Posts Tagged ‘Dostoyevsky’

“A Christmas Carol”, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky. And a bit of Henry James.

In a recent post, I pointed out what seems to me a striking similarity between a passage in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and a passage in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illyich. In both instances, we see a group of men speaking in indifferent terms about the recent death of a colleague. Of course, this similarity could be a coincidence, but I think not: first of all, Tolstoy openly loved and admired Dickens; and secondly, Dickens was here addressing a theme that was obviously very close to Tolstoy’s heart – What meaning, what significance, can we find in a human life in the context of its inevitable end? This is a question that Tolstoy had returned to throughout his life, and nowhere with greater insistence than in The Death of Ivan Illyich. And Tolstoy is not the only artist to have addressed this question, and echoed A Christmas Carol in the process: Ingmar Bergman’s film Wild Strawberries also addresses this question, and here too, we see an elderly misanthrope reliving his past, and becoming reformed in the process.

The echoes of Dickens in Bergman’s film are, most likely, accidental; but there was another great artist who, quite consciously, I think, had echoed A Christmas Carol. Consider Bob Cratchit’s speech to his gathered family in the Christmas-Yet-to-Come episode:

“…But however and whenever we part from one another, I am sure we shall none of us forget poor Tiny Tim—shall we—or this first parting that there was among us?”

“Never, father!” cried they all.

“And I know,” said Bob, “I know, my dears, that when we recollect how patient and how mild he was; although he was a little, little child; we shall not quarrel easily among ourselves, and forget poor Tiny Tim in doing it.”

Now let us consider Alyosha’s speech to the boys (also while mourning the death of a child) at the end of The Brothers Karamazov:

“Boys, my dear boys, let us all be generous and brave like Ilusha, clever, brave and generous like Kolya (though he will be ever so much cleverer when he is grown up), and let us all be as modest, as clever and sweet as Kartashov. But why am I talking about those two? You are all dear to me, boys, from this day forth, I have a place in my heart for you all, and I beg you to keep a place in your hearts for me! Well, and who has united us in this kind, good feeling which we shall remember and intend to remember all our lives? Who, if not Ilusha, the good boy, the dear boy, precious to us for ever! Let us never forget him. May his memory live for ever in our hearts from this time forth!”

(from the translation by Constance Garnett)

In both cases, the speaker is urging other children to remember a departed child, and, whatever happens in life, be inspired to be good by the memory of that dead child’s goodness.

It’s all too easy to dismiss Dickens for being sentimental (especially in something like A Christmas Carol, which is generally regarded as no more than a feelgood piece of whimsy, and not, perhaps, the deepest expression of an artistic and moral vision); but when Dostoyevsky places a passage that is almost identical in sense and feeling at the very end of what is generally taken to be the most comprehensive statement of his own artistic and moral vision, we should, I think, take it a bit more seriously.

For I don’t think the passage in Dickens is “sentimental” at all. Quite the contrary.  It comes in a scene that is, I think, at the very heart of A Christmas Carol. It depicts, to my mind very convincingly, a loving and close-knit family grieving for a dead child. It’s only a few pages long: Dickens, contrary perhaps to expectations, doesn’t milk it. But the context in which he places it is remarkable. For, earlier, Scrooge had been made to see a world utterly devoid of any human feeling: some cleaning women have robbed a dead man of everything, including the very blankets the corpse had been wrapped in, and are now trying to sell these stolen goods for as much as they can get. A world so devoid of feeling – and not too far removed, incidentally, from the indifference of the men Scrooge had seen earlier discussing the dead man in indifferent terms – is indeed Hell. And Scrooge, by this stage, knows it: he refers to it as “a fearful place”. And he knows why it is such a fearful place: there is no room here for human feeling. He asks to be shown some feeling in relation to the dead man, and he is shown a young couple who are merely relieved, because the death of their creditor has given them an unexpected respite. But this is not what Scrooge wants to see: and he finally articulates what it is that he wants to see – tenderness. He wants to see that which makes of our lives something other than the Hell he has just witnessed. And this is when we are shown the grieving Cratchits.

The mother tries not to show her grief:

The mother laid her work upon the table, and put her hand up to her face.

“The colour hurts my eyes,” she said.

The colour? Ah, poor Tiny Tim!

The father is less successful, and at one point, spontaneously bursts into tears. Dickens tells us, in a narrative intrusion of a kind very unfashionable these days:

He broke down all at once. He couldn’t help it. If he could have helped it, he and his child would have been farther apart perhaps than they were.

Far from being sentimental or mawkish, as is often alleged, this seems to me to get to the very heart of the matter. For whatever pain the mother and the father may feel, the very fact that they can feel this pain is what makes them human. This is the tenderness that Scrooge had longed to see, and without which our lives are very literally Hell.

At the end of Bob Cratchit’s speech, he says something very unexpected:

“I am very happy,” said little Bob, “I am very happy!”

I think Dickens is challenging us here: he is challenging us to understand how a man can profess himself “very happy” even when undergoing the greatest mental anguish. And I think the answer lies in what had come earlier: were it not for the pain that the Cratchits feel, they would be even further from their dead child than they already were. It is this ability to feel that makes us human, that makes of this terrible world something other than merely Hell.

A few years ago, I read The Portrait of a Lady, and was struck by a passage at the climactic point of the novel, where, as Ralph is dying, and as his beloved Isabel tells him how unhappy she is in her marriage, he says:

“You don’t hurt me—you make me very happy.” 

And I remember trying to figure out where else I had come across a character in the depths of sorrow claiming to be happy. And it took me a while to figure out it that the other book I was thinking of is A Christmas Carol.  Perhaps it’s not surprising that it took me a while: after all, Dickens and James are about as radically different as writers as it is possible to imagine. Indeed, James deeply disliked Dickens, and attempted to make his own novels as different from those of Dickens as possible. And many readers still, I think, tend to think of James as the serious novelist, and of Dickens as a mere entertainer – good fun, perhaps, but not really possessing much depth. Well, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky certainly didn’t think so: both were happy to pay their tribute to Dickens in their most deeply felt work. And James – entirely unwittingly, I am sure – at the most grave and most solemn moment in one of his very finest works, seems to make contact with a sort Christmas novel still thought of in many quarters as no more than piece of feelgood seasonal whimsy.

