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Christmas in a Siberian labour camp, with Dostoevsky

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About Us

(The story of Misfit Press is inextricably linked to the story of Misfit Incorporated, which is inextricably linked to the story of AJ and Melissa Leon. These fascinating stories have been told at length on many other occasions – in newspapers, on TEDx stages, during numerous interviews and chance meetings in wine bars. If you want to explore the weird and wonderful company that is Misfit Incorporated, peruse our site. For the full backstory, check out this video interview.)

Misfit Press itself was established in 2014, with the publication of AJ Leon’s The Life & Times of a Remarkable Misfit. The little-known backstory to The Life & Times is that it was originally slated to be published by a major American publisher, who headhunted AJ after noticing the popularity of his blog, The Pursuit of Everything. About a third of the way through the writing of the book, AJ began to get twitchy about the compromises involved in traditional publishing: uncompromising editorial pressure, a lack of say on issues such as design and artwork. Not long later, AJ bailed on the contract, and decided to publish the book himself. The Misfit team created and ran a Kickstarter, aimed at raising $15,000 to cover publishing costs. By the time the fundraising had run its course, pledges totalled more than treble that amount. With the excess funds, AJ and Misfit decided to go one better than just publishing a book, and also founded a publishing house.

Since its founding, Misfit Press has steadily flourished. In 2015, we took under our wing Wolftree, the finest arts journal in the American Midwest; we released our 2015 Anthology, featuring the finest creative work we encountered over the preceding year; and The Life & Times of a Remarkable Misfit continued to find readers across the globe. In 2016 we published Destination Shakespeare, the debut poetry collection from esteemed Shakespeare academic Paul Edmondson; and we have more Shakespeare-related publications in the works for 2017, including Shakespeare On The Road, a tale of a Shakespearian adventure across the US.

Last  year was a big growth period for the Press, and there is lots more on the way for 2017. As you’ll see from our Forthcoming Publications section, over the next twelve months we will be publishing Saya Sayama: Three Years in Myanmar by incredible photojournalist Spike Johnson, a photonarrative account documenting a unique moment in Myanmar’s history: the violent shift from General Ne Win’s fifty-year dictatorship to the country’s first steps towards democracy. Also imminent is Tangentially Reading, featuring some of the most insightful, shocking, touching, and hilarious moments from the first 200 episodes of Christopher Ryan’s much-loved podcast, Tangentially Speaking.

These are exciting times at Misfit Press. To keep up to date with everything that’s going on, follow us at our blogFacebook, Twitter and/or Instagram. Into the future, we will always continue to work in the fashion we do right now: with authors we like, on projects that matter, in a way that leaves writer, reader and everyone in-between satisfied. We will also never renege on our One-for-One pledge; for every publication we ever sell, a child in India will receive money towards prescription eyeglasses, via the Misfit Foundation.

w: Matt

Christmas in a Siberian labour camp, with Dostoevsky

In this humble Englishman’s opinion, Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–1881) has a strong claim to be the greatest novelist who ever lived. If I could take one book to a desert island with me, The Brothers Karamazov – described by Kurt Vonnegut as a book that “can teach you everything you need to know about life” – would be a strong contender. (The novel is also a favourite of an eclectic cast of famous folk, including Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Bruce Springsteen and Hillary Clinton.)

But enough fanboyism: today, for the festive season, I want to share a chunk of Dostoevsky’s work which gets far less attention than the majestic The Brothers Karamazov.

Some context: In 1846, a young Dostoevsky began to attend meetings of the Petrashevsky Circle, a Christian-Socialist group which advocated for social reform and the abolition of Russian serfdom. The powers-that-be, paranoid about anything with a revolutionary flavour, swooped in, arresting Dostoevsky and his fellow “conspirators” in April of 1849. The group were sentenced to death by firing squad. As Dostoevsky described in a letter some days later, “we were told to kiss the Cross, our swords were broken… then three were tied to the pillar for execution.”

This fate was averted at the very last moment by a letter of reprieve from the Tsar. (The mock execution had a profound effect on Dostoevsky, causing him to have something of an epiphany; the subject of a later blog post, perhaps.) Instead of death, it was decided that Dostoevsky and the other men would serve four years of exile and hard labour at a prison camp in Omsk, Siberia. They set out almost immediately, on a sled journey which took weeks.

In 1862, Dostoevsky published a biographical novel called Notes from a Dead House, documenting his time at the prison camp. It is a harsh, tragic, bitter book – with occasional moments of clarity, even grace. Perhaps its most memorable sections are chapters ten and eleven, which describe the Christmas period at the camp.

