Thursday, November 7, 2013

Winter Notes on Summer Impressions. On Dostoevsky as essayist, traveller and hedgehog

I wonder if Fyodor Dostoevsky had read Thoreau's Walking before writing his famous 1880 “Pushkin Speech”, delivered in Moscow at the first public commemoration of the poet in Russia since his suspicious death in 1837. In this discourse, referring to Alexander Pushkin and the characters of his works, Dostoevsky coined the term Russian wanderer, a metaphoric personification of the contradictory nature of Russian national identity. As Ingrid Kleespies explains, “the perception of Russia as a figuratively nomadic nation and of Russians themselves as nomadic wanderers excluded from, or confined to the margins of, European civilization and history came to be a central topos of nineteenth-century Russian national thought”.[i]
This idea nourished a fertile tradition of literary wanderlust that encompasses the works of authors such as Nikolai Karamzin, Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Goncharov, Alexander Herzen or Fyodor Dostoevsky himself. However, it probably was the symbolist poet Alexander Blok who summarized this conception more accurately and radically: “Yes, we are Scythians!”.[ii] His verses, as Henry D. Thoreau's essay, suggest the innate character of the wandering temperament. Ambulator nascitur, non fit.[iii] And yet I feel, quite incongruously, that the coiner of the expression Russian wanderer, who was also the author of a hallmark in Russian travel writing, was not such an enthusiastic traveller. He was a hedgehog.
In the preserved fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus, we can read: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”. Isaiah Berlin transformed this taxonomy into literary theory: Herodotus, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Goethe, Pushkin and Joyce are foxes; Plato, Lucretius, Dante, Pascal, Dostoevsky and Proust are, to a greater or lesser extent, hedgehogs.[iv] As a matter of fact, Lucretius had enough with De rerum natura, Proust more than enough with going In Search of Lost Time and his madeleine, and Dostoevsky with his literature of the underground and gambling.
This remark on Dostoevsky's addiction might seem pointless and tasteless, were it not for the fact that casinos (and not a medical consultation to do with his epilepsy, as he assured his brother) probably constituted one of the main goals and lures of the two and a half months' journey he made to Western Europe in June 1862. After spending only one day in Berlin, he lost a substantial sum of money during his stay in Wiesbaden, a city which some years later would see how he dilapidated his already exiguous fortune. However, Fyodor Dostoevsky did not mention this detail in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, the depiction of his trip for the readers of the periodical Vremya (Time), published in its February 1863 issue.
“But, my friends, I have warned you as far as the first chapter of these notes, you know, that I may tell dreadful lies. So don't stand in the way. You surely know too, that if I tell lies I shall tell them in the conviction that I am not telling them. Personally, I think this should amply suffice you, and you had better give me full freedom”, Fyodor argues. I suppose full freedom is part of the agreement that you are forced to make when reading a hedgehog. As one of Fyodor Dostoevsky's literary grandsons, Saul Bellow, points out, it is characteristic of this writer that he does not conceal his bias or limitations, his unreliability: “For him this revelation of bias is a step toward the truth”.[v] Once the readers have accepted that unavoidable premise, they can take a seat next to Dostoevsky in the railway carriage, converse with him and hear the truth, his truth, about the journey that took him to Berlin, Dresden, Wiesbaden (of course), Baden-Baden, Cologne, Paris, London, Lucerne, Geneva, Genoa, Florence, Milan, Venice and Vienna.
While listening, we must take into account that this was his first trip after returning from the journey that changed everything: his sentence to four years of hard labour in Siberia and his subsequent conscription to the army in Kazakhstan. After that odyssey, every journey should have seemed dull and meaningless. We must also take into account the hedgehog point of view, which explains his initial reluctance to talk. “What shall I tell you? What shall I depict? A panorama? A perspective? A bird's-eye view of something? But you will probably be the first to tell me that I have flown too high”. A fox like Tolstoy would not have hesitated one minute to try to imagine the bird's viewpoint; the hedgehog, quite the contrary, is aware of his shortcomings, and thus he will resign to report his version, which is an interpretation of the details noticed by a creature stuck to the ground (or even to the underground).
Nevertheless, as Fyodor assumes, we have not chosen precisely this seat in the train to hear accurate information; not in vain, the title of the travelogue already hints at its fragmentary, incomplete, and subjective nature, at the spatial and temporal confusion, at the role of memory as a filter, which is not always the most trustworthy one. “Ah! say I, so what you want is just gossip, light sketches, fleeting personal impressions. That certainly suits me, and I shall immediately consult my diary. And I shall try to be as simple and frank as possible. I only ask you to bear in mind that I shall often be wrong in the things I write about. Not wrong about everything, of course...”
