Saturday, 24 August 2013

Why Oh Why Oh Why Oh....Dostoevsky has a moan: Winter Notes on Summer Impressions

Bad holidays. We've all had them.  Indeed with cheap air flight and traffic gridlock the norm across continents a big chunk of even the most relaxing break can be taken up by a re-enactment of one of the levels of Dante's Inferno - probably one where those blooming suitcases on wheels keep banging into you.

It wasn't always thus the erudite (whoever they are) cry - the Victorian Grand Tour allowed the Elite to relax and wallow in the cultural dominance of the haute bourgeois.   Quaint boarding houses, civilised ocean liners,  lengthy steam train journeys.  Even  the Eastern Reaches of 19th Century Europe could enjoy this - intellectuals like Dostoevsky could partake.  Except er... it didn't quite work out like that.

In fact reading this slight and short work (which are not always the same thing) you almost imagine Dostoevsky with a hanky drawn over his emaciated skull moaning about the sun and the lack of decent vodka in the Montmartre.

For although this is ostensibly a journal of Dostoevsky's first trip to the West in 1862 - following his incarceration, limited freedom and prior to his writing took off fairly dramatically - that provides only a tiny portion of it.  I had an image that this is a book you could stuff in your pocket if you visited one of the cities mentioned sharing in FD's experience.  Well, nope it aint.  It is also very poorly structured,

Starting off in Germany he dismisses Cologne Cathedral "not very majestic" and Berlin because it was pissing with rain.  Then on a train he moans about French people (more of this later) and launches into a chapter  entitled "Which is Quite Superfluous"  - basically musings when he is on the train about Russia its literature and its relationship to the people.   This then merges into another rant about the French and a bit (which is quite interesting historically) about the preponderance of spies and the high level of security a tourist or traveller had to got through in 19th Century Party.

You could argue as some of the blurbs on this quite difficult to find work do that this is Dostoevsky making an important point.  He is indirectly (and actually in some passages quite directly) criticising the Russian intellectuals  who idealise the West  in particular the revolutionary France of Bonaparte and the development of literature and making his own case for the particular distinct nature of Russian Society and how outsiders are not really needed.

Though there is a partial truth in this overall the tone is of someone who doesn't really like to travel and who really (really) doesn't like French people.  Although there is some perceptive comments on Britain and its "half naked, savage and hungry population" and its drink culture - even 150 years ago!"Everyone is drunk, but drunk joylessly, gloomily and heavily",  Wha's like us!

Even in some of his comments on France he notices the dominance of the "bourgeois" and small businesses despite 1789 as we are in the era of the ludicrous Napoleon  III.  In doing this he criticises the notion of fraternity as impossible to be created in humans.  Man must be born with it or it will not be created - this would be synthetic and require compulsion.   But even this point seems like a notebook musing and not a fully developed idea.

The book then descends into more criticism of the French and then just stops.  An unreleased extra from Dostoevsky but for me more interesting for its tone (grumpy anti-French) than for much of its content.  As some of my journo pals would say needs a lot of subbing but this is only part of the problem.