Winter Notes on Summer Impressions by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Translated by Kyril FitzLyon
As we head on into January of the new year, a month I always find a little bleak, I’ve been happy to spend some time with one of my favourite authors – Fyodor Dostoevsky. Alma Classics have released one of his lesser-known works, “Winter Notes on Summer Impressions” and were kind enough to provide a copy for review. The book is translated by Kyril FitzLyon, who also provides an excellent introduction, and as he points out this is one of Dostoevsky’s works that’s been unaccountably overlooked.
FD’s work is usually divided into two halves; those written before his conviction, death sentence, appearance in front of a firing squad, last-minute reprieve and exile in Siberia; and those written after it. Obviously the experiences dividing these two parts of his life were ones which affected him profoundly, and although his later career is usually reckoned to begin with “Notes from Underground” (1864), the first book to outline his mature thoughts and beliefs. However, “Winter Impressions….” was published a year earlier and contains many of the themes which would inform his later great novels.
In June 1862, Dostoevsky travelled to Western Europe for the first time, visiting Berlin, Paris, London, Florence, Milan and Vienna amongst others. The trop was supposedly for him to consult Western doctors concerning his epilepsy. However, it sounds as if this might have been a bit of a front, as in fact FD spent much of his time studying the Europeans peoples, their beliefs and their customs. Western ideas were starting to creep into Russian, and Dostoevsky was concerned about the effect these were having on his homeland and its people.
Oh when, my God, will I learn to be orderly?…
Rest assured, this is no light travelogue with amusing anecdotes about the various nations that Dostoevsky passed through on his travels; instead he takes us to the heart of the human condition, relating his experiences and sharing his thoughts on the differences between his home country and Europe. In his usual digressive, rather rambling style, FD tells us of being observed by police spies on a train; encounters with the masses partying in the London streets to celebrate receiving their weekly pay; and his thoughts on the peoples of various nations. He clearly thinks very little of the French as a nation, preferring instead his time spent in London. Although the latter city has the same great divide between rich and poor as Paris, London is more honest about the situation, not trying to hide away and deny its poor like the French capital does. He also doesn’t mince his words when it comes to religion; as a strong believer in Russian Orthodoxy, he’s no fan of the Catholic and Anglican faiths. Whilst acknowledging the ills of Russia, including the dreadful condition of the serfs (who had only just been emancipated), he is angered by the West’s refusal to admit that their poor are slaves as well.
… before long (the French bourgeois) will take to quoting texts to defend the slave trade like American from the southern states of the USA.
Despite his unhappiness about the poverty he sees, Dostoevsky is much more taken with London than the other cities he visits, providing a wonderfully vivid paragraph describing it:
…what an overwhelming spectacle it presents, painted on a vast canvas. Even superficially, how different it is to Paris! The immense town, forever bustling by night and by day, as vast as an ocean, the screech and howl of machinery, the railways built above the houses (and soon to be built under them) the daring of enterprise, the apparent disorder, which in actual fact is the highest form of bourgeois order, the polluted Thames, the coal-saturated air, the magnificent squares and parks, the town’s terrifying districts such as Whitechapel with its half-naked, savage and hungry population, the City with its millions and its world-wide trade, the Crystal Palace, the World Exhibition…
But despite being impressed by the city, he is saddened by the sight of women of the street selling their own daughter for money. In fact, FD spends much of the book discussing the possibility of humans really being free, and whether a brotherhood of man is actually possible; certainly, he feels strongly that the French revolution has achieved nothing, and the people of that country come in for some of his strongest criticism.
“Winter Notes…” is obviously not a perfect book; there is a sense that some of the countries have been very much ignored, and apparently this was because Dostoevsky travelled about so much in a short time that he barely had time to take in some of the places he went to. Nevertheless, it’s possible to see the early formation of some of the ideas he would develop more fully in his later great novels; and also to have visions of this erratic but brilliant man whizzing round Europe on a train, observing all, finding much food for thought and coming back to Russia even more convinced of its superiority. Alma have done us a great favour by bringing out such a lovely new edition of “Winter Notes on Summer Impressions” and if you fancy reading him, this is a very good way to get an introduction in to some of Dostoevsky’s beliefs and thoughts!
(Review copy kindly provided by Alma Classics, for which many thanks!)