Posts Tagged ‘Dostoyevsky’

When Henrik nearly met Fyodor

According to Michael Meyer’s biography of Ibsen, when Ibsen was staying in Dresden in 1870, a near neighbour of his was Dostoyevsky. It is unlikely that Dostoyevsky would have heard of Ibsen at that time, even though Ibsen had already written the two great verse dramas Brand and Peer Gynt. Ibsen would, most likely, have heard of Dostoyevsky, who had, by 1870, written Crime and Punishment and The Idiot, but he would not have known that Dostoyevsky was at the time in Dresden; and even if he had known, he would have had no particular reason to seek him out. In 1870, Ibsen would still have been working on that vast two-part historic play Emperor and Galilean, which he, if not posterity, thought his most important work; and soon afterwards, he would start on that series of twelve prose plays beginning with The Pillars of Society, and ending in 1899 with the visionary When We Dead Awaken. Dostoyevsky was working at the same time on Demons.

According to Meyer, the two both enjoyed long walks in the Royal Gardens, and they both frequented the cafés in Brühl’s Terrace. It would have been surprising indeed if they had never at least passed each other. But, attractive though the idea might be, it would have been even more unlikely for them to have met and conversed.

One could, of course, easily imagine that they did. That, after exchanging initial civilities, they had engaged in talk on literature, exchanged ideas, spoke about God and the Universe and Man’s Immortal Soul, and spurred each other on, each casting new light on all the great thoughts and ideas that were whirling so tumultously inside the other’s head. One could, without too great an effort, make of this possibility an engaging play for radio.

What intrigues me even more, however, is the possibility that they had sat near each other in some café, without the first idea who the other was, and that the only words exchanged were when Henrik had asked Fyodor to pass the salt. And that after the salt was passed, they had both returned to their respective thoughts, barely aware of the other’s presence.

“Fathers and Sons” by Ivan Turgenev

“Fathers and Sons” by Ivan Turgenev, translated by Richard Freeborn, Oxford World Classics. All quotes in this post are taken from this translation.
[Please note: for anyone who cares about such things, this post contains “spoilers”.]

“What’s important is that twice two is four and all the rest’s nonsense.”
– Bazarov in Chapter 9 of Fathers and Sons, translated by Richard Freeborn

Readers not closely acquainted with the social and political background of mid-19th century Russia may find it surprising that this, of all novels, should have been so controversial, with both the Left and the Right lining up to attack the author. For, from our modern perspective, what strikes one most about Turgenev’s stance is his moderation, his level-headedness – his realisation that social and political change should and must occur, but also his revulsion from radicalism, from fanaticism, and, indeed, from any form of extremism. Many modern readers may even find him too lukewarm – too objective and detached, too lacking in passion. That we may take such a view of him is an indicator of how far we are from the times in which this book was written, and of the effort required of imagination to see in this novel something, at least, of what contemporary readers might have seen.

At the centre of the novel is Bazarov, the self-proclaimed “nihilist” – a man who, as he proudly proclaims, believes in “nothing”. This is not, of course, entirely true: he believes that twice two is four, for a start – the very contention that Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man finds such an intolerable imposition, and a challenge to the essential irrationality of the human mind. But to Bazarov, all else is, indeed, nonsense. Or so he believes. Or so he believes he believes. It is dangerous to state categorically what exactly Bazarov does or does not believe, since his mind is more subtle and more complex than he himself seems aware of. Or maybe, at some level, he is aware: it is hard to tell, since Turgenev tells much of the story through dialogue, and, as in a play, we have to decipher from this dialogue what precisely is going on in the characters’ minds, and to what extent the characters themselves are aware of what is going on.

We learn quite early to mistrust Bazarov’s pronouncements – or, at least, we learn not to take all his pronouncements at face value. He says at one point, for instance, that he does not believe even in medicine, but we can see quite clearly for ourselves that he is knowledgeable in the subject – far more so than the local quacks – and that, in practice, he is a good doctor: a man who doesn’t believe in medicine could hardly be either. So we must ask ourselves why he says something so clearly untrue, and the most obvious reason is that he is trying to wind up his friend Arkady’s father and uncle, landowners and members of the lower echelons of the aristocracy – that is, of a type Bazarov particularly despises. Similarly with his behaviour: at the Kirsanovs’, his behaviour is almost studied in its rudeness and bumptiousness. But this is not because he does not know how to behave in a polite manner, and neither is it because he thinks manners are unimportant and irrelevant: when he is later at Odintsova’s house, he behaves with perfect polish and refinement. His bumptiousness at the Kirsanovs’, like his contention that he didn’t believe in medicine, is, at least in part, a front, intended to create a certain effect. But this is only at least in part: that he feels the need to put up such a front to the very people who are offering him hospitality tells us much about him.

Turgenev’s critics from the Left took Bazarov to be a caricature of themselves, and they were partly right. Turgenev, as one would expect from a man who took art and literature seriously, took grave exception to various ideas that he ascribes to Bazarov, which were then current in radical circles, and which seem, if anything, to be enjoying a revival even now – that only that which is of practical use can be of any value; that anything incapable of being materially perceived is meaningless; that, in short, twice two is four and all the rest’s nonsense. But even here, Turgenev allows the ideas to be expressed without explicitly attacking them: these ideas are important in characterising the person who holds them. And Bazarov, as a person, is an individual: he is not representative of any group of people because Turgenev did not see humanity in terms of pre-defined groups that may be represented by single characters.

If Bazarov is not a representative of a group, neither is he a caricature. No matter how distasteful Turgenev may have found his views, he takes Bazarov sufficiently seriously to transform him, by the end, into a tragic protagonist. Indeed, given the complexity and intricacy of Turgenev’s portrayal, it is hard, at least from our modern perspective, even to imagine how any reader could have seen Bazarov as a caricature.

Conversely, Turgenev’s critics from the Right objected to his presentation of the Kirsanovs as caricatures of Russian aristocracy. And once again, this is hard to square with what Turgenev presents. Sure, the two Kirsanov brothers can appear absurd at times, and, indeed, are absurd at times: there’s Nikolay Petrovich, a widower, muddle-headed, and rather endearingly embarrassed about the peasant girl with whom he lives in sin, and for whom he genuinely cares; and there’s his brother, Pavel Petrovich, himself in love with the peasant girl his brother has taken up with, but sufficiently respectful both of his brother and of this girl not to act upon his desires; and who, living though he does in the middle of nowhere, still dresses and grooms himself as if he were in fashionable Paris or Dresden. These indeed are absurd figures. But at no point did I detect Turgenev looking down upon them. There is something about them that we would nowadays think of as Chekhovian: they would have been perfectly at home in The Cherry Orchard. These are people who are feckless and ineffectual, lacking in energy or in purpose, and not particularly gifted or remarkable in any way; but they are also decent, charming, well-meaning types, capable of genuine and sincere feelings, and, indeed, of that old-fashioned concept of honour. They are certainly not deserving of the contempt and the disdain that Bazarov displays so openly.

It is at the Kirsanovs’ estate that we first meet Bazarov. The Kirsanovs have been eagerly awaiting the arrival from university of Nikolai’s son, Arkady, an impressionable youth who appears with his friend Bazarov. Arkady is clearly enthralled by and somewhat in awe of his charismatic friend, who, though a guest, behaves rudely: indeed, that the Kirsanovs don’t turn him out says much for their manners and for their sense of hospitality. But they don’t understand him. What is he? Why does he behave in this manner? It is left to Arkady to explain to his astonished father and uncle that his friend is, indeed, a “nihilist”:

“A nihilist is a man who doesn’t acknowledge any authorities, who doesn’t accept a single principle on faith, no matter how much that principle may be surrounded by respect.”

“And that’s a good thing, is it?” interjected Pavel Petrovich.

After the initial sojourn at the Kirsanovs’ estate, the scene changes: we go into the town, and the town appears to be the same one in which Gogol’s Government Inspector and Dead Souls had been set – that dull, dirty, soulless pit in which all human aspirations and nobility appear to have been crushed by an unyielding and monotonous greyness. There’s a touch of Gogol as well in the two people they meet there – the foolish and conceited Sitnikov, and the equally foolish Kukshina, who likes to imagine herself an “emancipated woman”. Bazarov has little time for either, and is even more openly rude to them than he had been to the Kirsanovs, but they are too unintelligent even to notice. Gogol, one suspects, could have taken these characters to further grotesque extremes, but this would have been well outside Turgenev’s horizons: after introducing us to Sitnikov and to Kukshina, he steers the narrative towards the area he knows better – to affairs of the heart, and the unending intricacies and subtleties of human love. For Bazarov and Arkady also meet in this town Odintsova, a young widow of independent means, both attractive and intelligent. Till now, Bazarov had been putting up fronts, but now, all the fronts collapse: that man who had proclaimed so proudly that twice two was four and all else is nonsense now has to face the irrationality within his own self. He has, indeed, to discover what that self is, and it is not an easy discovery to make. Bazarov had understood his own identity purely in terms of the ideas he had held; but when those ideas collapse, when the fact of twice two equalling four is no longer sufficient, his concept of his own self also collapses. He has to find out anew what he really is, and this he cannot do.