I really do think we should take A Christmas Carol as a serious and very deeply felt work of literature.

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“The Adolescent” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Sometimes it’s worth writing about a book one doesn’t understand simply to register one’s lack of understanding. Since those who may wish to know something about this work could no doubt easily find those who understand it far better than I do, I’ll try not to detain you long: I’ll keep this as short as I can.

The Adolescent (translated by Constance Garnett as A Raw Youth) should have been a great novel. It is, in terms of length at least, clearly a work of substance; and it was published just a few years after the towering masterpiece Demons, and a few years before what many would say is the even more towering masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov. Just one year after the publication of this novel, Dostoyevsky wrote The Meek One, one of the finest of all novellas. Admittedly, The Adolescent has something of a reputation of being “disappointing” – that is, in less euphemistic terms, “poor” – but it is not unreasonable to expect so great a novelist, neither serving his literary apprenticeship nor declined into the twilight years of creativity, to produce something that is, at the very least, of some merit. And maybe this is. Maybe it is working on some plane to which I, with my limited perceptions, did not have the key. But whatever merit the novel possesses, I regret to say it escaped me.

I read the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, and in the preface, Richard Pevear makes the case that Dostoyevsky wrote not four major novels, as is generally acknowledged, but five, The Adolescent being worthy to be ranked alongside Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Demons, and The Brothers Karamazov. Pevear’s defence of this novel is certainly a brave attempt, but I can’t frankly say I’m convinced.

I do take Pevear’s point, though, that Dostoyevsky is very successful in maintaining throughout the long narrative the voice of the adolescent narrator. But possibly, this is where the problem arises. Dostoyevsky had used the first person narrator successfully in shorter works such as Notes from Underground and The Meek One, but had avoided it in his other longer novels. There, he had developed a technique whereby different narrative voices weave in and out, some knowing more than others, some knowing virtually nothing at all and relying on stories heard at second hand; and we get, as a consequence, a composite picture, not always entirely coherent, and frequently enigmatic. And, yes, his finding the right tone of voice for his adolescent narrator, and maintaining it across so long a stretch, is indeed, as Pevear says, impressive; but I wonder if this single narrative viewpoint restricted him.

The adolescent narrator is Arkady Makarovich Dolgoruky. Despite his patronymic, his father isn’t Makar Ivanovich: Makar Ivanovich is but the peasant husband of Arkady’s mother. Arkady’s real father is Versilov, who, over the course of Arkady’s narrative, is presented sometimes as a demon, sometimes as a saint. I suppose that at the centre of this novel – insofar as it can be said to have a centre at all – is Arkady’s desire to know his real father, and to be acknowledged by him. But whatever that centre may be, even if it exists, it is obscured by a plot of whirling extravagance. Illegitimacy, disputed fortunes, incriminating letters, a blackmailing ring, suicides, sexual exploitation, eavesdroppings … there’s something happening on every page, and it becomes hard keeping track of it all. One often sees complaints about certain books that “nothing happens”: here, there is so much happening all the time that one wishes at times for things to stop happening for a while. And never did I have to consult so frequently the list of principal characters the translators so thoughtfully provide: none has the vividness of the characters in Dostoyevsky’s other novels, and quite often, they seemed to me interchangeable.

In short, I found it difficult to keep up with the intricacies of the plot. But worse, after a while, I found I’d stopped caring. I found I’d stopped caring about who was eavesdropping on whom, or why, or how, or what information was revealed. I persevered, though: a writer who has given me so much surely could not produce a book utterly devoid of interest. I started wondering whether I was simply looking at it the wrong way. Perhaps it made sense to think of it as a sort of “satyr play”. In Athenian drama, a trilogy of tragedies – such as The Oresteia – was often followed by a “satyr play”, in which the themes that had been addressed in the tragedies were now addressed from a comic angle. Maybe, I told myself, that, after the immense tragic dramas of Crime and Punishment, The Idiot and Demons, Dostoyevsky was following them up with a “satyr novel”. He most likely hadn’t intended any such thing, I told myself, but if that gives me a key to the work, it might be an idea worth holding on to. And at times, such a approach seemed to make sense. Arkady, for instance, tells us at one point that he has a great “idea”, an overriding thought that rules his life. We have seen in Dostoyevsky’s other novels characters ruled by these Great Ideas. But Arkady’s Great Idea was not about God, or about human suffering, or about sin and redemption, or about atonement, or about any of these things: it is merely that he wanted to make a great deal of money, and hence, gain power and respect. That’s it. The only way to take this, I felt, was to see it as a sort of self-conscious parody of Dostoyevsky’s earlier novels.

Sadly, seeing this work as a sort of “satyr novel” didn’t work for long: for if the intention had indeed been to give a comic perspective on tragic themes, then some humour wouldn’t have been out of place. Now, despite his reputation for deadly seriousness, Dostoyevsky was often a very funny writer: sadly, though, he wasn’t here. Even for laughs, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot and Demons give us far more.

Towards the end of the novel, Makar Ivanovich, Arkady’s legal father, suddenly arrives on the scene, and he turns out to be a Tolstoyan peasant-saint, full of great wisdom. And he tells a story, which is reproduced in full. It starts off like one of those Tolstoyan fables. But fables are supposed to be simple stories: this one gets so intricate and involved, that it became almost as hard keeping up with it as it was keeping up with the rest of the novel. Did Dostoyevsky mean this as a joke? It couldn’t be a parody of Tolstoyan fables, as Tolstoy hadn’t written his fables when Dostoyevsky was writing this. And if it was indeed meant as a joke, then, once again, a few laughs wouldn’t have gone amiss.

