsky’s massive work A Writer’s Diary.

As the erudite introduction by esteemed author and translator Rosamund Bartlett makes clear, this latter work had an unusual and interesting genesis. Published as a monthly journal and then later collected, the final “Diary” runs to the length of two of Dostoevsky’s novels – and as they aren’t particularly short, this might be a reason why the book is less read than his other publications.

However, the structure of the work probably has something to do with this too; because A Writer’s Diary is most unusual, stirring fiction, journalism, criticism and much more into a heady and very chatty mix. The result is a bracing, fascinating and very unusual work that crosses genres, stimulates and is always intriguing.

The selections in this volume focus very much on Dostoevsky’s thoughts on Russianness, and these in themselves can vary. Using short fictions, reportage and general musings on the state of the world, the extracts paint a picture of Dostoevsky’s feelings on the Slav and his soul; because it is quite clear that the author is a real Slavophile, highly suspicious of the corrupting ideologies of the west. However, not all is clear-cut in these pieces, as is pretty much always the case with Dostoevsky. As Bartlett points out, the author is constantly striving and searching for answers, never really coming to any final conclusion; there is always ambivalence and doubt in his work and “this doubt is the grit that forms the pearl.”

Within his discussions, Dostoevsky ranges far and wide, covering topics which would have been very current at the time. He touches on the aftermath and ideals of the French Revolution when discussing George Sand, and despite having become somewhat conservative with age, cannot help but refer to the “utopian significance of these three words for which so much blood had been shed” – liberté, égalité, fraternité. Dostoevsky also casts his eye over the relationship between Europe and Russia, with some surprisingly pertinent observations which still seem very relevant. He queries whether Europe will ever trust his country, stating:

I said that Europe doesn’t like the Russians. No one, I think, will dispute the fact that they don’t like us.

As Bartlett points out, in many of the pieces in A Writer’s Diary Dostoevsky was working out ideas that would surface in his major novels, and one element which struck me very strongly was his connection to ordinary people and his sympathy with the underdog. There are shocking stories of peasant brutality and the horror Dostoevsky feels at these events is almost palpable. In particular, what shone through was his feeling for the suffering of children, a strand which resonated with me very strongly when I first read The Brothers Karamazov. One short fiction, ‘A Boy at Christ’s Christmas Party’, features a heart-rending stream of consciousness from a dying child which really shows the power of Dostoevsky’s writing. It’s hard not to see parallels with Dickens and his portrayal of children and their suffering, and some of the fictions had echoes of the groups of urchins in Oliver Twist.

…our mighty, self-important, yet unhealthy century, filled with foggy ideals and impossible hopes…

There are also points where Dostoevsky takes something like a response to Anna Karenina (where he recognises the importance the book will eventually have) or a speech about Pushkin, and basically riffs on these to demonstrate his keen interest in the future of the world and humanity’s search for absolution. His faith is a continual thread running through the work, and it is obvious that he feels that however hard we humans try, there is no redemption available on earth.

It is clear and intelligible to the point of obviousness that evil lies deeper in human beings than our socialist-physicians suppose; that no social structure will eliminate evil; that the human soul will remain as it always has been; that abnormality and sin arise from that soul itself; and, finally, that the laws of the human soul are still so little known, so obscure to science, so undefined, and so mysterious, that there are not and cannot be either physicians or final judges…

There are, by necessity, downsides. Dostoevsky, despite all of his brotherly love, is human and flawed, and his attitude towards Jewish people makes uncomfortable reading, clashing with his usual compassion. But it’s worth remembering that he was a product of his time, and we’re seeing the unedited writer, warts and all.

The Russian Soul was an absorbing read from start to finish, and a wonderful way of getting a route in to A Writer’s Diary (which is now available in a complete English edition). It was a treat to encounter a chatty, conversational side of Dostoevsky which isn’t always on show in his novels, and the selection here was a scholarly distillation of the author’s thoughts. As Bartlett points out, the Diary is essential to understanding Dostoevsky as a novelist and it was fascinating to see him working out his thoughts and themes in these pieces. She also reminds us that “His political sympathies may now have been conservative, but artistically he was still a radical”, and certainly the format of this work is structurally very much ahead of its time, as well as in the concerns it reflects.

Dostoevsky’s novels are often long, thought-provoking, intriguing, maddening, enlightening, entertaining and quite unique. The Russian Soul gives a wonderful insight into the thinking that was going on behind those novels, and stands on its own as a marvellous introduction to another aspect of this great author, as well as an enticement to read the whole of A Writer’s Diary. As Rosamund Bartlett points out in her introduction, and also mentions in the interview we’re featuring this issue, the author’s major works always touch on a “central theme of moral responsibility” and the fact that all of us and our actions are interconnected. Dostoevsky regarded A Writer’s Diary as his greatest work, but if you don’t have the stamina for something of that length, The Russian Soul is the best place to start!

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Read Karen’s interview with Rosamund Bartlett HERE.

Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and think she may well have somehow absorbed part of a Russian soul.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Russian Soul  (Notting Hill Editions, 2017). 978-1910749630, 137pp, hardback.

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