7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on June 14, 2009
Poor Folk was the story that brought Dostoyevsky to fame, and reading it here you can see why. It is an extremely powerful and moving story. From the very beginning the story is dripping with emotion, and their pain and destitution are almost palpable to the reader. The letters passed between Makar and Varvara are filled with so many differing emotions and the longing that is so evidently present forces the reader to become involved in the story. Once that happens you find yourself rooting for these characters. You will find yourself sharing in their pain and rejoicing in every triumph no matter how fleeting they are.
I am a pretty stoic individual. I don't wear my emotions on my sleeves, but with Poor Folk there were a few times where as I read I felt that lump in my throat and felt my eyes come close to filling up. There have been very few books that have ever affected me this strongly. It was simply powerful.
The House of the Dead is another important Dostoyevsky work. What Dostoyevsky seems to do better than anyone else is to cut open all the veneer that covers and hides human beings. His writing is like a surgeon's knife that opens up the body and exposes what is inside. He shows readers the inner workings of the human mind like no other writer I have ever come across, and this is something he does very well here.
I think one of the reasons this story needs to be read is to get a better understanding of Dostoyevsky himself. Even though this story is fiction, it still sheds light on his experience and gives the reader some greater insight into the man.
Both of these stories are extremely important, and they are so well written that they are enjoyable reads as well. They don't require as much from the reader like some of his other works like The Brothers, but at the same time these books are just as rewarding. This book is the book that I would recommend to someone who hasn't read Dostoyevsky but is looking to. They are powerful works that are sure to make brand new fans, while at the same time they are not as involved and difficult as some of his longer works.
Of course I don't have to recommend this book to any fan of Dostoyevsky because if you are a fan then you have gorged yourself on everything of his you can find.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on February 10, 2009
"A whaling ship was my Harvard and my Yale!" That's what Herman Melville declared, approximately, through his mouthpeice Ishmael in his supreme novel-of-information Moby Dick. I'm fairly sure no critic has ever linked Melville and Dostoevsky - more specifically, Moby Dick and The House of the Dead - and I'd never have made the connection if I hadn't just re-read the former. Dostoevsky, nevertheless, celebrates much the same net learning experience; his four actual years in prison labor camps in western Siberia were the Harvard and Yale of his craft as a writer and of his "spiritual" regeneration. He says it specifically at the beginning of the penultimate chapter of House (An Escape), if you want to check. By that time in the book, his literary narrative mask has completely slipped and he surely is speaking for himself.
Both Moby Dick and House of the Dead are survivor's tales. Both are told by first-person narrators, although Dostoevsky's surrogate narrator, Aleksandr Goryanchikov, is not fully consistent as a literary device. Both are extremely discursive and parenthetical, spending far more words on description of other inmates/crewmates than on themselves. Just as Moby Dick is as much an account of the whaling industry as a tale of adventure, House of the Dead is a journalistic description of the Tsarist prison facilities, both of their management and of their sociology. Readers looking for a story are likely to be under-stimulated by both books. Most important, both books reveal crises in the lives of their authors -- personal epiphanies almost concealed by the plethora of externalities -- but the two authors travel in opposite directions. Moby Dick is, on one level, a confrontation with loss of belief, a parabola from complacent faith to existential skepticism. Dostoevsky's parabola curves from naive individualism, expressed as political radicalism, to a "resurrection" and redemption based on religious mysticism. How odd that the two books were written within roughly a decade of each other!
I started to read The House of the Dead with a different comparison in mind. I'd just finished Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" and I expected to find some interesting similarities and/or contrasts between these two books about Russian imprisonments. 'Ivan' and 'House' do depict equivalent misery and viciousness in the Tsarist and the Stalinist labor-camp prisons in Siberia. 'House" is no a literary phosphorescent flare of the blue flame intensity of 'Ivan', so it might pass unnoticed that conditions hadn't changed much from 1850 to 1940. In fact, Dostoevsky distracts his readers from the horrors of his prison by including large swathes of humor, depictions of jollier times and of the little evasions and corruptions of the system that make prison almost tolerable. Dostoevsky undoubtably offers the more realistic and rounded portrait; reading the House of the Dead exposes the deliberate unreality of A Day in the Life. Solzhenitsyn's Day cannot be extrapolated into Dostoevsky's years; 365 of Ivan's "days" in a row would be inconceivable. No one could survive them realistically. There's a summer even in Siberia.
Dostoevsky explicitly places his ego-surrogate in the House of the DEAD, from which his release constitutes a resurrection. Solzhenitsyn's Ivan is metaphorically in Hell, the frozen Hell of ancient northern myths. And now, having read these two books close together, I feel very strongly that Ivan Denisovich is intended as more than a portrait of an individual. Instead, he's a metaphor also, a synecdoche of the common folk of Russia imprisoned in the absurd inefficiency and misery of their Stalinist Hell. All the more amazing, isn't it, that Nikita K authorized the publication of 'Day'! Somebody in his office wasn't a very deep reader. 'A Day in the Life' is also a survivor's tale, but definitely not a resurrection myth. There's no further destination after Ivan's Hell; survival is perpetual defiance at best.
"The House of the Dead" isn't a great literary accomplishent. It can hardly be called a novel -- more a thinly disguised memoir, a gulag travelogue -- but it's fascinating to read as a piece of sociology and it certainly opens the reader's comprehension of Dostoevsky's later masterpieces.
