Dostoevsky’s Nasty Story.

The plot of Dostoevsky’s Скверный анекдот (translated as “A Nasty Anecdote,” “A Nasty Story,” and “An Unpleasant Predicament”; Garnett translation here) is easily stated: the high-ranking Ivan Ilich Pralinsky drunkenly decides to drop in on his subordinate Pseldonimov’s wedding celebration to demonstrate his “humanitarian” ideas and ruins it, getting even drunker and making incoherent speeches and spending the night in what was supposed to be the marriage bed. It’s brilliant and Buñuelesque; indeed, it could well be called “The Discreet Charm of the Bureaucracy.” However, as I discovered when I wanted to read what people have had to say about it, there is essentially no discussion of it in English; even Joseph Frank, in his magisterial five-volume critical biography of Dostoevsky, merely mentions it in passing. In Russian it is largely overlooked as well, but there’s a paragraph in Bakhtin and a superb essay in Remizov, which I will share here.

First, a brief analysis by Mikhail Bakhtin (Проблемы поэтики Достоевского [Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics]), from the point of view of his theory of the carnivalesque:

This deeply carnivalized story is also close to the menippea (but of the Varronian type). Serving as plot-center for the ideas is an argument among three generals at a name-day party. […] Everything is built on the extreme inappropriateness and scandalous nature of all that occurs. Everything is full of sharp carnivalistic contrasts, mésalliances, ambivalence, debasing, and decrownings. There is also an element here of rather cruel moral experimentation. We are not, of course, concerned here with the profound social and philosophical idea present in this work, which even today is not adequately appreciated. The tone of the story is deliberately unsteady, ambiguous and mocking, permeated with elements of hidden socio-political and literary polemic.

Этот глубоко карнавализованный рассказ тоже близок к мениппее (но к мениппее варроновского типа). Идейной завязкой служит спор трех генералов на именинном вечере. […] Все здесь построено на крайней неуместности и скандальности всего происходящего. Все здесь полно резких карнавальных контрастов, мезальянсов, амбивалентности, снижений и развенчаний. Есть здесь и элемент довольно жестокого морального экспериментирования. Мы не касаемся здесь, конечно, той глубокой социально-философской идеи, которая есть в этом произведении и которая до сих пор еще недостаточно оценена. Тон рассказа нарочито зыбкий, двусмысленный и издевательский, пронизанный элементами скрытой социально-политической и литературной полемики.

Aleksei Remizov has a much more thorough discussion in the essay “Потайная мысль” [Secret thought]; I’ll translate a few salient bits here for those who can’t read the original (and add in brackets the start of each passage for those who can; they can search for it in the linked text). Remizov starts by complaining that there hasn’t been any significant discussion of the story. He then says that Dostoevsky is an author who is especially hidden; with him everything is thought and what is under and behind thought, and he has a perpetually grieving heart. He continues [Достоевский вне театра…]:

Dostoevsky is outside of theater, and any theatrical attempt to present him is like plucking a bird. Dostoevsky is Dostoevsky because all his uncommonly complicated action is hidden under a bushel: you can’t grasp it with your eyes or smack it with your lips.

In “A Nasty Story,” there is only one act, a single scene: the wedding in the Mlekopitaev house. But representing a drunk man onstage – and it is a drunk Pralinsky who acts – is the same as telling jokes about the Caucasus, the ultimate in cheap laughs. All the more because Russian theater already has a purely theatrical scene: the drunk Khlestakov in The Government Inspector, entangled in his own lies.

He says the scheme of the story goes back to the Thousand and One Nights but says Dostoevsky distinguishes himself from precursors like Sologub and Druzhinin by “the play of thought” and “hidden thoughts.” He compares the story to Joyce’s Ulysses, says that the oddly named Pseldonimov (Pralinsky points out that “Pseudonimov comes from the literary word pseudonym, while Pseldonimov means nothing”) represents “humanity in general, earning its bread by the sweat of its brow” [человека, вообще человека, в поте лица добывающего свой хлеб], and adds that the theme from beginning to end, for both main characters, is disappointed hope [обманувшаяся надежда]. (In this part of the essay he uses Yakov Butkov as a point of comparison, which won my heart, since I don’t think I’ve ever seen him discussed as a literary figure before in Russian criticism.)

