Hello! I hope you had a happy Mother’s Day. I’ve finished with my final exams at last which is very exciting.
I’ve also just got two super-new books in the mail, one called Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri and the other called A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders, and…
…and you’ll have to wait until next week for my reviews of them.
In the meantime, I’ve read two less-new books. Both are about prison for some reason. Hopefully they’ll tide you over until next week.
The House of the Dead, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
“In our convict establishment there were men whom I was familiar with for several years, and whom I looked upon as wild beasts and abhorred as such; well, all of a sudden, when I least expected it, these very men would exhibit such an abundance of feeling of the best kind, so keen a comprehension of the sufferings of others, seen in the light of the consciousness of their own, that one might almost fancy scales had fallen from their eyes. So sudden was it as to cause stupefaction; one could scarcely believe one’s eyes or ears. Sometimes it was just the other way: educated men, well brought up, would occasionally display a savage, cynical brutality which nearly turned one’s stomach, conduct of a kind impossible to excuse or justify, however much you might be charitably inclined to do so.”
The House of the Dead was a very interesting book. Dostoyevsky wrote it based on his experiences in Siberian prison, and it felt more like a memoir than a piece of fiction. It was especially interesting because Dostoyevsky described a few people who sounded an awful lot like characters in his future works, like The Brothers Karamazov.
For some reason the protagonist came off like a scientist. He was always like, “Something interesting about the prisoners was XYZ” or, “Many people might expect prisoners to be like ABC, but in reality, they weren’t,” or, “As my time in prison went on, I came to more fully understand the psychology of LMNOP.” Because the protagonist felt so much like an outsider, it also sometimes felt like he wasn’t really in the prison with everyone else.
Contrast that with Solzhenitsyn’s huge nonfictional book, The Gulag Archipelago (review coming whenever I finish reading it) where he takes a similar kind of systematic approach to examining the USSR’s gulags. However, in his case, every single page (so far) is brimming with his anguish about being a prisoner in the gulags.
One great thing about Dostoyevsky’s book was that he was very good at seeing the good in the bad (like in the quote above). I felt like I got to understand the prisoners very well. It reminded me a lot of James Berry’s My Experiences as an Executioner for this reason, except that Dostoyevsky’s book felt much less grim (thankfully). This humanity alone makes The House of the Dead worth reading.
Even so, there was a lot of repetition. Dostoyevsky literally wrote things like, “Prisoner X was a cobbler who got into prison because of ABC and now he worked in prison smuggling vodka,” and then went on in a later chapter to retell this prisoner’s story with exactly the same details as if the reader had never heard of him before. Or he’d write about how Prisoner Y stole the protagonist’s Bible once and then told him about it not out of guilt but out of pity for the fact that he’d spent so long searching for it. Several chapters later, Dostoyevsky would retell this story as if he were introducing Prisoner Y for the very first time.
I was listening to this on audiobook, so I felt like I was being told the same story over and over again by someone who kept forgetting what he’d just told me.
The House was also surprisingly unfocused. Dostoyevsky would start a scene with a character entering the prison kitchen, then ramble on for a long time about everything but the character who’d entered the kitchen. Finally, he’d meander back to the character who’d entered the kitchen, but by then I’d forgotten all about him and why he was relevant. Then Dostoyevsky would say something very brief about the character getting called out of the kitchen, and that would be the last we’d see of the character for the whole book. Or he’d go on about the prison’s vodka-smuggling business but then start talking about the bath-houses in the prison and then the first time he’d done hard labor, and his last days in prison, and so on, without any real sense of why he was telling these things other than the fact that he felt like it.
So overall, I’d say this book was very good in terms of its psychological and human insights. I also got the sense that Dostoyevsky was transformed by his experience in prison. That makes this book interesting to read, but it absolutely does not make it his best.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,
by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
“He began eating [….] This was it. This was good. This was the brief moment for which a prisoner lives. For a little while, Shukov forgot all his grievances, forgot that his sentence was long, that the day was long, that once again there would be no Sunday. For the moment he had only one thought: We shall survive. We shall survive it all. God willing, we’ll see the end of it.”
This is another book about prisons, written by another Russian ex-prisoner named Alexander Solzhenitsyn. His book was literally published 100 years after Dostoyevsky’s account of prison-life (Dostoyevsky’s in 1862 and Solzhenitsyn’s in 1962).
It was interesting to see what changed and what stayed the same. For instance, prisoners could rely on going to the hospital to get reprieve in Dostoyevsky’s time, but this was no longer the case in Solzhenitsyn’s time. However, prisoners still stole each other’s belongings in both accounts, even if prisoners in Solzhenitsyn’s book seemed to show slightly more camaraderie than the ones in Dostoyevsky’s account.
On its own terms, One Day chronicled a day in the life of a fictional prisoner named Ivan Denisovich Shukov. It was told very mundanely: He woke up, pretended to be sick, failed to get admitted to the infirmary, went to get a meal, knew the best way to hide his food in his jacket, and so on. It was very casual in that way. I kept expecting something dramatic to happen but it never did.
In the meantime, I was continually surprised by how much meaning people could find in small things, like a spoon or a piece of bread or a cigar-stub.
Understatement also made the book’s ending more powerful. I won’t spoil it, but it really put life into perspective.
Until next week!