Memoirs from the House of the Dead

I’m not a completist by design and there’s a fair amount of Dostoevsky I’ve never read and never will, but Memoirs from the House of the Dead has always possessed a certain allure for me.

House of the Dead

Perhaps it was a hangover from my earlier, youthful love of Dostoevsky’s novels, particularly Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. Those books jolted me like defibrillators when I first encountered them, and made the life I was living seem embarrassingly bereft and sterile. As I said to a friend of mine at the time, they seemed more real to me than my own life. I was only too happy to lose myself in both of them.

Then I read The Idiot. And I was shocked to find myself struggling, wincing at the general hysteria of it, the endless, mannered conversations, the ridiculous convolutions of its plot. Though there were some great moments in the book, the biggest thrill for me turned out to be walking around carrying a book called The Idiot. It was like a handy caption for my life that I could flash at particular moments. A warning sign and a calling card.

Although my faith in Dostoevsky remained unshaken, years went by before I touched another book of his.

Somewhere in that span of time, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky came on the scene with a plan to update the translations of Dostoevsky’s major novels.

from –

And update they did. Beginning in 1990 with the Brothers Karamazov, the duo swept through most if not all of Dostoevsky’s corpus, as well as Tolstoy’s bicep-building bombshells, Anna Karenina and War and Peace, Gogol’s Dead Souls, Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, and the selected stories of Nikolai Leskov, all to general critical acclaim. Their translation of The Idiot earned them the first Efim Etkind Translation prize from the European University of St. Petersburg (yeah, it doesn’t exactly mean anything to me, either…).

I need to mention one thing before I continue. My copy of Memoirs from the House of the Dead is an Oxford World Classic paperback edition, reissued in 2008, with a translation by Jessie Coulson dating back to 1956. I only recently found out that Knopf is issuing a new translation of it by Pevear and Volokhonsky in March of 2015.

Feel free to imagine the gusts of steam that shot out of my ears when I read the news.

Seeing as I don’t speak Russian, I can’t say much about the faithfulness or artfulness of Coulson’s work. But I do know that the following dialogue –

And they’re a fine pair! One of them was sent here on account of a pound of bread and the other’s a tup’ny whore and got the lash for stealing some woman’s junket…

– sounds like it was plagiarized from Oliver Twist and is not uncharacteristic of most of the dialogue in the book. Mercifully, there’s little of that to speak of.

Anyway, to get back to the new translations, they still weren’t enough to tempt me to go back and re-read anything. I instead picked up P & V’s translation of Demons (known in earlier translations as The Possessed), seduced by both the prospect of getting closer to the spirit of the well out-of-reach Russian language, as well as the book’s appropriately sinister cover design, with the illustration taken from  Lynd Ward’s groundbreaking graphic novel,  God’s Man. (Still available from Dover Books .)


Then summer arrived. With book in hand and a week’s vacation with my wife on Lake Champlain offering porches, swimming, outdoor cooking, and the fantasy of unlimited time, I had before me the makings of a dream come true.

But while everything else in that equation delivered, reading Demons, like The Idiot, turned out to be an excruciating experience. Not that I faulted the translators. It was just that the book itself was a bloated nightmare of grand opera proportions. I forced myself to finish it, but Demons earned the dubious distinction of being the book that pushed me to make the decision to drop a book if I felt it wasn’t worth my time. Prior to that, I’d decided that if I’d made the choice to read a book I would stick to the commitment and see it all the way through, even if I hated it. Of course, that younger version of myself also believed that I had all the time in the world ahead of me.

* * *

Within the whole of Dostoevsky’s oeuvre, Memoirs from the House of the Dead (MHD from here on out) arrives early, roughly four or five years before his first novel, Crime and Punishment. Although Dostoevsky tries to present MHD as the work of another writer, claiming that the main body of the text is actually taken from notebooks left behind by a shattered ex-con who has killed himself, Alexander Petrovich Goryanchikov, it’s clear that the story you’re about to read is based on Dostoevsky’s own experiences in prison.

From the opening pages, Dostoevsky has trouble connecting with his fellow inmates, and throughout the manuscript he struggles to make a totalizing statement about the people he’s incarcerated with:

Generally speaking, the whole tribe, with the exception of a few unquenchably cheerful souls, who for that reason enjoyed universal contempt, was sullen, envious, terribly conceited, boastful, touchy, and preoccupied in the highest degree with forms. The capacity not to be surprised by anything was the greatest possible virtue. They were all vitally concerned about one thing: what sort of figure they cut. But not seldom, the most arrogant bearing changed with the speed of lightning to the most pitiful. There were a few genuinely strong characters but they were simple and did not pose. But, strangely enough, some of these really strong people were superlatively, almost morbidly conceited.

