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Una fortezza senza porte
In 1837, soon after their mother’s death, the Dostoevsky brothers travelled to St Petersburg, where they sat the entrance exams to the Imperial Engineering Academy. Mikhail failed, but Fyodor was accepted, though he was denied a scholarship, allegedly because of a lack of family clout. Despite his straitened circumstances he completed his studies in 1843 at the rank of sub-lieutenant and proceeded to a position in the imperial engineering corps.
For reasons that remain unclear, Dostoevsky’s engineering career lasted barely a year, leaving him wholly reliant on a meagre inheritance and his long-shot wager on future literary earnings. No doubt he would have made a poor office worker anyway, but there was also an unsubstantiated rumour that his resignation was personally instigated by Nicholas I, allegedly incensed that the young engineer had submitted a rendering of a fortress without a front entrance. True or not, this anecdote not only provides a first glimpse of Dostoevsky’s fabled absent-mindedness, but also calls to mind the claustrophobic images that soon came to pervade his fictions, in which the only way out is up.
Dostoevsky’s gateless fortress also reminds us that, as a trained draughtsman, he thought in images no less than in words. He wrote frequently about painting, and many of his key terms suggest visual, rather than verbal communication, from “impression” (vpechatlenie) to “disfiguration” (bezobrazie). In his novels major characters first emerge as faces, and then persist as gazes; think of the self-sacrificing prostitute Sonya Marmeladova staring silently at Raskolnikov in her squalid room, and then at the crossroads. Countless artists and filmmakers have been moved to transpose Dostoevsky’s fictions into new works of visual art. It is no great surprise, then, that his manuscripts teem with calligraphic exercises and graphic doodles.
As the culmination of decades of pioneering research, Konstantin Barsht has produced a comprehensive dictionary of graphic devices in Dostoevsky’s manuscripts. The Drawings and Calligraphy of Fyodor Dostoevsky is published in three languages (English, Italian and Russian) as the first entry in a new series, Calligrammes, dedicated to the intersection of graphic art and literature. Based on close and meticulously documented readings, and aided by over 200 illustrations, many in full-page colour, Barsht’s book proposes a typology of the graphic devices deployed by Dostoevsky and a logic of their development over time: early in a work’s gestation Dostoevsky resorts to architectural details, but as ideas clarify they take the form of faces before settling into specific (though often enigmatic) verbal cues. “The closer the writer comes to completing the desired artistic form,” Barsht concludes, “the less often he made drawings and calligraphic letters.” After Crime and Punishment Dostoevsky made only preliminary drafts, which he referred to as he dictated the complete text to his young wife Anna, a trained stenographer. The faces in these drafts tend increasingly to caricature, and then become reduced to mere noses. By the time of The Brothers Karamazov, his final novel, Dostoevsky’s manuscripts contain little beyond rough drafts of the text.
The full array of Dostoevsky’s notations is most in evidence in the manuscript remains of Crime and Punishment, filled with quickly sketched portraits, which Barsht identifies as the main characters of the novel. It is undeniably thrilling to see Sonya or the murderous lecher Svidrigailov at their very moment of genesis, alongside Gothic arcades, scrawled plotlines and calligraphic exercises. Why is a girl’s head surmounted with several attempts at the word “Janus” (the two-faced Roman god of change and thresholds)? Because, Barsht explains, Sonya was a divided character and features in many of the novel’s consequential comings and goings. Why does a page on Svidrigailov contain the words “Buonaparte” and “Pozzo di Borgo”? Because the latter was Napoleon’s sworn enemy, just as Svidrigailov proves to be for the sub-Napoleonic Raskolnikov. Why does Svidrigailov appear in the guise of Napoleon III? Because Svidrigailov’s character reduces Raskolnikov’s philosophy to the absurd, just as the life of Napoleon III was a farcical reiteration of the Napoleonic tragedy.
Barsht’s ingenuity is on full show in his parsing of words and letters that appear seemingly at random in drafts of the novel’s end: Malebranche, La Routine, Partie, R, N, J. “Routine” appears in the drafts as an object of Raskolnikov’s scorn; R and N refer back to “routine”. On close examination Nicolas Malebranche turns out to have written extensively about the folly of those who construct their own system of thought and thus imagine themselves superior to others; Raskolnikov is just such a theoretician, proud in his self-delusion. But “Partie” and “J” stymie even Barsht. “Based on our experience in deciphering Dostoevsky’s ‘graphic symbols’,” Barsht writes, “we know that they must necessarily be part of a word that stands for the object of the writer’s intense contemplation.” But just how far should we go in identifying possible denotations?
Frequently Barsht resorts to a biographical framework of interpretation. Dostoevsky’s calligraphic exercises are taken as triggers for memories, frequently of his youth. Barsht speculates that Dostoevsky had read Malebranche in French by 1839, finding Malebranchian echoes in Dostoevsky’s letters to his brother and in his famous letter of 1856 to Natalya Fonvizina that expressed his “thirst to believe”. For Barsht, more often than not, faces evoke the physiognomies of Dostoevsky’s relatives and acquaintances, from the mother he lost in youth to his philosophical antagonist, Nikolai Chernyshevsky. Little of this is wholly convincing, but along the way one gleans many welcome insights into Dostoevsky’s life.
