December 25, 2014

“Why, it’s Christmas”

“Why, it’s Christmas”

Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821 - 1881) by his great illustrator Fritz Eichenberg (1901 - 1990)

Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821 – 1881) by his great illustrator Fritz
Eichenberg (1901 – 1990)

After the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 2, which our mama always read to us on Christmas Eve — and maybe O. Henry’s story, “The Gift of the Magi” – I don’t know an account of the living miracle of Christmas as penetrating, as nearly abstract, as touching or as modern as Fyodor Dostoevsky’s in his memoir of prison. The House of the Dead was the scarcely novelized account of four years (into his early thirties) at hard labor in Siberia (1849 to early 1854). Dostoevsky had been sentenced to death for seditious literary associations, but he was spared the firing squad in a letter from Tsar Nicholas, and then dispatched in shackles to his prison camp in Omsk. If nobody writes better about Christmas, surely nobody ever wrote better than our Fedya about men in confinement. In the years I coached writing at the Norfolk and Walpole prisons in Massachusetts, I always found a way to read aloud some unlabeled excerpts from The House of the Dead. And invariably hands shot up from hardened Bay Staters in the class – thieves, junkies, murderers – who’d recognized the writer instantly. “He musta been here,” they would say. Or: “I knew that guy. He left here six months ago.”

From “Christmas,” Chapter Ten of The House of the Dead.

At last it came. Quite early, before daybreak, as soon as the morning drum sounded, the wards were unlocked and the sergeant on duty who came in to count over the prisoners gave them Christmas greetings, and was greeted by them in the same way, with warmth and cordiality. After hastily saying their prayers Akim Akimitch and many of the others who had geese or suckling-pigs in the kitchen hurried off to see what was being done with them, how the roasting was getting on, where they had been put and so on. From the little prison windows blocked up with snow and ice, we could see through the darkness in both kitchens bright fires that had been kindled before daybreak, glowing in all the six ovens. Convicts were already flitting across the courtyard with their sheepskins properly put on or flung across their shoulders, all rushing to the kitchen. Some, though very few, had already been to the ‘publicans.’ They were the most impatient. On the whole, all behaved decorously, peaceably, and with an exceptional seemliness. One heard nothing of the usual swearing and quarreling. Everyone realized that it was a great day and a holy festival. Some went into other wards to greet special friends. One saw signs of something like friendship. I may mention in parenthesis that there was scarcely a trace of friendly feeling among the convicts – I don’t mean general friendliness, that was quite out of the question, I mean the personal affection of one convict for another. There was scarcely a trace of such a feeling among us, and it is a remarkable fact: it is so different from the world at large. All of us, as a rule, with very rare exceptions, were rough and cold in our behavior to one another, and this was, as it were, the accepted attitude adopted once for all.

I too went out of the ward. It was just beginning to get light. The stars were growing dim and a faint frosty haze was rising. The smoke was puffing in clouds from the kitchen chimneys. Some of the convicts I came upon in the yard met me with ready and friendly Christmas greetings. I thanked them, and greeted them in the same way. Some of them had never said a word to me till that day.

At the kitchen door I was overtaken by a convict from the military division with his sheepskin thrown over his shoulders. He had caught sight of me in the middle of the yard and shouted after me, ‘Alexandr Petrovitch, Alexandr Petrovitch!’ He was running toward the kitchen in a hurry. I stopped and waited for him. He was a young lad with a round face and a gentle expression, very taciturn with everyone; he had not spoken a word to me or taken any notice of me since I entered the prison; I did not even know his name. He ran up to me out of breath and stood facing me, gazing at me with a blank but at the same time blissful smile.

‘What is it?’ I asked wondering, seeing that he was standing and gazing at me with open eyes, was smiling but not saying a word.

‘Why, it’s Christmas,’ he muttered, and realizing that he could say nothing more, he left me and rushed into the kitchen.

I may mention here that we had never had anything to do with one another and scarcely spoke from that time till I left the prison.

Translated from the Russian by Constance Garnett

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