I’ve just finished Dostoevsky’s 1848 story “Слабое сердце” (“A Weak Heart,” translated by Constance Garnett as “A Faint Heart“), and it’s much better than I expected; in fact, I’d say it’s the best thing he wrote before being sent off to Siberia. It starts with a comic scene — Vasya Shumkov, a young clerk, comes home to tell his roommate and best friend Arkady he’s engaged to be married but can’t get a word out before Arkady throws him down on the bed and jokingly wrestles with him — but winds up in tragedy, and both the storytelling and the philosophizing are deeper and more convincing than ever. The parallel with (or parody of) Karamzin’s “Poor Liza” is clear (at one point Arkady even exclaims “Ах, бедная Лиза!” [Ah, poor Liza!], which made me laugh), and Joseph Frank (in Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849) compares it to Pushkin’s “Bronze Horseman” (it “exactly parallels the main theme of Pushkin’s poem”), but what struck me were the parallels with the life and works of Dostoevsky’s friend Yakov Butkov (see these LH posts: 1, 2, 3). The story could be seen as a sort of mashup of Butkov’s “Первое число” [First of the month] (two roommates, both clerks and both in love with the same woman), “Партикулярная пара” [A suit of clothes] (a poor clerk falls in love with a woman but is too abashed to attend her birthday party), and “Ленточка” [The ribbon] (a clerk hopes his ability to copy documents in a fair hand will help win the hand of the woman he loves, who gets engaged to another man), but the deepest parallel is with Butkov’s own situation: in his growing madness Shumkov is convinced he is going to be forced to become a soldier (nearly equivalent to a death sentence in those days), and this is the actual situation that confronted Butkov, who as a poor man from the lowest non-serf class had no exemption from the draft. He was rescued by the editor Kraevsky, who bought his exemption and gave him a place to stay but “overwhelmed him with crushingly hard, poorly paid work” (to quote Geir Kjetsaa, who also noticed the parallel); Kraevsky is clearly represented by Shumkov’s friendly but stern benefactor Yulian Mastakovich. I can’t help but wonder what Butkov thought when he read the story.