You get the picture. I am afraid I got nothing at all out of this novel. The fault is entirely mine, I’m sure, but it remains for me a huge enigma: it’s not that Dostoyevsky doesn’t succeed in what he is trying to do, it is more that I can’t figure out what he is trying to do in the first place. Dostoyevsky’s was indeed a very strange mind.

In the meantime, if you’re an admirer of Dostoyevsky but haven’t yet read this, don’t let me put you off: this post is intended purely as a record of my personal impressions, nothing more. I don’t insist on anything.

Dostoyevsky’s great novels are to a great extent improvised: even when at advanced stages in his writing, it’s clear from his notes that he is still experimenting with different possibilities. This may not seem the most promising way of writing novels, but in his case, it worked superbly. But not, I think, here. Where we speak of him “improvising” in his other novels, here, he seems merely to be making it up as he goes along.

Digressing with Sterne

My intentions were good, that’s for sure. All those times I have bought books with impressive titles, impressive blurbs on the back covers, and, I am sure, even more impressive contents, I had every intention of reading them. And this despite already having scores of unread books on my shelves, and my normally slow reading rate having become even slower of late.

Right now, I should be reading Nietzsche. He is, after all, one of the most important and most influential thinkers of the era that, in literary terms, possibly interests me most – the latter half of the nineteenth century. How could I hope to get a handle on the intellectual currents of the time without knowing Nietzsche?

A great many writers and thinkers one could become acquainted with at second hand, through a process of osmosis, as it were. Of course, if you want to study these writers and thinkers properly, you will have to read their works: there is no royal path to understanding. But one can, nonetheless, get a very rough idea with secondary material. But with Nietzsche, it becomes very difficult: he has been interpreted in so many different ways, and with so many of these interpretations deemed dangerous misinterpretations, that one really has no option but to dive in and see for oneself. Which, given my lack of a background in philosophy, is not easy. So I bought myself the Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche, and read the various excellent essays in there, as a way of easing myself in. What’s more, I think I even understood these essays. Well, some of them, at least. And I was just about to dive into Beyond Good and Evil – when I got distracted.

It was Laurence Sterne who distracted me. And that is curiously appropriate, as Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (as well as his lesser known Sentimental Journey) are masterpieces of distraction. Here was a writer who, try as hard as he could, just could not keep to the subject at hand. Tristram Shandy is a sort of paean to the Art of Digression: the entire novel is but a series of digressions – though digression exactly from what is not very easy to figure out. But Sterne is so engaging a narrator, so genial, so personable, so delightfully dotty, and so scrupulously polite despite all the bawdiness that will insist on intruding, that it doesn’t seem to matter. And, one soon realises – the digressions are the point.

I won’t try to describe Tristram Shandy here. I’ll keep that for a later blog post – to be written once I’ve finished reading this. This is not my first reading: it is, if I remember correctly, my third. But it is strange how one’s receptivities alter over time. Not that I didn’t enjoy my earlier readings – I most certainly did – but I don’t think I enjoyed them to quite the same extent I am enjoying it this time round. I think, more than anything else, it is Sterne’s personality I am enjoying. In talking about books, we often undervalue the companionship afforded by the author: and what better company could anyone ask for on the commuter train?

It makes quite a change from the last book I read. (Apart from those essays on Nietzsche, that is.) I recently finished reading The Adolescent by Dostoyevsky, which I had started as I was a great admirer of that writer, and, given this novel’s reputation as one of his lesser works, had not read before. And I remain a great admirer still, despite my experience of having now read this novel. But either his remarkable powers deserted him when writing this, or he was working at some level beyond my comprehension. I do not know. I am currently debating with myself whether or not I should write a blog post on this novel: what’s the point, given that I couldn’t make any sense of it? Just a short post to register my incomprehension, perhaps. But be that as it may, whether the problem was with the book itself or with my shortcomings as a reader, it wasn’t a satisfying reading experience.

I have also been reading – and blogging on – the major plays of Ibsen. Now Ibsen, unlike Nietzsche, is a writer I have been acquainted with for a long time, and he is very close to my heart, for reasons I haven’t yet worked out. So I thought that reading those plays, and writing about them – not pronouncing upon them, as such, but, rather, recording my own thoughts and impressions, such as they are – would help me come to a closer understanding of what it is about these plays that affect me so. I have been reading these plays this time round in chronological order, and am now approaching his last plays; and, frankly, I feel intimidated. The next play I would like to write about is Rosmersholm, and that is so very difficult and complex that I really don’t think I am qualified even to try to untangle its psychological and moral depths. And, for this very reason, I have been delaying writing something on it: I am finding it difficult to grasp and to pin down something that I can sense is in there, and which is, I can tell, immense. I’m sure I’ll get down to it eventually. And, although it is unlikely that Ibsen ever read Nietzsche, the essays on Nietzsche I have recently been reading did seem to me to shed some light on these Ibsen plays. It is not, after all, any great surprise that major creative writers and thinkers, writing at the same time, should have similar concerns.

But, for the moment, let’s leave Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche and Ibsen aside for a while – all mere complexities. I’ll return to them later when I am so minded. Not that there aren’t complexities in Tristram Shandy also, but whatever complexities there are in it are so camouflaged with Sterne’s warmth and ludic dexterity that I find myself reading with a broad grin on my face rather than a with a furrowed brow. And that, for the moment at least, is how I like it.

Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche and Ibsen can all wait. I am now digressing with the greatest digresser of them all, and thoroughly enjoying every minute of it.

“Virgin Soil” by Ivan Turgenev

What is to be done?

This is always a pressing question regardless of which time or place we may happen to live in, but it seemed a particularly pressing question in pre-revolutionary Russia. Chernyshevsky wrote a hugely influential polemical novel with that question as title. (Tom of the Amateur Reader blog kindly read it for us so we don’t have to*, and recorded his impressions in a series of posts starting with this one. Scott Bailey, of the Six Words for a Hat blog, also wrote about it here.)

