Petersburg “Grotesques”

Apparently in an attempt to salvage his now-ruined reputation, and also to maintain his spendthrift lifestyle, Dostoevsky wrote several shorter stories in this time period.  I have nothing too exciting to say about them.  They are at times funny, at times moralizing – mostly not boring.  They feel much more like set-pieces designed to elicit modest approval and paychecks.  It is, at times, hard to believe they were written by the author of The Brothers Karamazov. Below is a brief summary followed by my reactions to each story.  The details may be hazy, as a few of these stories blend together.  These include short stories after The Double and before The Landlady – Including  “A Novel in Nine Letters”, “Mr. Prokharchin”, “A Weak Heart”, “Pulzunkov”, “An Honest Thief”, “The Christmas Tree and a Wedding”, and “The Jealous Husband – Or – Another Man’s Wife.”  Frank calls these “The Petersburg Grotesques.”

In some ways, these stories resemble the Canterbury Tales – somewhat melodramatic and at times ribald and humorous tales that typify the lives of their narrators, or their main characters – Frank says the Russians call such stories “skaz” –stories which are narrated by a narrator (though primarily not about the narrator) – yet still, that narrator’s dominant traits come out by means of the narration.  I was going to compare them to “Dubliners”, in the sense that they’re a set of character sketches, and seem to focus on the same social stratum – the lower-middle class – but their generally detached and intermittently mocking tone is substantially different from Joyce’s stories, and probably worse because of it.  Still, they have been amusing (and at times affecting) to read.  Here goes:

“A Novel in Nine Letters” – Frank summarizes this story by calling it light fare drawing on the “hoary topos” of “the cheater cheated” (I’m fast discovering that Frank’s sense of humor often diverges from my own – “hoary topos”, however, is a great phrase).  I think Frank’s assessment is a little unfair – the story is clever enough, as it goes.  One gentleman (Pyotr) writes to another (Ivan), letting him know that a certain mutual acquaintance of theirs, whom Ivan introduced to Pyotr, so that they might swindle him at games of chance, has started coming around too much.  They exchange nine letters (hence the title) during which they become increasingly accusatory and melodramatic, until it is finally revealed that both gentlemen have evidence that their mutual acquaintance has slept with both of their wives.  There is also an ongoing exchange of pleasantries about a pair of misplaced galoshes.

“Mr. Prokharchin” – This is the story of a copyist who eventually goes insane and dies due to lack of food (shades of “Bartleby The Scrivener”).  He’s pilloried and ridiculed by a host of fellow boarders.  The only one who seems to care for him is his landlady.  Upon his death, the roommates discover he’s been hoarding his money in his mattress, though he’d been telling them it was for his poor sister-in-law.  There is some gallows humor involving his dead body upon its discovery.

“A Weak Heart” – Upon reflection, probably the best of these stories – it’s a tale of another copyist (Vasya Shumkov) and his friend and roommate (Arkady Ivanovich Nefedevich).   Vasya comes home one night, wearing his nicest finery, and reveals that he’s been engaged to one Lizenka.  It’s clear that Vasya is perhaps a bit less stable than your average Petersburg denizen; it’s also clear that Arkady is quite attached to his roommate, even codependent, or at any rate very concerned to calm Vasya’s nerves.  Vasya seems to have spent a lot of time lately courting this girl, and because of this has fallen behind on his copying.  It’s near the New Year’s holiday, and Vasya resolves to catch up by working through the holidays.  The trouble is he’s also dreadfully worried about the appearance he will create if he doesn’t show up to various people’s New Year’s parties (though Arkady repeatedly offers to forge his name on their guest registers).  He spends several sleepless nights trying to finish the copying, and of course, in the meantime, grows steadily less sane – this is punctuated by the time Arkady finds him scribbling (or trying to) – onto a blank page, his pen having long ago run out of ink.  Vasya finally is committed to a mental institution, being dragged from his place of work by doctors.  His boss notes that the copying he was doing wasn’t even that big of a deal – he should only have asked for an extension.

Lizenka marries someone else, and when Arkady discovers this, he “turned sad and morose and lost all his lively spirits” (“Uncle’s Dream and Other Stories”, 70), but not before having a startling revelation about the surreal aspect of life in Petersburg.  In a quite lyrical passage – one that, in some ways, mirrors Gabriel Conroy’s final internal sylloquy in “The Dead”, and one that Dostoevsky had written several years before, Arkady reflects:

… It was as if, at last, this entire world, with all its inhabitants, weak and strong, and all their habitations, the shelters of the poor or the gilded palaces for the delight of the powerful of this world, resembled a fantastic, magical vision, a dream that would in its turn vanish in a trice and evanesce toward the dark-blue heavens (70).

