Ten Novels and Their Authors by W. Somerset Maugham

  Dostoevsky’s official life was written by a certain Strakhov, an old friend of his; and, in connection with this work, he wrote a letter to Tolstoy which Aylmer Maude has printed in his biography of that author and which, with some omissions, I now give in his translation:

  ‘All the time I was writing I had to fight against a feeling of disgust and tried to suppress my bad feelings … I cannot regard Dostoevsky as a good or happy man. He was bad, debauched, full of envy. All his life long he was a prey to passions that would have rendered him ridiculous and miserable and he been less intelligent or less wicked. I was vividly aware of these feelings while writing his biography. In Switzerland, in my presence, he treated his servant so badly that the man revolted and said to him: “But I too am a man!” I remember how I was struck by those words which reflected the ideas current in free Switzerland about the rights of man and were addressed to one who was always preaching sentiments of humanity to the rest of mankind. Such scenes were of constant occurrence; he could not control his temper … the worst of it was that he prided himself on the fact that he never repented of his dirty actions. Dirty actions attracted him and he gloried in the fact. Viskovatov (a professor) told me how Dostoevsky had boasted of having outraged a little girl at the bath-house, who had been brought to him by her governess … With all this he was given to a sort of mawkish sentimentality and high-flown humanitarian dreams, and it is these dreams, his literary message and the tendency of his writings, which endear him to us. In a word, all these novels endeavour to exculpate their author, they show that the most hidebound villainies can exist side by side with the noblest sentiments …’

  It is true that his sentimentality was mawkish and his humanitarianism bootless. He had small acquaintance with the ‘people’, to whom, as opposed to the intelligentsia, he looked for the regeneration of Russia, and he had little sympathy with their hard and bitter lot. He violently attacked the radicals who sought to alleviate it. The remedy he offered to the frightful misery of the poor was ‘to idealise their sufferings and make out of it a way of life. Instead of practical reforms, he offered them religious and mystical consolation’.

  The story of the violation of the little girl has grievously disturbed Dostoevsky’s admirers and they have discredited it. Anna asserted that he had never spoken of it to her. Strakhov’s account is obviously based on hearsay; but to confirm it is a report that, overcome by remorse, Dostoevsky told it to an old friend who advised him by way of penance to confess it to the man whom he hated most in the world. This was Turgenev. He had warmly praised Dostoevsky when he entered upon the literary scene, and had helped him with money, but Dostoevsky hated him because he was a ‘Westerner’, and aristocratic, rich and successful. He made his confession to Turgenev, who heard it in silence. Dostoevsky paused. Perhaps, as André Gide has suggested, he expected Turgenev to act as one of his own (Dostoevsky’s) characters would have acted, to take him in his arms and kiss him with the tears running down his cheeks, upon which they would be reconciled. But nothing happened.

  ‘Mr. Turgenev, I must tell you,’ said Dostoevsky, ‘I must tell you. I despise myself profoundly.’ He waited for Turgenev to speak. The silence continued. Then Dostoevsky, losing his temper, cried: ‘But I despise you still more. That was all I had to say to you.’ He flung out of the room, slamming the door behind him. He had been robbed of one of those scenes which no one could write better than himself.

  It is curious that he twice used the shocking episode in his books. Svidrigailov in Crime and Punishment confesses to the same ugly action, and so does Stavrogin in a chapter in The Possessed which Dostoevsky’s publisher refused to print. It is perhaps significant that in this very book Dostoevsky wrote a malicious caricature of Turgenev. It is dull and stupid. It serves only to make a shapeless work more shapeless, and looks as if it were merely introduced to give Dostoevsky a chance to vent his malice. He is not the only author who has bit the hand that fed him. Before he married Anna Grigorievna, Dostoevsky, with an amazing lack of tact, told the ugly story to a girl he was courting; but as a fiction. And that, I think, is what it was. He had, as have the characters of his novels, a passion for self-abasement, and it seems to me not improbable that he narrated the discreditable incident to others as a personal experience. For all that, I do not believe that he actually committed the revolting crime of which he accused himself. I hazard the suggestion that it was a persistent day-dream which at once fascinated and horrified him. His characters so often have day-dreams that it is likely enough he had them too. In fact we all do. The novelist, by the nature of his gift, probably has day-dreams more precise and circumstantial than most people. Sometimes they are of such a nature that he can use them in his fiction, and then he forgets them. That is what seems to me likely to have happened with Dostoevsky. Having twice used the shameful story in his novels, he was no longer interested in it. That, perhaps, is why he never told it to Anna Grigorievna.

