Ten Novels and Their Authors by W. Somerset Maugham


  He was able, however, to play the part of a man with a breaking heart, ready to sacrifice himself to the happiness of his well-beloved, without serious consequences, for the widow had an eye to the main chance Vergunov, though ‘high-minded and sympathetic’, was penniless, whereas Dostoevsky was now an officer, his pardon could not long be delayed, and there was no reason why he should not again write successful books. The couple were married in 1857. They had no money, and Dostoevsky had borrowed till he could borrow no more. He turned again to literature; but as an ex-convict he had to get permission to publish, and this was not easy. Nor was married life. In fact it was very unsatisfactory, which Dostoevsky ascribed to his wife’s suspicious, painfully fanciful nature. It escaped his notice that he was himself as impatient, quarrelsome, neurotic and unsure of himself as he had been in the first flush of success. He began various pieces of fiction, put them aside, began others, and in the end produced little, and that little of no importance.

  In 1859, as the result of his appeals and by the influence of friends, he received permission to return to Petersburg. Professor Ernest Simmons, of the University of Columbia, in his interesting and instructive book on Dostoevsky, justly remarks that the means he employed to regain his freedom of action were abject. ‘He wrote patriotic poems, one celebrating the birthday of the Dowager Empress Alexandra, another on the coronation of Alexander II, and a threnody on the death of Nicholas I. Begging letters were addressed to people in power and to the new Tsar himself. In them he protests that he adores the young monarch, whom he describes as a sun shining on the just and the unjust alike, and he declares that he is ready to give up his life for him. The crime for which he was convicted he readily confesses to, but insists that he has repented and is suffering for opinions that he had abandoned.’

  He settled down with his wife and stepson in the capital. It was ten years since he had left it as a convict. With his brother Michael, he started a literary journal. It was called Time, and for it he wrote The House of the Dead and The Insulted and Injured. It was a success, and his circumstances were easy. In 1862, leaving the magazine in charge of Michael, he visited Western Europe. He was not pleased with it. He found Paris ‘a most boring town’ and its people money-grubbing and small-minded. He was shocked by the misery of the London poor and the hypocritical respectability of the well-to-do. He went to Italy, but he was not interested in art, and he spent a week in Florence without going to the Uffizi and passed the time reading the four volumes of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. He returned to Russia without seeing Rome or Venice. His wife, whom he had ceased to love, had contracted tuberculosis and was now a chronic invalid.

  Some months before going abroad, Dostoevsky, who was then forty, had made the acquaintance of a young woman who brought a short story for publication in his literary journal. Her name was Polina Suslova. She was twenty, a virgin and handsome, but, to show that her views were advanced, she bobbed her hair and wore dark glasses. Dostoevsky was greatly taken with her, and after his return to Petersburg seduced her. Then, owing to an unfortunate article by one of his contributors, the magazine was suppressed and he decided to go abroad again. The reason he gave was to get treatment for his epilepsy, which for some time had been growing worse, but this was only an excuse; he wanted to go to Wiesbaden to gamble, for he had invented a system to break the bank, and he had made a date with Polina Suslova in Paris. He parked his sick wife at Vladimir, a town some distance from Moscow, borrowed money from the Fund for Needy Authors, and set out.

  At Wiesbaden he lost much of his money, and tore himself from the tables only because his passion for Polina Suslova was stronger than his passion for roulette. They had arranged to go to Rome together; but, while waiting for him, the emancipated young lady had had a short affair with a Spanish medical student; she was upset when he walked out on her, a proceeding women are not apt to take with equanimity, and refused to resume her relations with Dostoevsky. He accepted the situation and proposed that they should go to Italy ‘as brother and sister’, and to this, being presumably at a loose end, she consented. The arrangement, complicated by the fact that they were so short of money they had on occasion to pawn their knick-knacks, was not a success, and after some weeks of ‘lacerations’ they parted. Dostoevsky went back to Russia. He found his wife dying. Six months later she was dead. He wrote as follows to a friend:

  ‘My wife, the being who adored me, and whom I loved beyond measure, expired at Moscow, whither she had removed a year before her death of consumption. I followed her thither and never once throughout that winter left her bedside … My friend, she loved me beyond measure, and I returned her affection to a degree transcending all expression; yet our joint life was not a happy one. Some day, when I meet you, I will tell you the whole story. But for the present let me confine myself to saying that, apart from the fact that we lived unhappily together, we should never have lost our mutual love for one another, but have become more attached in proportion to our misery. This may seem strange to you; yet it is but the truth. She was the best, the noblest, woman I have ever known …’