Pairing The House of the Dead with Dostoevsky's first published book, Poor Folk, might be perceived as an unintentional irony. Poor folk is the exemplar of what Dostoevsky came to see, in prison, as his betrayal of the Russian people, of their redemptive patient souls, in pursuit of shallow revolutionary ideals. Even though the aristocratic Dostoevsky became convinced during his four years in Siberia that he could never bridge the gap of incomprehension between himself and the 'common' people of Russia, he openly confessed that only his imprisonment brought him any familiarity with them.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on March 2, 2010
This collection usefully contains two of Fyodor Dostoevsky's notable shorter works - The House of the Dead and Poor Folk -, which is not only convenient but a positive bargain. Anyone curious about either might as well get them together, especially as this has a wealth of supplemental material: a long Introduction giving much background on Dostoevsky and the works plus some critical analysis; a handful of notes for each story; a short Dostoevsky biography; a Dostoevsky timeline; a description of works inspired by the stories; a list of comments and questions; further reading suggestions; and opening quotes. Some of this is superfluous, but much is of great value. The binding is also very high quality and will last through much browsing.
Dostoyevsky is well-known for his novels and novellas, of which some are among the best ever written. The House of the Dead, however, is entirely different. Though ostensibly fiction, it is a thinly-veiled autobiographical narrative. Dostoevsky, who endured four years' hard labor in a Siberian prison -- after getting the "silent treatment" is isolation for eight months and facing a firing squad, in a death shroud, only to have his sentence commuted at the last minute -- wrote this as a sort of memoir. The Introduction sets up a fictional character to tell the story -- it was Dostoevsky's intent to have the notes "written by a stranger" and to have his personality eliminated --, but it is clear enough. As this is not really a work of fiction, then, it is unsurprising that there is no plot to speak of, no linear development, no climax, and no resolution. It is, basically, a series of anecdotes -- the more interesting things Dostoevsky saw in prison.
The House certainly does not rank in Dostoevsky's upper tier but is an acknowledged classic. As one of many books relating the prison experience to the masses, it is rather fine. It reads much like a documentary -- which of course is what it basically is. Unlike many prison books, we don't see such exciting elements as dashing escapes and noble, heroic prisoners. This is the real thing. It is also remarkable how infrequently Dostoevsky gets on his soapbox; this is not a polemic against prisons, a tome about being a "victim of society," or a tract for prison reform. It is not even an admirable psychological portrait of an enthralled criminal. Those who like to read books of this kind -- criminologists, say -- will find much to like and also probably find it unique. The House is a treasure for Dostoevsky readers, who will find much material that enlivens the author himself.
Poor Folk, Dostoevsky's first novel, is certainly not on par with his later masterworks, but enough of his genius was already present to make it essential for fans, while its many and substantial differences from more representative work may well mean that those who usually dislike him will be pleasantly surprised.
It is most immediately interesting as a rare example of a novel told entirely in letters. This is hard to pull off convincingly, and Dostoevsky does admirably, especially for a debut. He manages to put across a wealth of characterization and sketch a vivid background in the limited format. The former is particularly notable; psychological characterization is of course what he was later known for, and it is already present to a great extent. Alternating first-person narration gives great insight into the two main characters, who are memorable and themselves and also noteworthy as fairly representative examples of impoverished mid-nineteenth century Russians. The latter is also well-done; we get an astonishingly vivid sense of what it was like to live in this unenviable time and place in every aspect from landscape to speech. The only complaint one could make here is applicable only to technical purists; Dostoevsky never really justifies the setup. The two characters live across from each other, and though a few visits are noted in passing, it seems highly implausible that they would have to resort to writing so often, though the great verisimilitude of the letters themselves largely makes amends.
There is almost no plot in the conventional sense, but we learn more and more about the characters' daily lives and relationship to each other. This is a sort of love story, and the end, while ostensibly happy for Barbara, is tragic for Makar. We may even have to rethink the former's character, as she abandons a man who not only truly cared for her but made her the beneficiary of numerous acts of charity and kindness when he could hardly afford it. Though written before Dostoevsky's Christian conversion, such noble acts and consequent self-abnegation form key parts of later works in a more spiritual sense. Here they show humanity's admirable side, especially in contrast to some of the other characters' actions. Above all, though, the book is valuable for giving a stark account of just how atrociously the lower classes lived. That such suffering existed in an ostensibly modern country so recently will be a true eye-opener for many; the wretchedness is truly great. Those who for decades championed - and in fact still champion - Czarist Russia as a beacon of liberty and equality in light of the Soviet Union's admitted horrors should read this; it gives an excellent indication of what was wrong with Czarist Russia and why it cried out for reform.
This unsurprisingly leads to much pathos, and the book is highly emotional in other ways; it indeed often reaches such a fever pitch that many will cry, which shows how little this resembles later Dostoevsky. The philosophical dramatization he was later known for is absent, as is lengthy dialogue. Poor is clearly an early work for this and other reasons, primarily because his originality had yet to arise; it was written under the great influence of Nikolai Gogol, particularly "The Overcoat," and Dostoevsky was indeed first championed as the new Gogol. He became something very different, but this early production is more than worthy - required for fans and worth looking into for many others. Much the same can be said of The House and thus this collection.