  Dostoevsky was vain, envious, quarrelsome, suspicious, cringing, selfish, boastful, unreliable, inconsiderate, narrow and intolerant. In short he had an odious character. But that is not the whole story. If it had been, it is unimaginable that he could have created Alyosha Karamazov, perhaps the most engaging creature in all fiction. It is unimaginable that he could have created the saintly Father Zosima. Dostoevsky was the least censorious of men. While in prison, he had learned that men may commit fearful crimes, murder, rape or banditry, and yet have qualities of courage, generosity and loving-kindness towards their fellows. He was charitable. He never refused money to a beggar or a friend. When himself destitute, he managed to scrape something together to give to his sister-in-law and his brother’s mistress, to his worthless stepson and to the drunken good-for-nothing, his younger brother Andrew. They sponged on him as he sponged on others and, far from resenting it, he seems only to have been distressed that he could not do more for them than he did. He loved, admired and respected Anna Grigorievna; he looked upon her as in every way superior to himself; and it is touching to learn that during their four years of absence from Russia he was tormented by the fear that, alone with him, she would grow bored. He could hardly bring himself to believe that he had at last found someone who, notwithstanding his defects, of which he was only too well aware, loved him devotedly.

  I can think of no one in whom the dichotomy between the man and the writer has been greater than it was in Dostoevsky. It probably exists in all creative artists, but it is more conspicuous in authors than in others because their medium is words, and the contradiction between their behaviour and their communication is more shocking. It may be that the creative gift, a normal faculty of childhood and early youth, if it persists after adolescence is a disease which can only flourish at the expense of normal human attributes and, just as the melon is sweeter when grown in manure, thrives best in a soil compounded of vicious traits. It was not the good in Dostoevsky, it was the bad that was the source of the startling originality which made him one of the supreme novelists of the world.


  Balzac and Dickens created an immense number of characters. They were fascinated by the diversity of human beings, and their imagination was kindled by the differences they saw in them and the peculiarities that individualised them. No matter if men were good or bad, stupid or clever, they were themselves, and so, material to be put to good use. I suspect that Dostoevsky was interested in no one but himself, and in others only as they intimately affected him. He was in a way like those people who care for beautiful objects only if they own them. He was content to make do with a very small number of characters, and they are repeated in novel after novel. Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov is the same man, less the epilepsy, as Prince Myshkin in The Idiot; Stavrogin in The Possessed is merely an elaboration of Svidrigailov in Crime and Punishment. The hero of that book, Raskolnikov, is a less forcible version of Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov. All are emanations of Dostoevsky’s tortured, warped, morbid sensibility. There is even less variety in his female charac
ters. Polina Alexandrovna in The Gambler, Lizabeta in The Possessed, Nastasia in The Idiot, Katrina and Grushenka in The Brothers Karamazov are the same woman; they are modelled directly on Polina Suslova. The suffering she caused him, the indignities she heaped upon him, were the fillip he needed to satisfy his masochism. He knew that she hated him; he felt sure that she loved him; and so the women who are modelled on her want to dominate and torture the man they love, and at the same time submit to him and suffer at his hands. They are hysterical, spiteful and malevolent because Polina was. Some years after the break, Dostoevsky met her in Petersburg and made her still another proposal of marriage. She refused it. He could not bring himself to believe that she simply did not like him, and so conceived the idea, to salve, one may suppose, his wounded vanity, that a woman attaches so great an importance to her virginity that she can only hate a man who has taken it without being married to her.

  ‘You cannot forgive me,’ he told Polina, ‘for the fact that you once gave yourself to me, and you are taking revenge for that.’