A pointed distinction [Достоевский пришел в мир…]: “Dostoevsky came into the world not in order to admire the earth, the spaciousness and beauty of God’s world, this isn’t Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Aksakov’s Family Chronicle or Gogol, […] Dostoevsky came to judge God’s creation — mankind, created in the likeness and image of God.”

And perhaps the core of the essay [Мне пришла соблазнительная мысль…]:

A seductive thought came to me: to present “A Nasty Story” as a dream.

Pralinsky and Pseldonimov have this dream simultaneously. The nasty story takes place in equal measure for Pralinsky as well as for Pseldonimov; one dreams of embracing “humanity,” the other of becoming “human.” A dream on the eve of marriage, with the moon performing sorcery.

Remizov is fascinated by dreams; a substantial portion of his work consists of either recounting his own (beginning with the 1909 Bedovaya dolya [Calamitous fate]) or analyzing literature in terms of dreams, as in the collection — Ogon′ veshchei [The fire of things] (1954) — from which this essay is taken. I have a prized reprint (in the old orthography) of his 1927 Vzvikhrennaya Rus′ [Russia in a whirlwind], which is a memoir of the revolutionary years told in dreams and reminiscences (with a 160-page appendix identifying the many historical figures he encounters or dreams of). Remizov is one of the most interesting writers who has still to be discovered by the West, and I’m delighted that his complete works are online in Russian.

I’ll finish with a passage about Dostoevsky as a writer [И еще пошла легенда о Достоевском…]:

And there’s a legend about Dostoevsky as a careless writer, hurrying to get a kopeck. And that too is untrue. Dostoevsky is a student of Gogol, which means his eye is on the word. Druzhinin, critic and writer, author of Polinka Saks (1847) — and it is very important that he was a writer, which means he knows the trade himself — reproached Dostoevsky for laborious writing [Druzhinin wrote in 1849 that his stories “smelled of sweat”: «пахнут потом, если можно так выразиться»]. The legend of carelessness arose after The Insulted and Injured (1859), and Dostoevsky in [his magazine] Epokha in 1864 hotly rejected such an accusation with indignation […]. Dostoevsky acknowledges that he did in fact hurry, but nobody was forcing him to; he wanted to deliver the manuscript to the printer for the magazine Vremya [Time] that he and his brother Mikhail published. Nobody read these remarks except Dostoevsky’s colleagues on Epokha Strakhov and Averkiev. And the legend became firmly established: after all, negative talk stays in our memories longer than positive; we all know how long-lived slander is. […]

“A Nasty Story” is written with full Gogolian care: each sentence is thought through carefully, each word is in its place, you can’t add or subtract anything, and it calls for no rearranging. You run into assonances and underverbs [??] (meret’, peret’, teret’), in prose for the ear, like a flea jumping up, restlessly, but this is explained not by haste and deafness, which is possible when someone writes a lot, but by the artificiality of Russian bookish speech; “the Russian language has had imposed on it the forms and rules of foreign grammar, completely alien to it” (K. S. Akskakov […]). Pushkin felt this, and the Slavophiles understood it: Khomyakov, the Kireevskys, the Aksakovs — but how far from it were Karamzin, Belinsky, and Herzen.

(My “underverbs” is an attempt to render Remizov’s “подглагольные,” which appears to be his own creation and is used only by him. I have no idea what it refers to.) He ends by saying that from the “spider’s nest” of the Mlekopitaev house leads the path to Svidrigailov’s bathhouse with spiders that is eternity in Crime and Punishment, the tarantula that is creator and destroyer in The Idiot, and Ivan returning his ticket in The Brothers Karamazov: the Divine Comedy is the universal nasty story.