“Polzunkov” – A story about a sleazy young man (the name derives from the word “crawl” or “slither” apparently).  Polzunkov narrates a story to his drinking buddies – he tells them it’s about why he’s not married.  He held some sort of compromising information about a man and blackmailed him.  The man then somehow got him to confess this information to a third party (who posed as another blackmailer somehow – this part was confusing to me).  Polzunkov then apologizes to the man and they become friends.  Polzunkov eventually falls in love with the man’s daughter and also works for him as a subordinate in the civil service.  It comes to April Fool’s Day one year, and Polzunkov, as a prank, writes a mock resignation letter and submits it to his boss.  As he is handing it to him, he reveals the joke.  The next day, Polzunkov shows up to work, only to find his desk cleaned out and an order for him to settle his accounts and leave, since his resignation has been accepted.  He pleads with his superior, reminding him of the joke, but his superior pretends not to understand.  The marriage was apparently also called off.

“An Honest Thief” – A narrator writes that his landlady has insisted upon their taking in a lodger, an old man, who narrates a story of another man he once lived with.  The old man – Astafy Ivanovitch – is a tailor of some sort.  Astafy one day stumbles upon a pair of valuable pants, which he vows to un-stitch and create three smaller items of clothing out of.  The other man, a problematic alcoholic, apparently steals the pants and sells them.  He protests against the tailor’s accusations that he’s stolen them.  He then disappears for some time, and returns, but is quickly approaching death from his alcoholism.  He grows worse and worse, and finally he confesses to have stolen the pants.  Astafy tears up at the confession, and the man is about to say something more, but he dies.

“The Christmas Tree and a Wedding” – a brief tale wherein a narrator sees two children playing at a holiday party – a rich future heiress (probably around 10-12) who is already known to have a 500,000 ruble dowry established for herself, and a poor son of a governess.  An adult, one Julian Mastakovich (a character of the same name appears in “A Weak Heart” as Vasya’s superior) learns of this dowry, and attempts to exchange pleasantries with this girl.  The boy, sensing her fear and embarrassment, refuses to leave when asked, and finally Mastakovich is draw away by the host of the party.  Mastakovich is quite embarrassed, and the narrator of the story revels in this embarrassment.  Years later, the narrator passes by a church, where Mastakovich is being married to the girl (now of marriageable age), and she has tears in her eyes.

“The Jealous Husband – or – Another Man’s Wife” – The one actually made me laugh.  It’s a romantic farce about a hapless, older jealous husband.  The story starts with him spying on his wife, waiting outside a house where he thinks he’ll spot her.  He happens upon another man, and convinces himself this other man is her lover.  They eventually both go into the house, but a more innocent explanation for her presence (and her knowledge of him) presents itself.  In a second section, the same man attends the opera, and his wife is there, though she told him he would not be attending.  He then becomes convinced she’s cheating on him.  The deal is sealed when late on, a note falls out of a balcony towards his seat.  He has no firm knowledge that the note was written for his wife, but it specifies a location at which a meeting is to take place, so after the theater, he hurries there.

He enters a darkened room and sees a woman who is not his wife.  She then hears the steps of her actual husband on the stairs, and shoves him under the bed.  At this point, the story takes its most farcical turn as he discovers another man already underneath this same bed.  The two of them exchange insults, threats, and requests to move to a more comfortable position; all the while neither of them makes clear why the other is there.  Eventually the husband enters the room, attempts to go to sleep, when the woman’s lapdog sniffs out the two gentlemen under the bed.  The main character reflexively strangles the tiny dog and shoves its corpse into his pocket.  The woman, since she knows at least one man is under the bed, reveals him, presumably because she is upset about the dog.  He gets out, and is interrogated by the husband, but ultimately convinces him that he’s not there to cheat on his wife, but instead because he had mistakenly come where he thought his wife was meeting her lover.  He finally escapes after promising to purchase her a new lapdog.  He goes home to find his wife laid up with an infection, and belatedly discovers the lapdog corpse in his pocket.  The story ends with his wife demanding an explanation.

Like I said – mostly, light reading, punctuated with a few provisional sketches of the man-driven-insane motif, one to recur quite often in Dostoevsky’s later work.

“A Weak Heart” is probably the story most worth reading out of this bunch, with “An Honest Thief” a close second.

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One Response to Petersburg “Grotesques”

  1. David says:

    Great summaries, Josh. When should we start co-writing a screenplay of “The Jealous Husband”? I see Clooney in the lead.

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