BOOK REVIEW / Now the terrible fist is raised again: Gabriel Josipovici is enthralled by the journals of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, our contemporary - A Writer's diary: Fyodor Dostoyevsky Tr. Kenneth Lantz: Quartet pounds 25

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Here is part of a meditation on cruelty, and its pervasive effects on society: 'Directly across the street from the inn was the station building. Suddenly a courier's troika came flying up to the station entrance and a government courier leapt out; he had on a full-dress coat with the little narrow flaps on the back that were worn then, and he wore a large tricornered hat with white, yellow, and, I think, green plumes. The courier was a tall, extremely stout, and strong fellow with a purplish face. He ran into the station and, no doubt, knocked back a glass of vodka there. I recall that our driver said such couriers always drink a glass of vodka at every station, since without it they couldn't stand up to 'the punishment they have to take'. In the meantime a new troika of fresh, spirited horses rolled up to the station and the coachman, a young lad of 20 or so, wearing a red shirt and carrying his coat on his arm, jumped onto the seat. The courier at once flew out of the inn, ran down the steps, and got into the carriage. Before the coachman could even start the horses, the courier stood up and, silently, without any word whatsoever, raised his huge right fist and dealt a painful blow straight down on the back of the coachman's neck. The coachman jolted forward, raised his whip, and lashed the shaft horse with all his might. The horses started off with a rush, but this did nothing to appease the courier. He was not angry; he was acting according to his own plan, from something preconceived and tested through many years of experience; and the terrible fist was raised again, and again it struck the coachman's neck, and then again and again; and so it continued until the troika disappeared from sight.'

No one but Dostoyevsky could have written that. With that first 'suddenly' and the troika flying up to the station entrance everything is in violent motion, and though it is only a memory - a child's memory - that only serves to make everything more vivid for us: the courier and his dress, the assembling of the new team, the arrival of the new young coachman and then the terrible silent premeditated blow and the unbearable horror of its endless repetition until horses, coachman, courier and steadily moving huge right fist pass out of our sight.

As in Kafka, the detail is so precise and the scene so sharply etched that we feel it must be a dream or an allegory, though it seems to be only itself; but the physicality of the episode, the sense we have, by the end, that it is on our own necks that the fist has been falling, allied to a deep compassion for those - the coachman, the horses - who are suffering, could only belong to Dostoyevsky. We tend to take our great writers too much for granted. Having read them once we let them settle down comfortably in the recesses of our consciousness. It takes an event like the first translation into English of a major work to jolt us back into an awareness of the fact that no new work published this year is likely to match it for depth and power and that perhaps we should go back and reread the old masters more often than we do.

Of course, Dostoyevsky is exceptional in that his works feel as modern today as they did to his contemporaries 100 years ago, they feel in fact much more modern than most of what is published today. Partly this has to do with the openness of his writing, its extraordinary fluidity and multiplicity of perspectives, which mark him off from his great contemporaries. But as the publication of this volume brings out with startling vividness, perhaps Dostoyevsky is actually becoming our contemporary once again, as Russia, which has lain frozen for almost a century, starts to thaw again.

Since at least 1865, Dostoyevsky had been dreaming of communicating with his readers far more directly than he could do through his novels. For him such communication was vital: his work lived off immediacy and the preacher in him wanted desperately to influence his countrymen. In 1873 his wish came partly true when he was invited to contribute a regular column dealing with any subject he liked to The Citizen. Then in 1876 he got what he really wanted, a whole journal to himself, to be published monthly. Though he would soon be plunging into The Brothers Karamazov, he kept up A Writer's Diary until his death in 1881.

Till now English readers have had to make do with a single volume made up of extracts from the Diary, organised thematically. But as Gary Saul Morson demonstrates in his excellent book-length introduction to this volume, that inevitably forced one to misread. What Dostoyevsky was looking for in his fiction and non-fiction alike were forms which would allow him to skip from subject to subject, loop back to earlier topics, let go of something if he got tired of it and let something else develop if he suddenly felt the need. Yet the forms of his novels are only loose and baggy in comparison with those organised on quite different principles, as Shakespeare's tragedies are only loose and baggy when compared to Racine's.

Like Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky is merely organising his work in a different way, more mythically, more gothically, or more in terms of variation rather than sonata form - one can take one's pick of epithet. And the opportunities given him by magazine publication fitted in beautifully with this. He can write in turn about the latest trial, the latest scandal, the latest book, the Russian Soul, the Eastern Question, then slip in a short story, take up a real or invented reader's letter and double back to an earlier theme. And it is extraordinary how many of his themes will strike a chord in an English audience in 1994, for he deals with child abuse, with the way children become criminals, with the Bosnian question, with the attitude of the Western powers to Russia and of Russia to her Muslim enclaves and neighbours. And everything he has to say is illuminating.

Unfortunately not always for the right reasons. Open as he is to suffering, especially among the poor and animals and children, there are times when he becomes as long-winded and shrill as some of his own obsessed characters. On the Eastern Question, about which he writes at length, his views seem remarkably similar to those of Vladimir Zhirinovsky: the evil Muslims are killing and torturing brave and innocent Orthodox Slavs (for Dostoyevsky there are no others), urged on by a cynical West led by that foul insect, the Jew Disraeli. Russia has to intervene, not out of greed but so that the Spirit of Christ may triumph once more and Orthodoxy may rule over the lands that are rightfully its own in preparation for its conquest of the whole world.

But passages like the one I began with more than make up for this sort of thing, and even these uneasy sentiments can help us to understand a little better what passions are being stirred up in Russia today. This is an enthralling book and everyone connected with its publication is to be congratulated. Let's have the second volume soon, please.

(Photograph omitted)