Books

Book Review: Memoirs from the House of the Dead by Fyodor Dostoevsky

The House of the DeadTitle: Memoirs from the House of the Dead
Author: Fyodor Dostoevsky
Translator: Jessie Coulson 
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Date: 2008 (1862)
Genre: Semi-autobiographical / Philosophical Fiction / Classics
Summary: In this almost documentary account of his own experiences of penal servitude in Siberia, Dostoevsky describes the physical and mental suffering of the convicts, the squalor and the degradation, in relentless detail. The intricate procedure whereby the men strip for the bath without removing their ten-pound leg-fetters is an extraordinary tour de force, compared by Turgenev to passages from Dante’s Inferno. Terror and resignation – the rampages of a psychopath, the brief serene interlude of Christmas Day – are evoked by Dostoevsky, writing several years after his release, with a strikingly uncharacteristic detachment.


This was my Classics Club Spin #25 book!

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I don’t really know what to say about this book.

The House of the Dead was bleak and dark, full of descriptions of murder and philosophical thoughts about prison and ‘appropriate’ punishment, but it was also morbidly fascinating. I found myself gripped by Dostoevsky’s detailed description of prison life and the various characters he brought to life in this story. It’s clearly a memoir of Dostoevsky’s own time in exile in Siberia but it’s framed as a loose collection of facts. It isn’t necessarily episodic, and I feel like each section did fit together in a coherent fashion, but there isn’t a traditional ‘plot’ in this novel. It’s not really a novel, to be honest. Instead, it focuses on the stories of each prisoner and the events and the discussions that the narrator, Aleksandr Petrovich Goryanchikov, experiences during his time in prison. Everything is connected together through common themes and I really liked the format that Dostoevsky used.

One thing I noticed was how old-fashioned this translation seemed. Some of the words chosen by the translator just struck me as odd and when I looked in the copyright section at the front of the book, I realised this translation was from 1956 (updated in 1965) which makes a lot of sense. It might be an accurate translation – I don’t know because I can’t read Russian – but certain words just seemed out of place with the rest of the text. In the future, I’ll definitely try to choose a more up-to-date translation but this one wasn’t bad. I didn’t hate reading it. I still thought the book was incredibly interesting.

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Overall, I liked it in a very morbid way. I don’t think I necessarily enjoyed it but it certainly made me think about things and it gave me an insight into a time and place that I know little about. I’d definitely like to read a newer translation of this book in the future but I’d also like to read more of Dostoevsky’s work.

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Read as part of The Classics Club.

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6 thoughts on “Book Review: Memoirs from the House of the Dead by Fyodor Dostoevsky

  1. Dostoyevsky is definitely one of my favourite authors!
    As for translations, I know what you mean! The date a book was translated does necessarily bother me, but more the translator ….. whether their wording sounds pleasant and, of course, how closely they’ve stuck to the original. Who translated the edition you read? I know Aylmer-Maude are my favourite translators for Tolstoy, but Dostoyevsky is not always so clear.
    In any case, you’ve made me want to re-read this one. Best of luck with your next Dostoyevsky!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I only checked the date of the translation because some words felt old. We still say them, at least in the UK, but I’m not sure translators would choose those words now because they’re colloquial and old fashioned. I usually choose a translator I like too but I’m new to Dostoevsky and I generally trust OUP editions. Jessie Coulson translated this edition and I know nothing about him!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve used the classics challenge as an introduction to Russian lit and read Crime and Punishment as my Dostoevsky, which is more a novel than you describe this but still sounds familiar! You make a good point about ‘enjoyable’ reads and ones that make us think differently and take us out of our comfort zones. I think I’ll put this one on my next classics list, thanks!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m working my way up to Crime and Punishment! And I love ‘interesting’ reads for that exact reason – they show us something new and take us out of our comfort zones. Plus, some books are so dark and desolate that it’s difficult to say that you enjoyed them but you can still appreciate them!

      Liked by 2 people

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