Comments

  1. Remizov’s “подглагольные” is his own invention and nobody picked it up. I found about 3 contexts where he uses the word and it probably means “rhyming ends of verbs”, a chip type of rhyme in the realm of Russian poetry.

  2. I never read this story before, but wow. That’s a true Dost for you. Psychological depths spinning into grotesque, money problems, inner thoughts as integral part of action with strange and very complicated relationship between them. A very dark, questioning, and suspicious view of human nature. So far all this mastery deployed in a pursuit of an anecdote, a kind of thing that Gogol could take and write “Inspector General”. But it is Gogol-like for about five paragraphs and then Dostoevsky firmly takes control. Probably, it is best viewed as a “study” for his later large-scale paintings.

  3. I don’t know Russian, so this is very tentative: the names in this story, particularly Pseldonimov and Mlekopetaev, strike me as strange (i.e. somehow atypical of Russian names). I think of some inventions of Dickens: Squeers, Chuzzlewit, Quilp. Is there anything in this? Did Dostoevsky enjoy making up weird names, or do it for a special effect?

  4. My Russian is minimal, but does “Mlekopetaev” relate to milk + drink?

    And “Pseldonimov” does sound from here like a modification of “псевдоним”.

  5. We discussed this in the thread “In the city of N.”

    Authors tried extremely hard to avoid causing offense to anyone important, even unintentionally since it might have had very serious consequences for them (they were no doubt keenly aware that two greatest 19th century Russian poets were killed in duels)

    Hence, use of made-up names with zero chance of accidental coincidence with any actual person.

    This technical necessity of made-up names was skillfully employed by writers like Dostoevsky who enjoyed piling layers upon layers of hidden meanings in their works.

    Mlekopitaev looks like derivation from Russian word for mammals – “mlekopitayushie” which literally means “those who feed on milk”. Mlekopitaev however seems to mean “the one who feeds others with milk”.

    Whatever hidden meaning lays behind this I don’t know.

  6. @Christopher Henrich, the names in the Dostoevsy’s oeuvre should be, and certainly are, a subject of a dissertation or two. As for Mlekopitaev, it is a clear play on a Russian word for mammal. Maybe given to him for his rudeness or maybe because people around him rely on his money and he uses this reliance to torment them. You really have to consult the aforementioned dissertations. In universe, as it were, Pseldonimov got his name from misspelled Psevdonimov from indeed pseudonym. This probably is to emphasize his low status, as a sort of nobody.
    By the way, Pralinsky obviously got his name from praline.

    P.S. In the first version of this comment I wrote some incredibly stupid thing mixing up Gogol’s Manilov and future Dostoevsky’s own Marmeladov.

  7. David Marjanović says:

    the oddly named Pseldonimov (Pralinsky points out that “Pseudonimov comes from the literary word pseudonym, while Pseldonimov means nothing”)

    Send it through Ukrainian, and it’ll be fine.

  8. Remizov’s “подглагольные” is his own invention and nobody picked it up. I found about 3 contexts where he uses the word and it probably means “rhyming ends of verbs”, a chip type of rhyme in the realm of Russian poetry.

    Thanks, that makes sense.

    I never read this story before, but wow. That’s a true Dost for you. Psychological depths spinning into grotesque, money problems, inner thoughts as integral part of action with strange and very complicated relationship between them. A very dark, questioning, and suspicious view of human nature. So far all this mastery deployed in a pursuit of an anecdote, a kind of thing that Gogol could take and write “Inspector General”. But it is Gogol-like for about five paragraphs and then Dostoevsky firmly takes control. Probably, it is best viewed as a “study” for his later large-scale paintings.

    Great comment, and I agree that in some sense it’s a study preparing him for his later masterpieces — but it stands on its own and needs no excuses (unlike, say, The Insulted and Injured).

  9. Mr. DePlume and Mr. Mammifer.

  10. It is interesting to read this novella against Chekhov’s “The Wedding.”

    I highly recommend the Russian film adaptation by Alov and Naumov made in 1966 but released only in 1987 as too dark: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IH6tvRce1hI

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