Reborn Into a New Form (1849)

A second life? To live again? Fyodor Dostoevsky, famously, survived the uncanny pantomime of his own execution, and found himself, on the other side, “reborn into a new form”. These were Dostoevsky’s words, written to his brother in the wake of the ordeal. Here below, those very words are themselves given a kind of second life: in this excerpt from Dostoevsky in Love: An Intimate Life (published earlier this year), Alex Christofi stitches primary source excerpts into a “reconstructed memoir” — the memoir that Dostoevsky himself never wrote. The dream of literature made entirely of quotations reaches back across more than a century of cut-ups, remixes, centos, and collages: from Octavian Esanu’s brilliant JFL, What Does "Why" Mean? (2002), through Guy Debord’s Mémoires (1958), and over the mountain of Walter Benjamin’s landmark “Arcades” project (1927–1940). In 1990, Richard Price’s pioneering history of slave rebellion in Suriname, Alabi’s World (1990), used four different typefaces, one for each of the “voices” being woven into a single work. Here, in this re-collected episode, Christofi, too, is weaving: weaving Dostoevsky’s autobiographical fiction together with his fantastic life. — D. Graham Burnett, Series Editor

Published

November 10, 2021

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Drawing by B. Pokrovsky of Dostoevsky's mock execution at Semonovsky Square, 1849 — Source.

Today, 22nd of December, after eight months of solitary confinement, I was taken with five others to the Semyonovsky Parade Ground.1

Fyodor’s friend, Sergei Durov, was standing next to him. There were three posts stuck in the ground.

“Surely we cannot be executed”, Fyodor whispered. Durov indicated a cart nearby, on which there appeared to be several coffins covered with cloth.2

Fyodor turned to his other companion, Nikolai Speshnev. “We shall be with Christ”, he muttered in French. But Speshnev only smiled and pointed at the ground.

“A handful of dust”, he replied.3

The sentence of death was read to all of us, we were told to kiss the cross, our swords were broken over our heads, and we were put into white shirts.4 Then the first three — Petrashevsky, Mombelli, and Grigoriev — were led up, tied to the pillar for execution, and caps were pulled over their eyes.5 A company of several soldiers was drawn up against each post. I was in the second batch and there was no more than a minute left for me to live.6 I wanted to understand as quickly and clearly as possible how it was that I was living and in moments I would simply be a thing. Not far off, there was a church, and the gilt roof was glittering in the bright sunshine. I stared persistently at the roof and the sunshine. I could not tear myself away from it.7

I had not expected that the execution would take place for at least a week yet — I had counted on all the formalities taking some time — but they got my papers ready quickly. At five in the morning I was asleep, and it was cold and dark. The governor came in and touched my shoulder gently, and I started.

“What is it?” I asked.

“The execution is fixed for ten o’clock”, he said.

I was only just awake, and couldn’t believe it at first — I began to ask about my papers. But by the time I was really awake and saw the truth of the matter, I fell silent and stopped arguing, as I could see there was no point. The governor watched me. All I could say was, “It’s very hard to bear — it’s so sudden”.

Those last three or four hours pass by in the preparations. You see the priest, have your breakfast — coffee, meat, even a little wine. The priest was there the whole time, talking.8 You get in the cart and the houses recede — but that’s nothing. There is still the second turning. There is still a whole street, and however many houses have been passed, there are still many left.9 And so to the very end, to the very scaffold. At the most terrible moments of a man’s life, he will forget anything but some roof that has flashed past him on the road, or a jackdaw on a cross.10

The most terrible part of the punishment is not the bodily pain, but the certain knowledge that in an hour, then in ten minutes, then in half a minute, your soul must quit your body and you will no longer be a man, and that this is certain — certain! That’s the real point: the certainty of it. A murder by sentence is far more dreadful than a murder committed by a criminal. If you are attacked at night, in a dark wood, you hope that you may escape until the very moment of your death. But in an execution, that last hope is taken away, and in its place there is only the terrible certainty that you cannot possibly escape death. It is the most dreadful anguish there is. Our Lord Christ spoke of this anguish. No one should be treated this way — no one.

The priest, who seemed a wise man, stopped talking when we reached the drill grounds, and only held the little silver cross for me to kiss. My legs felt feeble and helpless, and I felt a choking in my throat. I had that terrible feeling of being absolutely powerless to move, though I hadn’t lost my wits. The priest pressed the cross to my lips, and I kissed it greedily, as if it might be useful to me afterwards.11 In that last minute, I remembered my brother; only then I realised how I love him!

Finally the retreat was sounded, and those tied to the pillar were led back, and it was announced to us that His Imperial Majesty had granted us our lives.

***

My life begins again today. I will receive four years’ hard labour, and after that will serve as a private. I see that life is everywhere, life in ourselves. There will be people near me, and to be among people — that is the purpose of life, I have realised. The idea has entered my flesh and blood. Yes, it’s true! I have beheaded my lofty, creative, spiritual self. There are many ideas I haven’t yet written down. They will lacerate me, it is true! But I have my heart and flesh and blood which can also love, and suffer, and desire, and remember, and this, after all, is life.

When I look back and think how much time has been wasted in vain, how much time lost in delusions, in errors, in idleness, in ignorance of how to live, how I did not value time, how often I sinned against myself — my heart bleeds. Life is a gift, life is happiness, each minute might have been an age of it. Youth is wasted on the young! Now, I am being reborn into a new form.12

Alex Christofi is Editorial Director at Transworld Publishers and the author of Glass (2015), Let Us Be True (2017), and Dostoevsky in Love (2021). His essays and reviews have been published in the Guardian, New Humanist, Prospect, The White Review, The Brixton Review of Books and The London Magazine.

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