Warm thanks to Michael Beckelhimer and everyone at the American Center in Moscow for our conversation yesterday, and to everyone who tuned in, for listening. And sincere thanks to all the wonderful people who hosted me so generously on this epic journey. It continues, as Siberian Avvakum’s wife Markovna knows, uh, knew, to the very end.
While I wait for opportunities to continue my Chekhov journey, I’m doing my last round of columns (“Final Rants from the Podium”) for the Duke student newspaper, The Duke Chronicle: Books will set you free
Looking forward to the American Translators Association Conference this week in Miami
The first “Chekhov’s Footprints” post from home, Durham. It must mean something, some turning point or possibly even an appreciation of stasis.
Not too long ago a friend told me about someone who applied for a job that would be perfect for him, and he for it, but he was rejected because he had been treated for depression during COVID. My feeling was that I would not hire anyone who was NOT depressed during COVID. That would not be a normal person. Add to this the horrors of the past year-and-a-half and I think it’s understandable that normal people would be hiding, along with me, in a dark place under the rocks.
This connects with my long silence, which who needs to explain? But some things happened this week. Deborah Martinsen’s birthday was June 14, marking 18 months now without her. And her near and dear people commemorated this with an exchange of thoughts and photos. Just a few hours after I sent in my bit (yesterday), I received an email from the editor of Deborah’s Dostoevsky: A Very Short Introduction, which I am helping leap through its last few hoops to publication with Oxford. I’d submitted a bunch of images and “boxes” for the book and now we are haggling over them. Continue reading
[A note I sent to the Cultural Section of the Russian Consulate this morning]
Thank you for notifying me that the Russian Ministry of Culture has awarded me a medal (“The Great Russian Writer F. M. Dostoevsky”).
This is a great honor; I am profoundly moved and grateful that my Dostoevsky scholarship and service, into which I have poured so much thought and energy over the years, have been recognized in the writer’s homeland. It has been rewarding for me to spend my life reading and writing about Dostoevsky. It has been a privilege to teach his writings to generations of students, to discuss with them not just the big questions of ethics, theodicy, faith, reason, and justice that he raises in his works, but also the fine nuances of the language and poetic structure of his writing. I have also been proud to translate and publish the works of my brilliant Russian colleagues, and to increase awareness of their contributions among literature specialists worldwide. In 2019 I was able to travel across Siberia, where many fine scholars and museum professionals welcomed me with generosity and good will. Last year, 2021, was particularly rewarding as we joyfully celebrated the writer’s bicentennial with conferences, lectures, films, exhibitions, and special events in every corner of the globe. As I have come to realize now more than ever, I am just a small part of the conversation that began with Dostoevsky’s writing and will continue long after all of us are gone.
It is therefore heartbreaking for me to have to decline this honor, which means more to me than words can say. Along with the rest of the world, I have watched with horror over the past year as Russia has invaded, brutalized, and tortured its neighbor Ukraine. Internally, it has arrested and terrorized brave, thoughtful individuals who have spoken out against the war, driving many of them away from their homeland. Given my respect for the profundity of Dostoevsky’s artistic writings, I am distressed that public figures have quoted from his non-fiction to justify this war. By doing so, they are doing irreparable harm to the writer’s reputation and trivializing what it is in his works that has reached readers worldwide. For me, accepting this award from the Russian government would too easily be taken as complicity in these crimes.
In making this statement, I am speaking as an individual, not as a representative of any organization. I continue to nurture a deep love and respect for Dostoevsky’s works, and for the writings of my colleagues in Russia and around the world. Together with them, I cherish hopes for better times, for mercy, reason, and peace.
Cautionary note: do not expect chronology here, or unity of place–sometimes the entries (along with their author) have to stew. This goes for some Nice posts still suspended in the air, complete with their photographs and even thoughts, from last summer. And others, from Taganrog, Sumy, Yalta, not to mention Siberia and other parts of Russia, past and future, which were planned but now are sulking in horrified limbo. Anyway, Basel came before Badenweiler and Florence, but after Genoa (from which a meek little post has been simmering since June). Dostoevsky came before Chekhov. Chekhov died in Badenweiler but will come back to life, we hope. And of course the blog itself starts with the end and ends with the beginning (of this journey of mine). None of this is new to scholars, who dip in where and when they can. And it does fit what has turned out to be our theme of fuzzy numbers and nonlinearity. It happens that right now I am in a place called Takayama, Japan, devoid of traces of historical Russian writers, though lots of people read Dostoevsky here–and not just those who will participate in the upcoming IDS Symposium pre-event next week Nagoya Pre-Symposium
While I have you, feel free to correct anything. I’ll try to respond.
