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Dostoevsky’s Dazzling Drafts: Windows into a Labyrinthine Writing Process

His notes are full of art, calligraphy, and secrets

Are you a budding writer? Tortured with a lack of organization? Do you struggle with creating a clear, coherent outline?

Never fear, you may share something with one of the greatest Russian writers ever, Feodor Dostoevsky.

The beloved author of psychological thrillers like Crime and Punishment and Brothers Karamazov also wrote manuscripts for his novels that look like mazes or treasure hunt maps, filled with pictures and number codes.

They are beautiful and bizarre.

I was introduced to the phenomenon when I visited the museum of Dostoevsky in Moscow. The tiny, empty apartment is guarded by a bitter young woman, an aspiring writer who barely survives on her pitiful salary--but refuses to leave her Dostoevsky haunt.

After I listened to her story, she showed me Dostoevsky’s draft of the “Grand Inquisitor”, the world famous mini-story in Brothers Karamazov.

Here it is:

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How did he ever make any sense of that chaos? Moreover--how did he use that to create the most provocative short story of all time? 

No wonder Dostoevsky’s drafts, their artistry and peculiarity, their patterns and disorganization have fascinated people, inspiring essays, and entire books. Here are a few interesting facts about Dostoevsky’s notes, with some information borrowed from an article from the Russian Government Library.

The Sheer Volume

Dostoevsky's most productive years were from 1865-1880 when he wrote Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Demons, The Adolescent, A Writer’s Diary, and Brothers Karamazov. Over these 15 years, Dostoevsky penned about 5000 pages of handwritten text in preparation for his novels. These notes were everywhere: in notebooks, on loose ends of papers, folded in half, on book margins or even in sealed envelopes that Dostoevsky addressed to himself.

The Art

Dostoevsky’s drafts are richly illustrated. The most common elements are faces, oak leaves, fleurons( Gothic ornaments that look like cross-shaped flowers), calligraphy, and Gothic architecture, especially windows, towers, and arches. 320px-Fleuron.eglise.Saint.Urbain.Troyes.png

Dostoevsky, who attended the Main Engineering School, the most prestigious architecture university in Russia, was fascinated with architecture. But he loved the Gothic style the most for its massive expressivity and for its fantastic beauty. His drawings often replicate elements of the Cologne Cathedral, the Milan Cathedral, and Notre-Dame Cathedral.

According to famous philologist Dmitry Likhachev, the vertical structure of Gothic architecture, where grand designs sweep upwards and teeter in graceful, narrow arches, reflects the upward spiritual and social movement all of Dostoevsky’s heroes’ strive for. The style physically represents the interplay of the low social strata and the elite, of hell and heaven, in Dostoevsky's novels.

Dostoevsky believed Gothic architecture was “poetry” in stone, a “shriek of the whole universe”, as one of his heroes from The Adolescent says.

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In fact, throughout his entire creative process, Dostoevsky's manuscripts keep shape shifting. His notes for Crime and Punishment not only explore different topics than those for The Idiot or The Demons. but they look different. For example, Gothic architecture dominates in the writing period of The Demons, while notes for Crime and Punishment are full of diverse, distorted face portraits.

The Handwriting

Moreover, Dostoevsky wrote with different handwritings about different topics and characters. His notes contain both flawless calligraphic writing and scrawny, barely cohesive chicken scratch. “Beautiful” handwriting suddenly appears, then disappears in his drafts. Notes for some novels are full of calligraphy, while others are almost written in indecipherable script, or scripts because even those scripts vary in style. Calligraphy is most prevalent in manuscripts for the Idiot and Demons.  

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“Not only does the author have an arsenal of diverse handwritings, often on one page, but, one can even say that Dostoevsky had a specific handwriting for each thought, each written word,” asserts Konstantine Barst. This diverse, multi-faceted handwriting is almost impossible to classify: the different writing styles constantly morph from one to another.   

Two opposite poles: one the one hand, you have the hasty, barely cohesive handwriting that reminds one of barbed wire, but on the other, you see shockingly perfect artistic “calligraphy. ” These are intertwined to express the multifaceted intensity and emotion that Dostoevsky wanted to instill into the printed word.  

Dostoevsky’s calligraphy is a world of artistic images, a richness which reflects the creative world of the writer. Myshkin, the main hero of The Idiot, is called an “artist of handwriting” or an “artist” who can express, in the contours of letters, the character of a person. Though perhaps. the true artist and soul reader was Dostoevsky himself. 

Dostoevsky’s multifaceted notes are united only by one thing: his unutterable genius, his endless search for the “perfect novel,” as Boris Tomashevksy said.

So, next time someone tells you that you lack a consistent writing style, say “I’m still searching for perfection...just like Dostoevsky.”

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