  Dostoevsky somewhat exaggerated his devotion. During that winter he went twice to Petersburg in connection with a new magazine he had started with his brother. It was no longer liberal in tendency, as Time had been, and failed. Michael died after a short illness, leaving heavy debts, and Dostoevsky found himself obliged to support his widow and children, his mistress and her child. He borrowed ten thousand roubles from a rich aunt, but by 1865 had to declare himself bankrupt. He owed sixteen thousand roubles on note of hand, and five thousand on the security of his word alone. His creditors were troublesome and, to escape from them, he again borrowed money from the Fund for Needy Authors and got an advance on a novel which he contracted to deliver by a certain date. Thus provided, he went to Wiesbaden to try his luck once more at the tables and to meet Polina. He made her an offer of marriage. She refused it. It is evident that, if she had ever loved him, she loved him no longer. One may surmise that she had yielded to him because he was a well-known author and, as editor of a magazine, might be of use to her. But the magazine was dead. His appearance had always been insignificant, and now he was forty-five, bald and epileptic. Nothing, I suppose, exasperates a woman more than the sexual desire for her of a man who is physically repellent to her, and when, to put it bluntly, he will not take no for an answer, she may very well come to hate him. Thus it was, I imagine, with Polina. Dostoevsky attributed her change of heart to a reason more flattering to himself. I shall come to it, and the effect it had on him, in due course. They had gambled their money away, and Dostoevsky wrote to Turgenev, with whom he had quarrelled and whom he detested and despised, for a loan. Turgenev sent him fifty thalers, and on this Polina was able to get to Paris. For a month longer Dostoevsky remained in Wiesbaden. He was ill and wretched. He had to sit quietly in his room so as not to get up an appetite which he had no money to satisfy. His straits were such that he wrote Polina for money. She was, it appears, already occupied with another affair and does not seem to have replied. He began another book, under the lash, he says, of necessity and against time. This was Crime and Punishment. At last, in answer to a begging letter he had written to an old friend of his Siberian days, he received enough money to leave Wiesbaden and, with his friend’s further help, managed to go back to Petersburg.

  While still at work on Crime and Punishment, he remembered that he had contracted to deliver a book by a certain date. By the iniquitous agreement he had signed, if he did not do so the publisher had the right to issue everything he wrote for the following nine years without paying him a penny. The date was at hand. Dostoevsky was at his wits’ end. Then some bright person suggested that he should employ a stenographer; this he did, and in twenty-six days finished a novel called The Gambler. The stenographer, Anna Grigorievna by name, was twenty, but homely; she was, however, efficient, practical, patient, devoted and admiring; and early in the year 1867 he married her. His stepson, his brother’s widow and h
er children, foreseeing that he would not thenceforward support them as he had done before, were bitterly antagonistic to the poor girl and, indeed, behaved so badly, and made her so miserable, that she persuaded Dostoevsky to leave Russia once more. He was again heavily in debt.

  This time he spent four years abroad. At first, Anna Grigorievna found life difficult with the celebrated author. His epilepsy grew worse. He was irritable, thoughtless and vain. He continued to correspond with Polina Suslova, which did not conduce to Anna’s peace of mind, but, being a young woman of uncommon sense, she kept her dissatisfaction to herself. They went to Baden-Baden and there Dostoevsky again began to gamble. As usual he lost all he had and, as usual, wrote to everyone likely to help for money and more money, and whenever it arrived slunk off to the tables to lose it. They pawned whatever they had of value, they moved into cheaper and cheaper lodgings, and sometimes they had barely enough to eat. Anna Grigorievna was pregnant. Here is an extract from one of his letters. He had just won four thousand francs:

  ‘Anna Grigorievna begged me to be content with the four thousand francs, and to leave at once. But there was a chance, so easy and possible to remedy everything. And the examples? Besides one’s own personal winnings, one sees every day others winning 20,000 and 30,000 francs (one does not see those who lose). Are there saints in the world? Money is more necessary to me than to them. I staked more than I lost. I began to lose my last resources, enraging myself to fever point. I lost. I pawned my clothes, Anna Grigorievna has pawned everything that she has, her last trinkets. (What an angel!) How she consoled me, how she wearied in that accursed Baden in our two little rooms above the forge where we had to take refuge! At last, no more, everything was lost. (Oh, those Germans are vile. They are all, without exception, usurers, scoundrels and rascals. The proprietor, knowing that we had nowhere to go till we received money, raised his prices.) At last we had to escape and leave Baden.’

  The child was born at Geneva. Dostoevsky continued to gamble. He was bitterly repentant when he lost the money that would have provided his wife and child with the necessities they so badly needed; but hurried back to the gambling house whenever he had a few francs in his pocket. After three months, to his intense grief, the baby died. Anna Grigorievna was again pregnant. The couple were in such want that Dostoevsky had to borrow sums of five and ten francs from casual acquaintances to buy food for himself and his wife. Crime and Punishment had been a success and he set to work on another book. He called it The Idiot. His publisher agreed to send him two hundred roubles a month; but his unhappy weakness continued to leave him in straits, and he was obliged to ask for further and further advances. The Idiot failed to please, and he started on yet another novel, The Eternal Husband, and then on a long one named, in English, The Possessed. Meanwhile, according to circumstances, which I take to mean when they had exhausted their credit, Dostoevsky, his wife and child moved from place to place. But they were homesick. He had never overcome his dislike of Europe. He was untouched by the culture and distinction of Paris, the gemütlichkeit, the music of Germany, the splendour of the Alps, the smiling yet enigmatic beauty of the lakes of Switzerland, the gracious loveliness of Tuscany, and that treasury of art which is Florence. He found Western civilisation bourgeois, decadent and corrupt, and convinced himself of its approaching dissolution. ‘I am becoming dull and narrow here,’ he wrote from Milan, ‘and am losing touch with Russia. I lack the Russian air and the Russian people.’ He felt he could never finish The Possessed unless he went back to Russia. Anna was pining to go home. But they had no money, and Dostoevsky’s publisher had already advanced as much as the serial rights were worth. In desperation Dostoevsky appealed to him again. The first two numbers had already appeared in a magazine and, faced with the fear of getting no further instalments, he sent money for the fares. The Dostoevskys returned to Petersburg.