The scenes between Bazarov and Odintsova are, for me, at the heart of the novel: it is in these scenes that Bazarov’s sense of his own identity is threatened, and soon reaches a crisis. Odintsova, for her own part, finds Bazarov fascinating, and is quite happy to flirt with him; but when the flirting takes a serious turn, she backs off, and Bazarov, who had presented himself, and, indeed, had thought of himself, as superior to all around him, can no longer tell with any certainty what precisely he now is.

The scene now changes again: we now accompany Arkady and Bazarov to Bazarov’s home, and meet his parents. His father is a retired army doctor and a small-time landowner; his mother is a deeply pious woman; both are devoted to their clever son, but seem in awe of him: they feel constrained even in displaying their love for him for fear of earning his disapproval. Bazarov, after his experience with Odintsova, is restless, and ill at ease: he feels alienated even in his own home, and, much to his parents’ dismay, he does not stay long. Before leaving, Arkady, now no longer in awe of Bazarov as he had previously been, takes exception to Bazarov’s referring to his uncle as an “idiot”, and is surprised by Bazarov’s reaction:

“In any case, it wasn’t family feeling, but a simple sense of justice,” Arkady retorted. “But because you don’t understand that sense, because you haven’t got that feeling, you can’t pass judgement on it.”

“In other words, Arkady Kirsanov is too elevated for my understanding, so I bow down before you and hold my tongue.”

“That’s enough, please, Evgeny. We’ll end up quarrelling.”

“Ah, Arkady, do me a favour! Let’s quarrel once and for all – to the death, to the bitter end!”

“But if we do we’ll surely end by … “

“By having a fight?” butted in Bazarov. “So what? Here, in the hay, in such idyllic surroundings, far from the world and human eyes, it won’t mean a thing! But you’d never get the better of me. I’d get you by the throat straight off…”

Bazarov extended his long, hard fingers, while Arkady turned and prepared to defend himself, if only in fun. But so full of hatred was his friend’s face, so very unfunny the threat he perceived in his twisted grin and burning eyes, that Arkady felt a momentary timidity regardless…

Bazarov’s self-hatred is by this stage so intense that it has overflowed into hatred of the young man who had hero-worshipped him.

But Arkady is changing also: he has matured and developed, is less in thrall to Bazarov than he had been, and, far from being in awe of his friend, is now capable of standing up for his beloved uncle in the face of his friend’s insult. As Bazarov seems increasingly unable to trust his own perspective, Arkady is growing in self-confidence. After this climactic scene, we rarely see the two together.

In the rest of the novel, there is a recapitulation of the places and characters we had previously encountered – Odintsova on her estate (she receives Bazarov coldly); the Gogolian town and its Gogolian inhabitants; and, again, the Kirsanov’s estate, where we are even treated to a duel. But where, in Eugene Onegin and in A Hero of Our Times, the duels had been dramatic and with far-reaching consequences, here, it is pure farce, and utterly inconsequential. This duel seems almost a parody of the duels in Pushkin and in Lermontov: tragedy here has turned into pure meaninglessness, and futility. And finally, after this tragedy-turned-to-farce, we return, for the final act of the drama, to Bazarov’s parents’ house. And this time, the tragedy is for real.

From my earlier readings I had been certain that Bazarov kills himself at the end, and I was frankly a bit surprised to find that there is not a single mention of suicide in the narrative. But it is easy, I think, to see how I got that impression. Here, after all, is a man whose entire sense of his self, of his own identity, has collapsed, and he cannot find a new one. He infects himself accidentally, we are told; neither Bazarov, nor anyone around him, nor Turgenev himself, says or hints at anything to the contrary. Yet, for me, the doubt remains. There is, after all, much in the inner workings of Bazarov’s mind that we cannot be sure of. This is not because Turgenev had failed to give us a complete picture, but because the picture is necessarily incomplete: Bazarov, like Hamlet, is a mystery even to himself. The man who, at the start of the novel, thought he knew himself perfectly, thought he understood the nature of the world in which he lived – in which twice two is four and all the rest nonsense – comes to understand that he never has understood anything, least of all himself. And he does not have the strength to build himself anew. Possibly, he does not even know himself whether his infection was accidental or deliberately self-inflicted: human motivations, as he has come to discover, are endlessly obscure – even one’s own. He asks to see Odinstsova before he dies, and she comes: but at no point does he express any grief, any rage, or even any regret, at his parting from the world. A world in which even twice two equalling four cannot be taken for granted cannot be, after all, a world worth living in. Parting from it seems a consummation devoutly to be wished. About this, if nothing else, Bazarov can be devout.


There is much in this novel that is unlikely to appeal to modern taste. Turgenev still has the habit of giving us giving us a full history of his characters immediately after introducing them, rather than allowing us to infer what we need to know from the way they act; he likes also to drive his narrative through dialogue, as in a play, and, while some of the dialogue is indeed very fine (most notably in the scenes between Bazarov and Odintsova), not all of it frankly is: the lad-and-lass love scenes between Arkady and Katya, for instance, are likely to strike the modern reader as a trifle insipid. However, most of the time, it works beautifully: it is, quite often, in the discrepancy between what Bazarov says and what he does that we come to appreciate his complexities.

Turgenev’s contemporaries appeared to see the novel as a comment on the politics of the time, and – as the title implies – on the gap between generations in ways of perceiving the world. I personally find it difficult to see the novel from such a perspective. To me, it is a fascinating study of the human sense of identity, and of how we cope, or, as in this case, fail to cope, when the idea we have of who we are is no longer consistent with what we perceive. And in Bazarov, we have, I think, one of the finest creations of all fiction – a character of endless complexity and contradictions, who nonetheless possesses a unity despite the diversity, and who is, by the end, one of the most striking and memorable of tragic protagonists.

“The Idiot” by Dostoyevsky

[All excerpts from The Idiot in the following post are taken from the translation by Alan Myers, published in Oxford World Classics series by Oxford University Press. Please note also that it is impossible to discuss this novel, even in terms relatively superficial, without revealing some elements of the plot.]

When one doesn’t quite know where to start, it is perhaps best to start by conceding the fact: if nothing else, such a concession may win the reader’s sympathy, and perhaps even some measure of forbearance in the face of subsequent incoherence and inarticulacy.

Dostoyevsky’s novels have made, and continue to make, a huge impact on me, and yet, when I try to explain why, especially to sceptics, I find myself unable to express myself adequately. One should not, I say, try to apply to Dostoyevsky those criteria whereby we judge the novels of Austen or of Tolstoy or of James to be great: Dostoyevsky was a law unto himself. But how can one explain this law that was so unique to this writer? There seems at times to be no correlate for anything within the novel to anything outside it. But neither is it the case that these novels occupy a world entirely of fantasy: quite the contrary – they throb with the messiness and the ambiguities and the ungraspability of life itself. They depict a reality, although the reality they depict is heightened, and the nature of the heightening remains elusive. The characters seem almost constantly to be in varying states of hysteria and of delirium, and are extreme, grotesque – acting, it often seems, as no character in real life ever acts: or perhaps they do, but not so consistently, and not with such unremitting and uninhibited intensity. The fictional world they inhabit seems closed in and claustrophobic, and yet, at the same time, open to the loftiest thoughts and ideas and intuitions on the most elevated of themes. Ideas are expressed concerning the most fundamental aspects of our human lives, and yet each idea seems undermined even as it is expressed: nothing seems able to hold its shape long enough to achieve any kind of solidity, and no argument along rational lines seems ever to develop. The narrative seems crammed with symbols and patterns, but as soon as one tries to identify and to follow through the symbols, or to use the patterns to understand what happens, they almost immediately break down. This is not realism as it is commonly understood, and neither is it a forerunner of the modern “magic realism”: there is nothing in these novels that is physically impossible, or even, perhaps, granted the extreme and febrile nature of all the characters, psychologically implausible; but the logic whereby the characters act, and whereby the action flows, seems to belong to some strange dream world, some vague, elusive borderline between sanity and insanity, where the rules of rationality that most of us normally use to understand the world seem not to apply.

