Friday, 5 July 2013

Locked on the inside looking in : Dostoevsky's Memoirs from the House of the Dead

Prisons have a strange status in modern society.   Most of us tend not to think of them yet Scotland (and England)  has one of Europe's biggest proportionate prison populations.   In the USA (a different league to the rest of the planet vis a vis prisoners) a massive industry has built up around incarceration - in some respects it now challenges Eisenhower's fabled military industrial complex.

The tabloid press whip themselves up into synthetic fury over so-called luxuries in prisons and the extension of the legal protection of human rights to convicts.  Even when the European Court of Human Rights argues for the right to vote ( a fairly fundamental right in a democracy)  to some prisoners - politicians from David Cameron to Jack Straw (admittedly not a very big spectrum) speak of their disgust. Even the SNP - out of step with European legal thinking - are not extending the franchise for next year's referendum: probably out of fear of a public backlash.

But for Dostoevsky prison was not a theoretical construct nor a place where you lock people up and throw away the key - it was for the 1850s his home.  As he explains the real hell of prison is  the theft of time and place which is critical to a human's liberty.  The existence of pool tables and Sky TV in cells 150 years later does not alter that.

For although as a society we may like to ignore them prisons have always been a recurrent setting for popular fiction - from novels to movies to TV serials we seem to be drawn to the darkness. Prison memoirs are also a constant phenomena - even Jeffrey Archer wrote one!  In fact the law has been altered across the whole of the UK (English and Scots Law) so prisoners cannot make money from any artistic work related to their crime or their time in prison.

This pivotal work for Dostoyevsky ostensibly has the structure of a novel - there is a perfunctory introduction explaining that the book is a recovered text from a convict settler's belongings who worked as a teacher prior to his death.  There is one other reference to this device but that is it.  This really is Dostoyevsky's own thoughts on his time inside.

It is unusual for such a traumatic life event for a fiction writer to be used in such a way.  Though not unique.  The Empire of the Sun by Ballard was  a real novel but it was based around Ballard's youth in a prison camp - though he changed several key issues in the fiction.  He later did write a memoir  - in fact his last original published work.  The House of Dead cannot really be called a novel in any sense - it is episodic and written totally from the unshaking gaze of a participant in the incarceration.  However you could argue that Dostoyevsky could not have written his master works - all of which followed this memoir - without this experience.  His view of the world and hence his fiction is sharpened, honed by his collective living experience amongst the Siberian convicts.  This he shares with Ballard whose fiction throughout his life was dominated by the Japanese war camps.

But perhaps more surprisingly in his characterisation and its outline of the hierarchy and dynamic of prison life   he creates a structure that has been followed by almost every prison drama since.  I was actually reminded more  of the underrated HBO 90/00s show Oz than I was of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich's time in the Stalinist Gulag.  This is because the writer is nearly absent he views all his fellow inmates and their interactions almost from a distance which is difficult because he is living almost on top of them.   It is like a cinema camera is omnipresent.

The different nationalities of the Tsarist Empire - the Tartars, the Poles, the Musselmesn (Muslims!)a solitary Jew are subjected to forensic examination: much as the various prison gangs were in the Oz penitentiary in Clinton/Bush America.
The absence of the narrator contrasts with his more traditional novel ( a weaker work that this) : the Humiliated and Insulted which he wrote around the same time as this where you can't escape the writer who is in nearly every scene.  For a fiction writer this was an important exercise in finding his voice.

The narrative structure dips in and out of various scenes over the writer's imprisonment - in the jail or the hospital prison which he admits he escaped to at every opportunity to escape the hell of prison.  These are mainly set pieces but some are beautifully written: the visit to the public baths, the Christmas Feast with its limited pleasures and happiness for the prisoners and the prisoners putting on an amateur dramatic  performance.  Arguably the Christmas episode (!) was part of Dostoyevsky's personal focus on the importance of religion but it fits well in the work.

One thread which runs through the work though is Dostoyevsky's alienation from the group.  This is not simply down to bullying or the fact  he was there for political activity not some of the brutal crimes which are outlined at different points in the book, particularly in one harrowing incident told as a story as one of the inmates in hospital.  It is rather a reflection of his "gentleman" status outside in the strictly delineated feudal structures of  Tsarist Russia.  Although prison is a uniform setting even that location cannot escape the class division.  This was a time of serfdom where even FD who was on the lower fringes of the system had a family that owned other human beings or souls.

This is outlined in a brilliant chapter : the Grievance.  This covers a limited revolt from the prisoners over conditions and food  where FD is told he is not welcome to take part (because of his background) and has to cower in the kitchen with the other aristocrats and various others (including the other nationalities) who do not want to participate.  In fact he outlines tremendously well the tensions of a collective action - the sort of people who don't take part,  how it begins in the first place, how it crumbles and its aftermath.  Yet more than anything it outlines the bizarre outmoded structure of feudalism (even for the 1850s) that crippled Russia and lead to a series of revolutions to remove all remnants of it.  It also shows the mindset of the peasant as well and how difficult it was to transform that - a problem Lenin and Trotsky wrote extensively about.

Dostoevesky was making a political point as well though - essentially criticising the early Left leaning aristocrats of Russia who thinks they could be part of the peasantry or be accepted.  However he is contradictory on this as his later works tend to idealise the peasantry.  I think it is also wrong to see this as a universal that people from one group will never accept another or be fully part of them - it is firmly grounded for me in the particulars of Russian feudalism.  It did show the problems facing Russian radicals at that time though - fighting to change society for a group that would not accept them or perhaps had no trust in them.

The horrors of prison life are written about particularly the use of torture, the whip and the birch but not extensively.  The real horror is the grind, the lack of human freedom and the enforced collective living - no solitude allowed.  Yet through this I think Dostoevsky by nature probably a bit of a loner learned much on human interaction.  He writes almost with a lover's eye on one of the Tartars from Dagestan (!) - Aley : or rather "my dear, dear, good Aley" .  His examination of the prison rulers - one corrupt, one effective is really strong. This means there is so much more in it than existential moans of "Woe is me" or "I shouldn't be here".

His voice or thoughts are not absent - there is commentary on all the characters and incidents but as all great writers do Dostoyevsky was absorbing everything.  Because of this there is even room for humour - not what you would think.  One thing tickled me " there were a few unquenchably cheerful souls, who for that reason enjoyed universal contempt"... You said it FD.

He cleared the decks with this work - following this all the classical titles followed.  This however is worth spending some time with - they don't make Oz anymore but this is still here.

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