Sunday, 20 November 2011

Netochka Nezvanova: Fragmented Witness

My latest FD instalment is an intriguing piece which he was working on prior to his arrest as part of a Utopian Socialist underground group in 1840s Russia. He didn't have another piece of published fiction for ten years. So this I guess is the last piece of this specific period of Dostoyevsky's work.

It is a little difficult to judge it as it is a fragment of what was clearly planned to be a substantial "major" work - like a Dickens or French 19th Century Novel. The eponymous character outlines the early years of her life from brutal childhood to her alienated teenage years: unlike the Double - no laughs to be had here.

As this is all that survives I assume that FD must have written chronologically as there are no records of any other parts of this novel. So it can be followed unlike other unfinished novels.

He develops his psychological approach for the characters although being part of the rigid Russian social stratification are never characatures but more rounded - a constant theme or tension of his early writings. However I also think he is attempting to use the young female narrator as a witness of certain aspects of human interaction and obliquely Russian society. Thus her unhappy childhood unravelled by her step-father a drunken musician elevated from the peasantry and moved to Petersburg, convinced of his genius. Her adoption by an aristocrat provides an insight to that world. She is then passed on to a slightly lower echelon of aristocrat where she is a witness to a disintegrating marriage undermined by secrets and lies. A wee bit like Oliver Twist - an orphan can look at different aspects of society - in Dickens case the underworld in London.

Thus the character is a bit of a cipher, indeed the translation of the name is Nameless Nobody, but she has her own relationships. In particular with another 10 year old - the Princess daughter of the aristocrats which is very abusive and unusually written I thought for kids of that age. This is one of the problems of the work as it stands you dont get the sense of a child or an adolescent's view point. It reads the same as the perspective of an older writer. Apparently this was not FD's wish he wanted a different style for each part of her life - this definitely doesnt come across in translation. It may account for the strange way the relationship with the little princess is written.

Like the other short works I have read of his at this time it is also about the power of art and writing itself. The character's partial liberation comes from getting a secret key to the library and discovering the joys of fiction in particular the novels of Walter Scott - a pioneer of that form - Although this source also provides the root of the downfall from her last familial setting. Art is also shown through music and the mercurial nature of her stepfather. According to the Dost biography I am reading he wanted the character to become an artist - so the interaction of art and life was going to be a constant in the work.

Unusual that he never returned to this, unlike the Double which he re-worked after his decade's absence, perhaps the moment had passed or he felt he could deal with the ideas and themes in a different way. A fragment, then, but gives a glimpse of his power as a writer and of how he would later construct his big novels.

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