In one of the Feuilletons, Dostoevsky outlines a character-type – “the dreamer.” The dreamer is heavily influenced by Romantic literature, to the point where he (and it’s definitely a he) expects his life to operate in its categories. Not necessarily to the extent of madness and insanity – more just the sort of cultivated melancholy that one often finds in the solitary male characters of certain stories. I suppose a modern equivalent might be John Cusack’s character in High Fidelity – so drawn to aesthetic purity of experience that ordinary relationships become difficult, even undesirable. Another obvious (and less anachronistic) analogy would be to “A,” the protagonist and narrator of the first volume of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or. In the two longer short stories (almost novellas) here considered – “White Nights” and “The Landlady” this character type comes to the fore.
“White Nights” is a self-conscious exploration of the character type, often written with a wink and a nod to the very phenomena the character himself embodies. It’s written in the first-person. The narrator does not name himself. He is the sort of person, he tells us, who goes out for long walks through the city of Petersburg, and though he doesn’t have many (or any) actual acquaintances, he considers himself quite personable. He says he has conversations with the houses themselves in fact, and has some amusing imagined dialogue about homes which have recently been painted new colors, had additions put on to them, and so on.
So one summer night (the title alludes to the fact of the sometimes nonexistent nights in Russia in the summer) he spots a beautiful woman running from a man, and decides to intercede to save her from whatever this man is trying to do. He waves his cane, the man disappears, and he finds himself in dialogue with this young woman, who, quite predictably, though she is beautiful, has a sort of tragic edge that the narrator spots right away. This reminded me of Salinger’s “For Esme – with Love and Squalor” – or, and I’m not really being facetious here, any number of Smashing Pumpkins songs, especially on Melancholy and the Infinite Sadness.
So the two strike up a conversation. It turns out she had formerly promised herself to a young man, who was to meet her in Petersburg, and he has not come to meet her yet. The narrator immediately falls in love with her, but also sets out to help her reconnect with her lost lover, out of some sort of masochistic sense of obligation. She makes him promise that he not fall in love with her. He helps her write a letter to the lost lover, hoping that she doesn’t hear back. Over the course of a few nights (the story is divded into nightlong chapters) at first she doesn’t her from her old lover, and she lets herself apparently fall in love with the narrator. But then, wouldn’t you guess, the original lover shows up, and the narrator is crushed. He, however, professes happiness, because, as the closing line of the story notes “Good lord, only a moment of bliss? Isn’t such a moment sufficient for the whole of a man’s life?” (The Best Short Stories of Fyodor Dostoevsky, trans. David Magarshack, 58).
I found this story derivative, and self-aware in a bad way. Frank apparently finds it “charming” and delightful. The narrator affirms his “dreamer” status several times, and drops names of artists and writers he enjoys. Both main characters acknowledge their lives’ narratives as stereotypical and seem to revel in that. I was often bored. It reminded me a a bit of one of those plays that are about the world of the theater, or those movies that are about Hollywood. It’s possible to do such a thing well, but self-reference is not always as amusing to me as it seems to be to some others.
That said – I did very much enjoy “The Landlady.” Here, the “dreamer” character does have a name – Ordynov – and the story is told in the 3rd person. He’s a more interesting, and fully fleshed out character than the “White Nights” narrator. He’s the last scion of a formerly aristocratic family, and “he calculated that he could live on the means he had at his disposal for two or three years – even, with intervals of hunger, for four” (Poor Folk and Other Stories, trans. David McDuff, 134). He’s obsessed with “book learning” and has become a recluse, living in his apartment, going out rarely, but busily developing a philosophical “system.”
The story begins when he decides to find a new apartment. While undertaking this change, he is out and he sees a beautiful young woman (Katerina) accompanied by a stern older man (Murin). He is, of course, entranced by this young woman. He later follows them to church, and is overwhelmed with passion while watching her take communion. He figures out where they live, and ends up renting a portion of the apartment in which the old man and the young woman are lodgers.
The story is rife with aspects of Gothic horror – the house is tended by a Tatar who, when speaking with his family, communicated in a tongue Ordynov cannot understand. The old man and the woman have a mysterious past. All three of them have various forms of what we would call undiagnosed mental illness, including epilepsy, and even, it seems to me psychotic breaks. The man and the woman turn out to be married, despite a large age difference, and the vague sense that he is her father. The old man, Ordynov is warned by his civil servant friend Yaroslav illych, is some sort of enchanter who can curse people at will.
Eventually, Ordynov and Katerina have some romantic, and very physical exchanges, mostly while the narrator is drifting in and out of consciousness. Katerina tells Ordynov a very confusing and incoherent story about her past, one which the reader senses is partly the result of delusion. She remembers living in the country, and her parents’ house burning down, and Murin killing her father and mother and then taking her to Petersburg. Murin becomes aware of this developing relationship, and the two engage in a series of confusing verbal struggles. Finally, Katerina decides not to leave Murin. Murin eventually recounts his version of events fo Ordynov, one which makes Katerina out to be an insane, deluded, traumatized young woman who has constructed her own life narrative. Eventually, Ordynov moves out and instead lodges with much more rational, impersonal Germans.
The narrator of the story never really makes clear who’s telling the truth – there’s the vague sense that neither of them are, that this is just such a messed up, semi-incestuous system that the ordinary world has been left behind for both of them, and also therefore for Ordynov. A lot of the power of the narrative comes precisely from this central ambiguity – there is no Tolstoyian God-narrator to settle these questions. The overall tone of the piece is distressing and anxiety-provoking, though funny at times.
Actually, while I was formulating what to say about this story, I saw the just-released (and very good) movie Cyrus, with Jonah Hill, of Superbad fame, John C. Reilly, and Marissa Tomei. It’s the story of how Reilly’s character (a hapless dreamer) falls in love with Marissa Tomei’s character (the single mother of 20-year-old Cyrus). The film explores the bizarre dynamic that results between all three characters, and it never resolves the bizarre-ness by vouching for who is, and who is not “dysfunctional.” The stories are somewhat different (the woman older, and the parent, in Cyrus, but the woman is the younger daughter in “The Landlady”) but the overall feel of the thing is very much the same. There’s the insinuation of incest, or incestuousness at least, and the strange feeling that being an interloper in the situation would create. John C. Reilly’s character moves in, and the moves back out after disrupting the relationship of the mother and the daughter. Again, I find myself asking, like David did of a previous post – is Dostoevsky an influence, or is this more of a coincidence of thematic content and I’m over-imagining the connections? Either way, I felt an intuitive connection.
“The Landlady” also presages some of the other things I remember about the later Dostoyevsky novels – the Russian Orthodox ritual as a sort of site for mysticism and enchantment, the problematic combination of sexual desire, family and mental instability, and the confused, but enthralling multi-page, single-paragraph rantings of the deluded. This story is also a really god example of something Frank points out – so much of these stories are based on dialogue, and you always get a really vivid sense of the interpersonal dynamic, even if not of the individual mental states of the characters. You don’t always know what they’re saying, or why they’re saying it, but you do know how they feel, and how they feel towards each other.