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  • The Making of a Counter-Culture Icon: Henry Miller's Dostoyevsky
  • Joseph Frank (bio)
Maria Bloshteyn, The Making of a Counter-Culture Icon: Henry Miller's Dostoyevsky (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007), 261 pp.

Professor Bloshteyn's book is a lively and erudite investigation of a little-known aspect of how Dostoevsky's life and works were accepted and assimilated outside Russia, primarily in the United States, but also with side glances at England and France. The American reception is focused on Henry Miller and two other authors, Anaïs Nin and Lawrence Durrell. In the early 1930s, all three lived together on the rue Villa Seurat in Paris, sharing Miller's friendship, his view of Dostoevsky and, in the case of Nin, also his bed. As Bloshteyn remarks of their common conception of Dostoevsky, "few other writers have been subjected to such radical misreadings and had their ideological credo distorted to such a dramatic extent." [End Page 374]

Any reader of Dostoevsky's letters, notebooks, and his Diary of a Writer knows that he began as a Utopian, pre-Marxist Socialist in the 1840s, whose early work gave a sympathetic depiction of the victims of a caste-ridden bureaucratic society. After being arrested, experiencing the ordeal of a mock execution, and spending four years in a prison camp followed by six in the Russian army, he emerged a changed man, whose convictions, as he wrote himself, had been "regenerated" by his encounter with the Russian people. He then became a faithful, if not uncritical, supporter of the czarist regime. When Alexander II liberated the serfs in 1862, this "regeneration" was strengthened, because the existence of serfdom had been one of the major causes for Dostoevsky's radicalism of the 1840s.

All through the major post-Siberian novels that made him famous, Dostoevsky was thus inspired by his opposition to the radical ideas that became influential among the Russian intelligentsia in the 1860s. How could it have happened, Bloshteyn asks, that such a writer (she calls him a "Russian Orthodox monarchist," terms not inaccurate but that need some qualification) could have become the idol of "so many left-wing, irreverent, anarchically minded groups?" Among such fringe groups that took Dostoevsky as their prophet, she lists the Surrealists, the Existentialists, and the Beats.

In searching for an answer to this question, Bloshteyn goes back to the early history of Dostoevsky's introduction to Anglo-American readers. The famous Madame Blavatsky, for example, of Russian origin and the founder of Theosophy, published in 1881 her translation of the Grand Inquisitor chapter of The Brothers Karamazov without reference to the rest of the novel; and she wrote that this chapter was Dostoevsky's "cutting satire on modern theology." The well-known anarchist agitator Emma Goldman, who also published a magazine entitled Mother Earth, printed a story in 1910, "The Priest and the Devil," supposedly written by Dostoevsky on the wall of his cell during his imprisonment to protest against the exploitation of the working class. To raise funds for her own propaganda work, as Goldman recounts in her memoirs, she decided to follow the example of Sonya Marmeladova in Crime and Punishment and walk the streets for a worthy cause. Luckily, Goldman was given some money by a kindly passerby she accosted and told to return home. The name and writings of Dostoevsky thus became associated very early with attacks on the reigning social and moral-religious pieties.

In the very year of Dostoevsky's death (1881), a secondhand translation of Notes from the House of the Dead was published (it is not clear from what language; probably German, given the name of the translator). This text was replaced seven years later by an "authorized" translation with the title Buried Alive or Ten Years of Penal Servitude in Siberia. Dostoevsky's own text is basically an autobiographical account of his four years in the prison camp, living among peasant convicts, many [End Page 375] of whom had committed murders; but his own story is introduced by a fictional narrator supposed to have murdered his wife. Nobody knew why Dostoevsky had been "buried alive," and readers simply associated him with all...


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pp. 374-376
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