Some three weeks ago, Himadri (the Argumentative Old Git) wrote about the change in his perception of Bruckner’s symphonies, which he used to love as a young man:

But it struck me recently that it has been a long time since I last listened to a Bruckner symphony. Several years in fact. I couldn’t quite figure out when I stopped listening. I don’t think it was a sudden thing: it just, somehow, happened. So I dusted off the CDs I still have of them… and tried listening again. I started with the 5th. And after some twenty or so minutes, I found myself thinking “Gawd, what a bore!” I tried some of the ones I used to love even more – the 7th, the 8th, and the 9th, the last three. Yes, I got on with them a bit better than I had done with the 5th, but I still frequently found my attention wandering.

I suggested that he give the 6th Symphony another chance. Looking for learned praise of the Sixth, I turned to the liner notes to the record that was probably my first experience of this work. The conductor Georg Tintner (1917-1999) wrote in 1997 (this introduction is omitted in the online version of the notes but can be found in Tintner’s comment to another of his records):

Bruckner’s music touches the innermost recesses of the human soul. In this way he reminds me of Dostoyevsky. This quality is probably the only thing the compulsive gambler and epileptic sinner (according to his own testimony he raped a thirteen-year-old girl) has in common with the celibate “country bumpkin”.

Is it true, this claim in the parentheses? Rather unlikely, from what I’ve read – but I wouldn’t rule out Dostoyevsky’s “trolling” to shock well-meaning liberal souls like Turgenev, possibly in the spirit of his Underground Man:

In his [Heinrich Heine’s] view, Rousseau, for one, definitely lied against himself in his Confessions, deliberately so, out of vanity. I am certain that Heine was right: I understand very well how sometimes, out of sheer vanity, you could pin whole crimes on yourself, and I realize very well what kind of vanity it might be.

Dostoyevsky’s “testimony” first emerged in print as double hearsay. Nikolai N. Strakhov, who had known Dostoyevsky for more than two decades, wrote to Leo Tolstoy in 1883, two years after D.’s death:

Wickedness attracted him and he boasted about it. Viskovatov told me that he had boasted of raping a little girl whom her governess had brought to him in the public baths. Note also that with his animal sensuality he had no taste, no feeling for the beauty and charm of woman.

This translation comes from Jacques Catteau’s Dostoyevsky and the Process of Literary Creation, published in the Cambridge Studies in Russian Literature series. To be closer to the Russian original, I would use “nastiness” or “filth” instead of “wickedness,” “started telling me” instead of “told me,” and “having sex with” rather than “raping.”

Strakhov’s letter was published in 1913, when he, Tolstoy, and Viskovatov had all passed away. Dostoyevsky’s widow, Anna née Snitkina, was alive; together with the writer’s nephew, she prepared (but did not then publish) a vigorous response to Strakhov’s allegations. These were not limited to the statutory rape charge: Dostoyesvky, according to Strakhov, was “bad, envious, promiscuous,” “never repented completely all the mean things he had done,” and wrote his novels out of “self-justification.” Catteau calls Strakhov’s opinions “poison.”

It’s understandable why Catteau, along with other Dostoyevsky scholars, would have harsh words for Strakhov. After Dostoyevsky died in January/February 1881, his widow invited Strakhov and professor Orest F. Miller to study his personal archive. They put together a book, A Biography, Letters and Notebook Entries, which included a preliminary biography by Miller, a memoir by Strakhov and some of Dostoyevsky’s letters and notes. It was published in July 1883 and, naturally, didn’t include anything overtly poisonous. Strakhov’s letter to Tolstoy, dated November 1883, was essentially a private corrective to his deferential memoir:

You must have received the Biography of Dostoyevsky – I am asking for your consideration and indulgence – let me know how you find it. On this occasion, I wish to confess before you. While writing [the memoir], I was struggling; I was fighting a revulsion arising within me, trying to suppress this bad feeling in me.

In Dostoyevsky’s Creative Diaries (1981), Liya M. Rosenblum suggested that Strakhov reacted to something he had seen in Dostoyevsky’s private papers. Yes, there is evidence of the great writer’s duplicity and animus towards his one-time mentor in Dostoyevsky’s notes. It could have led Strakhov to re-assess Dostoyevsky’s personality – a painful revision. But Strakhov’s making up a false charge like that would be inconceivable, especially as Viskovatov was alive and could be contacted for verification.

