The Double

“With insomnia, nothing is real.  Everything is far away.  Everything is a copy of a copy of a copy” (Fight Club, script here).

Frank reports that Dostoevsky’s second novel, The Double, was more or less universally panned.  I find this strange, considering it’s clearly a work of much more sophistication and certainly much more experimental and creative than Poor Folk.

As a way into considering this novel, I’ll offer another modern analogue – this time, from movies.  The movie I kept thinking of as I was reading this book was Fight Club.  In fact, the further in I got, the more I became convinced that The Double was a very important source for Fight Club.  The lead character here, the Edward Norton role, who, according to imdb, was simply called “the narrator” is one Mr. Golyadkin, a “titular councilor,” essentially a lower-level civil servant.  He lives in Petersburg and keeps one servant – Petrushka.  He works in an office in an unfulfilling job, though one he seems to hold some ambition about.  At the start of the story, he goes to meet with his doctor, Krestyan Ivanovich, and Krestyan Ivanovich advises him to improve his lifestyle, find some more normal hobbies, etc.  After listening for some time, Golyadkin goes to a party, at which he perpetrates some fairly obscure social outrage (as far as I could tell) involving the daughter of a noblewoman.

He leaves the party, and on his way out, gets the sense that he’s being followed.  He doubles back and eventually crosses paths with the person who is following him, who apparently looks exactly like him.  Later on (and this especially triggered my thoughts about Fight Club), the narrator writes:

The one now sitting opposite Mr. Golyadkin was Mr. Golyadkin’s horror, he was Mr. Golyadkin’s shame, he was Mr. Golyadkin’s nightmare from yesterday, in short, he was Mr. Golyadkin himself… no, it was a different Mr. Golyadkin, completely different, but at the same time completely identical to the first” (Pevear and Volokhonsky 55).

Tyler Durden, to some extent.  Of course, he looks exactly like the protagonist, not like Brad Pitt, and the whole “fight club” thing doesn’t really happen in this book, but there’s still a lot of similarity – most prominently, it’s a similarity of feeling or mood.

As the story goes along, the imposter Golyadkin takes a more and more prominent position in the “real” Golyadkin’s life.  He begins working in his office, he comes over for dinner, and eventually he ingratiates himself in all the same circles Golyadkin travels in. Meanwhile, the true Golyadkin goes more and more off the deep end.  He begins to question every relationship, and finds fewer and fewer people whom he thinks he can trust.  He comes to believe that the imposter Golyadkin has insinuated his way into all facets of his life, and things spiral downward.

The details of the plot seem oddly irrelevant.  This novel is much more of a character sketch than a well-organized narrative.  What stands out, having finished it, is the feeling of the thing.

Near the start of the story, at the meeting with the doctor, we quickly get a sense for Golyadkin’s ineffectual conversational skills.  To wit:

Yes, sir, Krestyan Ivanovich.  Though I’m a peaceable man, Krestyan Ivanovich, as I believe I’ve had the honor of explaining to you, my way goes separately, Krestyan Ivanovich.  The path of life is broad… I mean… I mean to say, Krestyan Ivanovich, that… Excuse me, Krestyan Ivanovich, I’m not a master of fine speaking (Pevear and Volokhonsky 12).

A lot of Golyadkin’s dialogue reads something like dreams I sometimes have, where I keep trying to say the same thing, over and over, trying to yell louder and louder, but my lips refuse to move.  There are also more overt gaps in the story, times when Golyadkin just seems to be borne up by a group of people, unable to walk, and none of the people seem to respond exactly the way you’d expect someone to when he speaks.  The dreamlike feel of the narrative events is mirrored in the dreamlike prose of the narrator himself.  The story is narrated in the 3rd person, but it seems certainly to borrow thoughts and feelings from the protagonist.  It’s “3rd person limited” in the parlance of junior high literary analysis.  But that’s too simple.  It’s hard to tell if we’re hearing the story from Golyadkin’s perspective, or something more omniscient.

