Notes from a Dead House


Prison Lit

This is the first in a series by Max Nelson on prison literature.

Käthe Kollwitz, The Prisoners, 1908.

No writer intends to produce prison literature. Just as incarceration involves its own awful set of debasements, drudgeries, and abuses, so it marks any writing done under its restrictions as part of a genre, one of the oldest to which new work is still added daily. The loose canon of prison literature includes novels (Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, Toer’s Buru Quartet), autobiographies (Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, Madame Roland’s memoirs), poems (Pound’s Pisan Cantos), erotic fictions (de Sade’s Justine, Cleland’s Fanny Hill), poetic dialogues (Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy), economic tracts (Gramsci’s prison notebooks), histories (Nehru’s Glimpses of World History) and works of philosophy (portions of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus)—but with the stipulation that whoever enters it must have suffered to an extent, and in a way, for which practically no one would volunteer. No prison writing is professional, but nor is any of it exactly recreational; it comes, by definition, from environments where “any self-willed display of personality … is considered a crime.”

Those words arrive early in Notes from a Dead House, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s extraordinary, semi-fictionalized account of the internment he endured in a Siberian prison camp after being sentenced to four years of hard labor for his involvement in a revolutionary conspiracy—and the latest installment in Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s grand, ongoing effort to retranslate the Russian canon. Episodic, rambling, full of keen and deliberately stretched-out character sketches, the book is the drama of a person working out how to reproduce prison life in prose: its longueurs, its diversions, its pleasures, traumas, and inurements.

Dostoyevsky didn’t complete the book until six years after his release, and across its two main parts you can feel him at once organizing his memories, artfully revising them, and struggling to get them down before they fade. Few books give such a vivid picture of the sort of setting from which many great works of prison literature emerge; at the same time, few show such concern for the possibility of prison literature in the first place. How, the novel asks, could any piece of writing come out of such restricted circumstances? How could any fail to? “Even people sent up for life,” the narrator remembers,

dreamed of something almost impossible. This eternal restlessness, manifesting itself silently but visibly; this strange fervor and impatience of sometimes involuntarily expressed hopes, at times so unfounded that they were more like raving, and, what was most striking of all, that often dwelt in the most practical-seeming minds—all this gave the place an extraordinary appearance and character, so much so that these features may have constituted its most characteristic qualities.

The power of certain writing done from prison has to do with the way it alternatively staves off and gives rein to restlessness, fervor, and desperation. Sometimes it’s a daily exercise, a consolation. In other cases, it gives the writer what Dostoyevsky’s narrator insists even the most docile prisoners sometimes need: an “anguished, convulsive”—and, in some cases, recklessly hopeful—“display of personality.”

Dostoyevsky, left, in the Haymarket, March 1874

The young men arrested in 1849 over the course of the Petrashevsky Affair, so named after the owner of the house where their meetings took place, seem to have resembled the disorganized anarchists that fill Dostoyevsky’s later novel Demons: a gaggle of clueless innocents and a smaller circle of more committed, driven dissidents. By nearly all accounts, Dostoyevsky belonged to the second group. Held during the deposition in Saint Petersburg’s Peter and Paul Fortress, a sort of tsarist Bastille, he wrote a story called “A Little Hero.” After he was sentenced, subjected to a harrowing mock-execution, and shipped off to a grim labor camp in the southern Siberian city of Omsk, he wrote no fiction for four years.

His living situation was not suited to literary work. “Imagine,” Dostoyevsky wrote his brother in a long letter immediately after his release, “an old, dilapidated, wooden construction, which was supposed to have been pulled down years ago, and which was no longer fit for use. In summer, intolerable closeness; in winter, unendurable cold.” There follows, for pages, a squalid catalog of privations and miseries. To be caught writing anything in these quarters was to earn a flogging, which is not to say that Dostoyevsky didn’t keep a notebook anyway: the scribbled pages he entrusted to a loyal orderly in the prison’s hospital contained many of the sayings, songs, and anecdotes that would ripen into Notes from a Dead House.

Dostoyevsky’s heroic biographer Joseph Frank argues convincingly that the writer underwent a major conversion during his time in Omsk: he came to consider working-class Russian people less as “barbarians awaiting the light”—his own characterization of the view he’d had of the peasantry as a young revolutionary—than as representatives of spiritual light itself. Forced into close quarters with murderers, thieves, and petty criminals, Dostoyevsky came to believe, as Frank puts it, “in the moral beauty of the Russian peasantry, its infinite capacity to love and forgive those who had for so long sinned against it.”