  This was in 1871. Dostoevsky was fifty and had ten more years to live.

  The Possessed was received with favour, and its attack on the young radicals of the day brought its author friends in reactionary circles. They thought he could be made use of in the Government’s struggle against reform and offered him the well-paid editorship of a paper called The Citizen, which was officially supported. He held it for a year, and then resigned over a disagreement with the publisher. Anna had persuaded her husband to let her publish The Possessed herself; the experiment was successful, and thenceforward she brought out editions of his works so profitably that for the rest of his life he was released from want. His remaining years can be passed over briefly. Under the title of The Journal of an Author, he wrote a number of occasional essays. They were very popular, and he came to look upon himself as a teacher and a prophet. This is a role which few authors have been disinclined to play. He had become an ardent Slavophil and he saw in the Russian masses, with their brotherly love, which he regarded as the peculiar genius of the Russian people, with their thirst for universal service for the sake of mankind, the only possibility of healing the ills, not only of Russia, but of the world. The course of events suggests that he was unduly optimistic. He wrote a novel called A Raw Youth and finally The Brothers Karamazov. His fame increased, and when he died, rather suddenly, in 1881, he was esteemed by many the greatest writer of his time. His funeral is said to have been the occasion for ‘one of the most remarkable demonstrations of public feeling ever witnessed in the Russian capital.’

  (3)

  I have tried to relate the main facts of Dostoevsky’s life without comment. The impression one receives is of a singularly unamiable character. Vanity is an occupational disease of artists, whether writers, painters, musicians or actors, but Dostoevsky’s was outrageous. It seems never to have occurred to him that anyone could have enough of hearing him talk about himself and his works. With this was combined, necessarily maybe, that lack of self-confidence which is now called the inferiority complex. It was, perhaps, on this account that he was so openly contemptuous of his fellow-writers. A man of any strength of character would hardly have been reduced by the experience of prison to submission so cringing; he accepted his sentence as the due punishment for his sin in resisting authority, but this did not prevent him from doing all he could to get it remitted. It does not seem logical. I have told to what depths of self-abasement he descended in his appeals to persons of power and influence. He was utterly lacking in self-control. Neither prudence nor common decency served to restrain him when he was in the grip of passion. So, when his first wife was ill and had not long to live, he abandoned her to follow Polina Suslova to Paris, and only rejoined her when that flighty young woman threw him over. But his weakness is nowhere more manifest than in his mania for gambling. It brought him time after time to destitution.

  The reader will remember that, to fulfil a contract, Dostoevsky wrote a short novel called The Gambler. It is not a good one. Its chief interest is that in it he vividly described his feelings he knew so well which seize the unfortunate victim; and after you have read it, you understand how it came about that, notwithstanding the humiliations it caused him, the misery to him and those he loved, the dishonourable proceedings it occasioned (when he got money from the Fund for Needy Authors it was to enable him to write, not to gamble), the constant need to apply to others, already wearied with providing him with money, notwithstanding everything, he could not resist temptation. He was an exhibitionist, as to a greater or less extent are all those who, whatever art they practise, have the creative instinct; and he has described the way in which a run of luck may gratify this discreditable tendency. The onlookers crowd round and stare at the fortunate gambler, as though he were a superior being. They wonder and admire. He is the centre of attraction. Balm to the unhappy man cursed with a morbid diffidence! When he wins, it gives him an intoxicating sense of power; he feels himself the master of his fate, for his cleverness, his intuition, are so infallible that he can control chance.

  ‘I have only for once to show will-power and in an hour I can transform my destiny,’ h
e makes his gambler exclaim. ‘The great thing is will-power. Only remember what happened to me seven months ago at Roulettenburg just before my final failure. Oh! it was a remarkable instance of determination. I had lost everything then, everything. I was going out of the Casino, I looked, there was still one golden gulden in my waistcoat pocket: “Then I shall have something for dinner,” I thought. But after I had gone a hundred paces I changed my mind and went back. I staked that gulden … and there really is something peculiar in the feeling when, alone in a strange land, far from home and from friends, not knowing whether you will have anything to eat that day – you stake your last gulden, your very last. I won, and twenty minutes later I went out of the Casino, having a hundred and seventy gulden in my pocket. That’s a fact. That’s what the last gulden can sometimes do. And what if I had lost heart then? What if I had not dared to risk it?’

 
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