I wrote this post a couple of years ago when the American magazine POETS & WRITERS was celebrating its 40th birthday by publishing articles from its archive.
I was intrigued by Tobias Wolff’s appreciation of Raymond Carver, published shortly after the writer’s tragically early death from lung cancer at the age of 50.
He used to love telling the story about Dostoevsky’s last-minute reprieve, and I always had the sense he was talking about himself, too. He took nothing for granted. Every new day, every moment with his friends, every new story and poem was an astonishment to him.
I was a bit vague about what happened to Dostoevsky so I looked it up. Here is a pared down version of events. I am sure Carver told a better tale.
Dostoevsky’s writing career began in the 1840s while he was a civil servant. His first novel Poor People was a great success, but his second,The Double, wasn’t. In November 1849 he was convicted of plotting against the Russian state and on December 22, 1849, was led out before a firing squad.
Imagine the sound of soldiers’ feet. Imagine the bitter cold of the air and the feel of the shovel as it bit into the hard earth. He was 28 years and he was going to die.
At the last moment he was reprieved.
He spent the next four years in a Siberian labour camp and after that he served as a soldier on the Mongolian frontier – which can’t have been an easy tour of duty. Sixteen years after he thought he was going to be executed he published Crime and Punishment, then came The Possessed .
In 1880 he published The Brothers Karamazov and died knowing that it had had won popular acclaim.
I don’t suppose Dostoevsky lived every moment of the extra 31 years that were given to him with joy in his heart. I don’t suppose he woke every morning with a burst of explosive emotion because he was alive to see the light.