Monday, August 10, 2015

Reading Dostoyesky: Thoughts and quotes from "Notes from a Dead House" (translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky)

One of Dostoyevsky's earlier novels, "Notes from a Dead House" was recently released in a new translation by a husband and wife couple who have been steadily and heroically working through Dostoyevsky's works for us English-speaking readers. The novel is a fictional reflection on the four years the author himself spent in a Siberian prison camp. As with all Dostoyevsky works, it is brilliant and filled with heart and incredible insight into the human condition and the spiritual depths that flood every moment of our existence. The following are some of my favorite quotes from the novel:

"I may be mistaken, but it seems to me that you can know a person by his laughter, and if from some first encounter you like the laughter of some completely unknown person, you may boldly say that he is a good man." - p. 38

About a Muslim prisoner: "Nurra came up to me and gave me a friendly pat on the shoulder. Then again and again, and so it went on for three days. On his part, I guessed and later learned, this meant that he was sorry for me, that he felt how hard this first acquaintance with prison was for me, that he wanted to show me his friendship, cheer me up, and assure me of his protection. Kind and naive Nurra!" - p. 60

"Whenever I came back from work, the first thing I did before going anywhere, was to hurry behind the barracks with Sharik the dog leaping ahead of me and squealing for joy, to hug his head, to kiss it, kiss it, with some sort of sweet and at the same time tormentingly bitter feeling wringing my heart. And I remember it was even pleasant for me to think, as if flaunting my own hurt to myself, that now I had one being left in the world who loved me and was attached to me, my friend, my only friend - my faithful dog Sharik." - p. 94

"Every convict feels that he is not at home, but as if on a visit." - p. 96

"Chekunov twisted it somehow strangely, bared his teeth, and nodding quickly, as if accidentally , towards the dead man, said to the sergeant: "He had a mother, too!" - and walked away. I remember it was as if those words pierced me... and what made him speak them and how did they enter his head?" - p. 180

"To acknowledge one's guilt and ancestral sin is little, very little; it is necessary to break with them completely. And that cannot be done quickly." - p. 197

"He was of an ardent and rapturous character, like all puppies, who from joy at seeing their master would squeal, bark, come to lick his face, and are ready to lose control of all their other feelings in front of you: 'Proprieties mean nothing, if only you see my rapture!'" - p. 243

"Here in prison everyone was a dreamer - and that jumped into your eyes." - p. 250

The book ends with the appendix "The Peasant Marey" in which Dostoyevsky tells the story of being a child and running away from the fear of a wolf in the woods and being comforted by Marey, one of his father's peasant workers, who showed a deep compassion and regard for the comfort and spiritual well-being of a child for whom he very well might have felt resentment. This appendix wraps up the message of the novel nicely - the house may be dead, but, inside, each of us is painfully, inexorably, unalterably alive. Those who live out of an inward source of true compassion and love-filled hope shine out as lights to all of us looking for the day when our visit ends and we find ourselves finally back home.

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