Dostoevsky’s Early Years and Poor Folk – or – “The Dickensian Aspect”

The rule I’ve set for myself is to read up until the point where Frank treats of a particular text at length, then to stop, read that text, then read what Frank has to say about it, and then respond, both to Frank, but also, more importantly, to Dostoevsky’s work itself.

The first 136 pages of Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849, describe his childhood and early adulthood, all of which happened before he wrote his first novel Poor Folk. A few things stand out about this section of the work.  First, I was struck with the similarity between Dosotevsky’s upbringing and what I remember about Joyce’s.  Both belonged to families that had previously had (or thought they had) some sort of aristocratic standing, but lacked the capital needed to sustain the lifestyle.  That comparison is probably somewhat forced: or at least, is at too high a level of generality to be really insightful, but it was something I thought of, so I’ve written it down here.  Given that both men went on to be both prolific writers and profligate spendthrifts and debtors seems somehow relevant.

Something else was a personal connection I was led to, in Frank’s description of Dostoevesky’s reaction to the death of Pushkin – he apparently told his family that “if he were not already wearing mourning for his mother [who had recently died], he would have wished to do so for Pushkin” (64-65).  That’s expressed in an early-19th-century romanticist idiom I can’t quite endorse, and obviously sounds a bit contrived/exaggerated, but a page later Frank writes,

at the age of sixteen, it is the disastrous fate of his literary idol, as well as all that Pushkin’s death implied for Russian culture, which already involved Dostoevsky’s deepest feelings.  And if we are ever to understand him properly, we should do well to keep in mind this precocious capacity to pour the full intensity of his private emotions into what was, essentially, a matter of cultural and national concern (66).

Now every generation has its “I remember where I was” moments, but I’ve often wondered if I didn’t feel them more deeply.  The moment my memories often return to is of the Challenger disaster in 1986.  I do remember there being a sense of public grief; I remember my parents talking about where they had been during the Kennedy assassination.  What I also remember was that, as an eight-year-old, I was profoundly moved to sadness by this event.  I remember we were brought in from recess, and a substitute teacher showed us the news on a TV which had been wheeled in on one of those big old carts.  I remember just feeling so scared about my own emotions.  I was particularly angry when I heard a member of my class (a boy) say aloud that the reason the shuttle had crashed was because it had a woman on it (this drew some laughs from other male classmates).  I remember wanting to shout at him in angry and sadness how wrong he was, what a stupid thing that was to say, what an idiot he was.  And then I remember going home, and watching the TV news before dinner.  I remember that horrible video they showed over and over, the picture of the shuttle taking off, and the two booster rockets shooting off in different directions, and then the whole ship exploding.   I just sat there on the floor watching the TV.  What I also remember doing was obsessing over the technical details.  The booster rockets, “solid fuel”, the leaks they thought had developed, what a setback this would be for the space program, how long they would have to ground the fleet until they worked out a solution…  As I get older, those reactions diminish but still remain.  I’m not really sure what is a “normal” reaction for a young person – but Frank seems to think it was unusual of Dostoevsky to have reacted like this.  Which perhaps makes me unusual as well?

Back to the literature – the form of Poor Folk took me by surprise – it’s epistolary.  I haven’t read so many things written as such.  The example that comes most readily to mind is Dracula.  It struck me as an interesting format, calling into question the narrative omniscience of the 3rd person we’re used to experiencing.  Characters discuss events they’ve both experienced, leaving out the exposition about what’s actually happened, since they’ve already both experienced them.  The core of the book is an exchange of letters between an old copyist named Makar Alekseyevich Devushkin and a young single woman named Varvara (Varinka) Alekseyevna Dobroselova.  It becomes clear they’ve involved somehow romantically (though how is not specified).  They apparently visit each other sometimes, and, of course, their relationship is not exactly conventional.  They are both intermittently poor, and exchange loans and presents.

At first, the work seems conventional, overly romanticized even.  It slowly dawned on me, however, that much more was going on beneath the surface.  After learning to see through the flowery prose (Devushkin repeatedly calls Varinka “my own”, “my sweet” and so on) – I started to pick up on the broader canvass that was being painted.  For one thing, the two lovers exchange books.  Devushkin reveals that he lives with one Ratazyayev, whom Frank appropriately labels “the hack novelist.”  I definitely had a good laugh when Devushkin reports (of Gogol’s The Stationmaster) that Ratazyayev though it was “all old hat, and said that the vogue now was for books with illustrations and various kinds of descriptions…” (63).   I reminded me of the frustrating conversations I occasionally have with a friend of mine given to pronouncements about how the iPad, or whatever, are rendering the book, the traditional novel, literature all irrelevant.  Not that generally such a person would even know “the book” if it hit him in the face.  It’s good to know that a previous era had its philistines as well.

Throughout, the book works by a kind of implicit ecphrasis.   Other tales and subplots are etched as if in Achilles’ shield, though their integration with the core narrative (if there is one) is tangential at best.  More explicitly in one case, inset in the early part of the letters is Varinka’s dairy from earlier in her life, when she fell tragically in love with her tutor Pokrovsky.  Varinka mails Devushkin the diary, and so the reader is invited to read it as well.  Therein we are shown a tragicomic narrative of a tutor and his father.  Varinka and the father conspire to purchase Pokrovsky a full edition of Pushkin’s works, but he passes away in a seemingly manic fit, and the landlady works to confiscate the books in exchange for unpaid debts.