Chernyshevsky’s perspective was that of a utopian socialist. Tolstoy wrote an essay with the same title in 1886, and his perspective was … well, Tolstoyan, I suppose: the very idiosyncratic views he developed later in his life resist categorisation with any kind of “-ism”. And in the early years of the twentieth century, Lenin too wrote a pamphlet with that title: although I haven’t read it, I think I’m on safe ground in thinking Lenin’s perspective to be Communist. And even those writers who did not use this title addressed nonetheless this vital question. However they may have disagreed with each other on the answer, on this one point they seemed to be united: something had to be done.

Russia then – and, many would argue, now too – was, up to a significant point, part of Europe, and also, up to a similarly significant point, not part of Europe. Peter the Great had forced westernisation on to the country, but had used the most barbaric of means to achieve it, and, throughout the 19th century, the intelligentsia seemed very much split on whether to look to the West for enlightenment, or to find spiritual transformation in the soul of Mother Russia itself. The social iniquities were horrendous: serfdom – essentially “slavery” by another name – was abolished only in 1861, but that act alone did little to improve the peasants’ lot. There were all sorts of social and political unrest, and the crackdowns were vicious: the sound of the lash was never too distant. Whatever one’s political stance, there seemed no two ways about it: something had to be done.

Extreme views were very common, and I suppose it may be said that Turgenev was an extreme moderate. By which I mean that he espoused moderation not out of indecisiveness or out of pusillanimity, but out of a firmly held conviction that extremism in any direction was inherently dangerous. This made him, I suppose, something of an anomaly in the intellectual climate of Russia at the time – indeed, he was severely criticised by all sides – and it is hardly surprising that he spent much of his life in Europe. And it is towards Europe he looked. As a consequence, he made himself hugely unpopular amongst the Slavophiles: Dostoyevsky, especially, took against him, although he had personal reasons as well as ideological ones. Demons, which Dostoyevsky wrote in the early 1870s, contains a particularly nasty and unfair (though, it must be admitted, very funny) caricature of Turgenev.

Demons, too, is a novel that addresses the question “What is to be done?” Dostoyevsky had long disliked the idea of turning towards Western Enlightenment: given the history and traditions of Russia, he felt, foreign ideas wouldn’t work so well. It is easy to dismiss Dostoyevsky’s hostility to western ideas as mere nationalistic pride – though no doubt there is much of that there – but what Dostoyevsky saw in Europe did not seem to him a Utopia worth striving for. In Demons, he depicted the revolutionaries either as amoral nihilists and psychopaths, or as duped followers. Once again, it is easy to dismiss all this, and say his depictions are mere reactionary hysteria, but, given the uncanny accuracy of his prediction in the same novel of the Communist totalitarianism that gripped Russia only a few decades later, perhaps we shouldn’t. Dostoyevsky’s answer to the question “What is to be done?” isn’t simple: it involved turning back to the roots of Russian spirituality, which, he felt, could save not merely Russia, but the rest of the world too. (This is, inevitably, an oversimplification of complex ideas that, I must admit, I do not claim to adequately grasp, even after several re-readings.) On what we shouldn’t do, he was clearer: we shouldn’t accept the agenda of those who sought revolution. His vision of where these agenda would lead us was remarkably far-sighted.

Turgenev wrote Virgin Soil, his final novel in the late 1870s, only a few years after the appearance of Demons, and, although he does not refer directly to that novel, it would have been surprising indeed if he had not had it in mind, especially given that he, too, was writing about revolutionaries. However, his view of revolutionaries was very different.

Not that he approved of their aims, or, indeed, of their methods: he was too committed to the path of moderation to do that. But he approved of their moral seriousness. In On the Eve, written some twenty-five years earlier, he had similarly admired the moral seriousness of the Bulgarian revolutionary Insarov, and had juxtaposed it with the moral complacency and laxity of the older generation. However, moral seriousness and good intentions are clearly not enough, and in Virgin Soil, he digs a bit deeper into these issues. In the earlier novel, Turgenev had not actually delved into what it meant to be a revolutionary, but here he does: how does one foment a revolution? What does it involve? Where does it all lead? And the conclusions he seemed to reach, while not apocalyptic as is the unforgettable closing section of Demons, are nonetheless rather pessimistic. For reasons rather different from Dostoyevsky’s, Turgenev too could not support the revolutionaries’ cause.

While a novel based on such themes is inevitably political in nature, Turgenev’s interest was primarily in the human aspect. All ideologies stand or fall by how humans implement them, how humans respond to them, how humans, with all their manifold strengths and equally manifold shortcomings, affect them, and are affected by them. And this is where Turgenev’s interest primarily lies – not so much in the ideologies themselves, but in what we may call (to anticipate the title of a rather fine Graham Greene novel from about a century later) “the human factor”.

The principal character here is Nezhdanov, an illegitimate (and disinherited) son of an aristocrat, who is drawn to the revolutionary cause. He is employed by Sipyagin to be tutor to his son, and soon finds himself in a country estate – a standard setting in Turgenev’s work. We are introduced here to the lady of the house, the beautiful but self-centred and manipulative Valentine Mikhailovna; to Sipyagin himself, who affects liberalism, but knows, as they say, which side his bread is buttered; and to a neighbouring landowner Kallomeitsev, a brutish and unthinking reactionary. We are introduced also to Sipyagin’s ward, the young but self-assured Marianna, whose independence of thought and of action mark her out as very different from the gentle submissive ingenues of many of Turgenev’s earlier works. All are characterised expertly, with a few deft but unobtrusive strokes.

The scope here is wider than usual: Nezhdanov’s revolutionary comrades are also making the journey from town to country, in an attempt to bring the revolution to the peasantry, who seem to be little better off than they had been before the Emancipation of 1861.

