Sunday, April 26, 2009

'A Nasty Story' Dostoevsky

Published in 1862 in the Dostoevsky brothers’ journal Time, A Nasty Story is one of Dostoevsky’s shorter, funnier and crueller comedies.

Actual State Councillor Ivan Ilyich Pralinsky is on his way home somewhat the worse for drink after a small birthday party with some of his colleagues, when he passes by the house of one of his subordinates. A wedding is in progress in the house, and he remembers that his subordinate, an unassuming, beaverish man named Pseldonimov, is getting married there. Pralinsky decides to gatecrash the wedding, to scatter his largesse among the crowd and then leave in glory. It all goes horribly wrong, in a series of absolutely toe-curling solecisms, terrible even by Dostoevskyan standards.

This tightly constructed, brilliant little story has strong similarities with The Double. Like that earlier tale, the story is structured around a double vision, in which the central character imagines an action or a scene in a long monologue, then the scene takes place but differently from the way it was imagined. The scene therefore takes place twice in the story, once in the mind of the character, and then in the field of action for the character but in the mind of the reader. In this way Dostoevsky examines the gap between our moral intentions and the way they work out. Like The Double, the solecism is the central narrative incident, although in this story the solecism is funnier and completely gripping. Like The Double a large part of the text is taken up with internal monologue (given in direct speech) in which Dostoevsky foreshadows the modernist stream of consciousness.

A moral fable about the dangers of too much vodka; an examination of relationships among the Petersburg bureaucratic classes; a tale of urban life; an exposure of hypocrisy; a vignette of failure, A Nasty Story is all of these and more.

One of the main concerns addressed by Dostoevsky in his non-fiction articles published around the same time in Time was the yawning gulf between the intelligentsia and the peasantry, and the various approaches to this problem espoused by the two main camps of intellectual opinion: the Westernisers and the Slavophiles. The former held that the way forward was the education of the peasants in Western science, agronomy, hygiene and history. The latter held an idealised view of the peasant and his culture, wanting to leave him unsullied by pernicious Western ways but developing a spirit of community under the auspices of Orthodoxy. Both parties betrayed in their various views an underlying paternalism and didacticism in their attitude towards the peasants, an attitude that Dostoevsky was at pains to highlight and criticise as oppressive, even offensive to the amour propre (one of Dostoevsky’s great themes) of the peasant: you see, they too are terribly sensitive. In his non-fiction Dostoevsky the polemicist is irresistibly drawn to the fictional to illustrate his ideas. In his second article on Pedantry and Literacy, for example, he paints a scene of peasants sitting around a table, staring in dismay and incomprehension at a Reader for the People (proposed by the Westernisers) which one of the peasants has just been awarded. They are discussing it:
“I hear it came straight from Petersburg.”
“What kind of reward, you silly man!” the host himself interjects. “A reward because I know how to read and write? It’s all the better for myself, isn’t it? Then what do they want to reward me for?”
“Why,” a relative says, “so that looking at you others should also try to get a reward. That’s what Grishka said the other day.”
“The Reader, price thirty kopecks,” another neighbour reads. “I daresay when you try to sell it, you won’t get five kopecks for it. They should have given you the thirty kopeks instead, Gavrila Matveich.”
“I don’t agree with you…if they had given him thirty kopeks he would have spent it on drink in a bar, but here they give him a book, The Reader, in which all the wisdom of the world is described.”
“Half a moment, my friend”, the host interrupts again. “Why then did Grigory Savich say to me at the meeting ‘Lose it, sell, exchange it, give it to anyone you like, no one will ask you to account for it. It’s your property!’ If this book had been of any use to me, why should I be selling or losing it? No, it isn’t that at all. It’s the authorities….”

Dostoevsky illustrates in this little inset scene the reaction of the peasants to any kind of paternalism, their suspicion of the intentions of the reformers, the ease with which their dignity is slighted. The fictionalising of this reaction carries far more force than any amount of polemic on the issue.

Like an inset narrative vignette in a non-fiction article, the inclusion of A Nasty Story among polemical non-fiction articles in a journal addressing contemporary issues highlights and illustrates those issues through the concentrated power of Dostoevsky’s art. The issue being highlighted is the paternalism of the educated section of society towards the uneducated, the reaction of the latter towards this, and the resulting degradation to both parties. During the early part of his evening, at his colleague’s birthday party, Pralinsky is involved in a discussion about the contemporary issue of reforms, in which he opines: ‘Philanthropy was always in order. But the reforms are not confined to that. The peasant question has been raised, and questions of law courts, and agriculture, and the revenues, and morality, and… and… and there’s no end to the questions, and all of them together, all taken at once, may well give rise to great, so to speak, oscillations’. He continuously emphasises that ‘humanity, and specifically humanity towards ones inferiors, …may serve as the cornerstone of the coming reforms, -a paternalistic humanity, note, rather than a just equality of rights. Pralinsky’s inner motivation for gatecrashing the wedding, he tells himself, is to morally raise the humble, I shall restore him to himself (a superb parody of the attitude of both Slavophiles and Westernisers towards the peasants). However, his interior monologue, which reveals more to the reader than the character himself is aware of, also says: If I repeat this five or ten times, or something else of the same kind, I shall win popularity everywhere… and the narrative voice comments in a sarcastic aside: (a man will say all sorts of things to himself, gentlemen, especially when he is in a slightly abnormal condition.)

The ‘oscillations’ which follow, horribly and hilariously exemplify the hypocrisy of Pralinsky’s paternalism, and at the same time exact revenge on it.

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