  Dostoevsky was sufficiently convinced of the truth of this to use the notion more than once. In The Brothers Karamazov, Grushenka, some time before the story begins, has been seduced by a Pole and, though in the interval she has been kept by a rich merchant, feels she can only redeem herself by marrying her seducer. Again, in The Idiot Nastasia cannot forgive Trotsky because he seduced her. Here, I think, Dostoevsky’s psychology was at fault. The particular value attached to virginity is a fabrication of the male, due partly to superstition, partly to masculine vanity and partly, of course, to a disinclination to father someone else’s child. Women, I should say, have ascribed importance to it chiefly because of the value men place on it, and also from fear of the consequences. I think I am right in saying that a man, to satisfy a need as natural as eating his dinner when he is hungry, may have sexual intercourse without any particular feeling for the object of his appetite; whereas with a woman sexual intercourse, without something in the nature, if not of love, at least of sentiment, is merely a tiresome business which she accepts as an obligation, or from the wish to give pleasure. I cannot bring myself to believe that when a virgin ‘gives herself’ to a man to whom she is indifferent or actually averse, it is anything but an unpleasant and painful experience. That it should rankle for years and alter her whole character seems to me incredible.

  Dostoevsky was deeply conscious of the duality in himself, and he ascribed it to all his self-willed characters. His meek characters, of which Prince Myshkin and Alyosha are examples, with all their sweetness are strangely ineffectual. But the very word duality suggests a simplification of human nature which does not accord with the facts. Man is an imperfect creature. The mainspring of his being is self-interest, it is folly to deny it; but it is folly to deny that he is capable of a disinterestedness which is sublime. We all know to what heights he may rise in a moment of crisis, and then show a nobility which neither he nor anyone else knew was in him. Spinoza has told us that ‘everything in so far as it is in itself endeavours to persevere in its own being’; and yet we know that it is not so rare for a man to lay down his life for his friend. Man is a jumble of vices and virtues, goodness and badness, of selfishness and unselfishness, of fears of all kinds and the courage to face them, of tendencies and predispositions which lure him this way and that. He is made up of elements so discordant that it is amazing that they can exist together in the individual, and yet so come to terms with one another as to form a plausible harmony. There is no such complication in the creatures of Dostoevsky’s invention. They are constituted of a desire to dominate and a desire to submit themselves, of love devoid of tenderness and hate charged with malice. They are strangely lacking in the normal attributes of human beings. They only have passions. They have neither self-control nor self-respect. Their evil instincts are not mitigated by education, the experience of life or that sense of decency which prevents a man from disgracing himself. That is why, to commonsense, their activities seem wildly improbable and the motives of them madly inconsequential.

  We in Western Europe consider their unaccountable behaviour with astonishment and accept it, if we do accept it, as the natural behaviour of Russians. But are Russians like that? Were Russians like that in Dostoevsky’s day? Turgenev and Tolstoy were his contemporaries. Turgenev’s characters very much resemble ordinary people. We have all known young Englishmen like Tolstoy’s Nicolas Rostov, gay, careless, extravagant, brave and affectionate, good fellows; and we have known at least a few girls as pretty, charming, ingenuous and good as his sister Natasha; nor would it be hard to find in our own country a man like fat, stupid, generous and good-hearted Peter Bezukhov. Dostoevsky claimed that those strange characters of his were more real than reality. I don’t know what he meant by that. An ant is just as real as an archbishop. If he meant that they have moral qualities which raise them above the common run of men, he was mistaken. If there is any value in art, music and literature to correct the perversities of character, to assuage distress and to liberate the soul in part from human bondage, they know nothing of it. They are devoid of culture. They have atrocious manners. They take a malignant pleasure in being rude to one another merely in order to wound and humiliate. In The Idiot Varvara spits in her brother’s face because he is proposing to marry a woman she does not approve of, and in The Brothers Karamazov Dmitri, when Madame Hohlakov refuses him the loan of a large sum of money which there is no reason for her to lend him, in his anger spits on the floor of the room in which she has received him. They are an outrageous lot. But they are extraordinarily interesting. Raskolnikov, Stavrogin, Ivan Karamazov are of the same breed as Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff and Melville’s Captain Ahab. They palpitate with life.