“The Dickensian Aspect”

Frank spends some time discussing the subtle critique of Gogol’s work that Poor Folk represents.  Having not read The Overcoat or The Stationmaster, I am not in a position exactly to verify these claims.  But the crux of the claim centers around the epistolary format, and its confrontation of Gogol’s omniscient (and, apparently upper-middle-class) perspective.  “Poor folk” are here allowed to speak for themselves, and this rebukes the ironic and condescending presentation they apparently find in Gogol.  Again I find a parallel with Joyce, especially the Joyce of Dubliners.  Though the 3rd person persists in these stories, there is a sort of narrative sympathy extended to the protagonists that eschews 3rd-person condemnation – we almost have the characters narrating themselves as they would were they omniscient 3rd-person narrators, if that makes any sense.  In “Counterparts” for example, Farrington’s rage is never explicitly condemned as self-destructive; in fact, it starts to make sense given the oppressive feeling of the office we are led to experience, the shaming atmosphere of the bar, the Englishman and woman, and so on.

Frank explains that the epistolary format is not so much parody of Gogol as internal critique, a gesture of improvement, the idea being that dueling 1st-person perspectives allow the sort of social commentary to gather more force than impersonal, detached descriptions of poor people being poor.  I’m of course reminded of the experience I had in watching The Wire for the first time.  I’m drawn to the first episode that shows Wallace’s house, and the kids he’s taking care of.  Of course, television rarely has a 3rd-person-omniscient narrator, but, mutatis mutandis, we find the same perspectival shift.  The opening episodes of The Wire are not all that far away from your normal Law and Order feel.  The dominant “voice,” if non-narrated television can have a voice, is with the impersonal authority figures, specifically the police.  Only in the dead-drop of episode 6 do we first find any of the characters fully liberated from the gaze of biopolitical control, as the camera follows an orange extension cord up a pole, and then back down, into Wallace’s apartment, where he sleeps until the alarm wakes him up.  No exposition is provided, and though you can scarcely hear what he’s saying to the children –  this sort of perspectival shift is achieved in a deftly arranged three minutes before the theme music  plays.  The show just goes outward from there.

And The Wire does deal with the issue of perspective explicitly in Season 5, and criticizes  it in much the same way Dostoevsky seems to target Gogol.  The editor of the Baltimore Sun is depicted as deciding he wants to run a series of stories that “illustrate the Dickensian aspect” of the lives of the poor in Baltimore.  He’s an arrogant patrician of course, but insists that the best way to draw attention to the plight of the poor is to keep the story simple – not a big “amorphous” story that grows problematic in the telling (i.e., The Wire itself).   So The Wire picks out its own “hack novelist.”  I even think the whole idea of something’s being “Dickensian”, by design, is itself a bad thing.  Dickens stories are filled with easy morals and clear cut good and bad guys… not so for The Wire, or Dostoevsky, obviously.

Just as Law and Order never deigns to give us the view of the criminal (except in fleeting moments of clear culpable cynicism) so, apparently, Gogol never gives his readers any sense of the real thoughts and feelings of those actually experiencing poverty.  The analogy continues: at times, Law and Order treats us to US History-type “lessons” about the conflicts inherent in constitutional law, but it never engages in these conflicts in a very human way.  Law and Order Characters quickly become exemplars, never the sort of archtype-laden but still realistic visions of The Wire.  And so Frank’s point, I think, is that assuming one’s goal is progressive social criticism, Dostoevsky showed his Russian audience that the better way into this end is through perspectival drama, not omniscient narrative.

Another Wire parallel: Frank cites another critic, Bakhtin, as having seen Dostoevsky’s work as primarily dialogical.  In this sense, the characters are conversing not only with each other but with the reader, and the perspectivalism allows this sort of dialogue to retain an unspoken, enthymemic quality.  The dialogue is never explicitly didactic, as in Tolstoy (especially War and Peace); it is instead inferred at various times by the reader.  One could make the same sort of claim about The Wire: it’s a dialogue about social structures, seen through the lens (initially) of the crime drama, but one whose perspective evolves along with the viewer’s experiences of it, moving outward from the corner (and the viewer’s experience of Law and Order), to the port, to city hall, the schools, journalism and finally to a full-on critique of the moral life of the United States of America.

One last thought.  I was refreshed when Frank noted that it’s easy to find Poor Folk underwhelming.  I definitely felt that.  This is likely for two reasons.  First, the “social novel” hardly seems sensational anymore.  Many of us were forced through at least one Dickens novel in high school, or if not that, then Upton Sinclair or (better) Toni Morrison.  The idea that people living in poverty suffer harshly, as outrageous as its truth is, hardly outrages us in actuality, as we experience Dostoevesky’s illustration of it in 19th century terms, even if he does do some interesting work with perspectives.  Poor Folk was good, but it is just not epoch-making art.  Ultimately, however, I suspect I feel this way owing to the simple fact that I’m not used to being able to complete any work of Dostoevesky in one day.  There were two clearly identifiable main characters, and they really only had one name each!

It’s short.  It’s not Crime and Punishment.  But it’s a start.  Now it’s back to Frank and then onto something called the Petersburg Feuilletons.

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3 Responses to Dostoevsky’s Early Years and Poor Folk – or – “The Dickensian Aspect”

  1. David says:

    I too recall the Challenger crash, and the scene you described could have been lifted from my own experience (though I was a bit older, of course). I don’t recall feeling particularly saddened by the crash, but I do recall (I think–memory is tricky) feeling the chill of recognition that things in this world can go terribly, terribly wrong.

    Your analyses of Frank/Dostoevsky/contemporary American television makes for great reading. I’m looking forward to the next installment.

  2. Josh says:

    Sometimes I feel a bit like Cato – who ended all his speeches with “Carthage must be defeated” – “The Wire must be watched.”

  3. Pingback: The Dostoevsky Project Wrap-Up #1: Everything I Wrote | Original Positions

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