Saturday, January 24, 2009

"Netochka Nezvanova" Dostoevsky

Russian prose fiction has three main forms: the rasskaz (story, short story), the povest (tale, novelette, novella), and the roman, (novel). I am told that the looseness of the English terms does not quite do justice to the rather more clearly demarcated boundaries of the Russian. A rasskaz depicts one event in the life of a character, illuminating the character and his life by a relationship of metonymy. A povest depicts a series of events illuminating a character and a period of his life. A roman also depicts a series of events, but the range of characters and events is greater and more complex than in the povest.
In his work of the 1840s, Dostoevsky, apart from the epistolary Poor Folk, mainly wrote rasskaz and povest. Netochka Nezvanova was his first attempt in the longer more complex form of the roman, and it is not altogether very successful.
The story consists of three episodes in the life of Netochka, with a prologue detailing the life of her stepfather. The first episode details her grim childhood, the death of her parents and her subsequent adoption by the philanthropic Prince X. The second describes her intense friendship and infatuation with the Prince’s daughter, a girl roughly the same age. In the third episode Netochka is adopted by a relative of the Prince, a married woman with a secret past, which Netochka finds out about by accident. It depicts a strange love triangle between Netochka, her patroness, and her patroness’s husband. Notwithstanding the fact that all three tales are narrated by the eponymous Netochka, the narrative does not really succeed in uniting these four units into a coherent and novelistically complex whole. The work remains rather obviously three separate povests linked by a common narrator.

However the novel is interesting for two connected reasons: the development of Dostoevsky’s prose style, linked to his growing interiority, and the theme of the awakening consciousness.

The prologue and first episode are Hoffmanesque tales of starving artists and miserable childhoods, freezing in garrets, consumption and so on. There is a distance between the narrator and the events she describes, a distance compounded of memory and vision. The narrator holds the events at arms length, describes them from the outside, with a kind of briskness. This kind of writing is a characteristic of the 18th/early 19th century, in particular Hoffman, Pushkin, and Gogol, all of whom write prose that reads with a brevity, a clarity and a swiftness, with a clear distance between narrator and reader on the one hand, and the events being described on the other.
The second episode is quite different. The events are much closer, both to the narrator and the reader. While we read we have the impression that the events are being created in front of our eyes. We enter into the mind of the narrator/character: we become her as we read. It’s less an act of memory on the part of the narrator, than an act of creation between writer and reader. It’s a much closer focus, much more interior, and very much slower to read, crammed full of internal details and descriptions of subtle and elusive mental and emotional states. It’s in this episode that Dostoevsky really creates the psychological novel.
The third episode tries to project this same kind of psychological intensity into a more social realm. In place of the intensity of the one-on-one relationship of the second episode, the third episode brings in more characters and focuses on the interaction between larger groups of people. The writing in this episode is marred by heavy use of melodrama and a prose style reminiscent of De Kock and Sue, often unintentionally ludicrous: She gave a shriek, turned pale and leaned against her chair for support, hardly able to stand on her feet. There’s an awful lot of shrieking and fainting.

The second interesting feature of the novel is the birth of consciousness depicted in it. In his masterpiece The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr, Hoffman writes: Our first awakening to clear consciousness remains for ever impenetrable to us. If it were possible for that awakening to occur suddenly, I believe the shock of it would kill us. It seems Dostoevsky has taken this to heart and describes this awakening of consciousness in the psychological close-up of the second episode. Netochka herself describes this as an awakening from childhood sleep, my first engagement with life: and gives it a great deal of space and attention in her narrative. From the time when I was eight and a half I began to remember everything very clearly…from that moment when I suddenly became aware of myself I developed remarkably quickly, and was more than capable of contending with many unchildlike impressions… The awakening to consciousness happens too suddenly: … my development began with incomprehensible and exhausting rapidity…I was no longer satisfied with external impressions alone, and I began to think, to reason, to observe. and the psyche takes refuge in fantasy: my mind could not really interpret things properly, and I found myself living in a world of my own… a fairy tale…

This kind of writing is totally alien to the 18th century way of seeing and describing. It’s at once much more 19th century, and astonishingly prescient of modern psychological and cognitive theories. After the serial publication of the first part of Netochka Nezvanova, early in the morning of the 23rd of April 1849 Dostoevsky was arrested. He spent the next 5 years in prison and never returned to the novel. It remains unfinished, and marks the transition between the works of his apprenticeship, and his maturity.

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