Mythical meeting of literary titans

The story of Dickens baring his soul Russian-style to a visiting Dostoevsky looks to be as invented as any of their respective novels

The influence of Charles Dickens on the novels of Dostoevsky seems fairly evident. In his study of the Russian writer’s work Joseph Frank recounts the impression made on Dostoevsky by reading Dickens’ novels during his last years in a Siberian prison camp. In fact, the imprisoned former naval cadets that lent him The Pickwick Papers and David Copperfield (the only titles we know he read then) were surprised that he was otherwise uninterested in borrowing from their collection of French novels by writers like Alexandre Dumas and Eugène Sue.

Yet for the last ten years there has been an assumption that the connection between the two writers was even closer.

In two recent biographies of Dickens as well as various academic articles over the past decade there have been accounts of a meeting between the two writers that took place in Dickens’ London office in 1962 during Dostoevsky’s visit to England. Dostoevsky apparently recalled the meeting in a letter to his friend and doctor S.D. Yanovsky 16 years after the meeting took place. This letter was translated in a 2002 article in The Dickensian by Stephanie Harvey and reads as follows:

“He told me that all the good simple people in his novels, Little Nell, even the holy simpletons like Barnaby Rudge, are what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was (or rather, what he found in himself), his cruelty, his attacks of causeless enmity towards those who were helpless and looked to him for comfort, his shrinking from those whom he ought to love, being used up in what he wrote. There were two people in him, he told me: one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite. From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters, from the one who feels as a man ought to feel I try to live my life. Only two people? I asked.”

It would be astonishing how much Dickens sounds like Dostoevsky were it not for the increasingly obvious fact that this meeting most likely never happened.

On the front page of their website The Dickensian has issued a caution about the account of the meeting,  pointing out the fact that no one has been able to locate the original letter nor the journal it was supposedly published in. Oddly, the letter isn’t included in any of the writer’s complete correspondence.

According to an article about Russians in London on her very interesting website, lecturer at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in the UK Sarah J. Young writes that the journal the letter was supposedly published in, the 1987 Bulletin of the Kazakh SSR Academy of Sciences, doesn’t seem to exist at all.

It’s not at all clear who did the fooling, but a lot of people have been fooled. Go to the October 24th 2011 New York Times review of the two Dickens biographies, a review written by Michiko Kakutani no less, and you are thrown right into this apocryphal encounter of literary titans. Granted, the Times added a tepid correction eight days later, concluding “While others have also written of such a meeting and of a letter in which Dostoyevsky was said to have described it, some scholars have questioned the authenticity of the letter and whether the meeting ever occurred.”

A recent article in The Irish Times tells of the latest Dickens biographer Claire Tomalin’s fruitless attempts to verify the story of the meeting and her realization that she and others have been the victim of “a hoax.” They even offer an official sounding term for it – “biomythography” (at least it sounds more official than calling it a hoax).

It makes you long for the good old days of satisfying and accurately reported encounters between literary greats such as the legendary meeting of Proust and Joyce in which the two geniuses only complained about their various ailments, or testily told each other they had never read each other’s work, or as one version has it, Proust asked Joyce if he liked truffles and the Irish writers said he did (this version is contradicted by another in which the only word Joyce said to Proust is “no”).

Photos – 1) London’s Crystal Palace in 1851, which struck Dostoevsky on his later visit as a symbol of Western decadence, 2) Dickens with his Characters

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Categories: Literary Controversy


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  1. Literary roundup: Russian writers in London and the literature of non-resilience | literalab - 06/04/2012

    […] Literary roundup: Russian writers in London and the literature of non-resilience Having just published an article about Russian writers in Prague in the ‘20s (not to be confused with Prague in the ‘90s, which was supposedly Paris in the ‘20s as Paris in the ‘90s was too expensive to be anything but Paris in the ‘90s) I wanted to point out this broad historical look at Russian writers in London, which references Sarah Young’s excellent website and its map of Russian areas of note in the English metropolis.  The article even touches on the imagined traces of Russian writers such as the 1979 book Tolstoy in London, which apparently grew out of Tolstoy’s two-week visit to the city in 1861 and appears to be more balanced towards the London side of its title than the Tolstoy side. The article also mentions the probably made-up encounter between Dostoevsky and Dickens that I have also written about before. […]

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