Friday, 14 October 2011

Petrashevsky and the Parlour Pinks: A Tory View of Dostoevsky

C.M. Woodhouse (1917-2001)

Last week, a colleague confided that his late father had published a study of Dostoevsky. Since the parent in question had been a senior Tory minister under Harold Macmillan, this information provoked surprise and a flight to Who's Who. Here I learned that Christopher Montague Woodhouse, fifth Baron Terrington, had a long, varied, and distinguished military and political career. Shortly after taking a double First in Classics at Oxford, he joined the Royal Artillery. During the Second World War, he helped co-ordinate the faction-ridden Greek Resistance movement; later, he published a number of highly regarded books on modern Greek history. (See this obituary in the Independent.) Among this array of Hellenic achievements, his slim volume on 'Dostoievsky', published in Barker's  European Novelists Series in 1951, seems like a mistake. My copy of the second edition has a pungently orange jacket; the other volumes in the series are by half-forgotten British literary and theatrical personalities like Lettice Cooper and Robert Speaight. Can this really be the same C.M. Woodhouse, the historian, soldier, and classicist? Let's not forget that Dostoevsky was a soldier too (rising from the ranks to become a commissioned officer by 1856). Woodhouse learned Russian for diplomatic purposes during his post-war Foreign Office career, and although he appears to have read Dostoevsky primarily in Garnett's translations, his insight and enthusiasm - even when he disapproves, and he freely disapproves - are far-reaching.

My Dostoevsky reading lists always draw on the same names: Catteau, Jackson, the other Jackson, Grossman, Frank, Wasiolek, Peace. Marvellous as they are, I couldn't help but be intrigued by this critique of Dostoevsky that had not only dropped off all known reading lists, but preceded most of the usual suspects into print. What was it like to research Dostoevsky before you could sweep Google Scholar for a helpful article, flick through one of Joseph Frank's five volumes to confirm a date, or cautiously formulate a disagreement with Gary Saul Morson? Apparently, one read Gide, Berdiaev, Soloviev, and E.J. Simmons; also E.H. Carr, whose Dostoevsky is another example of forgotten scholarship. One perused Anna Dostoevskaia's memoirs and Dostoevsky's own letters, which Woodhouse finds disappointingly dull (apart from one passage that he enjoys so much he cites it in full, about a Russian lady passenger who accidentally rushes into the wrong restroom; shocked speechless by what she sees, she claps her hands once and rushes out. Dostoevsky commented on the utter silence of the mostly German micturators; Russians, he is sure, would have guffawed). Woodhouse also studied every available literary production by Dostoevsky, despite categorizing almost everything from the 1840s (with the exception of Netochka Nezvanova, which seemed to strike a chord) as 'unreadable' or 'drivel'. The Landlady is singled out for 'the rare distinction of being both dull and crazy, without even the merit which the others have of mostly being short'.

The very best thing about this short book is its brio: unembarrassed by today's creeping beatification of F.M., Woodhouse ringingly endorses or dismisses whole acres of prose. His study is organized into six chapters ('Promise', 'Failure', 'Redemption', 'Triumph', 'Autobiography', 'Apocalypse'), of which the first four, biographical ones are strongest, with the literary analysis in the closing chapters undermined by a confusing explanation of Dostoevsky's stylistics (I got lost when we started looking at postage stamps through a magnifying glass, then shifted via Chekhov and Thackeray to Impressionist painting) and a frankly odd section on Dostoevsky as a precursor of psychokinetic research (which appears after a perfectly respectable discussion of how he anticipated psychoanalysis). But Woodhouse's character summaries are wonderful: Dostoevsky's father was 'bad-tempered, niggardly, jealously suspicious [...] a dipsomaniac in his later years', while Fedor Karamazov is a 'revolting old monster'. The Petrashevsky Circle consisted of 'what today we might call "parlour pinks"'; Fourier was a 'mad French socialist' (did I mention that Woodhouse was a Tory MP?), while local analogues are helpfully found for the ideological subgroups of 1840s Petersburg: 'if Petrashevsky went at least as far as the Fabians, Durov's circle was at least as dangerous as the I.L.P.' He has a sort of crush on Anna Dostoevskaia, detailing her mettlesome doings with affectionate admiration, while Dostoevsky's 'wastrel stepson' Pasha Isaev hovers malignantly on the sidelines like a shopworn Svidrigailov.

As a biographer, and within his limited resources and scope, Woodhouse's scholarship is impeccable. His literary judgement - once we choke down that comment about 'drivel' - is frequently acute. While recognizing Crime and Punishment as a great novel, he notes its relative disorganization; he cites A Raw Youth as proof that freedom from deadlines and creditors did not necessarily free Dostoevsky to write better fiction; and while he holds The Brothers Karamazov in near-adulation, he finds the Grand Inquisitor sequence over-interpreted. Isn't it just a reminder of how much Dostoevsky hated Catholics? (A valid point). He also argues, convincingly, that Dostoevsky unwittingly choked his own talent by trying to write, après Balzac, a novel of incident, when his real vocation lay in novels of character (although it took him three decades to fully realize this in Karamazov). And he highlights the 'dangerous fallacy' that Dostoevsky's characters are peculiar because the Russian national character is larger than life; Dostoevsky's eccentrics are humanity writ large, and they are hard to read about because humanity is troubled, strange, and engrossing: 'Dostoievsky did not set out to write books to be read by General Epanchin'.

Does Woodhouse appreciate Dostoevsky for the same qualities we recognize in his work today? Certainly. Like Rowan Williams (whose Dostoevsky emphasizes that the writer's subjects, including terrorism, poverty, and child abuse, continue to shape society today), Woodhouse states firmly that 'the world which Dostoievsky is describing is the world which we are living in'. Best of all, he savours and emphasizes the humour bursting from Dostoevsky's prose (and all too often overlooked by serious-minded inquisitors). 'My disqualifications for writing about Dostoievsky', he admits in his Introduction, 'are too formidable to be enumerated. My single qualification is that Dostoievsky is the one novelist in the world whom I have found it worth an intellectual struggle to understand'.