Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time

By Joseph Frank; Mary Petrusewicz | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5

The Two Romanticisms

In addition to the mathematics and engineering requirements, the Academy of Military Engineers also provided a humanistic education for future officers of the Russian Army. For at least the first year or two of his studies Dostoevsky attended lectures on religion, history, civil architecture, Russian and French language and literature, and also lessons in German. The chair in Russian literature was held by V. T. Plaksin, who accepted Romanticism as the art of the modern world; he lectured on Pushkin and Lermontov, and on the Russian folk poet Koltsov. From Plaksin, Dostoevsky could not have acquired much more in the way of ideas about literature than German Romantic doctrines. His professor of French literature, however, Joseph Cournant, was something else entirely, and Dostoevsky's letters soon become studded with references not only to Racine, Corneille, and Pascal but also to such French Renaissance writers as Ronsard and Malherbe. Cournant included contemporary literature in his purview and introduced his students to Balzac, Hugo, George Sand, and Eugène Sue. Writing to his father in May 1839, Dostoevsky rather deceptively explains why it is “absolutely necessary” for him to subscribe to a French circulating library. “How many great works of genius there are—mathematical and military genius—in the French language.” 1

Dostoevsky's studies at the academy, however, provided only the minor part of his humanistic education. The major share was obtained in the company of a young man, Ivan Nikolaevich Shidlovsky, a chance acquaintance whom the Dostoevskys met on their arrival in St. Petersburg. In 1873 Dostoevsky told a writer, come to gather material about him for a biographical article, “Mention Shidlovsky … he was a very important person for me then, and he deserves not to have his name sink into oblivion.” 2 Ivan Shidlovsky had come to Petersburg to take up a post in the Ministry of Finance; like the Dostoevsky brothers, however, his heart was in literature and not in service to the state. Tall and striking in appearance, eloquent and loquacious, the twenty-one-year-old Shidlovsky impressed everybody by the depth of his culture and the passion of his perorations on lofty topics. Naturally, he wrote poetry himself, and he soon succeeded

1Pis'ima, 4: 242; May 5, 1839.

2DVS, 2: 191.

-51-

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