Dreams play a major part in these novels, and, especially, in The Idiot. At one point in the novel, Myshkin, reading Nastasya Filippovna’s letters to Aglaya, sees these letters as dreamlike, and, indeed, relates them to his own dreams:

The letters had much in common with dreams. Sometimes you have fearful dreams, impossible, bizarre; when you wake up, you remember them clearly and marvel at an odd fact: first of all, you recall that your reason never deserted you all through the dream; you even recall that you behaved extremely shrewdly and logically throughout all that long, long time when you were surrounded by murderers, who tried to deceive you, concealing their intentions, treating you in a friendly fashion, while they had their weapons ready and were only waiting for a signal; you recall how cleverly you hoodwinked them eventually, and hid from them; then you guessed they were perfectly well aware of your trick and were just pretending not to know your hiding-place; but again you outwitted them and cheated them, all this you remember clearly. But why was it that your reason was able to reconcile itself to the obvious absurdities and impossibilities with which your dream was crammed? One of your killers turned into a woman before your very eyes, then from a woman into a sly and hideous little dwarf – and you accepted it at once as an established fact, with barely a hesitation, and this at the very moment when your reason, on the other hand, was at a pitch of intensity and demonstrating extraordinary power, shrewdness, perception, logic? (III, 10)

This is very much how I find myself feeling about the novels. There must have been some logic that carried me through it all, I think to myself when I look back on them: my mind was definitely working very hard – indeed, at fever pitch – while I was reading. But how then could my mind reconcile itself to the absurdities and the weirdness with which the novel is so crammed? It could be that my mind is such that it can suspend disbelief at Dostoyevskian absurdities: having spoken to Dostoyevsky-sceptics, not all minds, I know, can; but the other possibility is that, at some mysterious level, within some obscure and rarely-visited compartment of the human mind, these are not absurdities at all; and that it is this compartment of the mind that Dostoyevsky addresses, and in which the action of his novels unfold. But how that elusive compartment of the mind can be described when we are no longer inhabiting the dream remains problematic.

In The Idiot, Dostoyevsky tried – to his own mind, unsuccessfully – to depict the perfectly good man in an imperfect world – indeed, a mad world. In a letter written to his niece near the time he started work on the novel, he confesses to the difficulties inherent in this idea: the only truly positive, good figure is, after all, Christ. Dostoyevsky then cites two figures in literature whom he thinks “perfectly good” – Don Quixote, and, rather surprisingly perhaps, Mr Pickwick, and goes on to say that they are successful creations because they are comic: they are ludicrous, and are mocked for being so, but, since they are unaware of their own worth, they arouse sympathy. But Dostoyevsky did not want to go down this path: there is no shortage of comedy in The Idiot, but Prince Myshkin, the Idiot of the title, is most certainly not a comic figure. Nonetheless, Dostoyevsky had somehow to account for his otherwise unaccountable goodness, and also to elicit the reader’s sympathy on his behalf: so he made him ill: Myshkin, like his creator, is epileptic. Early in his life, he was literally an “idiot”, his illness having retarded his mental development. During the course of the novel, we see him as a different kind of “idiot” – a man innocent of human wiles and deceptions, and almost embarrassingly open and frank to all, assuming always the best in everyone he sees. Such guilelessness in itself is enough to mark him out as an “idiot”, but even those who describe him as such find themselves forced to concede that despite his “idiocy”, or maybe even because of it, he has startling insights into the very souls of people around him.

But how can such a person exist in human society? For, from the very start, this innocent, this ingenue, is thrown headlong into a world teeming with the most turbulent and unruly of passions and desires – all of which call for a judgement that he is neither equipped nor willing to pass. And here, right from the start, we begin to see cracks in perfect goodness: not that Myshkin isn’t perfectly good, but rather, that such goodness cannot even survive, let along emerge triumphant.

Such a summary is grossly inadequate, as, indeed, any summary of so complex a novel must be. Myshkin’s essential goodness is recognised by all: they may feel uncomfortable about it; they may even resent it, as Ippolit frequently does, or as the buffoonish General Ivolgin does towards the end of the novel, when he sees Myshkin’s refusal to judge him as a slight. But Myshkin’s refusal to judge – following, presumably, Christ’s injunction “Judge not, that ye be not judged” – is not to be confused with a failure to understand: for he understands, and describes often with a disconcerting openness, the passions and the intricate paradoxes governing the minds of those around him. But he steadfastly refuses to judge, or to condemn, even when judgement and condemnation seem explicitly to be asked for – even when the characters themselves ask for judgement. For, despite his all-encompassing love, and despite even his insight and his understanding, there seems a curious distance between him and the other characters – a distance that seems incapable of being bridged. For Myshkin’s love seems unaware of the object of his love. Nastasya Filippovna herself expresses this powerfully in one of her feverish letters:

Artists always depict Christ according to the gospel stories; I would paint him differently: I would show him alone … I would leave him alone with just one child. The child would be playing near him, perhaps telling him something in his childish prattle. Christ would not be listening to him, but presently fall to thinking; his hand would rest unconsciously on the child’s little fair head. He looks towards the distant horizon; a thought as great as the whole world dwells in his look; his face is sad.

An abstract love for the whole of humanity precludes love for a specific person, the essence of which lies precisely in its preferring this one person to the rest of humanity. And this, Myshkin seems incapable of: like Jesus in the imagined painting, the hand is tenderly on the head of the person he loves, but the mind is elsewhere: it is looking to the distant horizon, saddened by thought that is as great as the world itself.

Myshkin, from almost the start, finds himself at the focal point of two interlocking love triangles, and in both, while the sincerity and openness of his feelings cannot be doubted, he seems curiously lacking in passion. In one, he is in competition with Rogozhin for Nastasya Filippovna; and in the other, he has to choose between Nastasya Filippovna and Aglaya. Inevitably, parallels and contrast develop – between Myshkin and Rogozhin one the one hand, and between Nastasya Filippovna and Aglaya on the other.

In the very first scene of the novel, Myshkin and Rogozhin are seated opposite each other on a train. Towards the end they walk on opposite sides of the road to Rogozhin’s house, where Nastasya Filippovna lies murdered. Rogozhin seems in all respects to be Myshkin’s opposite, his “dark brother”, his ghostly double, who exchanges crosses with him in a deeply symbolic gesture, and who, soon afterwards, attempts to murder him. Yet, it is dangerous, in this of all novels, to be so schematic about matters: if Rogozhin is indeed possessed with all those dark passions that are absent in Myshkin, he seems curiously unable to act upon them. At the end of the first of the four parts of the novel, Nastasya Filippovna goes off with Rogozhin, with Myshkin following them, and what exactly happens afterwards Dostoyevsky, intriguingly, does not narrate to us; instead, he allows us to pick up fragments and rumours. But it is strongly indicated that “nothing” happens between Nastasya Filippovna and Rogozhin: if Rogozhin is indeed throbbing with passion, it is passion on which he appears unable to act. It is not for nothing that the vast, old, rambling house of his, so full of menace and foreboding and so explicitly symbolic of Rogozhin’s own character, has a wing housing a sect of religious fanatics, of castrates.

There is, indeed, a sense of fanaticism about Rogozhin himself, although the nature of this fanaticism seems, as so much else in this novel, elusive: it does not appear to be religious fanaticism – Rogozhin is at no point depicted as religious – but his brooding and demonic presence bespeaks, as does the house he inhabits, some profound fanatic darkness of the heart.

Nastasya Filippovna and Aglaya, though kept apart in this novel until a climactic scene towards the end, also emerge as complementary opposites – recondita armonia di bellezze diverse. Aglaya seems a cold, haughty beauty, reared in the comfort and safety of the Yepanchin household and possibly something of a spoilt youngest daughter. Nastasya Filippovna, on the other hand, is the “fallen woman”, orphaned as a child and “seduced” – as the euphemism has it – by the man who was ostensibly her protector. In our own time, we do not regard the “fallen woman” as particularly sinful, especially when, as in this case, the woman in question had so little power over her own fate; but things were different then: a “fallen woman” was one who could, like Violetta in La Traviata (or her original, Marguerite, in La Dame Aux Camelias), be famed in the demi-monde, but who was not acceptable in “polite society”. It should not surprise us that, living in such an environment, the fallen woman Nastasya Filippovna harbours a tremendous sense of guilt; but at the same time, she harbours a rage for those who have caused her to be fallen, and who have instilled in her this unmerited sense of guilt; and the guiltier she feels, the greater her rage. She wishes to abase herself, and yet hates herself for wishing so; and she hates even more those inhabitants of “polite society” who expect her to do so. In Myshkin, she sees, for the first time, “a man” – a real man who does not even think of judging her; and yet, this judgement is precisely what she desires: even this lack of judgement drives her into insanity.

