Last year I wrote about the experience of coming upon Pushkin via the back door of his own past rather than the usual front door opening onto the future; now I’m having the same experience with Dostoevsky. I’m pretty sure if I read his first work, Бедные люди [Poor Folk], after having read, say, the Brothers K, I’d be impatient with it, alert to all the ways it falls short of mature greatness. I’m very glad I’m not doing it that way, because that would be unfair both to the author and to my own reading pleasure. As it is, coming at it after a thorough immersion in the literature of the 1830s and early ’40s, I can see exactly why its first readers were so excited, why Grigorovich and Nekrasov shed tears over it and rushed to Dostoevsky’s apartment at four in the morning to congratulate him, and the next day brought it to Belinsky, who was equally thriled — as he told Annenkov, “You see this manuscript? I haven’t been able to tear myself away from it for almost two days now.”
The first startling thing about it is that it’s an epistolary novel. That has no bearing on quality, of course, but it’s attention-getting, because the epistolary novel, so wildly popular in Western Europe during the 18th century that parodies like Fielding’s Shamela (1741) had made it pretty much impossible to take seriously by the end of the century, never really caught on in Russia. The examples I’m aware of are Nikolai Emin’s Roza, poluspravedlivaya i original’naya povest [Rose, a half-true and original novel] (1786) and Igra sud’by [The game of fate] (1789); Aleksandr Druzhinin’s Polinka Saks (1847); Evgenia Tur’s Zakoldovanny krug [The enchanted circle] (1854); Ekaterina Letkova’s Oborvannaya perepiska [An interrupted correspondence] (1902); and Viktor Shklovsky’s Zoo, ili pisma ne o lyubvi [Zoo, or Letters Not about Love] (1923). Toss in Pushkin’s “Roman v pis’makh” [A novel in letters] (a few pages he worked on in the autumn of 1829 and never finished or published) and a few short stories by Turgenev (“Perepiska” [A Correspondence], 1856), Kuprin (“Sentimental’ny roman” [A sentimental novel/romance], 1901), and Bunin (“Neizvestny drug” [An unknown friend], 1923), and you still don’t have much of a tradition. (Of course, I’m sure there are examples I’m unaware of, and will appreciate any that are pointed out in the comments.)
But in the usual epistolary novel, the letters are a vehicle for conveying plot in a particular way (“Dear X, My father has forbidden me to see Y! What shall I do?”); here, the letters actively frustrate the reader’s desire to know what’s going on. The aging Makar Devushkin is corresponding with the considerably younger Varvara Dobrosyolova; we know that he can see her window across the courtyard from his, we know that they are fond of each other, and we know that she keeps asking him to come visit and he keeps ignoring the requests and telling her to take better care of herself. But who are these people, why are they corresponding like this, what are their backstories? For a long time we have no idea; we have only their words, their endless, repetitive, subtly varied words, reminiscent of the unstoppable verbalizing of Beckett characters buried up to their necks and holding our attention like so many Ancient Mariners. Eventually Dostoevsky gives in and provides a connected text Varvara gives Makar to fill in her background, and I’m guessing the novel will settle into a more predictable groove (I will report further when I finish it, if not before), but for the moment let me provide a brief snippet from Varvara’s text that gives a hint of the mastery to come:
Я целый день надрывалась от раскаяния. Мысль о том, что мы, дети, своими жестокостями довели его до слез, была для меня нестерпима. Мы, стало быть, ждали его слез. Нам, стало быть, их хотелось; стало быть, мы успели его из последнего терпения вывесть; стало быть, мы насильно заставили его, несчастного, бедного, о своем лютом жребии вспомнить! Я всю ночь не спала от досады, от грусти, от раскаянья.
I tore myself up all day from repentance. The thought of how we children through our cruelties had brought him to tears was intolerable to me. We, therefore, had awaited his tears. We, therefore, had wanted them; therefore, we had managed to exhaust his last reserve of patience; therefore, we had compelled him forcibly, the poor unhappy man, to remember his cruel lot! All night I couldn’t sleep from vexation, from sorrow, from repentance.
The nesting of the four-times-repeated стало быть ‘consequently, therefore’ between the two occurrences of раскаянья ‘(from) repentance’ is beautiful — and I can’t find any translations that reproduce it. What is this dread of repetition? At any rate, it’s a product of the same literary mind that came up with the unforgettable opening to Записки из подполья (Notes from Underground): “Я человек больной… Я злой человек. Непривлекательный я человек.” [I am a sick man… I am a wicked man. I am an unattractive man.] It is impossible in English to reproduce the way in which the pronoun я ‘I,’ the noun человек ‘person, man,’ and the three adjectives are shifted around to form a kaleidoscopic array of sentence patterns, but in the original it is immensely satisfying. I like this fellow Dostoevsky, and I look forward to seeing what he comes up with next!