Monday, April 15, 2013

Did Dickens meet Dostoevsky? -- Opinions differ

Ross MacDonald books often start with a family that seems perfect except for one element out of place (like an angry, disturbed child) but when the hero starts to tug on that one thread the entire illusion falls apart.

University of California Berkeley Prof. Eric Naiman has come close to the scholarly equivalent of a Ross MacDonald novel in his recent essay in the Times literary supplement (via LGM). He finds one thread out of place, in this case an unlikely meeting between two famous novelists.By tugging on that thread Naiman uncovers a hoax of truly incredible scale and complexity. (Literally incredible at first. I Googled a half dozen of Naiman's facts before I decided he wasn't the one playing games.)

You really need to read the whole thing for yourself but one section near the beginning was particularly relevant to some of our recent discussions.

Late in 2011, Michiko Kakutani opened her New York Times review of Claire Tomalin’s biography of Charles Dickens with “a remarkable account” she had found in its pages. In London for a few days in 1862, Fyodor Dostoevsky had dropped in on Dickens’s editorial offices and found the writer in an expansive mood. In a letter written by Dostoevsky to an old friend sixteen years later, the writer of so many great confession scenes depicted Dickens baring his creative soul:

“All the good simple people in his novels, Little Nell, even the holy simpletons like Barnaby Rudge, are what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was (or rather, what he found in himself), his cruelty, his attacks of causeless enmity toward those who were helpless and looked to him for comfort, his shrinking from those whom he ought to love, being used up in what he wrote. There were two people in him, he told me: one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite. From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters, from the one who feels as a man ought to feel I try to live my life. ‘Only two people?’ I asked.”

I have been teaching courses on Dostoevsky for over two decades, but I had never come across any mention of this encounter. Although Dostoevsky is known to have visited London for a week in 1862, neither his published letters nor any of the numerous biographies contain any hint of such a meeting. Dostoevsky would have been a virtual unknown to Dickens. It isn’t clear why Dickens would have opened up to his Russian colleague in this manner, and even if he had wanted to, in what language would the two men have conversed? (It could only have been French, which should lead one to wonder about the eloquence of a remembered remark filtered through two foreign tongues.) Moreover, Dostoevsky was a prickly, often rude interlocutor. He and Turgenev hated each other. He never even met Tolstoy. Would he have sought Dickens out? Would he then have been silent about the encounter for so many years, when it would have provided such wonderful fodder for his polemical journalism?

Several American professors of Russian literature wrote to the New York Times in protest, and eventually a half-hearted online retraction was made, informing readers that the authenticity of the encounter had been called into question, but in the meantime a second review of Tomalin’s biography had appeared in the Times, citing the same passage. Now it was the novelist David Gates gushing that he would trade a pile of Dickens biographies for footage of that tête-à-tête. While agreeing with Tomalin’s characterization of this quotation as “Dickens’s most profound statement about his inner life”, he found its content less astonishing than she: “it’s only amazing because it’s the image-conscious Dickens himself coming out and saying what anybody familiar with his work and his life has always intuited”.

Shortly thereafter, the Times website appended to the online version of Gates’s review the same cautionary note that had already been attached to Kakutani’s. But on January 15, 2012, the paper’s “Sunday Observer” section published yet a third article on Dickens that quoted from Dostoevsky’s letter. (The same online disclaimer was soon appended to this piece as well.) The newspaper’s collective unconscious was unable to give the story up. It demands retelling, and by now Dickens and Dostoevsky can be found meeting all over the web. Their conversation appeals to our fancy while, as Gates realized, comforting us with a reaffirmation of what we already know. Moreover, this reassuring familiarity applies not only to Dickens, but also to Dostoevsky. The man who asks “Only two?” is a writer who already knows what Mikhail Bakhtin would eventually write about him, who is presciently aware of his late-twentieth-century canonization as the inventor of literary polyphony.
I wondered if Naiman was being overly harsh when he called the retraction 'half-hearted.' He wasn't:
Correction: October 29, 2011 
The Books of The Times review on Tuesday, about “Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist” by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, and “Charles Dickens” by Claire Tomalin, recounted an anecdote in Ms. Tomalin’s book in which Dostoyevsky told of meeting Dickens. While others have also written of such a meeting and of a letter in which Dostoyevsky was said to have described it, some scholars have questioned the authenticity of the letter and whether the meeting ever occurred.
I know I've been harping on this but there's a big and important issue with modern journalism's indifference to getting the facts right. The difficulty involved in checking a story has decreased by orders of magnitude and yet, even at our best papers, Twenty-first Century reporting is often less accurate than Twentieth Century work. Part of the problem is he belief that you're in the clear when you publish something that obviously wrong if you later add a weaselly some-people-disagree disclaimer at the bottom.

But enough scolding. Go read the Naiman piece. You will not find anything else like it.

1 comment:

  1. Mark:

    It's worse than that. I (occasionally) write for the Times and I can't get them to run retractions of flat-out factual errors they've run on their op-ed pages. It burns me up.