There was a man in the city of Petersburg, whose name was Golyadkin, and that man was blameless and upright, and one that feared the department head and eschewed evil. He had a beloved, Klara, and a servant, Petrushka, and an apartment on Shestilavochnaya Street, and he was a titular councilor. Now there was a day when the men of rank came to present themselves before the department head, and the Double came also among them. And the department head said unto the Double, Have you considered my servant Golyadkin, that there is none like him in the department, one that fears me and eschews evil? And the Double said to him, Does Golyadkin fear you for naught? Have you not given him important work, and honors, and all that he has on every side? But put forth your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face. And the department head said unto the Double, Behold, all that he has is in your power. And the Double vexed Golyadkin, and tormented him, and Golyadkin lost his beloved Klara, and his servant Petrushka, and his apartment on Shestilavochnaya Street, and still he did not curse the department head, but groveled before him…
I do not know whether Dostoevsky had the book of Job in mind when writing Двойник (The Double). I do know that he read it repeatedly as a boy, that it stirred him profoundly, and that it had a great deal of influence on his later writing, and I know that the farther I read in The Double, the more irresistibly I was reminded of Job and his escalating sufferings. I assumed it must be a commonplace in Dostoevsky criticism, but to my astonishment, whether I googled [Двойник Голядкин Иов] or [Double Golyadkin "book of Job"] I got no relevant results. Can this really not have occurred to anyone before? At any rate, I can easily imagine Dostoevsky thinking “I’m going to write about Job, but not a righteous and admirable Job — rather, a miserable worm of an official with no redeeming qualities, someone who merely thinks he’s admirable, and I’m going to make the reader interested in him and his fate anyway.” It may or may not be relevant that Golyadkin repeatedly cries out “Господи бог (or боже) мой!”: Oh my Lord God!
But of course it takes a while to get to the escalating sufferings; at first we get escalating weirdness. Golyadkin wakes up, wonders whether he’s awake or asleep, whether what he experiences is real or a continuation of his dreams, and his furniture and clothes look at him familiarly (Знакомо глянули на него). Then the gray, dirty autumn day looks at him so angrily that “Mr. Golyadkin could no longer doubt in any way that he was not in some fairytale land [в тридесятом царстве, literally 'in the thirtieth kingdom,' a traditional site for a Russian fairy tale] but in the city of Petersburg, in the capital, on Shestilavochnaya ['Six-Shop'] Street.” (The street, by the way, hadn’t been called that in a while, at least not officially; by the 1840s it was Srednii Prospekt ['Middle Avenue'], in 1852 it became Nadezhdinskaya Street, and in 1936 it got its present name, Mayakovsky Street.) He looks in the mirror, worries about what would happen if anything were amiss, reassures himself that so far everything is going well, counts his hidden wad of bills (seven hundred and fifty rubles!), gets washed and dressed with the help of Petrushka, and goes out to the carriage he has hired for the day. He drives off jubilantly, but soon becomes worried; he sees two young colleagues in the street and tries to hide from them as they point at him, then sees his boss, the department head, in another carriage and doesn’t know whether to greet him or not, and suddenly he decides to stop at the office of Doctor Rutenspitz (whom he’s only met once) and tell him “something very interesting.” I’ve given some account of the conversation with the doctor in this earlier post; it is here that the reader realizes that something is seriously wrong with Golyadkin, the situation, or both.
I won’t go on laying out the plot, such as it is; basically, Golyadkin (or “our hero,” as the narrator frequently calls him) does more and more bizarre things and gets into more and more humiliating situations, to which he responds with a mixture of brief internal defiance and excruciatingly protracted and incoherent self-abasement when he actually confronts someone. At first I thought of Kafka; Golyadkin seemed a cousin of Joseph K. Then, at the start of chapter 4, the narration takes a new turn, to an over-the-top farrago of pompous clichés; I’ll quote Constance Garnett’s translation, since she handles this sort of thing well:
That day the birthday of Klara Olsufyevna, the only daughter of the civil councillor, Berendyev, at one time Mr. Golyadkin’s benefactor and patron, was being celebrated by a brilliant and sumptuous dinner-party, such as had not been seen for many a long day within the walls of the flats in the neighbourhood of Ismailovsky Bridge — a dinner more like some Balthazar’s feast, with a suggestion of something Babylonian in its brilliant luxury and style, with Veuve-Clicquot champagne, with oysters and fruit from Eliseyev’s and Milyutin’s, with all sorts of fatted calves, and all grades of the government service. This festive day was to conclude with a brilliant ball, a small birthday ball, but yet brilliant in its taste, its distinction and its style. Of course, I am willing to admit that similar balls do happen sometimes, though rarely. Such balls, more like family rejoicings than balls, can only be given in such houses as that of the civil councillor, Berendyev.