More broadly, there’s a structural ambiguity – is the narrative “true” or is it just a representation of the delusions experienced by Mr. Golyadkin?  Is the “double” Golyadkin a real, physical being, and therefore is the true Golyadkin correct to be so scared, confused and so on?   Or is the double just a hallucination, something which gives the reader reason to be suspicious of all the fear and confusion?  Are we to understand Golyadkin as mentally ill, perhaps a paranoid schizophrenic, or are we to understand him as a rational man in a surreal circumstance?  Of course, in Fight Club, this question is resolved at a crucial point of the film, but that never really happens here.

Another analogous work my mind kept wandering towards is Bartleby the Scrivener.  I’m not sure exactly why, except that both Golyadkin and Bartleby seem to grow more and more distant from their work as clerks.  I’m currently reading “Mr. Prokharchin” – which is even more like Bartleby – so I’ll leave that for another post.  Golyadkin also has obvious analogies to later, more famous Dostoevsky heroes like the Underground Man, Ivan Karamazov, or Roskolnikov.  I’ll be keeping that in mind as I go forward.

Something else that made this book better than Poor Folk was its more frequently humorous encounters.  Sometimes, as Frank points out, it’s just slapstick – like when the double orders food that Golyadkin is then expected to pay for, unaware that his double is elsewhere in a restaurant.  At other times, it’s more in the tragicomic vein, like near the end, when, for various confusing reasons, Golyadkin comes to believe that the nobleman’s daughter will be eloping with him, and, for various confusing reasons, Golyadkin finds himself seated among some woodchips near the daughter’s window.

He’s retained a cab driver to help with the elopement, but has been seated in the woodchips outside the window for some time.  At last, the cabdriver approaches him and enquires as to whether he might not go elsewhere to find other fares, since perhaps he’s not going anywhere else that evening?  After this, Golyadkin reasons thusly:

“What’s he muttering about?” Mr. Golyadkin thought through his tears.  “I hired him for the evening, I’m sort of… within my rights now… so there!  I hired him for the evening, and that’s the end of the matter.  Even if he just stands there, it’s all the same.  It’s as I will.  I’m free to go, and free not to go.  And that I’m now standing behind the woodpile—that, too, is quite all right… and don’t you dare say anything; I say, the gentleman wants to stand behind the woodpile, so he stands behind the woodpile… and it’s no stain to anybody’s honor—so there!  So there, lady mine, if you’d like to know.  Thus and so, I  say, but in our age, lady mine, nobody lives in a hut.  So there!  In our industrial age, lady mine, you can’t get anywhere without good behavior, of which you yourself serve as a pernicious example… You say one must serve as a chief clerk and live in a hut on the seashore.  First of all, lady mine, there are no chief clerks on the seashore, and second… (Pevear and Volokhonsky 158)

Golyadkin’s ranting thus morphs from a Joycean internal monologue towards a delusional Shakespearean soliloquy.   And, of course, since it’s Dostoevsky, it’s all in the same paragraph.

Speaking of Joyce, Frank points out that this book covers a lot of similar ground to the “Nausikaa” episode in Ulysses (the one with Gerty McDowell and an overly observant Leopold Bloom) – one of my favorite.  But then, as I think about it, both owe something to Don Quixote, which, by the way, is hilarious.

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2 Responses to The Double

  1. David says:

    It’s great how you’re connecting your Dostoevsky readings with contemporary art. Should I conclude that Dostoevsky’s influence on contemporary art is more wide-ranging than I had imagined, or that you’re just very adept at drawing connections?

    Of course, it doesn’t really matter whether the influence is there or not. Juxtaposing the works (like “The Double” and “Fight Club”) is interesting in its own right.

  2. Josh says:

    I think the nice thing about blogging is the threshold for plausibility is lowered a bit… or, put another way, conjecture and evidence feel less distinct.

    … but I mean more to draw thematic connections than assert causal linkages. However, I’m guessing Dostoevsky has had quite an influence on writers, both of this generation and past ones. I’m just not in a position to verify the specifics (and actually don’t really care to be – I always find those sort of things anti-climactic to discover). It’s a bit like when you read an interview with an author you like, and they come across as stupid. It’s sometimes more pleasant to let the texts speak for themselves.

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