  Dostoevsky had been pondering over The Brothers Karamazov for a long time, and he took more pains over it than his financial difficulties had allowed him to take with any novel since his first. On the whole it is his best constructed work. As his letters show, he implicitly believed in that mysterious entity which we call inspiration, and counted upon it to enable him to write what he vaguely saw in his mind’s eye. Now, inspiration is uncertain. It is more apt to come in isolated passages. To construct a novel, you need esprit de suite, that logical sense by means of which you may arrange your material in a coherent order, so that the various parts shall follow one another with verisimilitude and the whole shall be complete, with no loose ends hanging. Dostoevsky had no great capacity for this. That is why he is his best in scenes. He had a truly remarkable gift for creating suspense and dramatising a situation. I know no scene in fiction more terrifying than that in which Raskolnikov murders the old pawnbroker, and few more striking than that in The Brothers Karamazov in which Ivan meets in the form of a devil his troubled conscience. With the prolixity of which he could not correct himself, Dostoevsky indulges in conversations of immense length; but even though the persons concerned express themselves with such abandon that you can hardly believe that human beings can so conduct themselves, they are almost always enthralling. In passing, I may mention a device he often used to excite in the reader a tremulous susceptibility. His characters are agitated out of proportion to the words they utter. They tremble with emotion, they insult one another, they burst into tears, they redden, they go green in the face or fearfully pallid. A significance the reader finds it hard to account for is given to the most ordinary remarks, and presently he is so wrought up by these extravagant gestures, these hysterical outbursts, that his own nerves are set on edge and he is prepared to receive a real shock when something happens which otherwise would have left him little perturbed.

  Alyosha was designed to be the central figure of The Brothers Karamazov, as is plainly indicated by the first sentence: ‘Alexey Fyodorovitch Karamazov was the third son of Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov, a landowner well-known in the district in his own day, and still remembered among us owing to his gloomy and tragic death, which happened thirteen years ago, and which I shall describe in its
proper place.’ Dostoevsky was too practised a novelist to have without intention begun his book with a definite statement that marks Alyosha out. But in the novel, as we have it, he plays a subordinate role compared with those of his brothers Dmitrei and Ivan. He passes in and out of the story, and seems to have little influence on the persons who play their more important parts in it. His own activity is chiefly concerned with a group of schoolboys whose doings, beyond showing Alyosha’s charm and loving-kindness, have nothing to do with the development of the theme.

  The explanation is that The Brothers Karamazov, which runs in Mrs. Garnett’s translation to 838 pages, is but a fragment of the novel Dostoevsky proposed to write. He intended in further volumes to continue the development of Alyosha, taking him through a number of vicissitudes, in which it is supposed he was to undergo the great experience of sin and finally, through suffering, achieve salvation. But death prevented Dostoevsky from carrying out his intention, and The Brothers Karamazov remains a fragment. It is, nevertheless, one of the greatest novels ever written, and stands at the head of the small, wonderful group of works of fiction which by their intensity and power hold a place apart from other novels, conspicuous as their different merits may be, and of which two thrilling examples are Wuthering Heights and Moby Dick.

  Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov, a besotted buffoon, has four sons, Dmitri, Ivan and Alyosha, whom I have already spoken of, and a bastard, Smerdyakov, who lives in his house as cook and valet. The two elder sons hate their disgraceful father; Alyosha, the only lovable character in the book, is incapable of hating anyone. Professor E. J. Simmons thinks Dmitri should be considered the hero of the novel. He is the sort of man whom the tolerant are apt to describe as his own worst enemy, and, as such men often are, he is attractive to women. ‘Simplicity and deep feeling are the essence of his nature,’ says Professor Simmons; and further: ‘There is poetry in his soul which is reflected in his behaviour and colourful language. His whole life is like an epic in which the turbulent action is relieved by occasional lyric flights.’ it is true that he makes high-flown protestations of his moral aspirations, but as they do not lead to any change for the better in his conduct, I think one is justified in attaching small importance to them. It is true that he is capable on occasion of great generosity, but he is also capable of shocking meanness. He is a drunken, boastful bully, recklessly extravagant, dishonest and dishonourable. Both he and his father are furiously in love with Grushenka, a kept woman who lives in the town, and he is insanely jealous of the old man.

Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via [email protected]