From the intro to 'Poor Folk' by Dostoyevky


Dostoyevsky's friend and room-mate, D. V. Grigorovich, urged the writer to submit the manuscript of Poor Folk to the poet N. A. Nekrasov for evaluation, in the hope that Nekrasov would in turn show the work to the celebrated, highly influential and much feared literary critic Vissarion Belinsky. The story of how this came about and of what followed is contained in Dostoyevsky's Diary of a Writer for 1877- more than thirty years after -the event:

I was living in St Petersburg, having relinquished my post at the Palace of Engineers a year earlier without really knowing why, with the vaguest and most imprecise ends in view. It was May 1845. At the onset of winter I had suddenly begun Poor Folk, my first tale, having written nothing before that time. Having finished the work, I did not know what to do with it or to whom I should give it. I had absolutely no literary acquaintances whatsoever, except possibly for D. V. Grigorovich; though he too had written nothing before that time apart from a single short article entitled "The Organ-Grin­ders of St Petersburg" in a certain symposium. I believe he was at the time preparing to leave for his country estate for the summer, and was staying temporarily in St Petersburg with Nekrasov. Dropping in to see me one day, he said: 'Bring your manuscript' (at that time he had not yet read it); 'Nekrasov is intending to publish a symposium next year, I'll show it to him.' I brought the manuscript along, saw Nekrasov for a minute or two, and we shook hands with each other. The thought that I had brought my work to him made me feel embarrassed, and I soon left, hardly having exchanged a word with the poet. I had little thought of success, and this 'party of Notes of the Fatherland’, as it was usually described at the time, inspired me with fear. For several years I had been reading Belinsky with enthusiasm, but I found him stern and intimidating, and — 'he'll make a laughing-stock of my Poor Folk,' I sometimes used to think. But only sometimes: I had written the work with passion, with tears, almost — 'can it really be that all those moments which I have experienced with my pen in my hand as I wrote that tale - can it really be that all that is a falsehood, a mirage, an infatuation?' This thought came to me only occasionally, of course, and it would be immediately supplanted by my customary anxiety. On the evening of the day I delivered my manuscript, I made a rather long journey on foot to see one of my old companions; we spent the entire night talking about Dead Souls and reading it together for the umpteenth time. Such meetings were quite common among young men at that time; two or three would gather together, and one of them would say: 'Let's read some Gogol together, gentlemen!' Then they would sit down and read, all night, most likely. In those days a great many young men were instilled with a certain kind of feeling, and seemed to be waiting for something. I did not arrive home until four o'clock in the morning; it was a St Petersburg white night, as bright as day. The weather was fair and warm, and upon returning to my lodgings I did not go to bed, but opened the window and sat near it. Suddenly the doorbell rang, quite unexpectedly, and there were Grigorovich and Nekrasov, rushing to embrace me in complete ecstasy, both of them practically in tears. The evening before they had gone home early, taken my manuscript and begun to read it to see what it was like: 'We'll know after ten pages,' they had said. But, having read ten pages, they decided to read another ten, and then they sat up all night until morning reading aloud, one taking over from the other when either was tired. 'Nekrasov was reading aloud the part about the death of the student,' Grigorovich told me later when we were alone, 'and suddenly I saw him reach the passage where the father runs along behind his son's coffin; his voice broke several times, and suddenly he could restrain himself no longer, slapped his hand down on the manuscript, and said: "Oh, if only I were he!" This about you, and so it went on all night.' When they had finished (seven printers' sheets!) they decided as one man to go to see me immedi­ately: 'It doesn't matter if he's asleep, we'll wake him up — this is more important than sleep!' Later, when I had grown accustomed to Nekrasov's character, I frequently experienced surprise at the memory of that moment: his temperament was so closed - anxious, almost, so cautious and uncom­municative. Thus, at least, he always seemed to me, so that the moment of our first meeting was truly a manifestation of the very deepest emotion. On that occasion they stayed with me for half an hour, and for half an hour we discussed God only knows how many things, understanding each other in half-words, with exclamations, hurrying; we talked about poetry, and about Gogol - with quotations from The Inspector General and Dead Souls - but mostly we discussed Belinsky. 'I shall take your tale to him today, and you will see - I mean, what a man he is, what a man! You will make his acquaint­ance, and you will see what a soul he has!' Nekrasov said enthusiastically, shaking me by the shoulders with both arms. 'Well, now you can sleep - go on, sleep, we'll leave now, and tomorrow you will come and see us!' As though I could have slept after their visit! What ecstasy, what success, and, most important of all, the feeling was dear to me, I remember it clearly: 'Some people have success, they are praised, greeted, congratulated, yet these men came running in tears, at four o'clock in the morning to wake me up because this was more important than sleep . . . How wonderful!' That was what I was thinking; how could I have slept?