Nezhdanov is serious and conscientious about his revolutionary mission, but there seems to be, quite disastrously, something missing: Nezhdanov himself realises, to his immense shame, that he lacks commitment to the cause. Why, he does not know: it is a mystery even to himself. This is a theme Turgenev had long explored – the “superfluous man”, the man who may be, and, indeed, often is, intelligent and talented and capable, but who is, nonetheless, curiously ineffective. And yes, even here, amongst people consciously dedicated to action, we find this “superfluous man”.

Nezhdanov is also a poet, and on a number of occasions, he attributes his lack of effectiveness, his lack of true commitment, to his aesthetic nature. This seems highly dubious: why should an aesthetic nature inhibit commitment? Does not sensitivity to beauty render even more ugly the brute suffering visited so iniquitously on so many humans?

Nezhdanov himself does not know the answer to this, but the thought of a connection of sorts between his lack of commitment on the one hand, and his aestheticism on the other, does, nonetheless, haunt his mind. Perhaps we need to go to a novel written after the revolution, Doctor Zhivago, to find a further exploration of this. There, Pasternak’s protagonist, Zhivago, is also a poet, an aesthete. When the revolution had come, he had cautiously welcomed it: it was the cleaning of the Augean Stables that was very much needed. But as the novel progresses, Zhivago’s aestheticism seems to become, in itself, and by itself, a statement against the totalitarian nature of the revolution: a sensitivity to the beauty of life cannot reconcile itself to an ideology that sees humans as but terms in a mathematical equation. If I may be so self-centred as to quote from my earlier post on Pasternak’s novel:

Pasternak was writing in a time where even the description of the beauty of a tree was a political statement, a statement against totalitarianism.

[D]octor Zhivago is a celebration, or, if not a celebration as such, at least an affirmation, of everything that totalitarianism attempts to suppress – human feelings, human emotions, the human sense of beauty, human individuality, the apprehension of love, the need for companionship, for affection … indeed, the novel is an affirmation of everything that is human.

(I think I should add at this point that there is also much in that earlier post that I now find myself disagreeing with.)

Possibly, Turgenev was aware of all this; but Nezhdanov certainly isn’t. As he increasingly becomes aware of his lack of commitment, the more he sees himself as a “superfluous man”, a failure. As with Bazarov in Fathers and Sons, he cannot force himself into becoming what he is convinced he should, but knows he cannot.

The pages where Turgenev describes how these would-be revolutionaries attempt to bring the revolution to the peasants introduce a most uncharacteristic strain of humour (Turgenev, for all his many gifts, was not really the funniest of writers): these people may mean well, but they do not have the first clue, as they distribute pamphlets to largely illiterate and mainly indifferent (and sometimes hostile) peasants. Eventually, in one case, the peasants themselves turn the revolutionaries in to the authorities; and the authorities are merciless.

So what should be done? It is of course not the novelist’s duty to give answers, but an answer of sorts is suggested by the character Solomin, whose name sounds too close to that of the wise king Solomon to be ignored. Solomin is also part of the revolutionary movement, but, apart from providing the odd bit of assistance, he doesn’t seem too heavily involved in revolutionary activity. He is the manager of a factory, and has a reputation of running the factory well: as a consequence, he is much respected by factory owners in the region, and is much in demand. However, we hear disappointingly little of what Solomin thinks is the answer to the question “What is to be done?” Perhaps he does not have much of an answer. We do hear towards the end of the novel that he goes on to run his own factory on a co-operative basis, but we do not see any of that: what we do see of him, he is running a factory as, effectively, his own kingdom. He may refer to the other workers as “brothers”, but he is in charge, and everyone, including both the workers and the grateful factory owners, knows it. He seems, to be frank, an unlikely revolutionary.

But if we do not get much of an answer to the question “What is to be done?”, this is not really Turgenev’s focus of interest: he was interested in how humans feel, and how they behave, when faced with this question, and when they try to propound answers, and then live up to them.

Reading through Turgenev’s work (and with this, I think I have now read all of Turgenev’s major work – all that has been translated into English, at least) I often get the impression that he was writing on political matters much against his will; that he was writing on such themes because, as an intelligent man living in deeply troubled times, and as a man who believed passionately in a moderate liberalism, he had no choice but to address such matters; but that, if he had his way, he would turn his back on all the politics and write melancholy love stories instead – the sort of thing that had my younger self dismissing his work as “soppy”. (Turgenev did sometimes do just this, even late in his career, as in that exquisite novella The Torrents of Spring.) In Virgin Soil, he has much scope for “soppiness”: there’s the country setting for a start, and few writers if any could match Turgenev when it came to lyrical descriptions of nature; and there’s also a love story. But, despite this novel being by some distance considerably longer than his other works, he shuns all these temptations: the focus here is neither on the beauties of nature, nor on the lyricism of romantic love; there’s a sort of single-mindedness in his determination here not to be deflected from his principal themes. This refusal to indulge his lyrical inclinations results in what is, by his standards, almost an austere novel: there is a single-mindedness of purpose that presents with the utmost clarity and starkness the tragic course of the “superfluous man” – of a man who, though not lacking either in intelligence or in ability, becomes aware of how utterly dispensible he is in the wider scheme of things.

So whose depiction of revolutionaries, I wonder, was closer to the mark – Dostoyevsky’s in Demons, or Turgenev’s in Virgin Soil? I’d hazard a guess that both types of revolutionaries existed, and that, after the revolution, the kind of revolutionaries Turgenev depicts were liquidated by the kind Dostoyevsky depicts. Until they, too, were liquidated in turn. Possibly Turgenev did not foresee the liquidations; but Dostoyevsky did. It’s a paradoxical case of the writer who appears hysterical piercing deeper than the writer who seems more balanced and clear-sighted. But Turgenev’s depiction remains important for all that: there were revolutionaries who went in there with serious moral purpose, and with the best of intentions. They may have been misguided, they may have been wrong; they may not have consciously realised that what they were aiming for was nothing less that totalitarianism itself. They may, in the final analysis, have been superfluous. But Turgenev’s vision was humane and gentle, and for this alone, if nothing else, I find him among the most companionable of writers.