And so on. Every general truth is soon unsettled by a mitigating observation that, if it doesn’t contradict the first claim outright, surely takes a deforming gouge out of it. You can practically see Dostoevsky skulking around on the periphery of the yard in these opening pages like a teenaged assassin, stealing glances at these men and trying to sum them up before anyone gets a bead on him.

To jump backwards for a second, the intro by Ronald Hingley explains that in a book written by P.K. Martynov, a fellow inmate from this same stint in prison, Dostoevsky is described as being “taciturn, unsmiling and pathologically suspicious.” Which suggests to me that maybe these men weren’t closed off in general but perhaps simply closed off to Dostoevsky in particular…

Dostoevsky, to his credit, explains early on that a major part of the stigma he bears comes from his status as a low-ranking member – but a member nonetheless – of the gentry, a fact that is known about him from the minute he arrives in the prison. Not surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of the prisoners come from the lower classes, and they give Dostoevsky and his ilk (the scant four or five other members of the elite also doing time) their daily comeuppance. Not through physical abuse but instead through taunts and isolation, essentially denying them their place in the larger brotherhood:

They watched our sufferings, which we tried not to show them, with delight. We were particularly severely cursed at work at first, because we were not as strong as they were and could not pull our weight. There is nothing harder than to gain the confidence of the people (especially these people) and even their liking… I had to live in the prison for almost two years before I could gain the favor of some of the convicts.

This isn’t entirely true. In yet another equivocation, Dostoevsky talks about being approached by protectors, prisoners who looked out for him from the start, preparing his food and tea (yes, he had a separate stash) and mending his clothing. This came with the understanding that even as a lower class member of the upper classes, Dostoevsky was still bound to have a few spare kopecks on him to help pay for their services. And about this, his protectors were right.

Not to suggest that Dostoevsky had an easy time of it, stuck as he was in a prison in Siberia for four years, and for the crime of being young and having a belief in something:

His early inclinations were to the side of the radicals: he leaned more or less toward the Westernizers. He also consorted with a secret society (though apparently did not actually become its member) of young men who had adopted the socialistic theories of  Saint-Simon and Fourier . These young men gathered at the house of an official of the State Department, Mikhail Petrashevski, and read aloud and discussed the books of Fourier, talked socialism, and criticized the government. After the upheavals of  1848 in several European countries, there was a wave of reaction in Russia; the government was alarmed and cracked down upon all dissenters. The Petrashevskians were arrested, among them Dostoevski.

From Lectures on Russian Literature by Vladimir Nabokov – who was no fan of Dostoevsky’s.

Nabokov - Tattered Cover

From this basic set-up, MHD proceeds as a largely plot-free string of anecdotes that occasionally cross-dissolves into ruminations on justice or freedom or what gives meaning to life, particularly in a system designed to squelch existence and reduce it to a cruelly manageable size. On the subject of prison labor, Dostoevsky is ever observant and delights (if that’s the appropriate term) in describing all the ways in which the prisoners evade the constrictions of their imposed jobs. Still, as he points out, work is the only thing in prison offering any kind of redemption, in that it teaches unskilled prisoners a trade that can provide them with some kind of means once they’re released. Another crucial function is that it preoccupies them and kills time. And as Dostoevsky puts it in his inimitable way, “without work the prisoners would have eaten one another like spiders in a flask.”

Among Dostoevsky’s first impressions is the startling discovery that within the confines of the prison, the inmates are largely free to move about at will, though of course they’re all in fetters. They drink (there is an elaborate system in place for smuggling in vodka), play cards, visit prisoners in other barracks. What troubles him of course is that there’s no escape, and worse, no privacy. Murderers and naïve revolutionaries like himself are crammed together with no exit in sight. Arguments among inmates are a given in a pressure cooker like this but, interestingly, that’s about as far as it goes:

Cursing, abuse, ‘tongue-lashings’, were permissible. In some measure they served to entertain everybody. But things were not often allowed to go as far as fighting; only rarely, in exceptional cases, did the adversaries come to blows. Actual fighting would be reported to the major; there would be investigations, the major himself would come – in a word, it would be bad for everybody, and therefore fights were not tolerated. Indeed, the contestants abused one another more as a form of amusement and as an exercise in style than anything else… Vanity, however, must not be forgotten. The man who could argue down or shout down his opponent was highly esteemed and all but applauded like an actor.

With almost every kind of dignity stripped from these men, pride becomes a vital, self-soothing necessity.

So who were these men? Unfortunately, I found that Dostoevsky’s distance from his fellow inmates prevented him from convincingly committing any of them to the page. Akim Akimovich was one of his protectors, yet he never becomes much more than that as a character. There’s Petrov, “the most desperate man in the whole prison,” who had a shy demeanor but also a reputation as a cold-blooded killer. Then there’s Baklushin, the talented actor in the prison theatricals whom everyone liked who also happened to be a murderer. And many more. They all float into Dostoevsky’s view, he scoops them up, spins them around and hefts them in his hands and points out their flaws and strengths – but then he releases them, and they’re immediately swallowed up in the murk of prison life.