Both women are attracted to Myshkin – Aglaya for his openness and his utter lack of worldly guile, and Nastasya Filippovna for his compassion, and his refusal to judge. But ultimately, the kind of love that is demanded of him he cannot give: as with Christ in the painting imagined by Nastasya, his love is divorced from its object. His very refusal to judge is indicative of his ultimate detachment.

Judgement and condemnation, and the oppressive nature both of their presence and of their absence, seem to me to be very much at the centre of this novel. Myshkin introduces early the theme of the “condemned man”, as he speaks with his usual uninhibited frankness of a friend of his who had been condemned to death, but who had ultimately been reprieved. What goes on in the mind of such a man who is expecting at any given moment to die? Dostoyevsky knew this, of course, from his own experience: such a man has a heightened sense of time, a sense that does not however return when the unexpected reprieve restores him to the common light of the everyday.

Myshkin himself is also, of course, a condemned man, although in a somewhat different sense: his illness can, and eventually does, recur with such force as to return him to his previous state of literal idiocy. And Dostoyevsky, in one of the most vivid and immediate passages of writing I think I have ever encountered, describes, again from personal experience, the heightened sense of awareness that is experienced immediately before an epileptic fit; and, as with the heightened sense of time experienced by the condemned man, this too is subsequently lost. In this heightened sense of awareness, one senses, if only momentarily, the most perfect harmony and beauty. But then comes the fit, and the vision fades, and all that remains of it is but a vague and ungraspable memory. But this conjunction of beauty and of harmony in that mystic moment before the fit leads us into another major theme of the novel: the redemptive power of beauty – the power of beauty to bring harmony.

This particular theme is, however, deeply problematic. Myshkin is himself quoted as saying that “beauty will save the world”, although, as with Ivan Karamazov’s dictum “If God didn’t exist, then everything is permitted”, we never hear him say this directly: it is a sentiment that is merely associated with him, and it is left to us, the readers, to determine what, if anything, this can mean. The nearest Myshkin comes to expressing this idea is in his unexpectedly impassioned address to the aristocratic guests at the Yepanchins’ – shortly before he has his second fit in the novel, and where a sense of disorientation and of the mystical harmony that precedes the fit is presumably already upon him:

“… and is it really possible to be unhappy? … Do you know, I cannot understand how one can pass a tree and not be happy when seeing it! Talk to a man and not be happy at loving him! Oh, it’s just that I can’t find the words … and so many beautiful things at every step that even the most desparate man finds something beautiful! Look at a child, look at God’s dawn, look at the grass growing, look into the eyes that look at you and love you … “ (IV, 7)

Yet, as ever in Dostoyevsky, even when an idea is expounded, even if the idea is precious, it is immediately undermined: Myshkin, in the course of this extraordinary scene, clumsily breaks that all too obvious symbol of fragile beauty, a Chinese vase. Earlier in the novel, he had told Aglaya’s sister, Alexandra, simply to paint what she sees, and to find beauty in it; and yet, throughout the novel, beauty is at odds with what is seen, and rarely if ever accompanies harmony. Nastasya Filippovna and Aglaya are both very beautiful in their different ways, but in neither is there anything remotely resembling harmony, or anything capable of achieving salvation: both are deeply troubled souls. And as for the artist finding beauty in what he sees, the work of art that is central to this novel, and which is described in detail, is one that finds the most heart-breaking ugliness in the very figure who, to Christians, is the epitome of moral beauty: Holbein’s painting of the dead Christ.

“Dead Christ in his tomb” by Hans Holbein, Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel

Here is a painting utterly without hope. Myshkin describes it as a painting that may cause humanity to lose its faith. Even the most beautiful of men, a man who is both divine and human, has succumbed here to the ugliness that is death; the body is stark and bare and utterly devoid of any hint of divinity; rigor mortis has set in, and the greenish tint of the dead flesh seems to indicate corruption; and the features on the face are contorted by the agony in which the man had died. Here is the ultimate failure, not only of goodness, but of the divine: beauty is not present even as a consolation. If we are to look for harmony in beauty, all we find here is a hideous emptiness – a negation in the dead Christ of everything that the living Christ had stood for.

And of course, this is also an image of Myshkin himself – the positively good man: whatever beauty there may be in his goodness, nature will not spare him, any more than it had spared Christ himself; nor will nature even allow him a beauty that, we are told, could save the world. At every turn, Dostoyevsky seems intent on undermining the very ideas that to him were precious.

And yet, the idea of beauty saving the world remains precious, even if only as an idea. In Dostoyevsky’s fictional world, ideas are not discarded simply because they are undermined, or refuted: ideas here are also states of being, of emotions, and they persist even through failure. The idea of the positively good man is one that is doomed to failure, and, indeed, the sense of devastation one feels in the final pages of this novel is unlike anything else I think I have come across. But the idea that has failed so spectacularly nonetheless remains, co-existing even with the forces that have defeated it. And the forces that defeat it, the forces that draw our lives away from beauty and from harmony, are more than merely acknowledged: they are depicted with the utmost force and vigour, and nowhere more so than in Ippolit’s “confession” – his “necessary explanation”, as he calls it, but which seems neither necessary, nor explanatory of anything. If Myshkin’s very presence communicates a sense of essential human nobility and moral beauty, Ippolit’s “necessary explanation” depicts something very different, and is worth examining in some detail.

It is in this section of the novel that we encounter a discussion of Holbein’s painting, and of its terrible implications. Significantly, a reproduction of this painting hangs in Rogozhin’s house, that great heart of darkness where we are sure the final act of this immense tragedy will be played out.

Ippolit too, like Myshkin, is a condemned man, a teenager dying of consumption, but Dostoyevsky seems to do everything within his power to alienate any sympathy the reader may have for him. The first time we see him, he is supporting the absurd claims of Burdovsky’s “rights”; and once these claims are shown to be baseless, he reacts angrily to Myshkin’s magnanimity: the very fact that Myshkin can be so generous and so noble to the very people who had so ignobly tried to get the better of him, is, to Ippolit, so indicative of Myshkin’s moral superiority as to be insulting. The paradox is irresistible, and occurs throughout the novel is various guises: thus, the buffoonish General Ivolgin feels slighted not because Myshkin judges and condemns him, but because he doesn’t; and, more significantly, perhaps, Nastsya Filippovna feels belittled by the very feature in Myshkin that has attracted her so to him – his refusal to judge. If judgement and condemnation are terrible things, lack of judgement or lack of condemnation can be terrible also, as they belittle the very concept of one’s moral agency. Ippolit senses this immediately: Myshkin’s forbearance is so great an indication of his moral superiority over those whom he refuses to judge, that he can only see such forbearance as a mortal insult.

Later in the novel, he reads his “necessary explanation”, and here, we seem to find ourselves in the world of Notes From Underground: in that earlier work, the narrator had started by telling us that he was a “sick man”: Ippolit too, as we know, is a very sick man. Like the nameless Underground narrator, Ippolit has no illusions about himself, or of the world he inhabits. As with Melville’s Bartleby, Ippolit’s world is defined by a huge, blank brick wall – Meyer’s wall, which is the view from his bedroom window: it defines a world that is blank, inexpressive, ugly – a world that, far from providing intimations of redemption or of transcendence, tells us in no uncertain terms that such things do not and cannot exist. If beauty is indeed to save the world, what salvation can there be in a world beset with such ugliness?

Ippolit goes on to lay bare his own soul, and, as with the Underground Man, he makes no attempt to hide its utter ugliness. He tells us of his neighbour Surikov, a desperately poor man:

I know of one poor man who died of starvation later on, as I was informed, and I was infuriated: had it been possible to bring that poor man back to life, I believe I should have murdered him. (III,6)

Ippolit hates and despises this man because of his meekness, because he has passively accepted his poverty and his misery. He then goes on to narrate a grotesque scene in which he and Surikov stand over the corpse of Surikov’s baby, who had frozen to death; and Ippolit, with what can only be viewed as a calculated cruelty, tells the bereaved father that the death of his child was entirely his fault.

