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Selected Letters of Fyodor Dostoyevsky edited by Joseph Frank and David I. Goldstein; translated by Andrew R. MacAndrew (Rutgers University: $29.95; 583 pp.)

May 31, 1987|Edward Condren | Condren teaches English and comparative literature at UCLA

Personal letters--at best merely pleasant to the writer and the addressee, at worst a chore--are irresistible to an eavesdropping outsider. Duty constrains the writer and the addressee: Once begun, a letter must be finished; once received, it must be read. But a third party, free from worries of its effect on his life, makes a willing commitment to enter the mind of the writer. He may never be the same again.

The letters of a great writer are especially intriguing, particularly those that may have been written close to the time when the events inspiring his great works were being converted into the works themselves. Sensing that such letters may afford deep insight into the creative process, we study them with care.

In the case of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, however, we search the correspondence almost in vain for some hint of how the author worked. This selection of 156 letters, based on the four-volume Russian edition and translated in what appears to be a very literal rendering, chronicles the preoccupations of an active, sympathetic man with the strong scent of humanity. From the first letter, written to his older brother Mikhail when Dostoyevsky was an 18-year-old student in the Academy of Engineers at St. Petersburg, to almost the last, dictated on the day he died nearly 43 years later, when he could manage only one sentence in the first person and had to be finished in the third, his unvaried theme is money. His needs change, and the sums grow as he does, but he is constantly broke. Here he doesn't have enough money to mail a letter; there he needs a few rubles 1953439861something to sustain himself in prison; now gambling debts prevent him from leaving Wiesbaden . . . a high percentage of these letters touch literature only to express concern over how much a given piece will bring in. How ironic, then, are these remarks from Paris in 1862, "The French are a nauseating people. . . . Our own are simply a debauched lot who recognize themselves for what they are, but here people are quite convinced that things are just as they should be. The Frenchman is quiet, honest, and polite, but he is a hypocrite, and money is everything to him. He has no ideals whatever."

Unintended irony again colors the correspondence a year later. Having explained to his sister-in-law that an enclosed 5,000 francs were won gambling, he then adds, "Please do not think that I am showing off by saying that I possess the secret of how to win. I really do know the secret--it is terribly silly and simple, merely a matter of keeping oneself under constant control and never getting excited, no matter how the game shifts. That's all there is to it--you just can't lose that way and are sure to win." A week later, broke again, deep in debt, he is begging his brother for money to return home. Compulsive gambling had become a serious problem for Dostoyevsky.

His second favorite subject, also refreshingly human, is his need for contact, especially contact with Mikhail's family to which he may have been closer than to his own. He revels in listing everyone he has seen, in asking for those he hasn't, and even resorts to an occasional "don't tell so-and-so such-and-such, because she'll then know I've heard from x, and wonder why I haven't mentioned y." Ordinary stuff, scarcely different from what fills thousands of letters each day.

And yet, if the actual content of Dostoyevsky's letters does not separate him from others, their omissions tantalize us to speculate about the kind of man he was. Take just two well-known phases of his life, political imprisonment in his late 20s and early 30s and the closing of his magazine Time in his early 40s. The former must surely have been devastating: For a long time unaware of his fate, then receiving a sentence of death, he was finally spared, literally seconds before he was to be executed. And yet we have surprisingly little from him about the state of his mind during these months, until the very afternoon immediately following his narrow escape from death, when he finally writes a lengthy letter covering most of the facts but few of the feelings. Similarly there543781664squabble years later that eventually shut down his literary magazine. Again, after the fact, in a letter to Turgenev, he finally gives the calm explanation that a clumsily worded article intended to be patriotic had been misunderstood to show Poland in a more favorable light than Russia.

One wonders if there might not be a connection between this silence when under the threat of extraordinary physical harm and his apparent lack of control while gambling. Only after the experience has passed does he seem capable of turning it into something intelligible. "Notes From the House of the Dead" was written in the years immediately following his period of imprisonment. "The Gambler" was written just after his first outbreak of roulette fever.

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