Here I was reminded of the opening of Bely’s Petersburg (in the McDuff translation: “Your excellencies, eminences, honours, citizens! What is our Russian Empire? Our Russian Empire is a geographical entity, which means: a part of a certain planet. And the Russian Empire comprises: in the first place – Great,Little, White and Red Rus…”) and of the Gerty MacDowell chapter of Ulysses (“The summer evening had begun to fold the world in its mysterious embrace. Far away in the west the sun was setting and the last glow of all too fleeting day lingered lovingly on sea and strand, on the proud promontory of dear old Howth guarding as ever the waters of the bay…”). Who are these comfortable, bloviating narrators? What is their relation to the characters they describe, and to us? How far can we trust them? This is all, of course, Modernism 101, but here we’re dealing with a text from 1846, not the early twentieth century. Dostoevsky has made a giant leap into unknown waters, and it’s no wonder the critics and readers of the day had a hard time following him; Belinsky’s review was basically favorable, but included a lot of carping, and the circle of writers Dostoevsky was depending on for collegial support started mocking him mercilessly.
Belinsky attacked the novel for prolixity, and it’s easy to see why: it becomes more and more repetitive as it goes on, both in the situations and in the language. But this repetitiveness is essential to the effect Dostoevsky is aiming for (just as Gertrude Stein’s is to hers); Golyadkin’s speech is a farrago of virtually meaningless words and phrases that indicate the disordered paralysis of his brain, and the repetitive actions and situations represent the black hole of madness, which (like addiction) is boring as well as tormenting because nothing new can happen, it is an endless circling of the same inescapable track. But then madness is not easily distinguishable from normal life — Adam Thirlwell puts it nicely in his recent NYRB review of Can’t and Won’t, a collection of stories by Lydia Davis:
Such faulty logic is the sign of an intelligence dreaming, but it is also, after all, the sign of the many problems of waking life. Always we are coming up with falsely convincing propositions. The apparently real and apparently dreamlike share a common, cloudy structure—where imperceptible irregularities and mistaken meanings can occur at any moment. That confusion is the definition of the real as proposed by Davis’s fiction. And it’s the stories where her narrators lose themselves in minute obsessional cadenzas that are Davis’s most comical and most terrible… But the repetition is the proof of the inescapable cosmic joke. They are both glimpsed symptoms of a mind always trying to escape its own small blockages, its dismal letdowns and confusions.
“Obsessional cadenzas” — what a perfect phrase for the desperate tangles Golyadkin gets into! Here’s an example of his manner of speaking; he is confronting his double, also called Yakov Petrovich, who has been tormenting him throughout the novel and whom he has chased down in the street (I provide first Garnett’s version, then the Russian):
“For my part, Yakov Petrovitch,” our hero answered warmly, “for my part, scorning to be roundabout and speaking boldly and openly, using straightforward, honourable language and putting the whole matter on an honourable basis, I tell you I can openly and honourably assert, Yakov Petrovitch, that I am absolutely pure, and that, you know it yourself, Yakov Petrovitch, the error is mutual — it may all be the world’s judgment, the opinion of the slavish crowd. . . . I speak openly, Yakov Petrovitch, everything is possible. I will say, too, Yakov Petrovitch, if you judge it in this way, if you look at the matter from a lofty, noble point of view, then I will boldly say, without false shame I will say, Yakov Petrovitch, it will positively be a pleasure to me to discover that I have been in error, it will positively be a pleasure to me to recognize it. You know yourself you are an intelligent man and, what is more, you are a gentleman. Without shame, without false shame, I am ready to recognize it,” he wound up with dignity and nobility.
— С своей стороны, Яков Петрович, — с одушевлением отвечал наш герой, — с своей стороны, презирая окольным путем и говоря смело и откровенно, говоря языком прямым, благородным и поставив все дело на благородную доску, скажу вам, могу открыто и благородно утверждать, Яков Петрович, что я чист совершенно и что, сами вы знаете, Яков Петрович, обоюдное заблуждение, — все может быть, — суд света, мнение раболепной толпы… Я говорю откровенно, Яков Петрович, все может быть. Еще скажу, Яков Петрович, если так судить, если с благородной и высокой точки зрения на дело смотреть, то смело скажу, без ложного стыда скажу, Яков Петрович, мне даже приятно будет открыть, что я заблуждался, мне даже приятно будет сознаться в том. Сами вы знаете, вы человек умный, а сверх того, благородный. Без стыда, без ложного стыда готов в этом сознаться… — с достоинством и благородством заключил наш герой.