You could also argue that he came to the less lofty conclusion that Alexander Petrovich, the author of the found text that comprises most of Notes from a Dead House, arrives at in a late chapter: that the Russian working class is too unruly, too temperamentally varied, and too frustratingly human to bear any generalizations well. At a key stage in the novel, Alexander Petrovich chides himself for “trying to sort our whole prison into categories,” when in fact “reality is infinitely diverse compared to all, even the most clever, conclusions of abstract thought, and does not suffer sharp and big distinctions. Reality tends towards fragmentation. We, too, had our own particular life, of whatever sort, but at least we had it, and not only an official, but an inner life of our own.”

Across these three strange, dense sentences, the narrator drifts away from his initial epiphany and toward a second one. The discovery that human behavior is too cluttered and multifarious to conform to abstract generalizations bleeds into the discovery that a person’s “own” life—what Alexander Petrovich calls “inner” life—is too stubbornly entrenched to bend to outer pressures and controls. It’s easy to read Notes from a Dead House, with its vivid, carefully composed (and, in the case of the cartoonish Isay Fomitch, distastefully anti-Semitic) character sketches, as Dostoyevsky’s way of showing his newfound appreciation for the varieties of Russian working-class existence. But it makes just as much sense to read the book as a display of what writing can do to disclose—and sustain—the very kind of inwardness that labor camps are supposed to squash out.


notesfromadeadhouseAt the start of the book’s second chapter, it occurs to Alexander Petrovich that if a prisoner “were forced, for instance, to pour water from one tub into another and from the other into the first, to grind sand, [or] to carry a pile of dirt from one place to another and back again”—in other words, to spend his time on any work defined by “complete, total uselessness”—he “would hang himself after a few days.” The narrator thanks God that his daily work in prison at least has a purpose. At the same time, he’s hinting at a theme on which Notes from a Dead House constantly insists: the numbing, repetitive dullness of prison life. Like boot camp or factory work, the novel implies, imprisonment flattens individual thought by pounding away at it slowly, steadily, and with as little rhythmic variation as possible.

Most of the book’s action revolves around the convicts’ attempts to make room for some color and change in their days: card games, knife fights, thefts, drinking sprees, escape attempts, holiday celebrations, a play. But the most dramatic such attempt in the novel is the shape of the narrative itself. Alexander Petrovich is a sloppy storyteller. He keeps filling in background information belatedly. “I gave Petrov a few kopecks to provide soap and some bast,” he remembers in a sketch of the camp’s bathhouse, before remembering to clarify that “soap was sold right there in the vestibule.” It’s only after a lengthy description of his earliest encounter with the same Petrov that it occurs to him to connect the character with an earlier story: “I will note, however, that this Petrov was the same one who had wanted to kill the major when he was summoned to be punished.” Many of the novel’s chapters are really loose assemblages of anecdotes and essayistic fragments. One, the first of two set in the camp hospital, ends with the agonizing account of what one grizzled convict tells the sergeant of the watch over another prisoner’s still-warm corpse. (“He had a mother, too!”) After telling the story, it’s as if Alexander Petrovich suddenly snaps back into focus. “But,” he confesses, “I’ve strayed from my subject … ”

The form of Notes from a Dead House is constantly at odds with its subject matter; wherever the narrative calls for a dreary roll call of routine tasks and daily humiliations, the book darts off, digresses or swerves to the side. (The effect is heightened in the hands of Pevear and Volokhonsky, who—as in their earlier Dostoyevsky translations—give the writer’s prose a choppier, more elliptical and discursive rhythm than it could ever have reached under Constance Garnett’s majestic, more grammatically fussy treatment.) It’s one of the guiding assumptions behind Notes from a Dead House that the novel as a form can accommodate the free, nimble movements even of a consciousness linked to an imprisoned body. If Dostoyevsky’s captors had found the ribald, cacophonous commonplace book he assembled out of overheard insults and tossed-off sayings during his time in prison, they would have recognized that they were dealing with a spirit not easily suppressed:

— So, my friends, this is the tenth year now I’m wandering.
— Me and Big Uncle Vanya killed the death of the cow!
— Ha, so they brought in the tomfooling pig!
— You with your dirty mug dare stand in the breadline?
— Poor me, I don’t even have an aunt, so screw her.
— And I, brother, with the Lord’s help have become a major.

Small wonder that they ordered writers flogged. It might not have been one of Dostoyevsky’s intentions to compose great prison literature—but when he found himself forced to work in the genre, it was no use trying to keep his personality from emerging powerfully and digressively on the page.

Max Nelson’s writings on film and literature have appeared in The Threepenny Reviewn+1, Film Comment, and The Boston Review, among other publications. He lives in New York.

In the next installment of Max’s prison literature series: St. Paul, Eldridge Cleaver, and John Bunyan.