 

[The translation of “Virgin Soil” I read was by Michael Pursglove, published by Alma Classics.]

* Please Note: the gag about Tom reading Chernyshevsky so the rest of us don’t have to is shamelessly nicked from this post in Di Nguyen’s blog “The Little White Attic”.

 

Dostoyevsky’s “Fantastic stories”

I use the word “fantastic” not in the sense that it is generally used now – that is, to describe something that is spectacularly good – but in the sense that Dostoyevsky himself had used it in the subtitle of two of his late stories, The Meek One (sometimes rendered as A Gentle Creature, or A Timid Creature, or some variant thereof), and “Dream of a Ridiculous Man”, both of which he subtitled A Fantastic Story. However, while “Dream of a Ridiculous Man” is quite clearly a work of fantasy – the greater part of it relating a dream involving travel to another planet – the element of fantasy in The Meek One is harder to discern, as it appears to tell a realistic story, albeit from the perspective of a character whose grasp of reality may seem tenuous. That Dostoyevsky chose to explicitly describe both these stories as “fantastic” raises some not easily answered questions on what he considered to be “fantastic”, and where precisely he considered the boundaries of reality and fantasy to lie.

For while his major fiction cannot really be described as “realistic” – in the sense that we would describe the works of, say, Flaubert or of Tolstoy as “realistic” – nothing happens in any of them that is physically impossible. When the physically impossible is introduced – say, the hideous gigantic insect-like creature that Ippolit sees in The Idiot – it is made clear that it is seen in a dream. For all the strangeness of a Dostoyevsky novel, even an event such as a spontaneous combustion (which is famously accommodated in Dickens’ Bleak House) would have been grotesquely out of place. Yes, people act in his novels in very strange ways, or think very strange things; and quite frequently the action described seems to address some weird, rarely visited corners of our minds; but there is nothing that contravenes the laws of physics. Even in “Dream of a Ridiculous Man”, which is explicitly described as “fantastic”, that fantasy – what we would nowadays describe as “science fiction” – takes place within a dream. But in The Meek One, there isn’t even a dream sequence. In a short preface to the story, Dostoyevsky explains why he chose to describe the story as fantastic: it refers, he says to the form: the narration itself is a fantasy. It tells us what is going on in the mind of a man whose wife has just committed suicide: his thoughts, his feelings, are utterly confused, fragmented, and often contradictory, and he tries desperately to piece them all together to arrive at what may be the truth of the matter. And the fantasy, says Dostoyevsky, lies in the piecing together of all this formless confusion into the semblance, at least, of an orderly narrative.

I can’t honestly say I am entirely convinced by this explanation, and suspect that, in this preface, he is playing games with us. In describing his story as “fantastic”, and then drawing our attention to it by giving us at the outset an explanation that clearly does not satisfy, he is challenging us, the reader, to determine for ourselves where the boundaries of reality may lie. That the narrator is unreliable goes without saying; but the subject of the story is not merely the events he describes, but also the very process of his trying to fit these events all together into some sort of coherence. And it is here, we may suspect, that the element of fantasy may enter.

The story is one of immense psychological complexity. Possibly it is a story that is not possible to narrate from an objective viewpoint – not because the objective truth does not exist, but because it is so profoundly hidden from sight, so difficult to arrive at. Nothing is as it seems: even the title deceives, since “the meek one” – or the “gentle creature”, or the “timid creature” – is neither meek, nor gentle, nor timid.

The narrator is a pawnbroker, a profession not considered honourable. And he is aware of how he is regarded. Quite apart from his profession, he has in the past been regarded with derision: when in the army, he had been insulted, and had refused to defend his honour by fighting a duel. He insists to us, the reader, that his refusal had not been out of cowardice, but we cannot be entirely sure. And neither, we suspect, can he. We suspect that he is tormented by the thought that he really is as base and as contemptible as he is perceived to be. And he needs to prove to himself that he isn’t. Whatever he is, he is not ridiculous.

This man finds himself strangely attracted to what initially seems to him a vision of purity: a very young lady, barely out of childhood, who, since the death of her parents, has been tyrannised and effectively enslaved by her aunts. She tries to pawn her meagre possessions in order to pay for an advertisement for position of governess, but to no avail. The narrator suggests an advertisement somewhat differently worded:

Young person, orphan, seeks position as governess of small children, preferably with an older widower. Can help with housework.

One need not read too closely between the lines to figure out what this is promising. The only way out for this young lady is, effectively, to sell herself sexually.

It is at this point that he proposes marriage to her. It is, on the surface, a noble, romantic action: he is the knight in shining armour rescuing the damsel in distress. By this action, he is answering, disproving, atoning for – what you will – the contempt with which he knows he is viewed. He is proving once and for all that he is not ridiculous. But she, the rescued damsel, does not really have a choice in the matter. She can but accept.

And now begins one of the most complex depictions of any marriage in fiction. We know from the start that she had ended up committing suicide: she had jumped from a high window clutching to her breast an icon. But if we had expected from this, and from the title, a meek and gentle creature, a mere passive victim to the cruelties and injustices heaped upon her, what follows takes us by surprise. For she is a spirited creature, and, in battle, is prepared to fight. He, for his part, demands from her not merely respect, but also love: this, after all, is why he had proposed to her in the first place. He is determined that, from her at least, he will obtain that respect and that love that the rest of the world denies him. Did he not, after all, save her? But he himself has no love to give. And she cannot give love under such duress. And so begins a terrible battle between the two, literally to the death. Not even Strindberg, I think, had given us so terrifying a picture of the struggles for dominance within marriage.

