The Eternal Husband is one of the volumes in the Art of the Novella series that really pushes the bounds of the word “novella.” At over 200 pages, albeit small ones, it seems a short novel to me, and a bit of a strange one.
What can that mean? All Dostoevsky is strange to me, in the sense of “of external origin, kind, or character,” though I am, at this point, somewhat accustomed to that strangeness. But here I found a new kind of Dostoevskyan strangeness, something a little bit lighter and less bleak. Don’t let yourself assume from that, however, that The Eternal Husband doesn’t involve death and damnation just as his other, major works do. Maybe it really was the fuchsia cover, or maybe the simple fact that the protagonist, Velchaninov, overcame all his problem with nerve-induced illness without having to send himself to Siberia, but I felt almost free and easy reading this.
One thing that was familiar, and who knows, might make all Dostoevsky’s work appear somewhat strange, was the pacing. I should say lack of pacing. For 50 or so pages, we appear to have a certain kind of story, about a man who might not be all that much unlike Raskolnikov, only a little less nasty and violent and a bit older. But then, suddenly, a major new element is introduced that seems to bring us into a whole different kind of story altogether—for the next 65 or so pages at least. And later, Velchaninov and his friend spend 25 pages (remember, that’s more than a tenth of the novel) on a single visit to a single home, which might appear to be building to something, and does, but also doesn’t. I suppose it’s a bit nonsensical without specifics, but I can’t be
Continue reading The Eternal Husband by Fyodor Dostoevsky
The marathon is at an end, and a final thanks to the lovely host of The Brothers Karamazov readalong, Dolce Bellezza. Formally, the novel offered me little. I will refer you to Amateur Reader for a taste of why rather than moan.
As a novel of ideas, it didn’t offer much more. If Zosima’s ethics are true, and everyone is guilty of everything, I see only moral disorder: Ivan, who has harmed no one, feels guilty while Smerdyakov, a devious killer, has not done anything especially more wrong than anyone else. I prefer the ethics of the trial itself: as all the witnesses are called, each is impeached with his own personal foibles and failings, past sins brought to light to reduce present credibility and respectability. We have all sinned, yes, but as individuals. Not that any of that ends up fairly, either.
The trial did have its good points for the reading experience, despite the speechifying. One of the only ways the novel induced much emotion in me was in the frustrating parallels between Smerdyakov’s convincing Ivan that Ivan would not be believed, and the actual arguments put forth by the prosecution and defense. That is, the frustration of not being able to thwart the meticulously thought-out murder—despite having known who the killer was for hundreds of pages! That was good, but somehow I am not actually sure it was the intended effect.
Dostoevsky’s intended effect…I still don’t really know it, in general. I still don’t see why some people respond to him in a mystical way, I still don’t like him, whatever that might mean, and I’m ready to move on for a long while. I don’t want to give any impression that this was a bad or regrettable experience, or that there weren’t good
Continue reading The Brothers Karamazov: “let no one grumble if I tell only that which struck me personally and which I have especially remembered”
Part III of The Brothers Karamazov seems to cover so much narrative ground compared to the first two. It begins with the elder Zosima being prepared for burial, follows Alyosha to a visit with Grushenka, removes him from the monastery, and then begins the whirlwind that is the story of Dmitri. We go back in time two days to find out what he’s been up to while Zosima has been dying, and the answer is “a lot.”
According to the narrator, “[f]or the past two days he had been in such an unimaginable state that, as he himself said afterwards, he might well have come down with brain fever.” That sentence seems to sum up Dostoevsky for me. For two days Dmitri is in full-blown crisis mode—as are his brothers, his father, and most of their connections. As Richard Pevear notes in his introduction, “[n]arrative time is extremely condensed in the novel,” and that heightens the atmosphere of crisis. And the reliance on long speeches and dialogues externalizes the psychological crises of every character. The upshot is that everyone is freaking out all the time, and not doing much else.
My impression is that fans of Dostoevsky appreciate the psychological aspects of his work, the way he portrays human psychology. I continue to be confused by this, as it seems he only wants to portray one slice of psychology, and the world of his novels is so swallowed up in that slice that it appears to be the whole. I think a fair argument could be made that psychological crises are especially formative or important (Dmitri’s “I’ve found out more in this one cursed night than I’d have learned in twenty years of living…!”), but there is certainly more to life than the times you feel like you have brain
Continue reading The Brothers Karamazov: “Well, I’m not very good at these subtleties…”
Since I posted last week about miracles, I wanted to note a few more times they came up in Part II. First, Madame Khokhlakov, the “lady of little faith” from the audience with Zosima, tells Alexei about how the elder’s prophecy from the day before came true, “even literally, and even more than that.” Not only did the old lady receive word that her son was well, she found out he would be coming home in just three weeks. Madame Khokhlakov is insistent that the miracle “must be made known to everyone, everyone!” When Father Paissy hears of the miracle, he wants to keep quiet about it “until we have more confirmation, for there is much frivolousness among people in the world, and this incident also may have taken place naturally.” But the narrator notes that he does not really believe “in his own reservation.” It’s as though even in front of his brothers Father Paissy wants to appear to be an unbelieving realist, just on the outside, just for a moment, but the faith that causes him to believe in the miracle can’t quite allow it.
