A Chat with Rosamund Bartlett about Dostoevsky, the Writer’s Diary, and the Russian Soul

This week Katya Jordan sits down with Rosamund Bartlett to talk about The Russian Soul: Selections from a Writer’s Diary, published by Notting Hill Editions in 2018.

KJ: How and when did you as a reader and a scholar become interested in Dostoevsky’s A Writer’s Diary?  

RB: The short answer is only recently: when I was invited by Notting Hill Editions to write an introduction to extracts of the Diary they wished to publish alongside “Dream of a Ridiculous Man.”  Even though I was heavily committed with other quite different projects, I knew immediately I would say yes.  Firstly, I was excited to have an opportunity to explore a work with which I was relatively unfamiliar.  Secondly, I was attracted to the challenge of helping to bring a less well-known but extremely important part of Dostoevsky’s oeuvre to a general readership.  Apart from the difficulties in classifying A Writer’s Diary, it is rare to find it on the shelf in a bookshop due to its extreme length, but it deserves to be better known. Thirdly, Notting Hill Editions, an independent British publisher founded in 2011 to revive the art of the essay, produces beautiful and original books. I was keen for one of them to be devoted to Russian literature.  The Dostoevsky volume was commissioned as part of the “Classic Collection” launched in 2014, featuring essayists of the past (such as Woolf, Hazlitt, Wilde, Montaigne, and Nietzsche), with an introduction by a contemporary writer.  We decided to define the unusual genre of A Writer’s Diary as a “quixotic, probing, perhaps quintessentially Russian take on the essay.”

The longer answer to your question is that I’d been intrigued by A Writer’s Diary for a long while without ever knowing it very well.  Partly because it is so long, and partly because even Dostoevsky scholars have begun to focus attention on it only relatively recently, it is still quite an obscure work even for many Russian literature specialists when compared to the major novels.  I should add that I am obviously speaking for myself here—I have written on Tolstoy and Chekhov, but only once on Dostoevsky (“Fugue or Music Drama? Symmetry, Counterpoint and Leitmotif in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov,” Phrase and Subject: Studies in Music and Literature, ed. Delia Da Sousa Correa, Oxford: Legenda, 2006, 167-77).  I once taught “Dream of a Ridiculous Man” on a survey of 19th-century Russian literature course, and naturally knew the Pushkin speech.  More recently I studied the entries in which Dostoevsky reviews Anna Karenina when writing my biography of Tolstoy, and came to recall them again when later translating the last part of the novel.  But I had little sense of the Diary as a whole. 

I certainly did not realize quite how interesting I would find the Writer’s Diary until I came to spend a month researching and writing about it.  Once I began reading the main sources, beginning with Gary Saul Morson’s 1981 monograph, and realized what a fundamental and innovative work it is, I became riveted.  It was a revelation to learn that the Diary was only ever re-published once during the Soviet period, in 1929, and that it was not until 2011 that the first properly annotated complete edition was published in Russia.  I also became fascinated by the story of the Diary’s recent popularity as subject of scholarly enquiry after Joseph Frank finally first confronted the issue of its troubling political content in the final volume of his biography in 2002.  This is one of the reasons I was keen to include a list of Further Reading, which Notting Hill Editions agreed to.

Although I live in England, my month of researching and writing about A Writer’s Diary took place on the 7th floor of the University of Sydney library. It was the Australian summer vacation, which meant I had the Russian literature shelves all to myself.  I mention this, because I made the poignant discovery that the first monograph on the Writer’s Diary was published in 1966 in Australia.  The author, Dmitry Grishin (1908-1975), emigrated to Melbourne after World War II, and it was he, it turns out, who first proposed the foundation of an International Dostoevsky Society in 1968. The fascinating entry on Grishin in the Australian Dictionary of Biography is by Nina Christesen (1911-2001), who pioneered the study of Russian in Australia by founding the Department of Russian at the University of Melbourne in 1946 (she would be dismayed by the current moribund state of Russian studies in Australia). Apart from imparting such endearing details as Grishin’s garden being full of beehives, Christesen writes pertinently that “his constant companion was a diminutive diary in which he recorded most hours of the day in minuscule writing” [(Volume 14, (MUP), 1996; http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/grishin-dmitry-vladimirovich-10373)%5D. 

KJ: Can you tell us a bit about the process? Who selected the texts for this edition? How were they selected?  

RB: The initial, very good selection of texts, mostly taken from Kenneth Lantz’s excellent translation, was made by the Notting Hill Editions series editor Johanna Möhring.  Once I had drafted the Introduction, we had a lively exchange by email about the final selection, which was circumscribed by the need to stay within the 45,000 word limit, which is standard for Notting Hill Editions books.  We both wanted to include a representative selection of entries which would reflect the diverse nature of the Diary‘s contents but approached the task from different angles. Johanna’s background is in international relations, with research interests in defence, security and the nature of power, as well as Russia and Eastern Europe.  She was concerned to show the “acid social realism” of Dostoevsky’s Weltanschauung, and his argument for Russia occupying a “special spiritual realm” in European politics and culture, not ignoring his anti-Semitism.  I came to the project as a cultural historian whose background is in Russian literature, so I was particularly keen to convey Dostoevsky’s great power as a writer, as well as his ability to impart a deeper moral and religious resonance to the social and political concerns he raises.  I was particularly adamant, for example, that we include “The Peasant Marey,” since it is a precious piece of autobiography which links an event in Dostoevsky’s childhood to his prison experiences and religious conversion in Siberia.

