I’m about halfway through Dostoevsky’s Записки из мёртвого дома (Notes from the House of the Dead or Notes from the Dead House; see this LH post), and I wanted to quote a passage that made me suck in my breath and think “That could only be Dostoevsky”; it’s from the end of Ch. 5, “The First Month,” and he’s talking about convicts who live peacefully and obediently for years, perhaps even being made foreman, and then astonish everyone by bursting out in some violent act with little or no provocation (Russian below the cut):

But it may be that the whole reason for this abrupt explosion in that person, from whom it was least to be expected, is a miserable, convulsive manifestation of personality, an instinctive yearning for one’s own self, the desire to declare oneself, one’s humiliated personality, suddenly making its appearance and reaching the point of malice, of fury, of reason going dark, of paroxysm, of convulsion. So, perhaps, a person buried alive and waking in the coffin will pound on the lid and try his hardest to throw it off, although of course reason could convince him that all his efforts would be futile. But that’s just the point: here reason is not involved, here are convulsions.

I’m now in the middle of the wonderful chapter on Christmas and very glad I embarked on the journey.
Incidentally, does anyone know where I could hear at least snatches of the songs he quotes the prisoners as singing in this section—”Я вечор млада,” “Свет небесный воссияет” (apparently from «Не в Москве, не за Москвою»), and “Не увидит взор мой той страны” (from «Добрая ночь»)?

А между тем, может быть, вся-то причина этого внезапного взрыва в том человеке, от которого всего менее можно было ожидать его, – это тоскливое, судорожное проявление личности, инстинктивная тоска по самом себе, желание заявить себя, свою приниженную личность, вдруг появляющееся и доходящее до злобы, до бешенства, до омрачения рассудка, до припадка, до судорог. Так, может быть, заживо схороненный в гробу и проснувшийся в нем, колотит в свою крышу и силится сбросить ее, хотя, разумеется, рассудок мог бы убедить его, что все его усилия останутся тщетными. Но в том-то и дело, что тут уж не до рассудка: тут судороги.


  1. I’m glad you’re enjoying the book, Languagehat. And thank you for including this passage: it fits nicely with Makanin’s Андеграунд, или Герой нашего времени, which I’ve been reading, on-and-off, for a few weeks.

  2. I’ll be interested to hear what you think of it; I own it but haven’t yet read it.

  3. I’m having a tough time with it, though I wanted very much to like it. The writing and structure are quite baggy: the book is less a novel than a collection of accounts of situations. (Unlike Lermontov’s Hero, everything here comes from a first-person narrator.) Some passages are funny, and it’s interesting to look back at the ’90s but I much prefer Makanin’s tighter pieces, like Лаз.

  4. Robert Berger says

    This season, the Metropolitan Opera is doing its first production of the powerful opera “From the House of the Dead” by the great Czech composer Janacek, based on the Dostoyevsky book. This was Janacek’s last opera, and has no real plot as one would expect in an opera, but simply shows the miserable daily life of the prisoners with stark power. The production, by French director Patrice Chereau, has already been performed in Europe and is now on DVD.

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