Dostoyevsky: The House of the Dead

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Dostoyevsky: The House of the Dead

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Abr 30, 2009, 10:04 pm

I'm about to get started on this...has anyone else read it yet?

Abr 30, 2009, 11:17 pm

and by the way...I'll be reading the Constance Garnett translation in the Barnes & Noble Classics edition published 2004 with an introduction by Joseph Frank but I understand Garnett's translation first appeared in 1915. I've borrowed it from the local library. This edition also has an appendix "The Peasant Marey" from Dostoevsky's A Writer's Diary Vol. 1 1873-1876 translated by Kenneth Lantz. At the back is a section which refers the reader to other works inspired by The House of the Dead for example Czech composer Leos Janacek began work on an opera based on this book in 1927. Check out Act 3 on You Tube. Van Gogh was also inspired to create Ward in the Hospital in Arles . Russian artist Leonid Lamm was also inspired to make sketches and then lithographs. To find out more about Leonid who now lives in New York click here
and of course Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was also inspired by the book. Just a bit of background stuff to get you well as a nip of vodka!

Abr 30, 2009, 11:56 pm

Great! Thanks for these super links!

Here is my review of the House of the Dead.

Jun 3, 2009, 1:31 am

First Dostoevsky that I ever read I found it hard to get past the chapter with Akoulka. It was actually the first Russian novel I had ever read in general. I liked it, it's been a while so I can't actually remember it that well. I don't think that I'd read it again, if only because I found that one chapter so disturbing. It is one of two books that has ever done that to me.

Jun 8, 2009, 10:18 am

I just finished The house of the Dead yesterday. For me, the hardest chapter to read was the one on Prison Animals. I'm one of those people (as, apparently, was Dostoevsky) who just can't handle reading about animals being killed. The last dog described, the one who was wagging his tail hopefully at the people who were about to kill it for shoe linings, made me start crying.

I was impressed with this book, although it didn't seem much like Dostoevsky. Repeatedly, I found myself comparing it to the last prison memoir book I read, Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi. One thing that really struck me was that while both authors emphasized the incredible tedium of life in prison, D's book lacked the intense fear of Levi's (and certainly there is a huge difference between life as a nobleman in a Russian prison for 4 years and life as a Jew in a concentration camp designed to kill you).

The other point that I thought was particularly interesting was how differently noblemen and peasants were treated in prison. Nobles got out of corporal punishment? I can't really feel all that bad for D. in that sense - he whines a lot about how lonely and separate from the other prisoners he feels, and how they don't accept him, but he doesn't have to face 4000 lashings with sticks.

Jun 8, 2009, 10:39 am

You are right to draw a similarity to Levi and Dostoevsky. In fact, as far as I know, the House of the Dead was one of the first prison novels of the 19th century, influencing a host of prison writers from Oscar Wilde to Genet to Koestler.

However, it should be remembered that it is a novel The framing device is intended to make this clear. In fact, while nothing can of course equal the horrors of the Holocaust, relations between peasantry and noblemen in the prison where Dostoevsky was held were very difficult indeed, and Dostoevsky wrote elsewhere of his fear and continual dread of violence. This element was downplayed in the novel, partly because the protagonist in the novel is not a nobleman, and partly to be able to get the book past the Tzarist censors, who were watching the former political prisoner like hawks.

The legend is that Dostoevsky did undergo corporal punishment in prison, and that it was the cause of his epilepsy. In fact the legend is not substantiated, and his fits started during adolescence.

Jun 8, 2009, 1:11 pm

Wait, I thought that the protagonist was a nobleman? If not, why was he shunned and mocked by the other prisoners (for example, while on a work crew breaking up a barge, or when he is sent back into the barrack during the prisoners complaint)? I need to look back at the first chapter again - I'm missing something.

Re: this is a novel. Part of what D did so well in HotD was to make me forget that the book is a novel. That had completely slipped my mind by the end of the book, and in fact I was pretty convinced in my head that the protagonist was a political prisoner.

tomcatMurr, I just went and read your review (which is excellent, as always). You're right about the subtle (very, very subtle) portrayal of homosexuality in the prison camp. I almost missed it - or rather, I wasn't sure if that was what D. was hinting at.

Jun 8, 2009, 8:07 pm

Thank you! Actually, I just checked, and I am wrong, the protagonist is a nobleman, but not a political: he is in for murder. This allowed Dostoevksy to skirt the whole issue of the treatment of politicals.

Part of what D did so well in HotD was to make me forget that the book is a novel. Yes, I agree.