The other example comes from Ivan, at the end of his “getting acquainted” with Alexei. The so-called rationalist or atheist tells his younger brother:
[L]et this [eternal harmony and forgiveness], let all of this come true and be revealed, but I do not accept it and do not want to accept it! Let the parallel lines even meet before my own eyes: I shall look and say, yes, they meet, and still I will not accept it. That is my essence, Alyosha, that is my thesis.
Here Ivan proves himself not to be the unbelieving realist who the narrator says “will always find in himself the strength and ability not to believe
Continue reading “Reason is a scoundrel, stupidity is direct and honest.”
One of the things I’ve been exploring for as I’ve read The Brothers Karamazov is Dostoevsky’s concern with privacy, which first came to my attention when I was reading Gogol. There are certainly instances of it here, for example when Alyosha offers money to Captain Snegiryov, who “suddenly became ashamed that he had shown me his whole soul like that.” But what I find more of is quite the opposite.
I still have not unpacked entirely the Grand Inquisitor, but one of the issues that comes up there as well as in the “Life of the Elder Zosima” has to do with freedom (or, I should say, “freedom”), individuality, unity, brotherhood, and all that jazz. While this has never before struck me as a major Christian concern, it was definitely something important in Tolstoy’s Confession as well as here. Perhaps it is a concern of the “real Russians” Alyosha speaks of, along with the existence of God and immortality.
Ivan, who rejects the world God created, still has the “childlike conviction that the sufferings will be healed and smoothed over, that the whole offensive comedy of human contradictions will disappear like a pitiful mirage, a vile concoction of man’s Euclidean mind, feeble and puny as an atom, and that ultimately, at the world’s finale, in the moment of eternal harmony, there will occur and be revealed something so precious that it will suffice for all hearts, to allay all indignation, to redeem all human villainy, all bloodshed….” But again, he does not accept this conviction, despite the fact that he has it.
Everyone else has it too, but they accept it. The “positive” messages from Alyosha and the elder Zosima are ones of unity and against individualism and freedom. Ivan’s Grand Inquisitor asserts that “They will finally understand
Continue reading The Brothers Karamazov: “it is on him that the structure is being built”
Now to look at one of those messy monologues I complained about yesterday: Ivan Fyodorovich on the merits of ecclesiastical courts. He believes the state of the world would be much improved if criminals were excommunicated rather than confined or executed. As Father Paissy says, “the Church ought to be transforming itself into the state, from a lower to a higher species,” and if that were to happen criminals would have a much greater deterrent. According to Ivan, “[t]ime and again…the criminal of today says to himself” that “‘I stole…but I have not gone against the Church, I am not an enemy of Christ.’” Exile and hard labor don’t reform criminals, but they would be reformed if they were dealt with by the Church:
If anything protects society even in our time, and even reforms the criminal himself and transforms him into a different person, again it is Christ’s law alone, which manifests itself in the acknowledgment of one’s own conscience. Only if he acknowledges his guilt as a son of Christ’s society—that is, of the Church—will he acknowledge his guilt before society itself—that is, before the Church. Thus, the modern criminal is capable of acknowledging his guilt before the Church alone, and not before the state. If it were so that judgment belonged to society as the Church, then it would know whom to bring back from excommunication and reunite with itself. But now the Church, having no active jurisdiction but merely the possibility of moral condemnation alone, withholds from actively punishing the criminal of its own accord.
Ivan’s monologue is, I would say characteristically for Dostoevsky, bizarre. “Full of ruts and roots and switchbacks and dust.” Unpacking it, I took a cue from its own hint, late in this passage, of “society as the Church.” What if
Continue reading “Something shapeless, and impossible to understand as well.”
There has been a terribly interesting, for me at least, discussion going on in the comments at Wuthering Expectations about Dostoevsky’s narrator in The Brothers Karamazov and his weakness compared with the other characters: “The non-omniscient omniscient narrator has no more understanding of anyone else than does, for example, the reader. The art of Dostoevsky is centered on the monologues.”
I agree, and the effect on me is also to think Dostoevsky was not fully in control, that “characters are in control of their own selves, their ideas.” I am putting this down on the list of Reasons I Have Trouble with Dostoevsky. It is these messy confessional mystical outpourings, held together with…what?
