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:


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
not direct­ly.
there are bil­lions of peo­ple who have
nev­er read him and nev­er
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
even while in the bar
drink­ing with the oth­er
I was glad they gave Dos­to­evsky a
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

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.

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.