A First Encounter With Dostoevsky

A First Encounter With Dostoevsky

MY FIRST CONTACT with Dostoevsky’s novels was rather belated, I am ashamed to say. It came only when I was twenty-two. And what is more, it was in a sense imposed on me by circumstances. The conditions of my undertaking the reading of Dostoevsky were anything but ordinary—so suitable, in fact, for the understanding of this exceptional writer that it may be worth while to give a brief account of them.

To be precise, I happened just then to be living—it proved to be for two months only—in the “Carcel Modelo” [model prison] of Barcelona. The simple explanation is that Spain was at that time ruled by the military directorate presided over by Primo de Rivera, whose police found my presence in the country—obviously unjustifiable on touristic grounds— a matter of excessive concern. A hostile critic might deduce from this that if I was behind in my reading, I nevertheless displayed a certain precocity in the field of “political delinquency.”

When I was taken there, early in the year 1923, the Barcelona prison was packed with Catalans, syndicalists, socialists, communists and anarchists. What magnificent men they were! In no other country in the world have I known men as admirable as those Spanish “subversives.”

The “Carcel Modelo” was indeed, in certain respects, a truly model prison. Among the anarchists confined there, several had been condemned to death for acts of terrorism. I hope to have the time, some day, to tell the stories of certain of those men. Especially vivid in my memory remains a very young painter, still under age, with whom I had a chance to become friends, thanks to the kindness of the prison doctor, himself incarcerated for “separatist ideas.” The administration, on discovering a doctor among the prisoners, had seized the opportunity, for reasons of economy, to dismiss the former incumbent, a physician from the outside.

I should like, before coming to my discovery of Dostoevsky, to say a few more words about that young painter who was condemned to die. He himself was in a purely Dostoevskian situation.

After his sentence (in Spain execution is by the garrote—that is, strangulation), an eminent Catholic jurist had ventured to state publicly that no Spanish legal code, including the military, sanctioned the death penalty for minors. Had the judges forgotten this? Public opinion was aroused, and as a consequence the execution was postponed. The military men in power were uncertain how to proceed. Were they to lose face because of a legality? In the end it was rumored that respect for the law had prevailed: they would wait, and execute the guilty man when he was twenty-one. (Notwithstanding that the offense with which he was charged had been committed during his minority.)

The doomed young man had lost nothing of his good humor: he amused himself by drawing caricatures of Spanish generals, invariably flanked by...

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