Monday, November 07, 2011

Dostoevsky Meets Dickens: Too Good To Be True?

In her 2008 book, Dickens and Creativity, Barbara Nathan Hardy notes with her opening words to chapter seven, "Subversions and Oppositions," that:
Readers of Paradise Lost have sometimes felt that the Devil is so articulate and alluring that he undermines the Divine power and presence. To descend a little from Milton's Sublime, we find Dickens also creating powerful subversions, presences that accompany his portraits and proposals of morality, to counter, criticize, or undermine them. (page 87)

Hardy writes some five pages later of an 'event' that might have been able to offer some insight toward explaining this two-fold nature of Dickens:
In a fascinating interview Dickens had with Dostoevsky, he apparently told his great Russian admirer that both his pure simple characters like Nell and his villains were himself; the good were what he would like to be and the evil derived from his worse self. (page 92)

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me begin at the beginning. Yesterday, my daughter and I were reading an article on Dickens by the novelist David Gates, "Off the pages, a Dickensian life, too" (November 5-6, 2011), in the weekend issue of the International Herald Tribune. To my surprise, the article described a meeting in 1862 between Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoevsky. At the thought of such a scene, I recalled my freshman year Baylor University professor, Morse Hamilton, who taught creative writing and English literature, loved Dickens, but also knew Russian and had read Dostoevsky -- whom he loved as well -- in the original, and I exclaimed:
"Morse would have been thrilled!"

I exclaimed to myself, anyway, for Sa-Rah was reading aloud, and I didn't want to interrupt. But I had a second thought, also unarticulated:
"It sounds too good to be true."

The anecdote on Dickens and Dostoevsky appears in an online version in the New York Times, "Being Charles Dickens" (November 3, 2011), but a fuller version appears earlier, likewise in the NYT, in "Two-Sided Man Gets Two New Biographies" (October 24, 2011), Michiko Kakutani's review of the same two biographies: Robert Douglas-Fairhurst's Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist and Claire Tomalin's Charles Dickens: A Life. Kakutani provides a fuller quote than Gates, so let's look at his account:
He told me that all the good simple people in his novels, Little Nell, even the holy simpletons like Barnaby Rudge, are what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was (or rather, what he found in himself), his cruelty, his attacks of causeless enmity towards those who were helpless and looked to him for comfort, his shrinking from those whom he ought to love, being used up in what he wrote. There were two people in him, he told me: one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite. From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters, from the one who feels as a man ought to feel I try to live my life. Only two people? I asked.

This may in fact describe Dickens well, but it sounds like something that Dostoevsky might have said about himself . . . or what someone might have imagined Dostoevsky saying about himself, or about Dickens. Douglas-Fairhurst seems not to have recounted the anecdote in his biography, so Kakutani's quote -- and the shorter version in Gates -- come from Tomalin. The same anecdote, however, appears in an earlier biography of Dickens by Michael Slater, Charles Dickens, published in 2009. Gates notes Slater's earlier account, and that both Tomalin and Slater learned of the anecdote in a 2002 issue of The Dickensian, but Kakutani says nothing of this, though he does later offer a "Correction: October 29, 2011," which states:
The Books of The Times review on Tuesday, about "Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist" by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, and "Charles Dickens" by Claire Tomalin, recounted an anecdote in Ms. Tomalin's book in which Dostoyevsky told of meeting Dickens. While others have also written of such a meeting and of a letter in which Dostoyevsky was said to have described it, some scholars have questioned the authenticity of the letter and whether the meeting ever occurred.

One such scholar is Sarah J. Young, who identifies the article that describes this supposed letter: Stephanie Harvey, "Dickens's Villains: Confession and a Suggestion," The Dickensian, 98.3 (Winter 2002), 233-235. Young probably isn't the first skeptic, for she writes of this only on December 19, 2010 -- some eight years later -- in a post, "Russians in London: Dostoevsky," on her website, Sarah J. Young: Lecturer in Russian at SSEES. Here's what she says:
A short article in The Dickensian claims that Dostoevsky met Dickens during his visit, citing a letter from 1878 to S. D. Yanovsky in which Dostoevsky states, 'Dickens told me the same thing when I met him at the office of his magazine All the Year Round in 1862' (Harvey, p. 233). One might explain the absence of reference to this meeting in Dickens's papers by the fact that Dostoevsky didn't really become known in Britain until some years later, after the former’s death, but it seems highly unlikely that Dostoevsky would have kept quiet about it until 16 years after the event. The source of the letter seems dubious too. It was supposedly published in 1987 in Vedomosti Akademii Nauk Kazakhskoi SSR (Bulletin of the Kazakh SSR Academy of Sciences), which I'm pretty sure does not exist, and if it had appeared in that year, then it's almost inconceivable that it wouldn't have been included in Dostoevsky's correspondence in the Complete Works -- those volumes were published from 1988. One can only conclude therefore that the letter isn't genuine, which is rather sad, because the idea of the two men meeting is so wonderful.

For some reason, I can't access The Dickensian (though readers can try, then perhaps report back), and I've also been unable to find anything about Ms. Stephanie Harvey, so I'm not in a position either to satisfy my curiosity about the supposed letter or about Ms. Harvey's credentials.

But the meeting does seem to have turned out as I feared: too good to be true.

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At 6:54 AM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

And in other "devil in the details" news: Giotto seemingly pulls a prank-- only recently discovered-- inside the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi, Italy.

At 7:04 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I saw that, too.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:07 AM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

Word gets around.

At 8:27 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

But thanks for the link. The image was quite clear.

So . . . when's the Catholic Church planning to disinter Giotto's bones?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:59 PM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

Rather than go for a disinterment, I think they're more likely to find a way to reinterpret the presence of Satan in a manner consistent with Tradition and the Magisterium.

At 1:00 PM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

That was the running joke at Catholic U., anyway: any theological shift emanating from Rome was always prefaced by, "As we have always contended..."

At 1:17 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

It's their 'Job' to know that Satan sometimes attends heavenly meetings . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:49 PM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

to Kevin (last two comments):


and thanks for the link. I had heard about Giotto's devil, but not seen it yet.

woops! [word verification]

At 3:50 PM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

to Jeffery (last remark):


fach acta [word verification]

At 5:36 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Dario, thanks for the confirming humor . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:54 PM, Blogger Seán D Rafter said...

General Problem at the moment with poorly researched biographies..

At 11:58 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Project X, let me link to that better: "What The Dickens?"

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:27 AM, Blogger Seán D Rafter said...


At 7:04 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hot link . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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