At a climactic point, he awakens from a nap to see his wife standing over him, holding a loaded pistol. At last, here is his chance to exonerate himself for ever from the charge of cowardice: he pretends still to be asleep, and lets her do as she pleases. But she cannot bring herself to pull the trigger: this particular battle she loses, and once again, the balance of power shifts back to him.

And yet, he cannot win, for she refuses to see him as he would like to be seen – as the noble and generous soul, the rescuer, the man who pardons all wrongs with a saintly magnanimity. What he likes to imagine is timidity on her part is really no more than an aversion – an aversion for his moral cowardice, if nothing else. And the end, when it comes, is shocking – even though we have known all along that it would come. For he had wanted love: he had desperately needed it. And, also in his own way, he had loved her. It was admittedly a very twisted kind of love, but it was the only kind of love he could offer. And at the end, the tragedy is his as well: his world now is one of utter desolation, where even Christ’s commandment of loving each other can mean little when we are incapable of such love:

They say the sun gives life to the universe. Let the sun rise and – look at it, isn’t it dead? Everything is dead, and the dead are everywhere. Only people, and around them silence – that’s the earth! “People, love one another” – who said that? whose testament is it? The pendulum ticks insensibly, disgustingly. It’s two o’clock in the morning. Her little boots are standing by the bed, just as if they were waiting for her … No, seriously, when she is taken from me tomorrow, what about me then?

Even here, we cannot be quite sure whether those last words indicate tragic despair, or mere solipsism and self-pity.

For all the glinting hard edges, these final pages are tremendously moving. We are moved not merely on behalf of the dead wife, but also of the living husband, who, in having driven his wife to suicide, should really have been the villain of the piece.

All this is told from the husband’s confused perspective, and, whether or not he finally sees the truth of the matter – insofar, that is, that the truth of the matter can be seen at all – we, the readers, are left with a sense the tremendous pity of it all. The narrator is, in a sense, a monster, and the dead woman is clearly his victim, but Dostoyevsky’s compassion, never mawkish or sentimental, encompasses both monster and victim. It is a quite extraordinary piece of writing, and one I felt compelled to re-read as soon as I had finished. I suspect this will not be the last time I read it.

“The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” (which I put in quotes rather than in italics as it is clearly a short story rather than a novella, and convention requires quotes for the former, and italics for the latter) is, more obviously, a “fantastic” story. The principal character, like the protagonist of The Meek One, is “ridiculous”, and he is aware of how ridiculous he is, of how much he is looked down upon by the world. The fantastic element of the story is narrated as a dream, but it is, in effect, science fiction: he finds himself transported to another planet in which all is perfect, but his human presence in this utopia corrupts the perfection. I am afraid I had the same problem with this story as I have with much of science fiction: it is too obviously written to make a point. And the point here is actually quite a straightforward one: human beings, by their very nature, are unsuited to utopia, and may find what salvation there is in individual acts of kindness. Perhaps those more in sympathy with the science fiction genre would get more out of this story, but I must confess that it was the realistic rather than the fantastic aspect of this story I enjoyed more: the dream of another planet seemed to me far less interesting than the reality of this man’s initial despair, his indifference to human suffering, and the subsequent awakening of his humanity. I realise, though, that in saying this, I am reporting on my own perceptions (or, rather, the shortcomings of my perceptions) rather than on the work itself.

There is another short story written in the last years of Dostoyevsky’s life that deserves the subtitle “A Fantastic Story” – although Dostoyevsky himself did not call it such. This is “Bobok”, a quite delicious piece of Gogolian grotesquerie. Here, the narrator finds himself in a graveyard, and hears the recently deceased and not yet decomposed corpses speaking to each other, bringing into their dead states the spiritual deadness they had carried even when they had been alive. Once again, the “fantastic” elements are most likely the hallucinations of a mad narrator: Dostoyevsky did invest his fiction with a sense of heightened awareness, but those things that are physically impossible he almost invariably cast as dreams, or as hallucinations. Nonetheless, he gives us here a dark and gruesome satire that, one suspects, Gogol would have relished.

But it is The Meek One, in which there is nothing that is physically impossible, that seems to me the greatest and most fantastic of his “fantastic stories”. For there is nothing, after all, quite so fantastic as the lives we strange creatures live in this real world.
[ All excerpts taken from the translations by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volkhonsky, published 1997 by Random House. ]

Dostoyevsky in Europe

Winter Notes on Summer Impressions by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, translated by Kyrill Fitzlyon, published by Alma Classics. All quotes in the post below are taken from this translation.

 

Among the many things in life I find myself utterly at a loss to account for is the tremendous attraction I feel for the writings of Dostoyevsky. When his many faults are listed to me, I can do little but nod away in agreement. Yes, his novels are hysterical, irrational – indeed, he seemed to laud irrationality; they are loosely structured baggy monsters. He was also a fervent Slavophile, while I despise nationalism. He was politically conservative, and hated liberalism and liberals with a vengeance, whereas I tend to describe my politics as “liberal”. (Indeed, I was amused to find recently that I had described my politics on my Facebook profile as “Turgenevian liberal”. I don’t remember writing this, and suspect I was drunk at the time and not entirely serious; but I did laugh at what was presumably my own joke, and decided not to change it.) Dostoyevsky hated those Russians such as Turgenev who had adopted the values of Western liberalism, and I can’t help but see my own adherence to these same Western liberal values, despite my Indian background, as a sort of parallel (even though I have, I suppose, the excuse of having lived most of my life in the West). I suspect that if Dostoyevsky had known me personally, he would have despised me, and my values. And, by rights, I should also be repelled by Dostoyevsky, who stood for so much that I do not, and who loathed so much that I do. And yet, I find myself irresistibly drawn to Dostoyevsky. Which, I suppose, demonstrates Dostoyevsky’s dictum that we are far from being the rational creatures we like to imagine ourselves.