Pavel A. Viskovatov (1842-1905) was a professor of Russian literature at the University of Dorpat (now Tartu, also known as Yuriev) in 1874-95. A graduate of Leipzig University, Viskovatov published the first detailed biography of Mikhail Lermontov (1891) and prepared the first collected works by the poet. With Apollon Maikov, Viskovatov wrote the libretto for Anton Rubinstein’s opera Demon – based, of course, on Lermontov’s eponymous poem. (Here’s Viskovatov’s doctoral dissertation, a monograph on the German humanist Jakob Wimpfeling, published in 1867. I wonder if he ever met Nietzsche, who was a doctoral student at Leipzig at about the same time.)

It seems that Viskovatov left us a small, confusing piece of information on the matter. Unfortunately, I have not found a link to an academic publication for the quote below. It appears in two non-academic texts, by Boris Sokolov, a fiercely anti-Putinist literary scholar, and by Sergei Rublev (Rublyòv), a nationalist-conservative journalist and the keeper of this invaluable Dostoyevsky website. Both authors refer to the same file and docket number at the Russian National Library. On January 15/28, 1904, Viskovatov wrote in his “album”:

Dostoyevsky was eternally oscillating between wonderful impulses and sordid debauchery (the defilement of a girl with the help of a governess in a bathhouse), and with all that, a terrible remorse and readiness for a noble feat of martyrdom. High altruism and petty envy (of Turgenev in Moscow, where I shared a hotel room with Dostoyevsky). Not for nothing did he use to say: “All the three Karamazovs are there inside me.”

Take out the parenthetical remark, and what remains is an unsurprising assessment. Dostoyevsky’s animus for Turgenev is hardly news to us. (When did they go to Moscow together? Probably June 1880, for the Pushkin feast.) On the most sensitive issue, Viskovatov left no clarity. What did Dostoyevsky tell him, if anything? Was it a rumor? An anecdote? This is a dead end, in all likelihood.

This said, there’s a reasonable chance that Viskovatov’s certainty was rooted in an anecdote. There is a suitable candidate: the apocryphal tale of Dostoyevsky confessing a horrible crime to Turgenev and immediately retracting his confession as a whimsical fantasy. It seems that Turgenev invented this episode – he was a master of the amusing anecdote – around 1880 as a response to Dostoyevsky’s caricaturing him as Karmazinov in The Demons. Turgenev’s tale – assuming it was an invention or gross exaggeration – reduced Dostoyevsky to a Dostoyevsky character. Well done.

4 Comments

  1. I’m glad to have stumbled on this article. I have been disturbed by the Tintner remark about Dostoevsky raping a thirteen year old girl but couldn’t find any further information relating to it. According to the Wikipedia article on Dostoevsky:

    “Some of his childhood experiences found their way into his writings. When a nine-year-old girl had been raped by a drunk, he was asked to fetch his father to attend to her. The incident haunted him, and the theme of the desire of a mature man for a young girl appears in The Devils, The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, and other writings.”

    And then I know that the banned chapter from “Demons” (AKA “The Devils” and “The Possessed”) related the tale of the rape of a ten year old girl. But that was fiction. I assumed that Tintner was getting confused with one of those two episodes. Now I see it was some garbled apocryphal matter from elsewhere. It’s odd how no-one else seems to have enquired into this. And as you noted, Tintner’s claim was dropped from later editions of the Bruckner CDs.

    • Many thanks for this comment. I’m sure that Joseph Frank discusses this allegation in his biography of Dostoevsky, but I have yet to read it (it’s over 2,400 pages long).

  2. Thank you for writing this article. I came across this accusation in some cavalier comment, and, as Dostoyevsky’s work has moulded my mind significantly, I wanted to know if it were true… it’s tempting myth-making to imagine that someone who was both obsessed with evil, and seemed to possess a rather uncanny insight into its logic, would be writing from the seat of a personal demon. It could be so, and would be especially fitting given that his main preoccupation was how the human conscience warps under the pressures of remorse, guilt and fear. But it could also be a fabrication which, as you said, appeals to the whimsy of transforming Dostoyesvky into a caricature of his own making.

    • Thanks for the comment! If we have any evidence at all against Dostoyevsky, it’s his “confession.” Strakhov wrote that he had heard it from Viskovatov. The critic Minsky claimed to have heard it from Turgenev. However, Grigorovich, Dostoyevsky’s one-time friend at the military academy, alleged that Dostoyesky had confessed to him in person. Still, these three accounts differ in important details, such as the place and time of action, so they sound like different versions of a scene from a novel. As W. Somerset Maugham put it, “it was a persistent day-dream which at once fascinated and horrified him.”

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