Sunday, 21 August 2011

Dostoyevsky: Poor Folk - Communication Breakdown

Every journey begins with a single step someone once said. This unusual piece of prose was Fyodor D's first "novel" and for the record this is the first one of Dostoyevsky I have read in full. I tried the Brothers Karamazov when I was 17 but I was too too young and couldnt get past the first few chapters.

The form of this (pretty short) work is a set of letters between two people - an older man employed as a copyist a fairly low role within the burgeoning Russian civil service and an impoverished young woman once from a relatively privileged background. What is their relationship - well it is familial at a distance they seem to be second cousins but is it more: lovers, future partners?

This chamber piece has limitations - indeed I think about 120 pages is about as far as you can take the forms of two letters between two narrators, unreliable or otherwise. Other novels which use letters usually break down more into a narration of events as a third party or protagonist - Wuthering Heights from memory does this and much more recently White Tiger.

It doesn't help that both characters are very pathetic, in the literal sense of the word, the male Makar is a balding, occasionally heavy drinking, in debted individual. Varenka is an ailing abandoned soul open to abuse and manipulation from richer people. Both lived in cramped penury in the urban setting of St. Petersburg - opposite each other: this is what leads to their communication. So their missives are not full of laughs!

Varenka, almost inevitably, by the end is married off to a brutal landowner who wants to hide her away in the Russian countryside. This leaves Makar devastated in a final sad letter to her he states: "I write only in order to write, only in order to write as much as possible to you". But even this is unusual. One doesnt get the sense that this is a great romantic tryst broken by the needs of feudal society and property - a common theme in 18th/19th Century literature - Jane Austen, the Brontes et al.
Makar is a pretty sad character who never gives a sense of being a romantic partner of Varenka. He continually calls her little mother, for example. He is self indulgent in a very male way in his tone particularly after drinking escapades or trying to borrow money - FD does this brilliantly - subservient to his masters but torn by his very real poverty: not a great catch for Varenka!

So not a doomed love story, definitely not. What it is though , which surprised me, is very contemporary (for its time). It explores the static nature of Russian feudalism - which in a sense both characters are victims of - where everyone has their station from which there is no escape. Everything that happens is because of God's will - nothing can be challenged. What is innovative is that this is done from two "urban" characters rather from the serf's perspective which FD was very pre-occupied with in the 1840s.

Urban landscapes are also central - the crowded nature: people living on top of each other; sharing (unwillingly) their most intimate moments - love and death. Compared to Austen where her romances take place in vast spaces - country estates and houses. The claustrophobia here is palpable.

But also, and perhaps most importantly for the author the work explores contemporary literature. Apparently it is very influenced by Gogol which I have not read, in particular a story called the overcoat. In one very funny communication Makar takes personal offence when Varenka sends him this work to read as he identifies so closely with it - stating "I am going to register a complaint". Pushkin is also central - in a moving piece Varenka writes how in her past she searches for a complete works of Pushkin to buy for her first love (also doomed) but allows the boy's impoverished father to say he bought them. French and English lit also get mentions in passing.

So you could say that this novel is about novels albeit this is not clearly stated - the quote at the beginning of the work talks of the power of fiction. And I suppose in the 19th Century the novel was finding its form - which FD was going to spend his life working on.

Others saw it in other ways - it was thought of as Utopian Socialist - with its vision of poverty and its implied critique of the ruling elite. FD was going to do 5 years hard labour for such thoughts in a short amount of time. I think that is there but its lasting significance comes from its other elements. He was also only 26 when he wrote this an incredible fact in itself.

So a lot in 120 pages! And a good signpost for a future journey through FD's work.

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