On Christmas Eve, as Dostoevsky describes it,

hardly any of the prisoners went to work… the greater part went on their own business, not the prison’s: some to see about smuggling vodka and ordering more; others to see some chums… In short, it was as if they were all expecting some change the next day, something extraordinary.

The prisoners all turned in earlier than usual, “so as to wake up as early as possible the next morning… The usual evening work was stopped; there was no mention of cards. Everyone waited for the next morning.”

On Christmas day itself – a day when “a prisoner could not be sent to work, and there were only three such days in the year” – there is a strange, fragile, almost magical air about the camp:

It finally came. Early, before dawn, just after the morning drums, the barracks were opened and the sergeant, who came to count the prisoners, wished us all a Merry Christmas. We responded with the same, responded affably and kindly… From the small windows of our barracks, plastered with snow and ice, you could see through the darkness that bright fires, started before dawn, were blazing in both kitchens, in all six ovens. Prisoners were already darting about the yard, in the dark, with their sheepskin jackets on or just thrown over their shoulders; they were all rushing to the kitchen… Everybody understood that it was a big day and a great feast. There were some who went to other barracks to wish certain people a Merry Christmas. There was a show of something like friendliness…

I also left the barrack; dawn was just breaking; the stars were fading; a thin, frosty steam was rising. Columns of smoke poured from the kitchen chimneys. Some of the prisoners I came across readily and affably wished me a Merry Christmas. I thanked them and responded in kind. Certain of them had not said a word to me before then for that whole month.

Dostoevsky writes that the prisoners then gathered around the warmth of the ovens in the kitchens, “waiting for the priest to come, and only after that was the fast to be broken.” And in Siberia in the 1850s, perhaps surprisingly, it appears that the spirit of local charity was alive and well. It was “not yet full daylight,” Dostoevsky writes, when, at the gates, arrived

the offerings brought to the prison from all over town. They were brought in extraordinary quantities, in the form of kalachi, bread, cheesecakes, suet cakes, flatbread, pancakes, and other baked goods. I don’t think there was a single merchant’s or tradesman’s wife in the whole town who did not send her bread and best wishes on the great feast day to the “unfortunate” prisoners. There were rich offerings—fancy breads of the whitest flour, sent in large quantities. There were very poor offerings—a two-penny little kalach and a couple of wretched suet cakes slightly smeared with sour cream: this was a gift of the poor to the poor, from their last. Everything was received with equal gratitude, without distinction of gifts and givers. The prisoners who received them took their hats off, bowed.

As they continued to wait for the priest, “many prisoners were already standing in prayer, older ones for the most part… The mood among the prisoners was remarkable, even touching. Besides innate reverence for the great day, the prisoner unconsciously felt that by observing the holiday he was as if in contact with the whole world, that he was therefore not entirely an outcast, a lost man, a cut-off slice, that things in prison were the same as among other people.”

After the visit of the priest, the prisoners eat. Initially, Dostoevsky describes, the prison staff remained at the feast, but

immediately after the major’s departure, some five minutes later, an extraordinary number of people turned out to be drunk, though five minutes earlier they had all been almost perfectly sober. Many glowing and shining faces appeared; balalaikas appeared… The conversation grew more drunken and noisy… In corners here and there cards began… Sentries were posted in case the sergeant should come, though he tried not to notice anything himself… Songs rang out in the barracks.

The most exciting feature of the prisoners’ Christmas period in the camp is the small, in-house theater they are allowed to run. The cast some – “fifteen actors, all of them glib and gallant fellows” – are pulled entirely from the prison populace, and local townsfolk, including “gentlemen officers and noble visitors,” attend the performance. Dostoevsky’s descriptions, which take up chapter eleven, are a touching testament to the power of amateur theater. The prisoners stage two productions: a vaudeville called Filatka and Miroshka, or The Rivals and an obscure drama called Kedril the Glutton. Writes Dostoevsky:

Before the raising of the curtain, the whole room presented a strange and animated picture. First of all there was the crowd of spectators, pressed, squashed, squeezed on all sides, waiting patiently and with blissful faces for the performance to begin. In the back rows people were piled on top of each other… On every face there was a look of the most naïve expectation. Every face was red and moist with sweat from the heat and the stuffiness. What a strange gleam of childlike joy, of sweet, pure pleasure, shone on those furrowed, branded brows and cheeks, in the gazes of these men, until then gloomy and sullen, in those eyes which sometimes shone with a terrible fire!”

