I’ve finished Poor Folk now (see this post), and although I got a bit impatient at times, it was enjoyable throughout and frequently moving. I was pleased to see that my prediction here that “the Pushkin story, about the mysterious fate of a young woman the narrator finds himself attracted to, is going to be relevant to the novel” was borne out (Devushkin loses the young woman who is his only joy in life to a sudden and unforeseen marriage, just as the stationmaster loses his daughter), and I enjoyed picking up on the influences from the novels he’d been reading (the insanely doting father of young Pokrovsky is a straight-up copy of le père Goriot) and recognizing his sly parodies of the genres popular at the time (the society tale, the historical romance) and of his main influence, Gogol. (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that near the start Devushkin writes “в должность-то я пошел сегодня таким гоголем-щеголем” [I strutted to work today like a dandy-gogol (golden-eye duck)], and towards the end he writes “фрак-то на нем сидит гоголем” [his tailcoat sits on him like a gogol].) I also couldn’t help but notice an early instance of the “double” theme in “Я, Варенька, ничего, по правде, и не помню; помню только, что у него было очень много офицеров, или это двоилось у меня — бог знает” [Truly, Varenka, I don’t remember a thing; I remember only that there were a lot of officers at his place, or I was seeing double — God only knows].
But the novel achieves real emotional depth when Varvara reminisces about her youth in the countryside, living a carefree life in a house near a lake (“такое широкое, светлое, чистое, как хрусталь!” [so wide, light-filled, pure, like crystal!]); I won’t soon forget the image of a little girl sitting by the lakeside at dusk, gazing at the fishing boat on the lake and the fire the fisherman have lit on the shore (“и свет далеко-далеко по воде льется” [and the light streams far away over the water]), and listening to a frightened bird darting up or the reeds rustling in the wind or a fish splashing: “всё, бывало, слышно” [you could hear everything]. Later there’s a contrasting urban vision when Devushkin describes a walk he took along the Fontanka canal: “Барок такая бездна, что не понимаешь, где всё это могло поместиться. На мостах сидят бабы с мокрыми пряниками да с гнилыми яблоками, и всё такие грязные, мокрые бабы. Скучно по Фонтанке гулять!” [There are so many barges you can’t understand how they can all fit; on the bridges sit peasant women with wet spice-cakes and rotten apples, all those dirty, wet women. It’s depressing to walk along the Fontanka!] But then he turns from the Fontanka to walk along Gorokhovaya Street, and we are treated to a bout of moralizing about how rich people have so much and poor people have so little and how awful that is; this is, of course, what warmed the heart of Belinsky and his fellow seekers for socially conscious realism, but it cooled mine right down, and I fear it’s but a foretaste of what will become a flood of such moralizing as I move further into the century. And the epistolary framework gets sillier and sillier (why does she write to Devushkin asking him to tell the dressmaker this and that when she could just write the dressmaker?), and the plot is not provided with enough explanation to make it plausible (why exactly is the wealthy Bykov so insistent on marrying this thin, sickly, bedraggled, depressed woman?), but really, none of that matters. The characters are pure Dostoevsky, even if not as fully developed as they would be later on, and so is the scene when poor Devushkin, having messed up a rush job, is called into the boss’s office and instead of being fired is given a hundred rubles and a respectful handshake by the good-hearted man.
And remember that extract in the earlier post with the fourfold repetition of стало быть ‘therefore’? I was right to take note of it; at the end, in Devushkin’s final despairing outcry of a letter, we find:
Вот я от вас письмецо сейчас получил, всё слезами закапанное. Стало быть, вам не хочется ехать; стало быть, вас насильно увозят, стало быть, вам жаль меня, стало быть, вы меня любите!
And now I’ve gotten your little letter, all spotted with tears. Therefore, you don’t want to go; therefore, you’re being taken away by force, therefore you feel sorry for me, therefore you love me!
That’s what I call a payoff.
Addendum. I just noticed what looks to me like a possible reference to Schiller’s Don Carlos (in Michael Dostoevsky’s translation, which I’m reading now thanks to between4walls in this XIX век thread). In the play, the queen says to Carlos:
Глядят на вас и говорят и ропщут:
«Не в чреве ль матери он заслужил
Стать выше всех других своих собратий?»
look upon you and speak and murmur:
“Did he not in his mother’s womb deserve
to stand above all others of his fellows?”
And Dostoevsky’s Devushkin asks: “зачем одному еще во чреве матери прокаркнула счастье ворона-судьба, а другой из воспитательного дома па свет божий выходит?” [Why did the fate-crow caw forth happiness for one man in his mother’s womb, while another goes forth into God’s daylight from the foundling hospital?]