Monday, December 01, 2008

"Poor Folk" Dostoevsky

There is a crack in my soul, and I can hear it trembling, quivering, stirring deep inside me.

Prior to the publication of this, Dostoevsky’s first novel, the only other literary work he had completed was a translation of Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet. The shade of Balzac hovers over this tale of love and life in the very lowest rung of the middle classes, especially in its foregrounding of money, the problems of obtaining it, and the effect of grinding poverty on character and behaviour. Another Balzacian influence is the city itself, and we are plunged into the artifice of St Petersburg with its overcast skies, ice clogged canals, mouldy icing and bursting tenements, with their noise, overheated rooms and fetid, soupy air.

The story tells of the love and friendship between two denizens of the lower middle class, and their struggle to stay in this class. Varvara exists on the line between virtue and prostitution by taking in sewing, and her male counterpart, Makar is a clerk on the lowest rung of the civil service. The story is presented as an exchange of letters between the two main characters. The letters are simply presented to the reader, there is no framing device, no editor makes an appearance to comment on the letters and their provenance, and we cannot even be sure if the exchange of letters is complete.

The male protagonist is the first in a long line of Dostoevskeyan anti-heroes, undergound men, figures of such extreme marginality that even they are not sure whether they exist: He’s a man with a reputation what am I? Compared to him, I simply don’t exist…(MD to VD June 26), an ontological uncertainty which Dostoevsky picked up from his reading of Hoffman, and which he was to develop more fully in the later tale The Double. Makar Devushkin lives behind a screen in the kitchen and works as a copyist: he has no space or original contribution of his own. His character comes to life only in and through his letters; he writes himself, creates himself through writing, and exists only in the dialogue with Varvara: when I got to know you, I began for a start to know myself better…before you came along, I was as good as asleep, I wasn’t really living in the world at all… when you came my way, you lit up the whole of my dark life so that my mind and soul were illuminated …(MD to VD August 24) When she leaves Petersburg to marry Bykov, the dialogue stops, Devushkin disappears, and the book ends.
He also displays the irrational behaviour which was Dostoevsky’s contribution to the philosophical picture of man. When he retrieves his button from under the feet of his boss, to his own horror, he acts against his own best interest: had I not been such a fool I would have stood to attention and kept still. But oh, no: I began pressing the button against the torn off threads, as though that would make it stay on and what’s more, I smiled and smiled again. (MD to VD September 9) The drunken episodes, the getting into debt for Varvara’s sake are also forms of irrational behaviour. His Dostoevskyan irascibility, however, is mediated by a tenderness towards Varvara and towards the world, a tenderness which is not present in the later loners of the Dostoevsky canon.

The novel is as much about literature as about the urban poor. Many of the plot incidents revolve around the acquisition of books, there are constant references to other literature: grammars, style manuals, Pushkin, excerpts from the (terrible) writings of Devushkin’s friend and hero, Mr Ratazyayev. The whole tale can be read as Dostoevsky’s dialogue with the overwhelming power of Gogol. The characters lend each other books and comment on them. Devushkin lives in fear of being lampooned in a feuilleton (Dostoevsky himself lampoons another one of his marginal folk in the darkly hilarious tale Mr Prokharchin, where even the narrator calls the eponymous hero a fool). Although Devushkin knows he is a marginal being, he nonetheless has a fully developed sense of amour propre and is quick to take umbrage. The epistolary nature of this novel is a kind of tact on Dostoevsky’s part, in allowing these marginal characters to speak for themselves with their own voices, without the presence of a narrator to describe them, to falsify them or to mock them.

Devushkin is struck by a quote from a style manual which is a kind of manifesto for the group around Ratazyayev: Literature is a picture, or rather in a certain sense both a picture and a mirror: it is an expression of emotion, a subtle form of criticism, a didactic lesson and a document (MD to VD June 26). This may also stand as a manifesto, not only for the method and subject of Poor Folk, but indeed for Dostoevsky’s entire career: the Christian didacticism of his later novels, the expressionism of his confessional stance, his picture of underground and marginal types, his criticisms of society, nihilism and other forms of philosophy, and the mirror he holds up to the modern soul.


rachelsherman said...

Four years after the fact, I am glad this post exists. Thank you.

Luke Fabian said...