KJ: Are you happy with the list of works that were included? Would you have added anything else and what would be your reasons? 

RB: In the end I think the volume gives a fair idea of the Diary’s hybrid contents, as they evolved between 1873 and 1881.  We begin with “Environment,” in which Dostoevsky starts polemicizing with imaginary opponents, and presenting opposing views in a manner reminiscent of the great dialogues in his novels.  His advocacy of individual moral responsibility in “Environment” is also one of his central themes, which he will of course extend further in The Brothers Karamazov.  “The Boy Celebrating his Saint’s Day,” meanwhile, in which Dostoevsky discusses a letter a reader had sent to him about a twelve-year-old boy who had committed suicide,

was written when he had become both editor and publisher of the Diary.  It goes to the heart of the Diary’s new focus on the causes of the spiritual crisis Dostoevsky perceived in society.  I thought it important to include “My Paradox,” as it is one of Dostoevsky’s first expressions of anti-Semitism in the Diary, and appears alongside his utopian nationalism as a natural part of his analysis of contemporary politics.  We balanced these kinds of entries with a selection which focus on literature, such as Dostoevsky’s obituary of George Sand, in which he discusses her supreme importance to his idealistic generation of the 1840s.  We also included his review of Anna Karenina, and his musings on Don Quixote, important to him as the greatest exemplar in literature of a “positively beautiful” figure. The volume inevitably culminates with Dostoevsky’s paean to Pushkin.  “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” is the fictional centerpiece in the anthology, since it presents Dostoevsky’s major themes in microcosm, anticipates their amplification in The Brothers Karamazov, and is a perfect distillation of his art.  I would ideally have liked to have also included “The Meek One” as a counterpart, not to mention “Bobok.”  I would also have liked to include one of the many discursive accounts concerning the trial of Ekaterina Kornilova, in whose case Dostoevsky became personally involved, but it would have been difficult to find the right excerpt to present in isolation.

KJ: The cover quote was taken from the essay “Something About Lying” and followed by another quotation, an epigraph of sorts, from “My Paradox.” Both quotations refer to the Russian soul, which can be difficult to define. In your understanding, what is the Russian soul?  Do you think this particular selection will give its readers a fair and accurate insight into the idea of the Russian soul? 

RB: Initially there was a suggestion that the volume be called “Dreams and Musings of Fyodor Dostoevsky.”  Apart from arguing that “A Writer’s Diary” had to be in the book’s title, since it is such an important work, I also dared to propose “The Russian Soul” as a title. You are right that the “Russian soul” is difficult to define—in many ways it is a dreadful old cliche.  Partly I wanted to be provocative, and prompt readers to ponder its meaning, but Dostoevsky does actually set out to explore the character and destiny of Russia and the Russian people in the Diary, so I think the title does give readers some idea of what to expect.  “The Peasant Marey,” after all, goes straight to the heart of Dostoevsky’s ideas about sinning, redemption and Russianness, and occupies a central place in the Diary, as does the Pushkin speech.  Dostoevsky defines Pushkin’s Russian soul, which in his view explains both his universality and simultaneous superiority, as the embodiment of brotherly love. This particular selection, therefore, is only intended to give readers a fair and accurate insight into Dostoevsky’s idea of the Russian soul, as he understood it in the last years of his life.

KJ: This edition is meant to appeal to a broad audience. Why do you think they should be interested in this book?  

RB:  As a fascinating and accessible compendium of short stories, commentary and confession, in which Dostoevsky radically makes no distinction between journalism and fiction, the Writer’s Diary is pretty unbeatable on sheer literary merit alone. Its unusual mixture of opinionated criticism, utopian dreaming and macabre humor make it a compelling read.  It also has many contemporary resonances. This is a work with an uncanny prescience of global preoccupations in the twenty-first century—from nationalism, religious extremism, and ethnic intolerance, to urban deprivation, child abuse and suicide.  The Diary was Dostoevsky’s favorite work, which he viewed as a single oeuvre like the novels, and it was more popular, because he deliberately wanted to enter into direct conversation with his readers. The way they responded by entering into passionate correspondence with him was in many ways prophetic of the blogosphere.  At 1500 pages, however, the Diary is longer than two of his novels put together, and I believe The Russian Soul provides the first representative anthology, conveniently squeezed into a mere 135 pages.  Since the Diary holds the key to understanding the complex ideas in his fiction, I also believe it can provide the solution for those who find Dostoevsky daunting. It is for that reason that I’d like to think The Russian Soul might be a good text to assign alongside Dostoevsky’s novels on undergraduate Russian literature courses. Finally, the political and religious views Dostoevsky expresses in the Writer’s Diary are invaluable as a source for understanding Russian’s position in the world today.

Rosamund Bartlett pursued an academic career for fifteen years before becoming a full-time writer, translator and lecturer.  She is the author and editor of several books, including Wagner and Russia and Shostakovich in Context, as well as biographies of Chekhov and Tolstoy, whose works she has also translated.  Her new annotated edition of Anna Karenina for Oxford World’s Classics was published in 2014. Current projects include a cultural history of the Russian avant-garde.

Katya Jordan is Assistant Professor of Russian Language and Literature at Brigham Young University. Her current research focuses on Russian modernity and on literary journalism during the Era of Great Reforms. She is a member of the North American Dostoevsky Society’s Readers Advisory Board.

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