The House of the Dead, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

There are not enough hours in the day (or night) to read all the books I want to, as evidenced by the TBR (to be read) stacks threatening to take over a corner of my study. Reading one book leads me to read others, as The Rings of Saturn which I blogged about a few weeks ago sent me searching for a copy of Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial.

One area where my attention has been deficient is the Russian authors. I somehow missed reading them in school and, apart from Nabokov, never got around to reading them until recently. Prompted by my nephew, I did read War and Peace a couple of years ago, and now, driven by one of my book clubs, I’ve dipped my toe in Dostoyevsky’s oeuvre. Unfortunately I missed the discussion, but I’m grateful for the push.

This book precedes his famous novels. According to the Introduction (which, as always, I read only after finishing the story), it is a pivotal novel in his development as an author, leading him to find his own voice and themes. There is a brief chapter describing how the narrator meets a quiet, withdrawn man named Alexander Petrovitch Goriantchikoff. When the man passes away, the narrator is given the pages of the narrative that make up the rest of the book. It turns out to be an account of the ten years Alexander Petrovitch spent in prison in Siberia.

As a nobleman, Alexander Petrovitch fears the other convicts while envying their camaraderie. He thinks that now they have a nobleman within their power, the men will take out on him their rage at the whole social class. Yet, as he gradually gets to know them, he is able to distinguish good characteristics from bad. The joy of the story for me lies in these vivid portraits of his fellow prisoners and the people who run the prison. It was this appreciation of the value of the lowest of the low that gave rise to his later novels.

Though it is called a novel, this story is based on Dostoyevsky’s own experience. He spent nine years in Siberia after being arrested for supposedly being a member of a revolutionary group. According to the Introduction by Nikolay Andreyev, in writing this book “Dostoyevsky was circumspect in his descriptions.” He toned down both the brutality of the conditions and the hostility of his fellow inmates.

There are a couple of lessons here for memoir writers. Dostoyevsky called the book a work of fiction at least in part to avoid retribution by the authorities. Many memoir writers worry—as they should—that by telling their own story, they will hurt family members or others. I believe that telling someone else’s story, as we inevitably must in telling our own, is a huge responsibility, not to be taken lightly. One solution is to call your book a novel, changing names and recognizable details to hide the identities of the other people.

Another solution is to treat the other people in your memoir with respect and compassion. While I wouldn’t go so far as Dostoyevsky’s decision to hide the truth of his experience, I do think we owe it to the other people in our memoir to present them objectively. No matter how badly they may have behaved, we can try to understand why they did what they did. I personally found that making that effort benefited me as well. It made me see them with new eyes and wiped out any remaining resentment.

This book is a good example of an episodic plot. As we follow Alexander Petrovitch’s days (and nights), we meet various people and incidents, but there is no overall rising action that leads to a climax and resolution, the more common plot structure for novels. Nonetheless, it held my attention and introduced me to characters I will not soon forget. I’m looking forward to reading more of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and other Russian authors.

Which Russian novel do you recommend?

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