I’ve visited Holbein the Younger’s “Christ in the Tomb” in the Basel Kunstmuseum three times: the early nineties, and then again during Dostoevsky Camp (Baden Baden, 2001, or was it Geneva, 2004?!), and then this summer (in JUNE). And each time I have the feeling the painting was in a different place––or was it just me? One time high on a wall, another time over a doorway (though this particular one could be interference from The Idiot), each time of course recalling Anna Grigorievna’s account of her terror that Feodor Mikhailovich’s powerful reaction to the painting, which he stared and stared at after climbing a chair, would spill over into an epileptic fit.
Even though Holbein’s painting was what drew me back to Basel yet again, the story of Dostoevsky’s fascination with it is so famous, I won’t tarry over the details. I do give a tiny sampling of links below; there are many more studies of this topic, and I will be glad to post any others that people send me.
My state of mind this time around is well captured by the painting you see above, which depicts an architect holding what I believe is a compass, an architect tool, but what I picture there is a pen of course (or potentially even a paintbrush). Too much to say, too little space, not to mention patience, including that of any readers of these lines. Anyway, I was impressed not only by this architect’s furrowed brow, so much like mine at this moment, but also by the very human emotions expressed on so many of the paintings
displayed in the museum. They feel like something genuine and new (for that time, and this one) by comparison with the conventional expressions of art of a previous period. These guys on the right are saints, I guess, to judge from the halos, but they are absolutely unique human beings experiencing their own individual thoughts and feelings. If I were an art historian I’d try to go into this more, but I’m on shaky ground as it is, just expressing very human emotions that welled up in me during this afternoon’s visit. And the anxious feeling that very little of importance will actually make it into language. The experience makes me wonder how deeply Dostoevsky’s reaction might have been nestled within the flood of impressions he must have had upon viewing the museum’s OTHER paintings. Mine certainly was. Among the many other works on display, there’s plenty of Holbein Jr. You can browse them here btw: Holbein Jr. Basel collection. Googling around one discovers an old photo of Christ in the Tomb hanging among others, kind of even squeezed in, in a very cluttered hall. Whoever put it there didn’t realize it’s the most amazing thing in the museum, or maybe did realize this, and was a little scared and felt the need to corral it somehow. This feels Dostoevskian too, like so much else. Our (and Dostoevsky’s) hero is lying here, just above the chair (whose back is turned to it–why?!?!?). This is not at all the room I pictured where Dostoevsky stood on a chair to see the painting. And maybe it is not, though I can picture the whole scene now, complete with Anna and Fyodor Mikhailovich. (We take note that what The Idiot’s Ippolit saw was also a reproduction, as this photo is, with all necessary slippage.) I’m thinking that if indeed it was displayed this way during Dostoevsky’s visit, coming upon it unexpectedly would indeed freak you out. Anyway, whether or not this was the configuration then, it certainly is nothing like what you’ll see today. Now you must go through the whole museum and look at everything before coming to the room at the end, on the second floor, where you finally encounter “Christ in the Tomb” at the very center of the wall there. Whoever set it up this way put some serious thought into it; the painting feels like the climax of the museum’s whole story, a riddle to viewers–accordingly, true to Dostoevsky. By now you’ve had a good long look at a number of other paintings, many depicting Christ’s passion and crucifixion, not to mention images of the human reactions to those events over the subsequent centuries. Many of the paintings are Holbein Jr’s, it feels like, studies for a powerful passion story that incorporates these scenes:
So your head is packed full of them by the time you reach the museum’s climax (that wall).
Which of the paintings causes the riddle, though, all those other ones that tell the familiar story, or this one?
Here is the beginning of a reading list. Send me your link and I’ll add it.
First and foremost, be notified of an informative article in Neizvestnyi Dostoevskii (no. 2, 2019) giving details about Dostoevsky’s stay in Florence in 1868-69, by Giuseppi Astuto and Irina Dergacheva: по следам достоевского во флоренции.
