A Portrait of Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Vasili Perov, 1872)
2006 has been declared the Year of Dostoyevsky by way of honouring the nineteenth century Russian writer on the 185th anniversary of his birth. Although Fyodor Dostoyevsky lived only sixty years, his was a full life. He experienced fame, but also poverty, sickness, and great sufferings and love too. The great love…
Love brought Dostoyevsky both exquisite torture and exquisite happiness. His first wife died slowly of consumption. After her death, and the death of an elder brother he loved dearly, the writer felt completely alone. The women he wanted to be with would have nothing of him. It was only at the age of 46 that he met a girl of 20 who had just buried her father, a petty clerk, and had just finished secondary school.
When the two met in 1866, Dostoyevsky was working on two novels, Crime and Punishment and The Gambler. To speed up work on the second novel, he had invited a stenographer to his home. That was how Anna Snitkina put in her appearance. Later, she would recall her first impression of the writer in these words, “Nothing can convey the pitiful appearance of Fyodor Mikhailovich when I met him for the first time. He seemed confused, anxious, helpless, lonely, irritable, and almost ill”.
To check the girl’s knowledge of Russian grammar, Dostoyevsky dictated a letter rather quickly. Finding several mistakes, and feeling he could establish no rapport with the girl, he asked her to come again that evening. This time, the writer was in a lighter mood, and noticed that she was quite likable. Gradually, the feelings on both sides became warmer, and the writer grew more talkative, describing events in his life. Anna liked his simplicity and sincerity, but she felt terribly sorry for him. Without realising it at first, she fell in love.
Dostoyevsky and his stenographer worked together for several hours every day. He would write The Gambler by hand at night, and then dictate to her what he had written. Anna would take her stenographic notes home, write them out in long hand, and the next day Dostoyevsky would correct them. During breaks in their work, they would pour out their hearts to one another, and soon grew so attracted to one another during the four weeks of joint work that they were both upset when the novel was finished.
Dostoyevsky was determined not to lose touch with the woman who attracted him at first for her kindness, and who in the course of the four weeks had become and assistant and friend in his creative work, something so very much important to him. Could he find a better companion? He felt he could not.
Once, the writer expounded to Anna on an idea for a new novel in which an elderly and sick artist falls in love with a girl by the name Anna. He asked her if she thought that it was possible for a young girl to fall in love with such a person. Anna said she did because the main thing in a person was his heart, not his appearance. Dostoyevsky said nothing, and then, after a short hesitation, he said, “Put yourself in her place. Imagine that this artist, that is I, confessed that he loved you and asked you to be his wife. What would you say?”
This was unexpected and rather embarrassing for Anna. However, she finally replied, “I would say that I loved you and would love you to the end of my days”.
Anna became Dostoyevsky’s wife, the mother of his children, and the source of such great happiness as people rarely receive. Certainly, no other Russian writer ever experienced such joy. Anna worshiped her husband. Later, she would write in her memoirs, “I would wake up in the morning and kiss his feet… He was the sunshine of my life… He was my idol, I worshiped him”. Many years after his death, she explained the secret of her happy marriage, saying that friendship often rests not on a similarity of characters, but rather on difference. Anna and Dostoyevsky were entirely different in mental and emotional make-up. However, she never interfered in his internal life, never tried to influence him, or change him in any way. Her attitude gave the writer a sense of freedom and at the same time a feeling of confidence in his companion. This double foundation underpinned the happiness of their family.
27 November 2006
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