Thursday, 29 September 2011

Dostoyevsky: The Double - Fear and Loathing in St Petersburg.

Did you ever have a moment in your life when you act in such a way that you dont recognise yourself - as if you were looking in from outside? Well old FD seems to have or rather young written alongside Poor Folk when he was 26. That very 20th century form the existential novel seems to have a forebear here in Dostoevsky's second work and first traditional novel.

It was a critical failure at the time apparently particularly amongst the left intelligentsia who had seen (and overstated I think) in D's first work a new voice exploring the poverty and inequities of Tsarist Russia. But it was so important to the writer that he spent many years re-writing it when he got out of his Siberian exile.

Narratively the work is "fantastic" in that it deals with a middle ranking civil servant in mid nineteenth century St Petersburg confronting some one who is his literal doppelganger. Yet although they start on friendly terms the double soon undermines him at work, humiliates him in front of women and makes him pay for ten pastries he buys and consumes at a German bakers!

Through this unusal prism FD explores the static nature of Russian feudalism, as in Poor Folk, the frustration of accepting without question such an unfair society. Yet to the chagrin of the critics he doesnt do it through a downtrodden serf or a decadent aristocratic but a pompous bureaucrat with a servant who he treats pretty badly.

But Golyadkin, the name of the dual character, is collapsing. His other doesn't appear in the work until after he's spent a morning skiving off work, wandering around shops promising to pay for stuff and then not, tried to get medication from his doctor and he has humiliated himself in front of a beautiful woman whilst at a party. Sounds like a modern tale !

I think all of these events are a catalyst for the self-examination which is externalised with the appearance of his look - a - likey. The passages where Golyadkin examines his faults and then pulls back to put a superficial brave face on it to admit everything is fine are painful to read yet anyone who has ever had self-doubt (which I would hope is everyone) will clearly identify with them. The problem is every time he resolves to make the best of things his double appears and stamps all over them

Golyadkin goes even further though ending up being carted away by his sinister doctor to an asylum we guess lost in the throes of mental illness crying "I think Im all right". I think the work is a brilliant examination of mental disintegration and the feeling of not having a place in a society which is completely reliant on structure. Golyadkin is an outsider who doesnt want to be - indeed in one of the passages he accuses his double of being disdainful of the rightful order of things.

Way ahead of its time in many ways but strangely it is quite contemporary - the sense of 1840s St.Petersburg is palpable - indeed the sub-title of the work is A Petersburg Poem. Reference is made to music and prose of the time (again like Poor Folk).
The tale works if you believe it is possible you can have an absolute double or if you view it as a sort of fantasy but I really think it is more about the single, the struggle that we all have as individuals to keep things together particularly when someone (who looks very much like ourselves) is trying to rip them apart.

I saw after finishing this that the guy out the IT crowd is going to direct a movie of the book - which again is pretty short 130 pages. I'm not surprised the attraction given its universal themes. But for me it was a real surprise as a piece. but a pleasant one.