Monday, 27 February 2012

Uncle's Dream: Dostoevsky has a laugh?

In his decade of exile, the first few years of which he spent in hellish prison conditions, Dostoevsky produced little written work. You could argue that all of his great works couldn't or wouldn't have been produced in the same way without his 1850s experience. After all many writers don't immediately draw on traumatic life experience in their own work. I'm thinking of JG Ballard whose work specifically on his childhood in occupied Shanghai came relatively late on in his work or the prolific Dennis Potter where only his later TV dramas like the Singing Detective (currently repeating on BBC4) dealt with his own youthful trauma.

There was another problem for FD though - he was living in a feudal dictatorship which he had been arrrested and exiled for opposing. Although by the end of exile he supported the new Tsar. They had controls of publication and also in his prison time he was not permitted any writing material.

So the sum total of that time was two ostensibly light novellas - Uncle's Dream being the first. Seemingly a literary confection, a bauble as Mark Cousins would say, this short work explores the machinations of a provincial village elite trying to marry off an elderly, possible senile, member of the aristocracy to a young beautiful woman. Lots of visits to country houses, aristocratic balls and comic misunderstanding.

The tone is very theatrical and I wasn't surprised to see it had been turned into a play something like 20 times. The lightness is obvious and it flies past as you read it. However I have a sense there are glimpses here of deeper issues. One theory is that FD stuck to this path so there would be no issue around censorship.

Given all that the characterisation is pretty dark - the key villain - the manipulative mother who believes she controls all the comings and goings of the village and equally can control the doddery old Prince: Maria Alexandrovna is a sophisticated creation that could come from a modern writer. I could see similar issues being done and a similar woman in an English play by Alan Ayckbourn or a TV comedy drama by Victoria Wood. The pathetic thwarted suitor of the intended for the Prince and indeed the nominal nephew Pavel Mozglyakov also stands out.

What is missing from the work I have read so far of FD are the contemporary literary and artistic references. This village is in a bubble where banal worries about who is going to marry (and trick) an elderly aristocrat are to the fore. Although there are references to light French novels like Dumas and constant quotes in French - these stand out because they are so isolated. I guess this is not surprising because FD himself was miles away from the literary milieu he had cultivated.

Yet in passing the number of "souls" -peasants - controlled by these figures is thrown about pretty lightly. The deference to the feudal structure, a constant them in FDs work, is there in spades in fact the whole plot revolves around it. The Prince even raises the issue of serf emancipation, one of FD's crimes in the eyes of the Tsarist state, before almost as quickly dismissing it - he speaks of being influenced by foreign ideas. And in a very unusual last chapter the issues of mortality are raised darkly and really out of kilter with the rest of the piece.

So all those things are touched on but I have to say it is actually funny - maybe unusually for a nineteenth century literary comedy. I could see some influence perhaps of Dickens whose jokes have not all stood the test of time. There is a funny line about a boring male character who often "looks blankly like a sheep that has seen a new gate" well it made me chuckle. And the plot whilst derivative is pretty well paced and structured for humour. Also in quite a modern way FD contrasts the lightness with quite dark and bitter ideas- Maria's essential prostitution of her daughter and her relationship with her husband is quite shockingly violently cruel.

So you could argue this got FD back in the saddle of published work and it's a good distraction for a few hours read. Also have to give word of praise to edition I picked up by Hesperus press. Lovely lay-out and good translation and introduction - published last year. I think it specialises in publishing more obscure literary works from the great writers. Lucky for me!

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Camus: The Myth of Sisyphus - How to Live?

There's been an excellent documentary series on Monty Python currently on Sky Arts (inevitably they have bought it from somewhere else) it shows the amount of research and intellectual endeavour that went into their work. So seeing the end of Life of Brian again with its iconic crucifixion scene one line of the famous song stood out after my reading of this work : "Life is so absurd and death's the final word".

As what Camus attempts to disentangle in this detailed and complex essay is the "absurdity" of life. Humans intrinsically want life to have a purpose, a direction a framework but we live in a direction-less vast universe in which we will all die and disappear. This is a duality - one cannot exist without the other - human hope and existence on the planet. The prism that Camus wants to examine this from is that of suicide which he says is the essential question as Shakespeare puts it "to be or not to be".

If there is no meaning in life or an after - life what is the point of continuing life. He uses a literary example -in quite a detailed critique of Dostoevsky's work - of a character in the Russian author's work (the Possessed) who kills himself because he knows there is no God. FD was fundamentally critical of this position which was reflective of elements of his position that life is brutal but it has a direction towards an after life because of the existence of God.

Thus Camus in the most difficult first part of the work critiques a series of philosophers who try and deal with this central question by accepting the existence of a supernatural being. Kierkegard as an example essentially argues life is hellish and the universe is bleak but we need to believe in God ultimately: "one can only live in that prison". This is what Camus calls philosophical suicide. In a pretty complicated bit of the work he also critiques the school of phenomenology which (I think) attempt to put some spiritual being into real things which ultimately falls into the same trap as the quasi - religious thinkers. Camus believes essentially the "point is to live".

Humans have to embrace their absurdity and throw themselves into life - a "revolt". Not only that humans should attempt to experience as much as possible. This is where the work takes on a different tack rather than a detailed philosophical rebuttal many examples from literature, art and myth are used. In this there is a really thoughtful analysis of the art of acting, the work of Kafka and as mentioned Dostoevsky. This shows the work is not really a lengthy statement of a new philosophical view - in a sense it is a contemporary comment on aspects of life through this absurd position. It is an essay in the fullest sense of that term.

Sisyphus is the Classical example of this - doomed to roll the rock up the hill watch it roll down then repeat, for ever in the Underworld. This punishment was ascribed to Sisyphus as he dared to challenge death and refused to go - hence his role in Camus' eyes as an absurd hero. The parallel is clear with the modern individual in capitalist society bound to endless work. Yet Camus, convincingly I think, argues that people can adapt to this and one must "imagine Sisyphus happy". Knowing there is nothing else other than rolling the rock - no higher meaning means he can enjoy the process "the struggle is enough... to fill a man's heart".

Essentially then the work is a refuting of religion and a declaration of the enjoyment of life. Where I think it is a bit ambiguous though is the idea that more experience rather than the quality of experience. This is seen in his archetypal absurd heroes - the conqueror, the actor and Don Juan. It is better to have many romantic lovers than one - clearly as long as each has depth. I am unclear how this fits into the vision of routine as captured by Sisyphus and am a bit unconvinced that the endless search for new experience after experience is the most fulfilling way to live life. Surely by doing that one is searching for something which Camus himself thinks doesn't exist. In the introduction to my copy the translator believes he is using secular metaphor rather than religious metaphors but it still doesn't really fit in for me.

Another interesting perspective is the time Camus wrote this was 1940 - the high point of Nazism on the continent. Maybe this was a method of intellectual survival to contemplate the wonder of life just as the reality of living was becoming so impossible. A bit like Gramsci and McLean did in prison during the first world war. Given that context it is a remarkable essay and as a paen to the wonder of life in a secular universe it has to be admired: though still very difficult.

A sad after thought is this book was beside Nick Drake's bed when he died. I dont fully understand why as it really is an attack on the motives for suicide - much (as Camus explained) L'Etranger is an attack on murder. Read this, be puzzled, wonder at the language and imagery, be puzzled again and enjoy.