Steve Donoghue takes a look at a brand new translation by husband-and-wife team Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from a Dead House. Design: Peter Mendelsund.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from a Dead House. Design: Peter Mendelsund.
It was for a perhaps peripheral participation in the “Petrashevist” movement that Fyodor Dostoevsky was arrested in 1849 and sentenced to four years of hard labor followed by four years of military service in Siberia; he’d circulated a letter and supported the establishment of a subversive press, all done in resistance to the established imperial power structure with the Church and Tsar Nicholas I at its head.

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Does Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Poor Folk and Other Stories speak to our troubled economic era?
Portrait of Fyodor Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov (1872).
Portrait of Fyodor Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov (1872).

In November 1844, Dostoyevsky finished writing his first story. He confides in Diary of a Writer that he had ‘written nothing before that time’. This was 22 years before the publication of Crime and Punishment, and 36 years before The Brothers Karamazov. Having recently finished translating Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet, he suddenly felt inspired to write a tale ‘of the same dimensions’. But he was not only prompted by artistic aspirations. Poverty also played a part. In a letter to his brother, Mikhail, just a few months earlier, he mentions being satisfied with a work-in-progress, and his hopes for greater financial stability: ‘I may get 400 rubles for it,’ he wrote, ‘and therein lie all my hopes.’

First published in 1846, Poor Folk was both a critical and financial success, with one prominent critic hailing Dostoyevsky as the next Gogol. It is a short epistolary novel that traces a five-month love affair. And while it certainly owes something to Balzac’s masterpiece, the role that money plays in determining people’s fates has a distinctly Dostoyevskyan bite. Financial difficulties plagued the Russian novelist’s career, and are a recurrent theme throughout his work, from the destitute student of Crime and Punishment to The Gambler, written to pay off gambling debts. The writer confessed having money troubles in letters to his brother, and hoped Poor Folk could offer some kind of reprieve. It is through his pen, he says, that he hopes ‘to save the whole situation’, considering suicide as perhaps his only other alternative. Money, then, was one of the novelist’s chief motivations, and one of his signature themes. (more…)