And so he starts off with his digressions, “often intemperate, worse than unfair and even frivolous”, as Bellow notes, which ramble from past to present, from Russia to Europe, from Pushkin and Turgenev to Voltaire and Rousseau, from flogging to French coats, from tradition to social modernization, from the Orthodox Church to Catholicism and Protestantism, from capitalism to socialism, from utopia to the real implementation of liberté, égalité, fraternité... “But anyway, where did I stop? Discussing a French coat! That is what it all started with. […] As a matter of fact, these were not thoughts, but a sort of contemplation, arbitrary notions, daydreams even, ‘of this and that, and nothing else’. To begin with, I made a mental journey back into olden times and let my thoughts wander […]”. Nothing is as convenient for the creation of literary hybrids as the transient condition of the traveller: Dostoevsky's Winter Notes transgress the boundaries between travelogue and fiction, between essay and polemical journalism, both in terms of their conception and their form. And nothing is as fruitful for the ruminative mind as travelling: the tempo of thoughts accommodates fast and eagerly to the banging and rattling of the train in an effort to populate the plains of boredom.
“Thus did all these thoughts assail me in my railway carriage on the way to Europe, partly in spite of myself and partly because I was bored and had nothing to do. To be frank, only those of us who have nothing to do have hitherto given thought to this sort of thing. Oh, how boring it is to sit idly in a railway carriage! In fact, just as boring as it is to live in Russia without having anything specific to do”. In fact, just as tedious and overwhelming as it seems at times for a hedgehog to travel through the land of holy miracles, as the Slavophile poet Khomiakov baptized Europe. Berlin was so similar to St. Peterburg that Dostoevsky could not help wondering if it was worthwhile spending forty-eight back-breaking hours in a train only to see a replica of what he had just left behind. Paris was the most moral and the most virtuous town in the whole world, so perfect that it had fossilized in stillness and order. London, on the contrary, was immense, and chaotic, and polluted, and crowded: an apocalyptic view bustling night and day. Englishmen, on the one hand, looked solemn, serious, not to say sullen. Frenchmen, on the other, turned out to be irrational, fussy, eloquent just for the sake of eloquence. Frenchwomen, the cherry on top, proved to be superficial, affected, devious intrigants. “Oh, but for Heaven's sake, don't run away with the idea that to love one's country means to revile the foreigner or that I think it does. I don't think so at all and have no intention of thinking so, on the contrary even... Only it is a pity I have no time to explain myself somewhat more clearly...”
Of course, we don't take your downright opinions the wrong way and rather take into consideration your sick liver, your feverish haste to arrive at Wiesbaden, the brevity of the trip. “And so you see, my friends, you cannot look at everything in two and a half months and never make a mistake […]. I must willy-nilly be untruthful occasionally, and therefore...”. Enough, Fyodor, enough. Even though your categorical tone and dispersed ideas, every now and then, make me think of Nabokov's asseveration of you being a prophet, a claptrap journalist and a slapdash comedian (sic).[vi] But maybe we shouldn't take his opinions too seriously, either. After all, his uncle Ivan Nabokov was part of the investigative commission that sentenced you to death and sent you to Siberia, which makes good old Vladimir suspicious of congenital ill will. Maybe we should find an explanation for your dispersion and sharpness somewhere else. What about Virginia Woolf? “[…] For nothing is outside Dostoevsky’s province; and when he is tired, he does not stop, he goes on. He cannot restrain himself. Out it tumbles upon us, hot, scalding, mixed, marvellous, terrible, oppressive — the human soul”.[vii]

Patricia Gonzalo is a translator and an MFA candidate at the University of Iowa Spanish Creative Writing program.

All Fyodor Dostoevsky quotes come from Winter Notes on Summer Impressions (Richmond: Oneworld Classics, 2008). Trans. Kyril FitzLyon.

[i] Ingrid Kleespies, A Nation Astray : nomadism and national identity in Russian literature (DeKalb, IL: NIU Press, 2012).
[ii] Alexander Blok, The Twelve, and other poems (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970).
[iii] Henry D. Thoreau, Walking. In: Essays: a fully annotated edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013): 243-280.
[iv] Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox: an essay on Tolstoy's view of history (New York: Simon         & Schuster, 1953).
[v] Saul Bellow, “The French as Dostoevsky Saw Them”, New Republic 23 (May 1955): 17–20. Rpt. in slightly revised version as Foreword. In: Feodor M. Dostoevsky. Winter Notes on Summer Impressions (New York: Criterion, 1955): 9–27.
[vi] Alvin Toffler: “Playboy Interview: Vladimir Nabokov”, Playboy, 11 (1) (Jan 1964): 35-41, 44-45.
[vii] Virginia Woolf, “The Russian Point of View”. In: The Common Reader (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1948).

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