Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time

By Joseph Frank; Mary Petrusewicz | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 6

The Gogol Period

At the beginning of 1840, Dostoevsky was still an obscure student of military engineering with vague ambitions for a literary career but with nothing to show that such ambitions would ever be realized. By 1845, however, he was being hailed by Belinsky—the most powerful critical force in Russian literature—as the newest revelation on the Russian literary horizon. During these years, he went through a metamorphosis that set him firmly on the road he was to follow the rest of his life. “Brother,” he writes Mikhail in the spring of 1845, “as regards literature I am not as I was two years ago. Then it was childishness, nonsense. Two years of study have brought much and taken much away.” 1 What took place during these two years to bring about such a realization?

If we look for some answer in the events of Dostoevsky's life, there is little we find there that seems illuminating. His studies at the academy went forward without further incident, and he was promoted to the rank of ensign in August 1841. He continued in the higher classes for officers, but he was now entitled to live outside the school. At first he shared an apartment with a fellow engineer named E. I. Totleben, and this chance acquaintance later played an important role in Dostoevsky's life after his release from prison camp. Dostoevsky also shared an apartment in 1843 with a young medical student from Revel—a friend of Mikhail's—named Igor Riesenkampf.

Riesenkampf's reminiscences of Dostoevsky are the chief source of information about his life at this time, and they give us our first glimpse of the qualities in his character that were always to make relations with him so difficult and so mutable. “Feodor Mikhailovich was no less good-natured and no less courteous than his brother, but when not in a good mood he often looked at everything through dark glasses, became vexed, forgot good manners, and sometimes was carried away to the point of abusiveness and loss of self-awareness.” 2 The inability to bridle his temper—a trait of character that he shared with his father—was to plague Dostoevsky all his life, and to place a heavy burden of tolerance on his friends. Dostoevsky once became exasperated at a social gathering made up

1Fisima, 1: 76; March (February) 24, 1845.

2 A. I. Riesenkampf, “Vospominaniya o F. M. Dostoevskom,” LN 86 (Moscow, 1973), 325.

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