More compelling are Barsht’s discussions of Dostoevsky’s ideas on aesthetics, especially the aesthetics of the face, from his youthful interest in phrenology to his mature treatises on art. In a long final section, “Dostoevsky’s Ideographic Writing”, Barsht synthesizes his own analyses with Dostoevsky’s aesthetic writings in order to produce a “grammar” of Dostoevsky’s “narrative ecphrasis”. At times Barsht succumbs to the dominant but anachronistic fashion of interpreting Dostoevsky through Russian religious philosophy, especially Pavel Florensky, who regarded the Eastern Orthodox icon as the expression of spiritual essences. According to this line of reasoning, Dostoevsky saw his ultimate task as raising his characters’ fleshy physiognomies to the status of saintly “countenances”. At other times Barsht channels the semiotics of Yuri Lotman, reading small distinctions in Dostoevsky’s architectural doodles and calligraphy as constituting subtle shifts in their author’s ideas for a work. At its most trivial, this approach yields a teleological and nationalistic account of Russian onion domes gradually winning out over Gothic arches. More ambitiously, Barsht links his observations to Mikhail Bakhtin’s influential account of Dostoevsky’s poetics in terms of dialogue and distinctive space-time relations (“chronotope”). In this reading, the portraits demonstrate Dostoevsky’s desire for characters who might function as autonomous subjects, capable of surprising even their creator. “The rectangular sheet of his notebook”, Barsht concludes, “served as the initial model for the 4D chronotope of a future work in which new meaning arose”.
Suggestive as Dostoevsky’s manuscripts might be, they ultimately seem diminished under the weight of such grand claims. Occasionally one is reminded of the commentator on Monty Python’s “Novel Writing” as he breathlessly follows Thomas Hardy’s tentative progress on the opening sentence of The Return of the Native before an adoring Dorchester crowd. “Oh no, he’s signed his name again!” To what extent can Dostoevsky’s scribbles and doodles of faces or arches be used to formulate principles of character construction and plot architectonics? Barsht’s ingenious explanations for the words in calligraphic exercises are rarely watertight. The alleged portrait of Chernyshevsky in the manuscripts of Crime and Punishment is hardly distinguishable from others that Barsht identifies as Napoleon III/Svidrigailov, Turgenev/Karmazinov (in Demons) and Makar Dolgoruky (in The Adolescent). Possibly Dostoevsky only knew one way to draw older, bearded men.
Barsht’s analysis is at its most persuasive and productive when he refrains from making large interpretative claims and focuses instead on the manuscripts as the primary point of contact between Dostoevsky’s physical existence and his grand fictional project. Barsht compares them to the workshop of a craftsman, which might appear to be in disarray but actually reflects the labourer’s optimal organization of his materials for fulfilling the task at hand. Faces, arches, leaves, words: of such stuff were Dostoevsky’s fictional worlds made. Based on the manuscripts Barsht develops an evocative language for describing Dostoevsky’s pen and pencil marks as an effective metaphor for his narrative style. How better can one describe Dostoevsky’s narratives than in terms of line and shading?
Standing apart from the main analysis is a series of vignettes entitled “Familiar Faces”, in which Barsht analyses Dostoevsky’s portraits of historical personages, from Peter the Great to Ivan Turgenev. Some of these brief studies are intriguing mini-investigations into Dostoevsky’s vast and complex world. Others prove inconclusive. For instance, Barsht convincingly explains why Dostoevsky’s pencil sketch of Viktor Askochensky shows the publisher with an ample female bust – Askochensky had once penned erotic verse before becoming a face of reactionary ideology – but he admits defeat in his effort to explain its location adjacent to one of Dostoevsky’s most heartfelt and moving notebook entries, written as he beheld the corpse of his first wife. “There can hardly be any semantic, or all the more, thematic, connection”, Barsht concludes.
But this, precisely, is the rub. No less than the Malebranchian Raskolnikov, Barsht remains bound by the myth of the total code and lacks the conceptual framework for dealing with the contingencies that abound in writers’ notebooks and manuscripts, and which accrue especial importance in those of Dostoevsky, that orchestrator of chaos. Not every mark is a detail of a whole. Some words evidently attracted Dostoevsky’s calligraphic eye for their visual form, rather than their dictionary meaning or biographical associations. His manuscripts might often show him engrossed in intense contemplation of his artistic world as it unfolded before his gaze; but sometimes he might simply have fallen into distraction or reverie. Dostoevsky’s drafts are often at their most compelling when they graphically demonstrate how his authorial control was disrupted and even thwarted by unforeseen events and insights.
Still, Konstantin Barsht’s graphic guide to Dostoevsky’s art is a monumental and thoroughly enjoyable work of scholarship, and all readers of Dostoevsky owe him a debt of gratitude for providing such an appealing new point of entry to this majestic and maddening edifice.