Dostoyevsky had not always been a right-wing Slavophile, of course. In his youth, he had been very left-wing indeed. He had been member of a revolutionary group, had narrowly avoided the death sentence (he had, famously, been led out to be executed before it was announced that his sentence had been commuted), and had served many years in a labour camp. His early works had been of a somewhat sentimental nature, focussing on “poor folk”, on the “insulted and the injured”, and lamenting the social injustice that cause so much suffering. But then, in the early 1860s, a very profound change took place in his outlook. As translator Kyrill Fitzlyon says in his preface to Winter Notes on Summer Impressions:

His earlier novels aim at the entertainment of the reader; undeterred by considerations of verisimilitude or psychological probability, they glide over the surface of life without stopping to take soundings of what goes on underneath; they shun deep analysis and they lack the later Dostoyevskian eagerness to reconcile the actions of men with their consciences, conceived in terms of spiritual anguish.

It was in the summer of 1862, at what we may see as the turning point between Dostoyevsky’s earlier viewpoints and his later, that Dostoyevsky visited Europe for a few weeks. That winter, he wrote of his travels in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, and here we may see quite clearly his mature thoughts and ideas taking shape.

The West was what liberals, such as the hated Turgenev, pointed towards: it was in the liberal values of the West that Russia must seek salvation; by looking West, and adopting its values, Russia, so far from the major centres of civilisation, could, at long last, civilise itself. But Dostoyevsky was not having any of this. This is not necessarily because of his Slavophilism: what he saw in the few weeks he spent in Paris, and the week he spent in London, did not suggest to him a Heaven to be aimed for. That Russia was no Heaven he already knew: but salvation did not lie in emulating the West.

Before he goes into all this, he writes a preface, to which he gives the title “Instead of a Preface”. This sense of playfulness is apparent throughout the book. Dostoyevsky tells us right away that he is not a reliable narrator. He has spent only a few weeks in London and in Paris, he tells us, and his views are not only based on limited exposure, but are also, no doubt, biased and jaundiced in all sorts of ways. As he goes on to expand on this, he seems to create an authorial persona that may or may not be himself. At times, he seems almost to present himself as of those Gogolian grotesques who can’t stop digressing into all sorts of irrelevancies. The narrator he presents is, in short, a comic character, the first of the many weird and unreliable voices who come and go in the narration of his later novels. Giving the authorial voice such a persona allows Dostoyevsky to pursue his ideas into unexpected areas, and explore thoughts and concepts that may appear eccentric or whimsical, but without necessarily giving these ideas the seal of authorial approval.

He spends some time in London, and presents it in almost apocalyptic terms. He is shocked by the level of extreme poverty and vice. This may be surprising: as is apparent from his own novels, extreme poverty and vice aren’t exactly unknown in Russia. But perhaps he had expected better from London. What shocked him, I think, was the open acceptance of these things. He gives a description of a pathetic half-starved young girl, a child, openly trading herself in Haymarket, right in the centre of fashionable London. The English are often chided for their hypocrisy, but it seems to be the lack of hypocrisy, the openness of such moral depths, that seemed particularly to strike Dostoyevsky.

He has more to say about France, and, rather interestingly, he seems shocked by the very aspects of Russia that had shocked Europeans of that age – the lack of freedom, adulation of the Emperor, police informers, and the like. And he considers especially the middle classes, the bourgeoisie. The inspiring slogans of the French Revolution – liberty, equality, fraternity – are, he feels, an immense sham: all that has happened is that the middle classes have now taken on the power to exploit the lower classes. All ideals, all morals that people pretend to live by, are sham:

Paris has an unquenchable thirst for virtue. Nowadays the Frenchman is a serious and reliable man, often tender-hearted, so that I cannot understand why he is so afraid of something even now, and is afraid of it in spite of all the gloire militaire which flourishes in France and which Jacques Bonhomie pays so much for. The Parisian dearly loves to trade, but even as he trades and fleeces you in his shop, he fleeces you not for the sake of profit, as in the old days, but in the name of virtue, out of some sacred necessity. To amass a fortune and possess as many things as possible – this has become the Parisian’s main moral code, to be equated with religious observance.

Dostoyevsky keeps probing: what, exactly, are the bourgeoisie afraid of?

Whom should he fear then? The workers? But the workers are all of them capitalists too, in their heart of hearts: their one ideal is to become capitalists and amass as many things as possible.

This is not the solution, Dostoyevsky felt, for Russia. Rational precepts, and noble sentiments – liberté, égalité, fraternité – end up meaning nothing, and not merely because humans are not rational creatures: as he goes on to examine in Notes From Underground (which was written shortly after this book), humans are, if anything, anti-rational creatures, who, far from accepting ideas because they are shown to be rational, would choose, rather, deliberately to reject them in order to proclaim their freedom from the tyranny of reason. All he can see in the great cities of Europe are “anthills”: any attempt from above to bind humans into a unity is bound to fail disastrously, because they misunderstand the essentially paradoxical nature of humanity.

I can understand Dostoyevsky’s argument – at least, up to a point. Our lives have, if anything, become worse in certain respects: they have become “atomised” – to use the word popularised by the title of Michel Houellebecq’s novel – as never before. Not only do we not have fraternité between the classes, solidarity even within the social classes is becoming more problematic. But I don’t really understand what Dostoyevsky’s own solution is. Are we to expect a mystical fraternité to spring up spontaneously?

Of course, Dostoyevsky was not so foolish as to think that. His novels are not didactic novels: they are multi-voiced works, in which many of the voices rebel against their author and speak out against him, unanswered; and where, furthermore, many of the voices articulating some of Dostoyevsky’s own most deeply held beliefs are presented in a ridiculous light. Those great novels are seething cauldrons of ideas and counter-ideas, endlessly contesting and intermingling with each other, never resolving; but never are these ideas presented as something abstract: they are, as Kyrill Fitzlyon says in his preface, “conceived in terms of spiritual anguish”.

I still do not know why I am so drawn to the writings of Dostoyevsky, when, all things considered, I shouldn’t be. But there is something about these very strange books of his that has about it the air of prophecy.

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.