With my mind on the general weakness and blandness of the narrator, then, I was surprised to note that several of the passages that interested me enough to flag them during my reading involved that narrator alone. In particular, passages that deal with themes (presumably, as I’m only through Part I) central to the novel—the nature of faith, realism, and miracles—and usually reserved for the monologues of (thus far) Ivan Fyodorovich, Pyotr Alexandrovich, the elder Zosima, and the others. Here, for example, after his warning that the novice Alyosha is not “sickly” or “ecstatic” but “red-cheeked”:
[I]t seems to me that Alyosha was even more of a realist than the rest of us. Oh, of course, in the monastery he believed absolutely in miracles, but in my opinion miracles will never confound a realist. It is not miracles that bring a realist to faith. A true realist, if he is not a believer, will always find in himself the strength and ability not to believe in miracles as well, and if a miracle stands before him as an irrefutable fact, he will sooner doubt his
Continue reading The Brothers Karamazov: believing is seeing
Poor Folk is much later than the other epistolary novels I’ve read thus far; published in 1846, it appeared more than a century after the pop culture phenom of Pamela and over 50 years after Lady Susan, the latest one I’ve read at this point, was likely written (though it wasn’t published until 1871). Plus, it’s Russian, and while I have French and German novels still on my list this is the only one so far that wasn’t Anglo.
So this is already an old form, some might say a tired form, and we’re not likely to see many new techniques here. Poor Folk consists of the mutual correspondence of two people; seemingly, in fact, their full correspondence during the selected period. There are a few unusual things though. First, we have Varvara, a young, vulnerable maiden, a Clarissa if you will, but she is the confidante of the older man, Devushkin.* On top of that, our correspondents are unusually close to each other, physically. Devushkin notes in his very first letter to Varvara that he can see her window from his room. And yet they write to each other incessantly.
They see each other in person, too, but not very much. There is a vague idea that it might be scandalous to see each other more often, but on the other hand they are always inviting each other over. They use a servant as a go-between to share money, millinery, and sweets. It’s never made explicit what their relationship is; they may or may not be related, Devushkin is certainly in love with Varvara, and she has a history so painful it’s barely alluded to.
Except that actually, her painful history makes up a large part of her letters. Amid quotidian terms of endearment and concerns about staying
Continue reading Epistolarity in Poor Folk
If Dostoevsky does Gogol’s “ambitious poor clerk[s],” but with a theory to blame for their failure, what is Makar Devushkin’s excuse for his behavior?
Devushkin is a simple man and he has a simple excuse: fate. His poverty is not his fault. He is a good government clerk, capable, competent, but of course he must take care of Varvara (why, again?), of course he must send her sweets, even if it means the buttons fall off his jacket and he can’t pay his rent. But none of that is his fault. He explains himself in a letter to Varvara justifying the bad behavior brought on by his worsening financial circumstances:
It was at that point that my spirits sank, little mother; that’s to say, at first, being overwhelmed by the feeling that I was no good for anything and was little better than the sole of one of my own boots, I thought it improper for me to believe myself of any consequence, and started to view myself as something improper and, to a certain degree, indecent. Well, once I had lost all respect for myself, once I had abandoned myself to the denial of all my good qualities and of my own sense of self-worth, then I was done for, my downfall was assured! It is all predetermined by fate, and I am not to blame for it.
He won’t accept responsibility for his immediate situation; he won’t accept responsibility for his stalled career; he won’t even really accept responsibility with respect to Varvara, because he lies to her to cover up his foolish behavior. But none of it is his fault; her letters scold him and his are full of non-apologies, telling stories of affliction in a bid for her sympathy.
The poor clerk, so proud of
Continue reading Dostoevsky’s poor little clerk
As I noted yesterday, I’ve been following along in Caryl Emerson’s highly interesting and enjoyable Cambridge Introduction to Russian Literature as I’ve gone from Pushkin up, so far, through Dostoevsky. I’ve always been ambivalent at best about Dostoevsky, not having cared at all for Crime and Punishment, but going into Poor Folk I had something new to focus on (in addition to epistolarity, of course): privacy.
One thing the Cambridge Introduction does is divide post-18th-century Russian literature crudely into two lines, one following Pushkin and the other Gogol. Dostoevsky is on Team Gogol, something that surprised me at first because, well, I really like Gogol. And yet:
[T]he “Gogol side” is governed by the opposite dynamic [from the “Pushkin side”], a private world of evasion and concealment, abundant in texts of embarrassment and exposure. …In Dostoevsky, concern for privacy can reach insane, pathological, conspiratorial proportions, cunningly masked by self-defensive narrative shields and comic narrators.
That did sound right, from what I remembered of C&P, and it also sounded very right as I read Poor Folk. Both Makar Devushkin and Varvara Dobroselova are obsessed with privacy. They don’t want anyone to know they are corresponding or are such close friends; she doesn’t want anyone to know where she lives; they don’t want anyone to know he is buying her sweets and treats and helping pay her bills; and they are so private about the actual scandal that’s gone on that even in their private correspondence it is never named explicitly enough for the reader to be sure that there even was a scandal.
A major reason for their desire for privacy is their poverty itself; they are ashamed of their small possessions and unimpressive apartments, and don’t want the higher-ups to notice when their shoes are down at heel (or worse).
Continue reading Privacy and embarrassment in Poor Folk