… the wretch’s lips began to quiver and, grabbing my shoulder with one hand, he showed me the door with the other and said softly, almost whispered I mean: “Get out, sir! (III,6)

Ippolit is struck by the utter lack of anger on Surikov’s part, and, even for this reason, can feel for him nothing but contempt. Later, Ippolit dreams that Surikov has come into a lot of money, but is frightened by his wealth, and doesn’t know what to do with it. Ippolit suggests that he melt down all the gold and make out of it a coffin for his dead child, and that he exhume his child for the purpose of re-burying him in this golden coffin. And this suggestion Surikov, in Ippolit’s dream, accepts gratefully.

The world Ippolit presents in his “necessary explanation” is a world desperately in need of redemption: it is a world of cruelty and suffering, and of soul-sapping ugliness. But the very feature that we are told could save the world is very conspicuously absent: there is, and can be, no redemption. Meyer’s wall, for all its ugliness, at least tells us this truth. The essence of such a world appears, in another dream Ippolit has, in the form of a hideous scorpion-like creature:

It was something like a scorpion, but not a scorpion, it was more loathsome and much more horrible, in that there are no such animals in nature and it had appeared specially to me…(III,5)

In this dream, Norma, a family dog that had died some years earlier, appears, and it too is frightened and revolted by this scorpion-like creature. Norma nonetheless attacks it, but:

All of a sudden, Norma gave a piteous whine: the foul creature had managed to sting her tongue after all. She opened her mouth in pain, whining and howling, and I saw the mangled creature had managed to sting her tongue after all. She opened her mouth in pain, whining and howling, and I saw the mangled creature was still wriggling across the width of her jaws, emitting large quantities of white fluid from its half-crushed body on to her tongue, like when a cockroach is squashed … That’s when I woke up, and the prince came in.(III,7)

As with the parables of Kafka, a passage such as this both demands and resists interpretation. To see the scorpion-like creature merely as a symbol of evil seems far too obvious: perhaps it is a symbol also of disease – not merely Ippolit’s, but also of Myshkin’s: Myshkin’s entrance at this very point is surely not accidental, and the horrible “white fluid” on the tongue of Norma is certainly more suggestive of epilepsy than of consumption. But it perhaps does not matter what it is a symbol of: what matters is the sense of grotesque revulsion the dream evokes. And this creature that evokes such revulsion does not exist in nature: it has appeared specially to Ippolit. To Ippolit, and to Ippolit alone, is given the vision of the essential unredeemable horror of the world, and of life. This sense of horror reappears in another dream he tells us of, this time featuring a tarantula; and it seemed to him – although he could not swear to it – that on his waking from the dream, Rogozhin, Myshkin’s ghostly double, had come into his room, and had sat in the chair under the icon lamp, silently staring at him.

In these dreams and visions – the scorpion-like creature, the tarantula, Rogozhin’s silent stare – there is no room for Myshkin’s vision of beauty redeeming the world. Ippolit rejects such a vision quite explicitly:

And what are they after with their ridiculous “Pavlovsk trees”? Trying to sweeten the last hours of my life? Can’t they realise that the more I forget myself, the more I surrender to this last illusion of life and love, with which they try to screen off Meyer’s wall and everything that is frankly and openly written on it, the unhappier they make me? What do I want with your nature, your Pavlovsk park, your dawns and sunsets, your blue skies and your smug faces, when all this feast that has no end has begun by excluding me alone? What is there for me in all this beauty, when I am forced to be aware every minute, every second, that even this tiny fly buzzing in the sunbeam near me, even that is a participant in all this festival and chorus, knows its place, loves it, and is happy, while I am the soul outcast, and only my cowardice has prevented me from wanting to face it before now! (III,7)

As an answer to Myshkin’s optimistic piety, it seems unanswerable. Ippolit, facing imminent death, wishes only for the truth, and the truth is what is so “frankly and openly” written on Meyer’s brick wall.

Curiously, Myshkin himself responds to Ippolit’s pessimism. Later in this same chapter, Myshkin thinks back on this part of Ippolit’s “necessary explanation”, and “a long-forgotten memory” stirs within him, and takes on “clarity of form”: he remembers the time in Switzerland, when, unable to speak, cut off from the lives of others – from life itself – by his illness, he had observed the beauty of the world around him, this great God-given feast in which even the buzzing fly partakes, but from which he, and he alone, is excluded. And he remembers now clearly the pain of utter hopelessness that had then seized him. It is hard not to be reminded here of Kafka’s famous line, quoted by Max Brod, that there is “plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope—but not for us”.

By the end of the novel, Myshkin is, once again, becomes, quite literally, an “idiot”; meanwhile Ippolit, seemingly to everyone’s chagrin, is still alive, although still under the sentence of death. One had yearned for a redeeming beauty, but had been denied it; the other had never believed in it in the first place. And both are condemned. It is no surprise that Dostoyevsky had felt that the Great Idea that had inspired the novel had failed: it probably never really had much of a chance to begin with.

But the failure, if failure it is, is of the idea, not of the novel. It has from the first a doom-laden sense of tragic foreboding, a sense of a profound darkness poisoning a world that tantalisingly promises redemption, but which does not deliver on the promise. It is a world in which only an “idiot” can be a good man, but, being but a idiot, cannot survive. The closing chapters of this novel, where the two ghostly brothers, Myshkin and Rogozhin, keep watch over the murdered Nastasya Filippovna, have haunted my own dreams ever since I first read this novel nearly forty or so years ago: they retain still the power to haunt my imagination. Indeed, in this, my latest reading, I realised that as I was approaching this ending, I was, at least in some measure, frightened of what I knew I would encounter. Only in the chapters leading to the denouement of Anna Karenina have I encountered in a novel such overwhelming tragic power.


I started this post by saying I did not know where to start. Now that I am near the end, I realise that I don’t know where to finish either. This vast, complex work seems to be beyond analysis: it constantly demands to be interpreted, but seems greater than the sum of all possible interpretations. One should, given the content, finish the novel in a mood of the deepest despondency, but for some reason, one doesn’t: I suppose this is because the idea that is projected with such power and immediacy of transcendence, of redemption, does not disappear merely because it has been defeated. The fictional world presented in this novel is unlike any other, and, very possibly, it operates only in some obscure and rarely visited compartment of the human mind: but each re-reading hits me with the force of a whirlwind.

“The Little Demon” by Fyodor Sologub

The Little Demon by Fyodor Sologub, translated by Ronald Wilks, Penguin Classics  


In her introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of The Little Demon, Pamela Davidson writes:

Neither in Russian Orthodox demonology nor in folk tradition was there much emphasis on the towering figure of Satan in splendour.

Rather, she continues, Russian devils tend to be small, petty creatures, “little demons”, proliferating in a multiple of guises.

One gets this sense of the pettiness of the demonic on Russian literature also. Not for the Russians the magnificence and tragic grandeur of Milton’s Satan, nor the spectacle that is Dante’s Inferno: when Gogol set out to depict inferno, he depicted a dull, provincial town, dirty and petty and corrupt and stagnant, peopled only by souls that were morally dead. This provincial town has haunted Russian literature ever since. It is the town from which Chekhov’s three sisters long to escape to Moscow; it is the town the microcosm of which is the horrendous “Ward 6” of Chekhov’s story; it is the setting of Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, and also Demons (another work featuring petty little demons); it is the town that forms the setting of Saltykov-Schedrin’s Golovlyov Family, where, once again, it stands for Hell itself. And Russian demons are, as Pamela Davidson says, always small and petty, like the Devil who appears to Ivan Karamazov in the guise of a shabbily dressed gentleman, or the little demons Father Ferapont sees elsewhere in the same novel. And evil, too, is mean and petty and nasty: Raskolnikov imagines he is another Napoleon, when, in reality, he is simply a sordid axe-murderer in a sordid tenement. There is nothing grand or magnificent or charismatic about the Russian concept of evil: it is just mean and nasty and petty – though none the less destructive for being so.

Sologub’s The Little Demon (I believe the title may also be translated as The Petty Demon), written in the 1890s, presents a vision of evil that is very much in this tradition. The setting is once again that Gogolian provincial backwater from Dead Souls, and, once again, it is a hellish place. The principal character, the schoolmaster Perodonov, is obviously mad, and, indeed, is often recognised as such; but the rest of the town is only slightly less mad than he. Despite being, by any reasonable standard, stark raving bonkers, he is judged an eligible bachelor, and there’s an entire line of women desperate to trap him into marriage. His live-in mistress even commissions her friend to forge letters as part of an elaborate plan to marry him.

