Monday, January 19, 2009

book review - Winter Notes on Summer Impressions

This is an odd book in terms of both the way it is written and the subject matter. Fyodor Dostoevsky heads to Europe to follow in the footsteps of so many of his fellow Russians and finds the experience for the large part disappointing.

He writes about what he sees in terms of human behaviour and is driven to despair by the French but is also less than impressed with his fellow Russians. He talks about them waltzing through Europe and getting the sort of response they provoke and deserve. As a result they fail to notice the flaws in the countries they are visiting and are blinded by the tourist attractions.

Dostoevsky however is different failing to mention most of the more obvious attractions of Paris and London and instead opting for a mixture of rant and philosophical discourse on the state of Europe and the ambitions of Russians.

The introduction warns that this book attempts to be some things it fails to achieve including funny and it also suffers from repetition. But it also includes a passionate plea from Dostoevsky about the benefits of brotherhood and a rejection of the false socialism of the French. That idea of brotherhood is something that comes out in his later works, particularly the Brothers Kazmanov and The Idiot but you can see it is something he was mulling over years before.

The main focus of the book though is to criticise the French for failing to live up to their revolutionary promises and for being suckered by impressive oratory rather than anything substantial.

The result of his French experiences is to widen the attack not just to foreigners but countrymen who view Paris as a home from home. He is also angry with them for failing to understand that not all is great in France and they should be prouder of their own achievements.

The one major attraction of this book is that it provides a much more informal Dostoevsky with none of the usual structures that sometimes make reading more laborious in his better known works. But it is a shame that the ranting and the humour on display here are not given more of an airing again with such frankness.


Andrew K said...

Read it recently also...fresh from the printers more orless. The edition itself is elegant, which is always good. A highlight for me where he talks of the great industrial exhibition in London, feeling as htough he were witnessing the realisation of some fragment of the Book of Revelations.
As for the less formal Dostoevsky, Notes From Underground, particularly Part One has that strange, ranting looseness. If getting it anew, you should certainly get the Pevear Volokhonsky translation.

Simon Quicke said...

Andrew thanks for that much appreciated. I will look out for that edition.