I finally finished Veltman’s Salomea (which was probably longer than it needed to be but was still great fun), read a few of the early Turgenev stories that became Zapiski okhotnika (A Sportsman’s Sketches, also translated as Sketches from a Hunter’s Album, The Hunting Sketches, and Russian Life in the Interior; or, The Experiences of a Sportsman), and returned to Dostoevsky, last seen here with Хозяйка [The Landlady] in November. This time I read Белые ночи [White nights], which is much better — not great, greatness would come after mock-execution and exile, but a very enjoyable little exercise in narration, trying out his new hero, the Dreamer (as opposed to his earlier hero, the Petty Clerk). The plot is trivial — boy meets girl, boy moons over girl, boy loses girl — but the way it’s told is so fresh, and the promissory echoes of future Dostoevsky are so interesting, that it justifies my desire to read everything he wrote, however minor.
Its opening is startling, if you’ve just been reading a more traditional storyteller like Turgenev:
It was a magical night, such a night as can perhaps only exist when we are young, dear reader. The sky was such a starry, such a bright sky that looking at it you involuntarily had to ask yourself: under such a sky, can there really live various sorts of angry and cranky people?
Была чудная ночь, такая ночь, которая разве только и может быть тогда, когда мы молоды, любезный читатель. Небо было такое звездное, такое светлое небо, что взглянув на него, невольно нужно было спросить себя неужели же могут жить под таким небом разные сердитые и капризные люди?
It reminded me of the famous opening of Записки из подполья [Notes from Underground: “Я человек больной… Я злой человек. Непривлекательный я человек.” [I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. An unattractive man.] It’s in a major rather than a minor key, but the effect of someone buttonholing you to tell you what’s on their mind is similar (and the final phrase could be referring to the Underground Man himself — if he’d come out from underground and stand under such a starry sky, he wouldn’t be so cranky!). And I learn from Joseph Frank’s wonderful Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time that the approach comes from an unexpected source; in chapter 10 he says that Dostoevsky, like other up-and-coming writers of the 1840s, wrote feuilletons for newspapers (an import from France, as the name suggests), and in a footnote on p. 105 he says:
Dostoevsky evidently found that the easy, casual manner of the feuilletonist fitted him like a glove; and one never finds him later, even when presumably expounding ideas, writing anything that can be considered ordinary expository prose. His stance is always personal and intimate; his points are made not by logical persuasion but through sketching character types, dramatizing attitudes, narrating experiences and observations. The whimsical tone of the feuilletonist of the 1840s, though never abandoned completely, is replaced by that of the serious and sometimes choleric social observer, but his use of irony and persiflage remains the same, and so does the identification with the reader, who becomes the implicit partner in a dialogue. From this point of view, Dostoevsky’s five-finger exercises in the 1840s mark the début of an essential aspect of his career. Among the most striking features of Notes from Underground is its artistic singularity; it seems to come, formally speaking, from nowhere, but it probably comes from the feuilleton. Such an origin would account for all of the formal features of the novella, which are so baffling otherwise—the first-person narrator who takes us into his confidence to the point of embarrassment; the direct address to the reader, who is treated as an interlocutor; the apparent fortuitousness and haphazardness of the narrative sequence; the blend of irony and pathos.
And this brief bit of dialogue spoken by Nastenka (the teenage female protagonist) breathes the air of later, weightier philosophical laments:
Listen, why aren’t we all like brothers with brothers? Why is the best person always somehow hiding something from another, keeping silent? Why not say, right now, what is in your heart, if you know that you’re not speaking your word to the wind? But each person gives the appearance of being sterner than they are in reality, as if everyone was afraid of offending their feelings if they speak them out hastily..
Послушайте, зачем мы все не так, как бы братья с братьями? Зачем самый лучший человек всегда как будто что-то таит от другого и молчит от него? Зачем прямо, сейчас, не сказать что есть на сердце, коли знаешь, что не на ветер свое слово скажешь? А то всякий так смотрит, как будто он суровее, чем он есть на самом деле, как будто все боятся оскорбить свои чувства, коли очень скоро выкажут их…
Addendum. I see I’m not the only one to see a link with the Underground Man; William J. Leatherbarrow, in his little book on Dostoevsky, writes:
It is not a large step from the self-understanding and philosophic detachment of this hero to the self-analytical inertia of that grotesquely disillusioned dreamer, the Underground Man. […] The tragedy of the Underground Man lies partly in the conflict between a Romantic, imaginative nature and an acute analytical consciousness which exposes the futility of dreaming but which is unable to deny its esthetic superiority and reconcile the dreamer with reality. In the final scene of “White Nights,” where the dreamer anticipates the drabness of his future, we already discern suppressed despair and the specter of the Underground.