Nekrasov took the manuscript to Belinsky that very same day. He held Belinsky in veneration and, I believe, loved him all his life more than anyone else. In those days Nekrasov had not yet written anything on the scale he was soon to achieve, a year later. Nekrasov turned up in St Petersburg at the age of about sixteen, completely alone.

His writing career began from practically the same age. Of his friendship with Belinsky I know little, except that Belinsky divined his talent from the very beginning and may have exercised a powerful influence on the tenor of his poetry. In spite of all Nekrasov's youthfulness and the difference in their ages, even at that time there probably passed between them moments and words of the kind that leave their mark for ever and bind two people irrevocably to each other. 'A new Gogol has appeared!' Nekrasov shouted, as he entered Belinsky's study holding the manuscript of Poor Folk. 'With you, Gogols grow like mushrooms,' Belinsky observed severely, but accepted the manuscript all the same. When Nekrasov called back to see him in the evening, Belinsky greeted him 'in a state of downright excite­ment': 'Bring him here, bring him here at once!'

And lo and behold (this must have been on the following day), I was taken to see him. I remember that I was most struck by his external appearance, by his nose, his forehead; for some reason I had imagined him to be quite different - 'that terrible, that fearsome critic'. He greeted me in a manner that was thoroughly solemn and reserved. 'Oh well, I suppose that's the way it has to be,’ I thought; but it seemed that a minute had not passed, before everything was transformed: his solemnity was not that of an important personage, a great critic greeting a 22-year-old beginning writer, but was instead prompted, as it were, by the feelings he wanted to pour out to me as soon as possible, and by the solemn words he was in extreme haste to address: to me. He began to speak ardently, with burning eyes: 'Do you understand?' he asked me in his customary falsetto. 'Do you understand what you have written?' He always shouted in a falsetto when he was in the grip of powerful emotions. 'You have merely described it indirectly, with your artist's intuition; but have you pondered on the meaning of this terrible truth to which you have directed us? It cannot be that with your twenty years you can have understood this. Why, this unfortunate clerk of yours -why, he has worked so hard in the service and brought himself to such a point that he does not even dare to consider himself unhappy, out of humility, and views the slightest complaint as practically tantamount to free-thinking, does not even dare to acknowledge his right to unhappiness, and, when a kind man, his general, gives him a hundred rubles, he is completely shattered, annihilated with amazement that "Their Excellency" could have taken pity on one such as himself - not "His Excellency", but "Their Excellency" as it is expressed in your tale.* And that torn-off button, that moment when he kisses the general's hand - why here is no longer compassion for this, unfortunate man, but horror, horror! In this very gratitude of his there is horror! It is a tragedy! You have touched the very heart of the matter, you have pointed to the essential in one single flash. We publi­cists and critics merely reason, we attempt to elucidate all this in words, while you, an artist, represent the very essence in a single line, a single instantaneous image, so vivid that one feels one could touch it with one's hand, that the most unreflecting reader could instantly understand everything! There is, the secret of creativity, there is the truth of art! There is devotion to the artist's truth! Truth has been revealed and proclaimed to you as an artist, you have inherited it as a gift; so value your gift and remain loyal to it and you will be a great writer! . . .'

All this he said to me on that occasion. All this he later said to many other people besides, people who are still alive now and are able to bear testimony that it was so. I left his house in a state of intoxication. I stopped at the corner, looked up at the sky, at the bright day, at the people going past, and felt with my entire being that a solemn moment had occurred in my life, that my life had been subjected to a change of fortune that would affect it for ever, that something entirely new had begun, but such a thing as I had not envisioned even in my wildest dreams. (I was a terrible dreamer in those days.) 'Am I really so great?' I wondered in embarrassment and a kind of timid ecstasy. Oh, don't laugh, never again did I think I was great, but then - how could I endure what I had been told? 'Oh, I will be worthy of these praises, and what men, what men!' I thought. 'There are men for you! I shall endeavour to earn their praise, I shall make every effort to become as noble as they are, I will be "loyal"! Oh, how frivolous I am! If Belinsky only knew what worthless, shameful things there are in me! Yet people still say that these litterateurs are proud and vainglorious. While the fact is that these men are to be found only in Russia, they are alone, but they, they alone possess the truth, and truth and goodness will always be victorious and triumphant over sin and evil, we shall prevail; Oh, let us go to them, with them!'

All these things passed through my mind; I remember that moment with the fullest clarity. And never subsequently have I been able to forget it. It was the most heavenly moment in my whole life. When I was serving my term of penal servitude, the mere recollection of it was enough to keep my spirits up. Even now I remember it each time with ecstasy.

The rest of the story surrounding Poor Folk and the beginning of Dostoyevsky's career as a professional writer has been told by his biographers, and is too well-known to need recounting.

* In the final version of Poor Folk, Dostoyevsky used the form 'His Excellency', though he did preserve the plural in the verbs, an effect impossible to translate into English.