The lunacy deepens as the novel progresses. Peredonov, convinced that there is a concerted campaign to slander him, goes round the houses of various officials to convince them of his probity, and of his patriotism. He also goes round the houses of various students in his class, insisting that they had behaved badly, and encouraging the parents to have their child flogged. In one particularly grotesque sequence, the mother is ready to flog her child, but the father, much to the mother’s frustration, refuses; she then tells Peredenov that she will call him when her husband – the “tyrant”, as she calls him – is out, and that they could then flog the child together. The scene where they actually do this was cut by the author in the final published version, but is printed here as an appendix: it is among the most disgusting things I have read. After the two of them flog the boy together in turn – Peredonov taking over from the other once she has become too tired flogging him – they collapse in each other’s arms in sexual ecstasy.

Peredonov also sees a strange demonic being materialising. This is referred to by Sologub as a nedotykomka,  which, Pamela Davidson informs us in the introduction, is an obscure dialect word that “has the same meaning as nedotroga, a ‘touch-me-not’: an object that cannot be touched or a person of touchy and irritable disposition (like Peredonov)”. This creature is clearly an emanation from Peredonov’s fevered mind, and is hence an aspect of his psyche, and Ronald Wilks, perhaps rather confusingly, underlines this by translating nedotykomka as “the little demon” of the title. This nedotykomka starts appearing frequently to Peredonov, whose mind, never too stable to begin with, seems to collapse entirely. The aristocratic princess who he imagines is his benefactor he soon starts picturing as a grotesque and withered crone, but has erotic fantasies about her anyway. Then, imagining that the pack of cards is spying on him, he cuts out the eyes of the Jacks, the Kings, and the Queens. He then identifies the Princess with the Queen of Spades, and finds himself forced to burn the entire pack.

There develops also a very strange sub-pot, concerning the lad Sasha, aged about 14 or so, who has girlish good looks. Peredonov, presumably attracted to him sexually, insists that he is a girl, and tries to have him expelled from the boys’ school. Later, a young lady, Lyudmilla, develops a fixation on him – a fixation that is described with imagery of lurid eroticism – and, although they never consummate her passion, she delights in having him close to her, undressing him, getting him to put on women’s clothes. And Sasha himself, so apparently pure and innocent, finds himself strangely affected:

He wanted to do something to her, be it pleasant or painful, tender or shameful – but what? Should he kiss her feet or beat her long and hard with supple birch twigs?

It is all strikingly grotesque, but I must admit that I couldn’t help wondering what all this was leading towards. This depiction of the banality of evil – to use Hannah Arendt’s famous expression – remains, for all its strangeness, earthbound: there is none the poetic flights of fancy of Gogol, nor the humanity and melancholy of Chekhov, nor the visionary intensity of Dostoyevsky. Nor is there any trace of tragic despair that we find in Saltykov-Schedrin’s Golovlyov Family. At the end of Gogol’s Government Inspector, the mayor turns to the audience to tell them they are laughing at themselves; in a similar vein, Sologub tells us in the preface to the second edition:

It is true that people love to be loved. They are pleased if the loftier, nobler aspects of their souls are portrayed. Even in villains they wish to see some signs of goodness, the so-called “divine spark” as it was called in days of old. That is why they cannot believe it when confronted with a picture that is true, accurate, gloomy and evil. They want to say, “He’s writing about himself.”

No, my dear contemporaries, it is of you that I have written my novel…

For this is how Sologub sees humanity. Madness, sordidness, stupidity, paranoia, sadism – that’s all there is. Gogol’s dead souls were in need of redemption, and he even tried- albeit unsuccessfully – to depict that redemption; but here, redemption is not even to be thought of: the very concept is meaningless. And there isn’t even a sense of sadness that this should be so.

Much though I admired and wondered at the strangeness of Sologub’s imagination, I cannot say I was satisfied with this vision. I appreciate that in saying this, I am introducing a very personal note that has no place in objective criticism, but sometimes, a personal reaction is so strong that it becomes impossible to keep it hidden. If this is all humanity is, it isn’t worth anything; it’s certainly not worth writing novels about. If I want to see how cruel and gratuitously sadistic humans are, I need only read the news: there is evidence enough these days for cruelty and gratuitous sadism wherever one looks, and, even for eternal optimists such as myself, the temptation to believe only the worst of humanity becomes powerful indeed. This temptation needs, I think, to be resisted: the view of mankind as irredeemably wicked and debased and worthless leads but to the genocidal fury of Gulliver, and to “Exterminate all the brutes” of Colonel Kurtz.

Perhaps I was not in the right frame of mind for this book. I might, perhaps, on another day, have found myself engaged by the black humour, and capable of entertaining, if not necessarily accepting, Sologub’s unrelieved pessimism. This time, for whatever reason, I couldn’t: the novel cut a bit too close to the bone, and, by the end, I felt that the vision it presented was merely reductive. Perhaps other readers will fare better with this novel than I did.

Tolstoy’s darkening vision

When comparing War and Peace and Anna Karenina – and it is hard for Tolstoyans not to compare – it becomes clear purely from the internal evidence of these works that, between the writing of these two novels, Tolstoy’s vision had darkened considerably. But it is not easy to identify exactly why we should think so. After all, War and Peace has more than its fair share of darkness, both on a personal and on a wider historical level. And there are passages in Anna Karenina that are luminous with joy. And yet, for reasons not entirely obvious, it is hard to imagine anyone who has read both these novels who fails to perceive a greater darkness in the latter.

An obvious explanation is that War and Peace culminates in marriages, and with the promise of propagation of a new generation; while Anna Karenina culminates in death. But, undoubtedly true though that observation is, it tells us little. The culminating point of a novel – at least, of a novel of such quality as these – is not something random that is tacked on to the end, but is, rather, a consequence of all that has gone before. Why should marriages be an appropriate culminating point of one, while death the appropriate culminating point of the other?

Despite having given this matter some thought, I am not sure I have come across a satisfactory answer. But it seems to me that the answer lies not so much in the course of events depicted, but, rather, in the different conceptions in the two novels of human character. In both, Tolstoy is fascinated by why it is different characters behave, think, and perceive as they do; in both, Tolstoy tries to delve as deeply as he can into these reasons. But whereas in War and Peace the characters’ behaviour and perceptions are always conditioned by reason, in Anna Karenina, they are not.

It’s not so much that we can always understand the reasons behind human behaviour. In trying to establish the chains of causality that make the characters behave as they do, there comes inevitably a point where even Tolstoy concedes that he can go no further. This is not because causality fails to hold: rather, it is because, as Tolstoy argues in the often-skipped second part of the epilogue to War and Peace, the causes underpinning any effect are often seemingly infinite in number, and each infinitely small. It is not that the chains of causality do not exist, but, rather, the human brain is simply not capable either of collecting or of processing the data required to establish these chains. This of course implies that humans can have no freedom of action; Tolstoy, at the end of War and Peace, accepts this. We may have the illusion of freedom, he says, because we are incapable of analysing all the causal factors; but it is an illusion only: in reality, we do not have any freedom.

I can’t help feeling that even as Tolstoy was writing this, he was not satisfied with it. Amongst other things, this would imply that no person can be held morally responsible for anything; and this Tolstoy could not accept. When he started Anna Karenina, only a few years after finishing War and Peace, his ideas about why and how humans perceive and behave as they do had changed considerably. Once again, he tries to delve as deeply as he can into the roots of human action; but now, over and over again, he comes to a point where no explanation of human behaviour is possible. It isn’t that we are not capable of understanding all the causes: it is rather that we find ourselves in a world where, all too frequently, there aren’t any causes to begin with. We are in a world where attempts to explain human behaviour all too frequently run up against the tautology “People act as they do because they do”.

Compare, for instance, the passage in War and Peace where Lise Bolkonskaya dies in childbirth to the passage in Anna Karenina where Anna nearly dies in childbirth. They are both passages of tremendous intensity, and of profound psychological intricacy. But in War and Peace, no matter how complex the psychologies of the characters, they are amenable to rational analysis; in Anna Karenina, they aren’t. Here, the characters behave as they do because they do: it is not that their reasons for doing so are difficult to understand – but, rather, there is no reason, and any attempt to understand the roots of human motivation ends merely in tautology. Human behaviour is not a purely rational thing.

This takes Tolstoy’s fictional world closer to Dostoyevsky’s. Dostoyevsky insisted that all his characters have complete freedom, and as a consequence, all his characters, at all points, act as if utterly unhinged and demented. It is an extreme fictional world, admittedly, and, frankly, not entirely sane: it is not something all readers can respond to. (And even those, like myself, who do respond to it, often find themselves harbouring grave doubts, and feeling deeply uneasy about it all.) But I do find it quite astonishing that the rational author of War and Peace should, within only a few years, come even within touching distance of the insanity of Dostoyevsky’s fictional world.