As usual, he starts out wanting to deal his enemy a deadly blow and ends up making a humiliating profession of friendship. (The double is called both his приятель ‘friend’ and his неприятель ‘enemy’ [literally 'nonfriend'], more or less at random, and sometimes his недостойный приятель ‘unworthy friend,’ лжеприятель ‘pseudo-friend,’ or ложный друг ‘false friend’ [using the more basic word for 'friend'].) Just in this brief snippet you can see how he repeats words like откровенно ‘openly’ and благородный ‘noble’; they are repeated many, many more times in the full text, as are virtually meaningless expressions like вот оно как or вот оно что (a mix of “Is that so?” and “I see!” and “Upon my word!” and “How about that!”), дескать (a marker of quoted speech) and так и так (to quote Sophia Lubensky’s invaluable Dictionary of Idioms: “used to indicate that what one is about to say repeats or conveys what was said by o.s. or another at an earlier time when used with a verb of speaking, adds colloquial flavor to the verb and reinforces that one is repeating words spoken earlier”). Perhaps his most significant repeated word, however, is ничего ‘nothing,’ which is also an adjective/adverb meaning ‘not (too) bad, pretty good/well.’ It is used 129 times in the book; here is the first use, during that first carriage ride, when he is trying to decide whether to greet his boss (I’ve modified the Garnett version):
“To bow or not? Respond or not? Recognize him or not?” our hero thought in indescribable anguish, “or pretend that I’m not myself, but somebody else strikingly similar to me, and look as though everything were fine. Just not me, not me, and that’s all!” said Mr. Golyadkin, doffing his hat to Andrey Filippovich and not taking his eyes off him. “I’m, I’m all right [ничего],” he whispered with an effort, “I’m quite all right [ничего], it’s not me at all, Andrey Filippovich, it’s not me at all, and that’s all.”
«Поклониться иль нет? Отозваться иль нет? Признаться иль нет? — думал в неописанной тоске наш герой, — или прикинуться, что не я, а кто-нибудь другой, разительно схожий со мною, и смотреть как ни в чем не бывало? Именно не я, не я, да и только! — говорил господин Голядкин, снимая шляпу пред Андреем Филипповичем и не сводя с него глаз. — Я, я ничего, — шептал он через силу, — я совсем ничего, это вовсе не я, Андрей Филиппович, это вовсе не я, не я, да и только».
When he says “I’m all right, I’m quite all right,” he’s literally saying “I’m nothing, I’m absolutely nothing.” The phrase “я ничего” (I’m OK/nothing) is used over a dozen times; in the course of just a few lines in chapter 9, he says “я ничего, Петруша, я ничего…” (I’m OK/nothing, Petrushka, I’m OK/nothing) and “Нет, Петруша, ведь я ничего. Ведь ты видишь, что я ничего…” (No, Petrushka, I’m OK/nothing. You can see that I’m OK/nothing). The actual meaning, “I’m all right,” is of course predominant to the reader, but as the nightmare deepens the literal “nothing” becomes hard to escape.
The mistake the readers and critics of the time were making is that they wanted prose to be a transparent window into social reality, hopefully showing terrible conditions that needed to be corrected; as Hodgson writes (see this post): “The very concept of style gradually faded from the critical perception of Russian readers, as concern for ‘problem content’ took its place. The word seemed to lose its stylistic and semantic associations, and finally, in the prose of the forties, the word was perceived as a flat label, bearing a one-to-one relationship to some ‘real’ concrete referent.” But, to quote Konstantin Mochulsky, “Dostoevsky’s heroes are born out of speech; this is a general law in his creative processes.” You have to read him as you read, say, Faulkner, with as much attention to who’s telling the story and why as to what’s being recounted. I’m very much looking forward to reading Bakhtin’s 1929 Проблемы творчества Достоевского (Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics), because as I understand it this is how he approaches Dostoevsky, as a master of polyphonic narration.
Let’s see, I’ve mentioned the Bible, Kafka, Bely, Joyce, Stein, Lydia Davis, and Faulkner; who am I forgetting? Ah yes, Gogol! If you look at criticism of early Dostoevsky, the one name that is bound to come up is that of Gogol. Of course, Dostoevsky encouraged that himself with his famous “We all came out of Gogol’s Overcoat” [actually, this turns out to be a "well-encrusted overreading of Melchior de Vogüé" -- see the Dinosaur's comment below]; furthermore, it’s entirely accurate, because Gogol was the overwhelming influence on every writer of the time. The Double owes a great deal to him — most notably to Записки сумасшедшего (“Diary of a Madman”), but also to his style and approach in general. To take a trivial example, the narrator’s “герой наш” (our hero) comes straight out of Dead Souls [or such is my guess]. But as I said to Sashura in this thread in regard to “the struggle between the slavophiles and the westernisers,” “I’m bored to tears with the traditional approach. Whatever juice was in that orange was squeezed out over a century ago.” The same goes for Gogol; I’m sure there’s more to be said about his influence on Dostoevsky, just as there is still music to be written in C major, but isn’t it time to find other approaches? I had a hard time sleeping the night after I finished The Double, and it wasn’t because I was counting Gogol references. Dostoevsky is vast and contains multitudes; to take a simplistic approach is to betray him.