Netochka Nezvanova.

I’m only two-thirds of the way through Dostoyevsky’s first attempt at a novel (as opposed to a повесть, a short novel or long story), Неточка Незванова (Netochka Nezvanova), but I have so many reactions I can’t wait and have to post about it now. It’s actually a good time to pause, because I’ve just finished the fifth (of seven) chapters, which ends “Now a new story begins”—although, to tell the truth, just about every chapter so far could have ended that way. Dostoyevsky clearly had no idea how to structure a novel yet, but it doesn’t matter; Netochka Nezvanova is a prime exhibit in the case against the Flaubertian obsession with perfection in a literary work. The hell with perfection, say I.

After finishing Avdotya Panaeva’s Семейство Тальниковых (The Talnikov family—see this post) I had started her collaboration with Nekrasov, Три страны света (Three countries/cardinal points of the world), but I gave up on that very long novel when I reached the 10% mark: given the cardboard characters (sweet/naive girl, loving/reckless guy, mustache-twirling villain, orderly German, etc. etc.), melodramatic plot (it starts with a baby girl being dropped off at a castle in a basket), and merely serviceable prose (I took bets on whether the next tears would flow like hail or in streams), I couldn’t see devoting any more of my life to it. I read some more of the Turgenev stories that would eventually be published as Записки охотника (A Sportsman’s Sketches) and then turned to Panaeva’s Пасека (The apiary), which started out brilliantly with two college friends discovering Belka (“Squirrel”), an orphan girl living at an apiary in the middle of a forest, but after one of them rescues and marries her it somewhat deflates and turns into a fairly standard-issue “he loves her but she cannot love him back” story. Then it was Dostoyevsky’s turn.

Before I started reading, the only thing I knew about Netochka Nezvanova was that it was unfinished, and presumably a lesser (because early) work. The first chapter gripped me immediately; it was very much like one of the Sportsman’s Sketches, but told with more urgency—Turgenev holds his protagonists at a certain distance, as is natural for the “I met a fellow once who told me…” form. Efimov, a musician who for years has been playing the clarinet in a landowner’s private orchestra, starts hanging out with a drunken Frenchman; after the latter’s death, he inherits his violin, which he refuses to sell to a neighboring noble (who also has an orchestra) for thousands of rubles, and eventually runs away, slanders the landowner (who has always treated him well), is arrested, and after a tearful late-night confrontation with his former employer (who forgives him), goes off with the violin, which he has learned to play masterfully. Dostoyevsky has no interest in the social aspect of this (I had assumed Efimov must be a serf, as was common for such private orchestras, but apparently not—the landowner reminds him that he’s always been free to leave any time he wants); what he cares about is the stew of resentment and ambition that drives Efimov.

With the second chapter we are suddenly in Petersburg, in the wretched one-room attic apartment shared by little Anna (whom her mother affectionately calls “Netochka,” a Russian diminutive formed from the French equivalent Annette), her mother, and her stepfather Efimov, who had married her mother for her thousand rubles and as soon as he had run through them treated her with resentment and contempt. Efimov is basically indifferent to the girl, occasionally sweet-talking her when he wants her to do him a favor, but she is utterly devoted to him, and it is this that Dostoyevsky wants to investigate; he shows us her incomprehension of her own feelings (she understands that she is unjust to her mother, who loves her deeply, and wishes she could love her back) in a way that reminds me of Proust in its subtle psychological analysis. I can’t imagine what readers made of it in 1849; the only remotely comparable thing I’ve read in previous Russian literature is Panaeva’s Talnikov book, and that was doubtless an influence, since Dostoyevsky was part of the Panaev circle (until he left because of the cruel mockery of jerks like Turgenev) and was, I believe, infatuated for a while with Panaeva—but how much deeper he delves!

In the third chapter we see Efimov let go of his remaining shreds of sanity, utterly devoured by his jealousy of a visiting violin virtuoso and his fear that his grandiose self-image won’t survive the experience of a recital by the great German (“S-ts”). He cajoles and bullies his stepdaughter into stealing her mother’s carefully hoarded stash of savings so he can buy a ticket; the agonies of all three of them are explored before the inevitable catastrophe. The fourth chapter takes us into the luxurious mansion of the prince who rescues the girl, and we watch her painfully slow recovery from the horrible experiences she has undergone. We meet the prince’s daughter Katya, who is loving and enthusiastic by nature but can’t understand why the new arrival is so sad and unable to play games and begins to reject her; again, the psychological analysis is brilliant and convincing. When the two finally become close, the description of their kisses and caresses is so intense it must surely have raised eyebrows at the time; the narrator says “I was in love with my Katya. Yes, it was love, real love, love with tears and joys, passionate love” [я была влюблена в мою Катю. Да, это была любовь, настоящая любовь, любовь со слезами и радостями, любовь страстная]. How did a nineteenth-century man understand that girls could have such feelings?

