Netochka Nezvanova – the Last of the Pre-Exile Writing

Just before being arrested in 1849 and subsequently shipped off the Siberia, Dostoevsky had begun work on what was to be an enormous novel – Netochka Nezvanova, literally “A Nameless Nobody” (I read a translation by Jane Kentish, from Penguin Classics).  There is a lot of interesting stuff going on here – for one, it marks the first attempt (and perhaps only?) by Dostoevsky to include a 1st-person female protagonist.  Poor Folk does have a number of letters from a woman, but this is different, because on a broader scale.  It’s also the last work considered in the first volume of the Frank biography.

The novel as we have it unfolds in three major episodes.  First, Netochka (she’s given this nickname by her mother) details her earliest upbringing, in the house of her mother and stepfather.  The novel begins with a long account of Netochka’s stepfather, his abortive musical career and his problem drinking.  One of the best aspects of this book was the psychological acuity with which Netochka’s emotional state is portrayed.  She’s very upfront about all of her emotions (at least her immediate emotions) though also at the same time very realistically opaque when it comes to the causes of those emotions.  In this section, she continually attests to her extreme devotion to her stepfather in the face of his abuses and his irresponsible career path.  She believes his claim that it’s all her mother’s fault.

There are, at several points, suggestions of incest.  Netochka professes a passionate love for her stepfather, and wants to run off with him on some sort of adventure.  Frank suggests this passionate love for her father can also be seen as a passionate love for the sort of romanticism that he embodies.  He is eternally preoccupied with his failure to rise to fame based on his “talent” alone.  When he’s not carousing, he’s busy demonstrating the lack of talent in all of the other contemporary musicians.  One of them – B. – frequents the household, and takes some interest in Netochka’s well-being.

Eventually, Netochka’s mother dies, and her stepfather leaves, and though Netochka at first wants to follow him, and in fact does, he quickly tells her to go back to the house and get something he’s left.  She goes back, but when she returns, her stepfather is running away in the distance.  This leads to the novel’s second episode, wherein Netochka comes under the care of an aristocratic family, and problematically befriends Katya, the future heiress of the family’s wealth.  Katya first resists the friendship, but after Netochka repeatedly takes the fall for Katya’s misbehavior, they eventually enter a seemingly semi-erotic friendship, which involves lots and lots of “embracing” and kissing.  Katya is eventually removed from the situation, after her parents thinks she’s spending too much time with the orphan of low social standing.

The novel’s final sequence involves Netochka’s relationship with the members of her caretaker family – Alexandra Mikhailovna and Pyotr Alxandrovich.  Netochka takes solace in the novels in their home, since her only friend Katya is gone.  Netochka again falls passionately in love with something – this time it’s reading.  She stumbles upon a note in a book, a note that reveals that Alexandra had an affair with a lower-class man.  Pyotr catches sight of this note, but falsely assumes it’s been written by Netochka’s lover, to Netochka.  He continually tries to obtain the note, to prove Netochka’s transgressions, to get her removed from the house, but, out of a strongly felt desire to protect Alexandra, she refuses to turn over the note.  The part of the novel we have ends as Pyotr extracts the note from Netochka.

The biggest thing I took away from this book was the sympathetic precision with which Netochka’s dysfunction was depicted.  As opposed to one of those Dickens novels where the poor person has a “heart of gold” or whatever, Netochka is, very much, a realistically broken person.  She repeatedly misfires, directing her hostility not at its true source, but at easier targets, most often at herself.  That’s a feeling it’s hard to demonstrate through quotation – it’s more about the arc of the different stories and the sense I had after reading it as a whole.

In terms of literary comparison, this felt a lot like a Bronte novel, especially Jane Eyre.  In fact, Frank reports that after he was imprisoned, Dostoevsky read portions of Jane Eyre in translation, in the very important journal Notes of the Fatherland.  This seems to be a case simply of parallel evolution – both novels were written in one their own, and both exhibit similar characteristics, but neither author was aware of the work of the other.

At this point in Dostoevsky’s life, there was relatively little writing for almost 10 years.  There’s one more short story – “A Little Hero” but then nothing for a wide expanse of time.  I’ll figure out how to blog about that as I make my way through volume 2 of Frank’s Dostoevsky.

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6 Responses to Netochka Nezvanova – the Last of the Pre-Exile Writing

  1. Nate says:

    I’m enjoying reading this series, Josh. As you’re reading the exile volume, let me know if you see anything about Kant. I heard that Dostoevsky requested a copy of the first Critique while in prison, but I don’t know if he ever got it.

  2. Josh says:

    That’s interesting. I’ll report for sure. The part I’ve read, he requested the Bible and also some other contemporary things. I’m sure if Kant was on his reading list the Frank book will mention it.

  3. Lime says:

    Ditto Nate’s comment.

  4. Josh says:

    Well – it is with some disappointment that I report, at least according to Frank, there is no real evidence of books Dostoevsky requested, except on one occasion, when some former college colleagues of his smuggled in some books:

    “… except for two titles–Russian versions of The Pickwick Papers and David Copperfield-do we know the books to which Dostoevsky finally had access” (Frank 2:85).

    And I think I’ve finished the part of the book that details D’s imprisonment. So – Dickens, yes – Kant, at least so far, no.

  5. Nate says:

    Too bad about the Kant. I’ll see if I can chase down the source that had mentioned this. Otherwise, it looks like I’ve been misleading my students.

  6. Nates says:

    Over at his blog, R. P. Wolff quotes from a new biography of Dickens. ( Apparently, Dostoevsky met Dickens in London in 1862, and, luckily for us, there’s a letter reporting the details of their conversation. I think it nicely captures the distinction Josh draws between them in this and other posts:

    “He [i.e., Dickens] told me that all the good simple people in his novels, Little Nell, even the holy simpletons like Barnaby Rudge [Slater comments parenthetically that this must have been Dostoevsky’s description, not Dickens’ — indeed] are what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was (or rather, what he found in himself), his cruelty, his attacks of causeless enmity towards those who were helpless and looked to him for comfort, his shrinking from those whom he ought to love, being used up in what he wrote. There were two people in him, he told me: one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite. From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters, from the one who feels as a man ought to feel I try to live my life. Only two people? I asked.”

    Great stuff!

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