And it is this, I think – this picture of humans as precariously placed, driven as they are by forces susceptible neither to reason nor to understanding – that imparts to Anna Karenina so profound a sense of darkness, and, indeed, of terror.

Dostoyevsky himself, despite the resentment and envy with which he viewed Tolstoy’s literary reputation, described Anna Karenina as “a perfect work of art”; and one can only imagine how much pain it must have cost Dostoyevsky to concede this. But perhaps it is not surprising that Dostoyevsky should have reacted in such a way to this novel, which comes closer to the ethos of his own masterpieces than is generally, I think, accepted.

It was a dark and stormy night

Well, it was a dark and stormy night last Sunday. Not, perhaps, quite as stormy as had been forecast, but stormy enough. In the context of natural disasters worldwide, five fatalities in the entire country may not seem like much, but I doubt the grieving families of those five would agree.

We had to drive down from Lancashire that Sunday, and, since they couldn’t forecast with any certainty whether the storm would begin on Sunday night or in the early hours of Monday morning, we tried to get back home as early as we could, to be on the safe side. And, once home, it was but a matter of waiting. It could be that the winds would be so violent as to carry away our very roofs; but since there was little we could do about it even if it did, it seemed best merely to pour ourselves a civilised drink, and wait.

I have never quite decided whether ghost stories are most effective when read in the unearthly silence of a preternaturally still night, or in the tempestuous turbulence of a violent storm, with the wind is howling outside like the voices of the dead. Either way, sitting in my armchair with a dram in hand, a ghost story seemed like a good idea. Hopefully, I thought, the storm would begin while I was reading. But no – I finished the story, the clock ticked away, and still, all I could discern outside was a mild breeze. I couldn’t stay up all night, I thought to myself: I had to get up for work the next morning. And with that, I retired to bed, thinking – as one does – of the various storms I had encountered in books.

Strangely enough, storms are not so common in ghost stories as one might think. At least, the only one I could think of off the top of my head was the high wind that blows up in M. R. James’ “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”. Perhaps writers of ghost stories feel it is too hackneyed a device – that its use would appear so contrived an artifice that disbelief would become difficult to suspend. But even when we move away from the genres of the ghost story or the horror story – the former being, of course, but a subset of the latter – storms are not used in fiction as much as one may think. I lay awake that night trying to think of the various storms in fiction. The most famous fictional storm, I’d guess, would be the one that occurs in the third act of King Lear, but even here, Lear assures us, it is the tempest in his mind that affects him more. It is also the tempest in Prospero’s mind that seems to provide the title of Shakespeare’s late play: the actual physical tempest, seen only in the brief first scene, is no more than a plot device to shipwreck various people on to Prospero’s island; and, once that tempest has served its purpose, there follows a stillness so profound that even dramatic tension, it seems to me, vanishes. In what follows, we have some of the most beautiful blank verse that even Shakespeare ever wrote; but unlike the blank verse in his earlier plays, this blank verse is not dramatic, let alone tempestuous. It is a work of extraordinary beauty, but as drama, I must confess I continue to find it puzzling.

Of course, Shakespeare had used the storm as a plot device before: to bring characters into a strange and unknown land, a storm is about as good a plot device as there is – from the early The Comedy of Errors to the late The Tempest, taking in Twelfth Night on the way. There is good precedence for this – from Odysseus in The Odyssey to Sinbad the Sailor in A Thousand and One Nights.

There is a storm and shipwreck in the third act of The Winter’s Tale also, but here, it seems more than a mere plot device: it seems, rather, a measure of divine anger in the face of man, proud man, dressed in his little brief authority, playing such fantastic tricks before high heaven. For there is something about storms, something about the helplessness to which the forces of nature reduce even the most civilised and seemingly secure of humans, that suggests divine wrath. As with Lear or Prospero, a storm may reflect the tempest in our own minds; it may serve also to remind us of the precarious nature of our very souls, balanced so finely between the heaven and hell of our own making. It is through a snowstorm that Ivan Karamazov, his soul tormented, staggers back to his room, where he meets with the Devil in the guise of a shabbily-dressed gentleman; and, as the Devil goads him further into the abyss of insanity, the blizzard outside intensifies. And it is in a snowstorm also that Vronsky, on a railway platform somewhere between Moscow and Petersburg, declares his love to Anna:

“I didn’t know you were travelling. Why are you here?” she said, letting fall the hand which had been about to grasp the handrail. And her face radiated irrepressible joy and animation.

“Why am I here?” he repeated, looking straight into her eyes. “You know I am travelling in order to be where you are,” he said. “I cannot do otherwise.”

At that very moment the wind, as if it had overcome an obstacle, showered down the snow from the carriage roofs and rattled a loose sheet of iron while, somewhere ahead, the deep whistle of the engine gave a mournful and gloomy wail, All the terror of the storm struck her now with even greater splendour.

[From Anna Karenina, translated by Kyrill Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes]

And in that one scene, the entire human tragedy of Anna and of Vronsky – the terror and the even greater splendour of it all – seems encapsulated: the rattling of that loose sheet or iron has only just begun. Vronsky cannot do otherwise. None of the characters in this novel can do otherwise: they all seem driven by forces they cannot even begin to understand, forces as irresistible as the storm itself.

Storms feature frequently in the poetry of Tagore – hardly surprising given that he hailed from a land lashed annually by the monsoon. It features prominently also in Bubhuthibhushan Banerji’s Pather Panchali (and also, of course, in Satyajit Ray’s film version). The depiction of the storm is impressive enough in the translation by T. W. Clark and by Tarapada Mukherji: in the original, it is a thing of wonder. That this wonderful novel seems to little-known outside the Bengali-speaking world I find unaccountable and saddening in about equal measure.

Perhaps the most terrifying and elemental of storms occur in the various sea stories of Joseph Conrad – Youth, Typhoon, The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’. The storm in Moby-Dick, where the lightning sets fire to the tops of the mast to make them resemble giant candles, is also magnificent. Perhaps it is not to be wondered at that writers who have experienced storms at sea should be able to present them in all their terror: no-one can be so vulnerable to the brute power of a storm as those at sea.

There was also a most impressive storm in Pasternak’s  Doctor Zhivago, I seemed to remember, that is presented as a sort of harbinger of the revolution that was to come. But I couldn’t remember exactly where in the novel this occurs, as, by this time, tired of waiting for the wind to howl outside like the voices of the dead, I was already half-asleep. And next morning, my thoughts were far from the elemental upheavals in Conrad, from Ivan Karamazov sinking into madness, from Lear and Prospero enduring tempests in the mind, or from Anna and Vronsky driven to their doom by tempestuous forces they cannot even begin to understand: my first thought on waking was to check that the tiles on our roof were still in place.

Ah – what mundane lives we lead!

Gogol’s “Dead Souls”: a comic inferno

A preamble
I first read Dead Souls when, as a teenager, I developed a mania for 19th century Russian literature, and determined to read everything I could lay my hands on. The version I read then was the work of an anonymous translator, and probably one of the many versions that had been so mercilessly attacked by Nabokov as “worthless”. Nabokov did, however, praise the translation by Bernard Guilbert Guerney, a revised version of which is still available. Since Nabokov’s critique, a good many well-received translations have appeared. I re-read Dead Souls a few years ago in the highly rated modern translation by Robert Maguire published by Penguin Classics. This third and latest reading was in response to a mini-group-read organized by Richard, who blogs in Caravana de Recuerdos, and by Scott, who blogs in Six Words for a Hat. I have, till now, deliberately avoided reading their posts on Dead Souls until I had put my own reactions down on paper – or, at least, on computer screen. I’ll remedy that once I have posted this.

The translation I read this time round was the older version published by Penguin Classics, by David Magarshack. All quoted passages in this post are taken from this translation.


Anyone familiar with 19th century literature will know the landscape. An unutterably dreary, drab little town, somewhere in the provinces, miles from anywhere, riddled with filth and poverty and decay and corruption, and stinking of moral stagnation and decay. It is the place from which any person of sensitivity longs to escape – like Chekhov’s Three Sisters; those who don’t, like Chekhov’s Ionych, become embroiled in the corruption; or, like Dr Ragin in Chekhov’s “Ward 6”, become victims of it. It is this town that forms the grey setting of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and it is this town we see collapsing into psychopathic violence and an almost apocalyptic disorder in Dostoyevsky’s Demons; and it is this town also that is revealed in Tolstoy’s Resurrection as containing behind its shallow façades of faux-respectability the most unutterable institutionalised cruelties. Meanwhile in Saltykov-Schedrin’s The Golovlyov Family, this town seems to stand for Hell itself, from which no-one can ultimately escape. This town is as much a landscape of the mind as it is a real landscape, and it looms large in Russian literature.

