The Eternal Husband.

I had a little fun with Dostoevsky’s Вечный муж [The Eternal Husband] in this post, and I hadn’t intended to make a separate post for a short novel that most people have never heard of, but the more I read the better I liked it, and once I finished it I discovered it has been called “a small masterpiece” (Joseph Frank) and “technically perhaps the most accomplished of Dostoevsky’s works” (William J. Leatherbarrow), so I decided I should try figuring out what I thought and what other scholars have said and report back.

The plot is straightforward: Pavel Trusotsky, after the death of his wife Natalya, learns she had had lovers, and goes to Petersburg to confront them. One of them is Aleksei Velchaninov, with whom he had been friendly a decade earlier, and it is Velchaninov who is the point-of-view character — the book opens with his catching glimpses of Trusotsky and becoming increasingly paranoid (he doesn’t remember who he is) until the cuckolded husband barges drunk into his apartment in the wee hours of the morning, acting oddly, assuring him of his undying affection while hinting at darker things. Eventually Velchaninov learns of the existence of a daughter Liza, who he assumes must be his (she is around eight), and he begins plotting to take her away from the increasingly unhinged-seeming and hostile Trusotsky; there are, of course, further complications and developments, some tragic and some comic, and Velchaninov calls Trusotsky an “eternal husband” — one who has to have a wife and will be slavishly subservient to her, turning a blind eye to her infidelity.

The basic template is familiar; Moliere, Turgenev, and Flaubert (to name only a few famous names who we know influenced Dostoevsky) had dealt with similar material — Charles Bovary, to take an obvious instance, learned of his betrayal by reading letters left by his late wife. Dostoevsky himself had dealt with it much earlier, in his 1848 feuilletons Чужая жена [Somebody else’s wife] and Ревнивый муж [A jealous husband]. In the first, the jealous older man Ivan Andreevich meets a young man outside an apartment building and asks if he’s seen a woman he claims is somebody else’s wife, and in the second, Ivan Andreevich, trying to catch his wife betraying him, rushes into the wrong bedroom and hides under the bed, where he finds a young man; in the 1860 Collected Works, he joined the two as Чужая жена и муж под кроватью [translated as “Another Man’s Wife and a Husband under the Bed”]. That earlier work provides chuckles, but is essentially trivial and the second part in particular is far too long (repetitious dialogue is a recurrent problem for Dostoevsky).

In the interim he has learned how to provide structure and depth to a story, and how to turn dialogue to better ends; the familiar template allowed him to write quickly and easily (in contrast to the other novels of the period, which cost him endless toil and trouble), and he was able to use it to play with and work out some of his favorite themes, such as the double and the resentful loner — Dostoevsky wrote “Но это не «Записки из подполья»; это совершенно другое по форме, хотя сущность — та же моя всегдашняя сущность” [But this isn’t Notes from Underground; this is completely different in form, though the essence is my usual essence]. An interesting echo of the recently published Idiot is that Trusotsky, like Rogozhin, attacks his supposed dear friend unexpectedly with a bladed weapon. Harriet Murav, in her entry on Dostoevsky in Russian Novelists in the Age of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (Vol. 238 of the Dictionary of Literary Biography series — see this post), writes:

Like the hero of Zapiski iz podpol’ia [Notes from Underground], to which this work directly alludes, Trusotsky cultivates his anger and resentment, seeking opportunities for fresh humiliation and jealousy. As in so many other works of Dostoevsky, the story examines how the “insulted and injured” may become aggressors themselves. The relationship between the two men is paramount to the action of the story. Trusotsky insists on accompanying Vel’chaninov to his new fiancee’s home. Trusotsky both nurses Vel’chaninov during an attack of illness and nearly kills him, leading Vel’chaninov to call Trusotsky a “Quasimodo” who fell in love with his wife’s lover.

A lovely moment takes place at the home of the fifteen-year-old girl Trusotsky thinks is his fiancee (though she despises him): Vel’chaninov, urged by everyone to provide musical entertainment, sings with his aging voice Glinka’s “Когда в час веселый откроешь ты губки” [When in a happy hour you open your little lips] (lyrics, YouTube), remembering how as a young man he had heard the aged Glinka sing the same song to powerful effect; I learn from the notes to the Russian Collected Works that Dostoevsky himself had heard Glinka sing it years before, and you can feel the power of that memory in the passage. I also learn that Dostoevsky originally tried writing the story in the first person, with Trusotsky as the point-of-view character, expounding many of Dostoevsky’s own views; when he changed to a third-person narration, he gave most of those views to Velchaninov, making him a more complicated and interesting character.

Dostoevsky hated The Eternal Husband, because he wanted to be working on the major novel (alternately called Atheism and The Life of a Great Sinner) he had promised another publisher; he never did write it, but much of the material went into The Demons. I can understand his resentment, but I can’t understand why this very pleasing little novel has been so little remembered, and I recommend it without reservation. If you’re going to read it in English, though, don’t read the terrible shortened translation available online — there are translations by Hugh Aplin and Pevear/Volokhonsky, either of which is presumably readable and reasonably accurate.

Comments

  1. I enjoyed this little novel about as much as any Dostoevskhy I have read. It is just that change you describe at the end that did the trick for me. I enjoyed the distance from the usual Dostoevskian intensity. It’s still there, but I am not up to my neck in it.

  2. I believe Girard writes of this story’s perfection in Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque.

  3. I read the story just now and am slightly disappointed. Maybe I am not in the mood for Dostoevsky. Of course, it’s written well. But somehow it seems a bit pointless. Dostoevsky created a unique manner of psychological writing, but it requires much more serious material than an anecdote. The inverted character POV was a good find though. I see Velchaninov as a pretty shallow character, but then there are shallow people. Also his actions are pretty random and unexplained and not in usual Dostoevsky’s manner of randomness arising from the multitude of contradictory explanations. This might be for the better, though, because that makes Trusotsky the main character. Trusotsky in turn is not overexplained because we don’t know his inner thoughts, only words and actions, and he is not soliloquizing (or, when the writer is Dostoevsky, that would be drunken rants), which makes it more interesting.

    I know better then seeking moral compass in fiction (even if it’s of the artistic kind), but one of the turns in the story comes out as crass. It seems that Trusotsky can gain a modicum of stability and turns back to relative normalcy as a result of getting rid of his (not biological, but still) daughter. This reads pretty repugnant to me. The second point in his revival is a comical attempt on Velchaninov’s life. It feels a bit like a recipe for getting out of psychologically difficult situation is to commit immoral and illegal acts. And I cannot endorse that. Don’t take it seriously though, I am just venting.

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