What does remain is this: from these men, from Dostoevsky’s exposure to this “other side” of life, from his own despair and his gradual embrace of the idea that suffering is the way to salvation, comes all the material that will inform the books on which his eventual reputation will rest. Prison is the forge where Dostoevsky becomes Dostoevsky the novelist.


* * *

As his sentence slowly spends itself, Dostoevsky makes the briefest mention of a recurring illness that puts him in the infirmary. What he doesn’t specify is that the epileptic seizures that first appeared when he was a child began occurring with greater frequency once he was imprisoned.

Here he is on the experience of a seizure:

For several instants I experience a happiness that is impossible in an ordinary state, and of which other people have no conception. I feel full harmony in myself and in the whole world, and the feeling is so strong and sweet that for a few seconds of such bliss one could give up ten years of life, perhaps all of life.

I felt that heaven descended to earth and swallowed me. I really attained god and was imbued with him. All of you healthy people don’t even suspect what happiness is, that happiness that we epileptics experience for a second before an attack.


Somehow, I remain not at all envious.

A good part of the second half of the book is set in the infirmary, and Dostoevsky pulls out the stops here in sharing some of the appalling conditions of the place, so much so that I can’t bring myself to quote from it. It’s gag-inducing stuff. He also devotes a chapter to the fate of animals in the prison. As you might imagine, every animal, as beloved as it might have been, is consumed once it dies if it’s not killed outright. In one macabre example, a tanner by trade kills and skins one of Dostoevsky’s favorite yard dogs to make linings for a pair of winter boots for a judge’s wife.

Then Christmas comes and “something like friendship makes its appearance.” Yet despite all the merry-making and site-specific good will, the holiday ends with most everyone drunk and arguing and crying before passing out. (Nice to know that Xmas can be the same lousy holiday no matter where you are.) And we’re given a lengthy chapter on the performances put on by an acting troupe inside the prison, including Philatka and Miroshka, a farce that enjoyed a certain level of popularity at that time, and the more intriguingly titled, Kedril the Glutton.

Long before the Revolution, even before the intelligentsia interested itself in the popular theater in the 1880s, the army had served to acquaint simple Russians with theater. Soldiers had their own special repertory: melodramas and the like, such as Kedril the Glutton and Filatka and Miroshka’s Rivalry, which Dostoevsky noticed before anyone even suspected that Russian popular theater existed.

From  Bolshevik Festivals 1917 – 1920 , by James von Geldern

Now you know.

Where Dostoevsky really shines though is in his examination of the figure of the torturer and executioner.

Any man who has once tasted this dominion, this unlimited power, over the body, blood, and spirit of a human creature like himself… this boundless opportunity to humiliate with the deepest degradation another being made in the image of God, becomes despite himself the servant instead of the master of his emotions. Tyranny is a habit; it has the capacity to develop and it does develop, in the end, into a disease. I maintain that the best of men may become coarsened and degraded, by force of habit, to the level of a beast. Blood and power are intoxicants; callousness and perversity develop and grow; the greatest perversions become acceptable and finally sweet to the mind and heart. The man and the citizen perish eternally in the tyrant, and a return to human dignity, to remorse and regeneration, becomes almost completely impossible to him. Besides this, example and the possibility of such arbitrary power act like a contagion on the whole of society; such despotism is a temptation. A society which contemplates such manifestations calmly is already corrupted at its roots.

You don’t even have to try to find examples of this happening now.

* * *

Finally, in the book’s shortest chapter, Dostoevsky is released from prison. He wanders the stockade for the last time, thinking back over the last four years of his life, assessing it to see if there’s anything he can take away from it for himself.

And how much youth had gone to waste within those walls, what great powers had perished uselessly there! For the whole truth must be told: these indeed were no ordinary men. Perhaps, indeed, they were the most highly gifted and the strongest of all our people. But these powerful forces were condemned to perish uselessly, unnaturally, wrongfully, irrevocably. And whose is the blame?

As the U.S prison system sprawls, it’s clear that tyranny has left habit far behind and transformed itself into yet another explosively profitable business, one that needs to continually feed itself new prisoners to keep its engines running. (If you haven’t read it, pick up a copy of Michelle Alexander’s  The New Jim Crow and get ready to be outraged.)

But sticking to the matter at hand, it’s clear to see why Dostoevsky’s writing – insistent, repetitive, maddening, and out of control as it can sometimes be – endures. It’s because he still feels contemporary. He still feels relevant. He’s a crazy mess, but I still love him.


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