Friday, December 05, 2008

Fragment 512

Notes on Dostoevsky 1

Dostoevsky is supposed to have said "We all came out from under Gogol's Overcoat", and Gogol himself wrote in that story: Everything in holy Russia is infected with imitation. In his works of the 1840s Dostevsky engages in a dialogue with Gogol.

The hero of Poor Folk (1846), Makar Devushkin, is a reworking of Akaky Akakievich, the hero of The Overcoat. Akaky Akakievich is described as a creature who is so marginal, that he was born looking like the titular counsellor he eventually becomes. Like Devushkin a copyist, his speech consists of prepositions, adverbs, and finally such particles as have decidedly no meaning and the narrator remarks of him -it's really impossible to get inside a man's soul and learn all he thinks. Dosteovsky gives this utterly empty and contentless character a voice and a soul by transforming him into the inveterate letter writer and would-be poet Devushkin. In a nice touch of irony, Devushkin reads Gogol's tale and remarks: A nasty little book. It’s not even possible there could be such a civil servant. I will make a complaint, a formal complaint. Devushkin is unable to recognize himself in Akakievich, and his outburst has the same hopeless despair about it as Isabella in Measure for Measure: To whom shall I complain? Did I tell this, who would believe me?

Mr Golyadkin, the hero of The Double (1846) is a reworking of Gogol’s Kovalov, the clerk who loses his nose in The Nose. Todorov describes two reactions to the presence of the inexplicable in literature: the marvelous, in which supernatural external forces provide the explanation; and the uncanny, in which the explanation is sought within the character's mind, creating an ontological uncertainty for the character which is mirrored by an epistemological uncertainty for the reader. In Gogol, there is always the presence of magic, but it is masked by the comedy. How did the nose get inside the bread? How exactly does a nose don a uniform, attend church, and book a carriage place to Riga? In Gogol the presence of the marvelous is drowned out by laughter; it never becomes unsettling, and we never question it because we are laughing at the absurdity, (even if we sometimes still rub our noses while reading just to reassure ourselves….). Kovalov is furious about his disfigurement, vexed, inconvenienced, but nonetheless it doesn’t threaten his sense of being. Mr Golyadkin, on the other hand, loses not his nose, but his mind. The presence of the double causes him and the reader to question his sanity. In Dostoevsky’s early period, Gogolian magical laughter becomes Hoffmanesque uncanniness. In his maturity, after his terrible experiences in Siberia, Hoffmanesque uncanniness is transmuted into a much more profound and urgent quest for the metaphysical, the spiritual.

The Landlady (1847) has structural and thematic echoes of Gogol's Nevsky Prospect. A lonely flaneur chances upon a mysterious woman and follows her through the streets. Like the woman in Gogol’s tale (a dream or a real woman, a high society debutante or common prostitute?) the landlady is a source of interpretative uncertainty both for the protagonist and for the reader (sane or crazy? manipulater or manipulated?) She begins to speak like a heroine out of a traditional Russian fairy tale, and her back story of life by the Volga is reminiscent of one of the Ukranian Tales by Gogol.

The Dostoevskyan tropes: the put-upon loner, the hopeless flaneur, the lowly position in society, the people who live in corners, the presence of the uncanny, the redemption of a prostitute, the city itself; all these tropes come from Gogol’s Petersburg Tales. The typical Gogolian attitude in these tales is the skirmish; the narrator dances up to the characters, pulls their hats down over their eyes and dodges back out of reach. Gogol is never still, his comic eye roams everywhere, distracted by detail and digression, continually swerving off: In the department of… but it would be better not to say in which department… After that… but here again the whole incident is shrouded in mist, and what came later is decidedly unknown...though he himself was unable to explain the reason for it. Dostoevsky’s starting point as a writer is to discern an embryonic inner life in the Gogolian character and to give it expression: There is a crack in my soul, and I can hear it trembling, quivering, stirring deep inside me, says Devushkin, but it could just as well apply to Akakievich. Rather than the skirmish, Dostoevsky's tactic is the long engagement, the searching, steady, unblinking gaze. He essays and succeeds in getting inside a man’s soul and learning all he thinks.

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