The earliest appearance of this town, as far as my admittedly limited reading allows me to judge, is in Gogol’s play The Government Inspector. And it reappears in the novel Dead Souls. In the play, an ordinary man, at a loose end and unable to pay his hotel bill, is mistaken by the corrupt town officials for an inspector, and is larded with all sorts of bribes; by the time the truth is realised, he is away with his gains. And even as we’re laughing, the mayor of the town breaks the invisible fourth wall of the stage to tell us directly, the audience, that we are laughing at ourselves: we all inhabit this Town of the Mind. In Dead Souls, which Gogol referred to as a “poem” rather than as a novel, we once again have a visitor from outside, who causes consternation. But it is not the outsider, Chichikov, who seems at first to be the centre of the reader’s attention: it is the rather eccentric narrator. Chichikov is described, and yet not described, so that we, the reader, get no mental picture of him:

The gentleman in the carriage is neither too fat, nor too thin; he cannot be said to be old, but he was not too young either.

And having given us this piece of non-description, the narrator veers off for no apparent reason to tell us about two peasants speaking about Chichikov’s carriage. What they say is not quite nonsensical, but it doesn’t really seem to make much sense either:

“Lord,” said one of them to the other, “what a wheel! What do you say? Would a wheel like that, if put to it, ever get to Moscow or wouldn’t it?” “It would all right,” replied the other. “But it wouldn’t get to Kazan, would it?” “No, it wouldn’t get to Kazan,”” replied the other. That was the end of the conversation.

The narrator is in no rush to move things along. We are given a leisurely account, seemingly overloaded with utterly irrelevant detail, of the filthy inn, and of the people working there; and then, of the town itself. The details the narrator fixes upon tend towards the eccentric, or even the downright bizarre; much of what he says seems like non-sequiturs. And when the narrator uses a simile or a metaphor, the image takes on a life of its own, quite overwhelming that which it purports to describe:

As he entered the ballroom, Chichikov had for a moment to screw up his eyes, dazzled by the blaze of candles, the lamps, the ladies’ gowns. Everything was flooded in light. Black frock-coats glided and flitted about singly or in swarms here and there like so many flies on a sparkling white sugar-loaf on a hot July day when the old housekeeper chops or breaks it up into glittering lumps in front of an open window, the children gather and look on, watching with interest the movements of her rough hands raising and lowering the hammer, while the aerial squadrons of flies, borne on the light breeze, fly in boldly, just as if they owned the place and, taking advantage of the old woman’s feeble eyesight and the sunshine that dazzles her eyes, cover the dainty lumps in small groups or in swarms.

Whew! But we aren’t finished yet:

Already satiated by the abundant summer, which sets up dainty dishes for them on every step, they fly in…

And so on for another few hundred words, the reality this image has been set up to elucidate by now more or less forgotten. It is fair to say, I think, that I have never come across a narrative voice quite like this one. Dickens too loved eccentricity, and one often wonders about the sanity of some of his characters; but here, one is left wondering about the sanity of the narrator himself.

In the second chapter, Chichikov sets off to visit local landowners. The landowners and their estates are all described by that same affable but seemingly demented narrative voice. And what that voice tells us is just as bizarre as the voice itself. These elements of the bizarre are dropped in as if they were perfectly reasonable and everyday. For instance, Chichikov, having lost his way on a stormy night, and his carriage having overturned, is put up by elderly widow, who sees to his comfort:

“Take the gentleman’s coat and underwear and dry them first in front of the fire as you used to for your late master, and afterwards have them well brushed and beaten.”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Fetinya, spreading a sheet over the featherbed and laying down the pillows.

“Well, here’s your bed all ready for you, sir,” said the old lady. “Good night, sir, sleep well. Are you sure you don’t want anything else? Perhaps you’re used to having your heels tickled for the night. My late husband could not get to sleep without it.”

As the novel progresses, an extraordinarily vivid cast of characters appears – each bizarre and eccentric beyond the bounds of sanity. There’s the impossibly effusive Manilov; the bear-like, deliberate, and somewhat madly methodical Sobakevich; the disgustingly filthy and threadbare Plyushkov, surely the most grotesque and repulsive of all literary misers; and Nozdryov, the colourful braggart, bully and compulsive liar – except, of course, no-one outside a Gogol novel could lie with quite such uninhibited flamboyance and gusto. Chichikov visits these landlords to buy from them, at as cheap a price as he can, serfs (or, not to put too fine a gloss on it, slaves, which is what they were) – serfs who are dead, the “dead souls” of the title, but who are still listed from the last official census as being alive, and for whom, consequently, the landowner is continuing to pay taxes. When Chichikov’s curious business activities are known, the town is in turmoil. All sorts of strange stories start up, and are believed: it becomes common knowledge, for instance, that Chichikov had been planning to elope with the Governor’s daughter (shameless hussy that she is!) A meeting of worthies discuss who Chichikov may be. The postmaster knows: Chichikov is none other than Captain Kopeikin! And who is this Captain Kopeikin? The postmaster launches on a long story – fully reproduced, in all its Gogolian bizarreness – of a Captain Kopeikin who had lost an arm and a leg in the 1812 campaign. Only after the story has progressed through several pages does someone think of mentioning that Chichikov has both arms and both legs. The postmaster admits that he was wrong, and sits down; Kopeikin is not mentioned again. Why the postmaster had thought Kopeikin was Chichikov in the first place is not explained.

The pace of the narration is slow – for modern readers, perhaps, too slow for a comedy: but it is in the narrator’s eccentric voice that so much of the comedy resides – a voice apparently gentle and friendly and even reasonable, and yet, we suspect, utterly insane. And for that voice to establish itself, a slowness of pace is required. The narrative, such as it is, unfolds at a leisurely pace, and that leisurely pace may perhaps suggest a certain gentleness: but the sheer bizarre nature of the content, full of mad non-sequiturs and irrelevant and often grotesque details, belies any sense of the gentle. Gogol had seemingly intended this narrative to be the first part of a trilogy that was to reflect Dante’s vision of Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise: what we see here is no less than Gogol’s vision of Inferno itself. The Dead Souls of the title are not merely the dead peasants.

It is hard to imagine how these Dead Souls presented here could be redeemed, as Gogol had intended: it is hard to imagine what Gogol’s Purgatorio and Paradiso may have been like. Gogol never completed his grandiose project. Towards the end of his life (he died when still in his early 40s), he became dangerously insane, developed a sort of religious mania, and seemingly starved himself to death. And, during these last terrible days, he burnt what he had written of the second part of Dead Souls. (There exists a quite horrific painting by Ilya Repin of Gogol burning the manuscript.) Some fragments of this second part have, however, survived, and all modern English editions dutifully include these chapters, but I find them distressingly banal and uninspired. Gogol may have aspired towards redemption, but it seems to me unlikely that his imagination could conceive of anything but the hellish. The rather hellish last days of Gogol’s own life are perhaps not surprising.

What we get in this novel – or this “poem”, as Gogol insisted it to be – is a vision of Hell itself. But things are never simple with Gogol. From our viewpoint, we may think this to be the Hell of a slave-owning society; and yet, Gogol was firmly in favour of serfdom (slavery by another name), and opposed strongly liberal campaigns for emancipation. It is hard, at least for me, to imagine what really went on in that very strange mind of his. I generally try to heed the well-worn advice of “trust the book, not the writer”, but it becomes difficult here to try to put out of mind details of Gogol’s own life and opinions.

In this third reading, the sense of an Inferno seemed more apparent than had previously been the case. It’s a comic Inferno, certainly, but comedy and seriousness are by no means mutually incompatible. Somehow, the comedy renders this Inferno all the more disturbing: as with the farting devils of Dante, the comedy, if anything, intensifies the horror. Here is world that is utterly grotesque, but presented with such vividness and, despite its slow pace, animated with such vitality, that the effect it had on Russian literary culture, and, one suspects, on the Russian mind itself, is tremendous, and can hardly be over-estimated. That drab Gogolian town became for succeeding writers – for Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy and Chekhov, for Saltykov-Schedrin – the very image of Hell itself. I know of nothing quite like this outside Russian literature: in no other literature that I know of has a physical location become so firmly entrenched as also a moral and psychological landscape. But Gogol could not transcend this landscape, much though he longed to, any more than could the characters of Saltykov-Schedrin’s utterly bleak and desolate novel The Golovlyov Family. This is a Hell in which we still remain trapped.