I have absolutely no idea where it’s going from here; for all I know, one of them could burn the house down to prove her love (like in that Scott Spencer book), or they could run off to America together and establish a Boston marriage, or Anna/Netochka could become a man and have manly adventures as in Veltman, Woolf, or Munro. I don’t know and I don’t care; Dostoyevsky can take me wherever he wants, and I’ll follow as abjectly and happily as his heroine follows her Katya. And just to prove that it’s not all “Oh the humanity!” melodrama, I’ll end by directing your attention to the passage about the bulldog Falstaff that starts “She opened the door and called Falstaff” in the Garnett translation (“Она приотворила дверь и звала Фальстафа” in the Russian). That dog is a more memorable character than many a human in other novels; who could resist this dénoument?

Katya’s summons seemed to him so impossible that for some time he resolutely refused to believe his ears. He was as sly as a cat, and not to show that he noticed the heedless opening of the door, went up to the window, laid his powerful paws on the window-sill and began gazing at the building opposite — behaved, in fact, like a man quite uninterested who has gone out for a walk and stopped for a minute to admire the fine architecture of a neighbouring building. Meanwhile his heart was throbbing and swooning in voluptuous expectation. What was his amazement, his joy, his frantic joy, when the door was flung wide open before him, and not only that, but he was called, invited, besought to go upstairs and wreak his just vengeance. Whining with delight, he showed his teeth, and terrible, triumphant, darted upstairs like an arrow.

Update (August 10). I had planned to write a follow-up post when I finished the book, but it turns out I don’t have the heart, and there’s not really much to write. Suffice it to say that in the third section (chapters 6 and 7) it degenerates into a farrago of ridiculous melodrama and adolescent emotionality, complete with incessant repetition, vague accusations, fervent defenses, and enough tears to flood Petersburg yet again. I’m disappointed but not that surprised: he was, after all, still young and finding his way, and it was his first attempt at a long novel; I’m just sorry he never revised and completed it, because he was intending to present a full-length portrait of a powerful, self-aware, and independent woman (like the George Sand heroines he so admired), and goodness knows Russian literature could have used that. Oh, and also, I was waiting eagerly to find out why she was given the surname Nezvanov (‘unsummoned’), but I was left in the dark — that name is never mentioned once in the book as we have it.


  1. Ken Miner says

    The hell with perfection, ok. How about unfinished works? I found in my library, untouched, _The Complete Prose Tales of Alexandr Sergeyovitch Pushkin_ and decided to read it. “Complete” turned out to be ironic; halfway through the collection I have yet to come to one he actually finished.

  2. Well, it depends on what kind of work it is. If it’s, say, a detective novel, being unfinished is a serious problem. If it’s more loosely organized, I’d say it doesn’t really matter.

  3. he Russian term надрыв which is loosely but more book-knowledge formally translated into English as pathos / intensity / strain may not have been even defined in Dostoyevsky’s times?

  4. Frye said that the mystery was just as likely to be how Drood got into the world as how he got out of it. Mysterious births were a big deal in Victorian English lit.

  5. My first thought was that that was true of pre-20th-century European lit in general, but on reflection I don’t actually know that.

  6. The Complete Prose Tales of Alexandr Sergeyovitch Pushkin

    The ambiguity here is interesting: the collection is complete, in the sense that it includes all the prose tales, but the tales themselves are mostly incomplete (unfinished).

  7. estrangella says

    It’s been some time since I read this book. It left me wondering about one tiny detail that I couldn’t grasp and it’s still bugging me, so I hope somebody here can give me a better understanding. So, in the 3rd part of the book there comes a situation between Netochka , her older sister Alexandra and and Alexandra’s husband Pyotr Alexandrovic, where Netochka finds a letter, then Alexandra becomes hysterical and Pyotr is furious with Netochka. Next, the three of them meet in a room for conversation where things become tense. Alexandra all but accuses her husband Pyotr of being in love with Netochka. He angrily denies, he even tries hard to point just the opposite… The book ends abruptly there (due to Dostoevsky being sent to jail), so my question is – could it be that Pyotr actually WAS in love with Netochka? Is there a remote possibility that was the direction in which the plot was going to be developed, had it not had an abrupt end?

  8. Speaking of abrupt ends

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