In 1862 during Dostoevsky’s first visit, with Nikolai Strakhov, he stayed at a hotel then called the Switzerland (subsequently called Albergotto), in room #20 on the 3d floor. The place is now called the “Room Mate Isabella” and Florence has plaqued the fact that George Eliot stayed here at some point (at the front door’s upper left). No sign of Dostoevsky, though, except in one’s mind (though not the mind of the nice, tired-looking reception man, and, I gather, those of most of the hotel guests). The location is quite fancy, on a street lined with Gucci and suchlike. Post-COVID tourism has returned to Florence and one feels that the tourists are besieging the hotel people. I am no exception. But the nice lobby man perked up in a decorous professional manner when I mentioned a famous Russian writer, and he showed me the sitting room and even took my photo there. As for where Dostoevsky stayed, it is daunting to track down the exact room, so I photographed a dark-looking door in Dostoevskian St. Petersburg yellow. The lobby is, or feels like, three stories up, and the room is thereabouts, so there’s a bit of plausibility. Though this could also be George Eliot’s room, or that of some other writer who was never discovered. Maybe there’s one in there now. Also relevant is a steep stairway leading down to the street. Along the way, if you are lucky, you may catch a glimpse of the lower half of a horse-carriage out the stairwell’s circular window and you might, oh so briefly, blessedly, forget what century this is.
Florence pays more attention to the apartment on Via Guicciardini (across from the Pitti Palace) where Fedor and Anna stayed on his second visit to the city (1868-9)–rightfully, given that he completed the novel The Idiot here.
The nearby coffee is excellent, though the reading material falls well short of The Idiot. Hearts of scooter aficionados will quicken at the views, both onto the Piazza de Pitti from Dostoevsky’s front door and into the alleyway on the side.
It is reported (Strelsky, Dostoevsy in Florence) that there was a bookbinding and stationery shop right next to the front door, where Dostoevsky could buy his Idiot supplies, and that the shop still existed. It became a goal of mine to buy a pen and some paper there. A very tasteful website pops right up, Giannini Firenze 1856. with the necessary, matching shop name and address, No. 22. But despite pacing and peering (oddly) into windows, there was no stationery establishment in sight. Instead, a lovely little shop offering handcrafted items made in Florence (the things that sort of look like soccer balls are actually paper globes you can stick red pins in to show where you’ve been). In conversation with a perky young English-speaking clerk I learn that the shop has only been open 1 1/2 months, and before that, there was a stationery store there. So I bought a bookmark and a small Florence homemade craft item instead. The stationery shop was in business 160 years, right up to this summer. I did breathe some of its air.
One persistent fact about Dostoevsky is that he was always out of money. With Anna now pregnant and, as usual, the “check in the mail,” in the spring of 1869 they had move to less expensive lodgings, off the Mercato Nuovo (aka Mercato del Porcellino) for what would be a stifling hot summer, before they were finally able to leave August 3 for Dresden. Piazza del Mercato Nuovo is actually very close to the Room Mate Isabella, but it has a more Dostoevskian feel to it, by which I mean bustling and chaotic, with an admixture of grime. I can also attest that it is extremely hot in July.
The bicentennial year (2021) itself feels like 200 years ago in emotional and psychological time. Dostoevsky was celebrated around the world, with conferences, publications, exhibits and monuments. It turns out that Florence, too, participated, contributing a photo of Lorenzo Gilberti’s stunning Baptistery doors, which thrilled Dostoevsky, and which he often stopped to admire on his walks in Florence, to the Dostoevsky Literary Memorial Museum in St. Petersburg. At one point the writer expressed a wish to have a photo of the doors, which he could put up in his home, so that wish has come true. The city also put up a Dostoevsky statue (a gift from Russia, by sculptor Aidin Zeinalov Florence statue), though it is nowhere near these landmarks. Instead one must learn about public transit and ride a bus out to the Parco dele Cascine, well outside the city center.
The park is spacious, and one encounters an occasional cyclist and dog walker but basically you are alone. There’s a 20-minute trek from the bus stop along a wide and extremely warm, I mean hot, walking path before the statue appears in the distance.
In my line of work, everything starts to feel like a metaphor eventually. The ball and chain–that’s an easy one. Stand there quietly for a while, and you might hear a faint buzzing sound. Look up, and between Dostoevsky’s upraised collar and his bearded cheek, you will see a small, busy hornets’ nest. But what could it mean? I wish there was someone here for me to ask, but, as is often the case, it’s just me and Fedor Mikhailovich.
I’m suspecting it has nothing to do with another scene, which also puzzled me, of a Florentine horse carriage carrying tourists into Limbo.