The Power of Memoirs from the House of the Dead

Sometimes I think I ought abstain from fiction, that my melancholic nature leaves me susceptible to fiction’s power to destabilise. Dostoyevsky’s Memoirs from the House of Dead is dangerous for its fiction is a thin disguise, its unfolding of oppression and monotony carries none of the nonsense of fiction. Sometimes I think I ought to read more fiction, that my melancholic nature leaves me susceptible to fiction’s power to disrupt and superimpose itself onto reality.

Dostoyevsky’s Memoirs from the House of the Dead, translated by Jessie Coulson, is coldly objective. Its coolness and monotony saturated the ten days it has taken to slowly marinate in its journalistic spirit. ‘Freedom, a new life, resurrection from the dead . . . What a glorious moment!’ I feel the glorification, the lifting of a period of dull despondency.

In Memoirs from the House of the Dead are the bones of Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. Without the raw life of the zone—the house of the dead—neither of those glorious later novels are possible, both represent the poetic form of Dostoyevsky’s four years of existential hell as a convict.

I want to see a Tarkovsky interpretation of Memoirs from the House of the Deadonly that director could fully capture Dostoyevsky’s intense self-disgust but also the brutal honesty of the meaninglessness of life.

17 thoughts on “The Power of Memoirs from the House of the Dead

  1. You might find Janacek’s harrowing opera FROM THE HOUSE OF THE DEAD, equally illuminating.
    (The Boulez/Chereau DVD is superb)
    All best,

    • My word. That such a thing exists. I adore Janacek. I ordered that DVD in a heartbeat and dread its arrival. This book leaves me shredded like those unfortunates that ran the gauntlet. I’ve had three nightmares during the read of this book.

  2. Well, my other big favorite Janacek opera (and one of my favorites altogether), The Cunning Little Vixen, might well cheer you up a bit.
    (The Mackerras version is swell. My wife and I were so lucky to hear him conduct it just before he died.

    • Thank you. Memoirs from the House of the Dead is almost too raw. It flayed me. A work of extraordinary power. Far from that his other novels had lead me to expect.

  3. Interesting read. Though I do demur with this bit, obsessed as I am with fiction: “…the nonsense of fiction”. To me, it’s only fiction (albeit of a certain kind) that makes absolute sense…

    • Oh, I didn’t intend ‘nonsense’ to be derogatory, or intend to trivialise fiction in any way. But it is manifestly absurd that something that does not exist can move us to the degree that great fiction can. Reality is no less nonsensical.

      • I understand – that was more a tongue-in-cheek remark, honestly. True, I find reality more nonsensical and confounding than fiction most of the time.

        “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” (Yup, I read Harry Potter.)

  4. This comment of yours really resonated with me:
    Sometimes I think I ought abstain from fiction, that my melancholic nature leaves me susceptible to fiction’s power to destabilise.
    At the same time, it is also my escape valve when my own life becomes too unbearable. You are so right about Tarkovsky and Dostoyevsky being a perfect fit. Stalker is in some ways the former’s vision of The House of the Dead, wouldn’t you say?

    • Yes, I agree, hence the Stalker picture that I used for this post. It was particularly the chapter on animals in the prison that brought Stalker to mind. But also the flatness of both environments.

      What I read, when it has the power of books like this, weaves its way into the texture of my life, dreams and all. But I couldn’t do without it. I’ve tried.

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