“Finally the curtain rose. Everybody stirred, shifted from one foot to the other, those in the back stood on tiptoe; someone fell off his log; one and all gaped their mouths and fixed their eyes, and total silence reigned … The performance began.

The play is “magnificent,”

the spectators; here everybody was unbuttoned. They gave themselves wholeheartedly to their pleasure. Shouts of encouragement rang out more and more often. Here a man nudges his neighbor and hastily tells him his impressions, not caring, and perhaps not even seeing, who is standing next to him; another, during some funny scene, suddenly turns rapturously to the crowd, quickly passes his gaze over them all, as if inviting them to laugh, waves his hand, and at once turns quickly back to the stage.

By the end of the play the general merriment had reached the highest pitch. I am not exaggerating anything. Imagine prison, fetters, unfreedom, long sad years ahead, a life as monotonous as drizzling rain on a dreary autumn day—and suddenly all these downtrodden and confined men are allowed for one little hour to let go, to have fun, to forget the oppressive dream, to set up a whole theater, and what a theater: to the pride and astonishment of the whole town, as if to say, see what kind of prisoners we are!

With that the theater ends, until the next evening. Our people all go their ways, cheerful, pleased, praising the actors, thanking the sergeant. No quarrels are heard. Everybody is somehow unusually pleased, even as if happy, and they fall asleep not as habitually, but almost with peace of mind—and why so, you wonder? And yet it’s not a figment of my imagination. It’s true, real. These poor men were allowed to live in their own way for a little while, to have fun like other people, to spend if only an hour of unprisonlike time—and they were morally changed, even if only for those few minutes.

One should probably be careful to overstate the cheeriness of Christmas in the camp. Elsewhere, Dostoevsky describes how by the festive drunkenness “was already turning into a dazed stupor, and the songs were not far from tears… twilight was already coming. Sadness, anguish, and stupor showed painfully through the drinking and carousing.” At the end of Christmas day itself, the sleeping prisoners “talk and rave even more than on other nights… Tomorrow is an ordinary day again, and work again.” One prisoner “moves his arm clumsily and his chains clank,” as an elderly inmate is “on the stove is praying… and I can hear his measured, quiet, drawn-out “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us!…”

However, there is a peculiar power to the festive scenes Dostoevsky describes. The material facts of the Christmas depicted are unimaginable – but there is something oddly familiar about the atmosphere evoked. Christmas might be at bottom a human invention, an illusion of the calendar. (In theory the birthday of a long-dead bloke with suspect divine credentials; in actuality an excuse for advertisers to bombard us with the message that buying someone stuff is the same as loving them.) And yet, and yet. Full-blooded scrooges are rarities for a reason. Whatever its sources, the last fortnight of December is a special time, the quality of which isn’t fully defeatable by any even the strongest dose of cynicism.

And though the overwhelming majority of us will never spend years in a Siberian labour camp, Dostoevsky’s account reaches out to us, over 150 years, sparking an odd sort of recognition. That rare spirit which Christmas brings the camp – a wondrous break in the monotony of work and loneliness; a sense that a little more compassion is in the air – is one we recognise. We remember going to bed early on Christmas eve. We too have felt that strange urge to say ‘Merry Christmas!’ to people we haven’t spoken a word to in ages. We know what it’s like to hungrily await the feast. We probably know what it’s like to be swept away by a festive production. (A close friend of mine indulges in a 21st-century equivalent, watching The Muppet Christmas Carol with his daughter every single year when the time comes.) And we even know what it’s like to feel the season waning, to feel anticipation dissolve into its hangover, to sense January rearing its ugly head on the horizon.

Christmas, then – while faintly ridiculous when approached too rationally, resembling a sort of farce – lifts us up. The wretched inmates of a Siberian labour camp in the 1860s felt it, just as we feel it now.

So go out! Share it! Say ‘Merry Christmas!’ to the stranger; enjoy the cheaply-staged nativity scene. However much that dreadful song might wish it, it isn’t Christmas every day, and we wouldn’t really want it to be. But it is right now, fleetingly. So be like a Russian political prisoner of the 19th-century, and bloody well enjoy yourselves.

From all of the team at Misfit Press: Merry Christmas.

(Note: All of the below is taken from the 2015 Knopf edition of Notes from a Dead House, via the wonderful translation from Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.)

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MattMatt is Chief Editor at Misfit Press. Alongside overseeing all activity at the Press, he is in the latter stages of a PhD, working on a thesis examining the intersections between literature, neuroscience and the philosophy of consciousness. Soccer, snowboarding, prog metal, Dostoevsky, a good Chianti and strangers' dogs all rank amongst his favourite things.

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