Notes from A DEAD HOUSE

NOTESFROMA DEADHOUSE

According to The New Yorker, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky are” the premier Russian -to-English translators of the era.” 

In April 1849, Fyodor Dostoevsky was arrested for his participation in an underground socialist ring. After his death sentence was commuted at the last minute, he spent four years doing hard labor in Siberia. The classic penal memoir that resulted is the latest to be translated by the acclaimed Pevear and Volokhonsky. The work is a loosely fictionalized account of Dostoevsky’s experience, framed by the voice of a fictional editor who acquires the papers of Alexander Petrovich Goryanchikov, an exiled nobleman who suffered 10 years of hard labor for the murder of his wife. Yet the book is organized as a collection of thematic sketches, rather than chronologically—”First Impressions,” “Christmas,” “The Hospital,” etc.—which are drawn from Dostoevsky’s memories and notes, written in prison and entrusted to a medical assistant who returned them upon his release. The notes are equal parts an anthropology of prison (how to smuggle vodka in a bull’s intestines, the lyrics to prison folk songs, biographical sketches of various condemned men, and an account of the ecology of prison politics) and equal parts philosophy, meditating on the use of prison as punishment, the psychology of an executioner (“It is hard to conceive how far human nature can be distorted”), and a nobleman’s perennial otherness within a prison’s walls (“I would never be accepted as a comrade”). Dostoevsky unflinchingly describes the dehumanization of prison, such as the way fetters were not even lifted from the dying, but also conveys how the flame of humanity survives even under such conditions, allowing cleverness and compassion to endure.

Publishers Weekly Review

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