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What I have said of servitude, I again say of imprisonment, we are all prisoners. What is our life but a prison? We are all imprisoned in an island. The world itself to some men is a prison, our narrow seas as so many ditches, and when they have compassed the globe of the earth, they would fain go see what is done in the moon."
- Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy: S2.3.4
Not top half Dostoevsky, but a must read still. This book (and Dostoevsky's four years in Siberia) are an obvious rough draft to his later GREAT novels ('Crime & Punishment', 'The Brothers Karamazov', etc). Even without the early draft qualities of this novel, 'Notes from a Dead House' is important. This is novel the godfather of all prison memoirs/novels. Orange might be the new black, but the Big D was there first. Actually, it is probably worth a few minutes exploring the similarities between OITNB and 'Notes from a Dead House'. Both explore how prison impacts those who are sent there, the way people survive, the things that drive people mad inside, the things that are core about being human within an environment meant to limit the very essence of humanness, how punishment is relative, etc, and ad nauseam.
I think the brilliance of prison writing is the way it can be used as a microcosm of life. We are all trapped by something. Nihil enim refert, rerum sis servus an hominum (“It matters little whether we are enslaved by men or things.”). We are all controlled by something, tortured by someone, addicted to vice, sin, or our own fears. Exploring the idea of prison and prisoners can open us up to not just the difficulties we all face, but the way(s) we can survive life's fetters, our body's constraints, the darkness of this mortal coil. Dostoevsky give us hints. Dreams, hope, faith, purpose and relationships all allowed him to survive his four years in Siberia. Those same characteristics increase the odds that not only will we survive our incarceration on this Earth, but we might even grow fond of it and find beauty and love in the process.
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What did you like best about Notes from a Dead House? What did you like least?
I liked the fact that Dostoevsky created a fictionalized account of his real-life experiences in the Western Siberian prison he spent four brutal years. I liked least the fact that the serialized nature of this 1861-3 meant it felt uneven, as if the author is trying out his skill. Which he certainly was, but the rambling and digressive and attenuated pace can weary.
How would you have changed the story to make it more enjoyable?
Editing some of the chapters. It's heresy to say this about one of the most talented authors of fiction, but if a stronger hand had controlled this, a tighter, less ambling style would help.
What do you think the narrator could have done better?
Stefan Rudnicki has a deep baritone and a somewhat mechanical delivery. His slight "Slavic" accent does add verisimilitude. He loosens up a bit towards the conclusion. But he cannot render dialogue or characters very well. He has a rather robotic manner which feels odd.
If this book were a movie would you go see it?
Yes, as long as it was briskly paced. There's lots of potential material for lots of drama.
Any additional comments?
Sobering that the author, who had to avoid censorship by reworking some elements to tell a better and more publishable tale, had one of the arguably milder fates. He did not have to walk three years to Eastern Siberia as some prisoners did, even before they entered prison. And anywhere that 500 lashes are seen as a "light" punishment raises reminders of how cruel prisons have been and remain. At least this novel helped reform the tsarist ones.