Dostoyevsky Got a Reprieve from the Czar’s Firing Squad and Then Saved Charles Bukowski’s Life

Yesterday we featured Charles Bukowski’s first-ever recorded readings. Perhaps you found them, in their way, inspirational, but for me the feeling of inspiration always leads to a question — who inspired my inspirer? In the case of Bukowski, the poet has, in his work, clearly named one of his main inspirations: the work of 19th-century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The author of Crime and Punishment might at first seem to have little in common with the author of Ham on Rye, but often the most resonant inspirations don’t involve much direct resemblance. And as Bukowski remembers in the poem he gave Dostoyevsky’s name (albeit in one of the other standard spellings), his ancestor in the world of letters did more than just get him writing:

Dostoevsky

against the wall, the firing squad ready.
then he got a reprieve.
suppose they had shot Dostoevsky?
before he wrote all that?
I suppose it wouldn’t have
mattered
not directly.
there are billions of people who have
never read him and never
will.
but as a young man I know that he
got me through the factories,
past the whores,
lifted me high through the night
and put me down
in a better
place.
even while in the bar
drinking with the other
derelicts,
I was glad they gave Dostoevsky a
reprieve,
it gave me one,
allowed me to look directly at those
rancid faces
in my world,
death pointing its finger,
I held fast,
an immaculate drunk
sharing the stinking dark with
my
brothers.

You can also listen to “Dostoevsky” read aloud at the top of the post. Those with a working knowledge of its namesake’s life might think back to Dostoyevsky’s time in prison, recounted briefly in the “Siberian exile (1849-1854)” section of his Wikipedia page. Arrested on trumped-up charges of conspiracy for simply reading the wrong books, he was sentenced to “eight years of exile with hard labour at a katorga prison camp in Omsk, Siberia, followed by a term of compulsory military service.” Today, any of us can read Bukowski’s rough-and-tumble verse to get us through hard times; we can also, as Bukowski did, read Dostoyevsky (see our collection of Free eBooks). But Dostoyevsky himself, considered particularly dangerous by his jailers, was “permitted to read nothing but his New Testament.” Hard times indeed.

Related Content:

Hear 130 Minutes of Charles Bukowski’s First-Ever Recorded Readings (1968)

A Reading of Charles Bukowski’s First Published Story, “Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip” (1944)

So You Want to Be a Writer?: Charles Bukowski Explains the Dos & Don’ts

Charles Bukowski Rails Against 9-to-5 Jobs in a Brutally Honest Letter (1986)

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky Told in a Beautifully Animated Film by Piotr Dumala

Fyodor Dostoevsky Draws Elaborate Doodles In His Manuscripts

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.


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